Guns n’ Moses: Politics of Fear in Israel

On the 17th of March, the Israeli elections confirmed Likud is (still) the most popular political party in the country. “Fear wins”, I tweeted after the results were out. These two words apparently sparked some controversy in the wondrous world of Twitter. A young woman labelled me as ‘anti-Semitic’, which I think was way too silly to comment on (Me? Anti-Semitic? Bitch, please! :) ). Before she made this crazy accusation, however, she also asked me what I meant by my tweet. As I believe 140 characters to be a bit limited for a nuanced answer (nuance and Twitter don’t exactly go hand in hand) and as it’s been quite long I wrote a blog post, allow me to address this question here.

I’m aware my personal knowledge of fear is quite limited. Indeed, I’ve only known short periods of fear, the fleeting kind which goes away as abruptly as it appears. I have not lost friends or family members in acts of terrorism, war or police violence, like a significant segment of the Israeli population has. I suspect their fear is structural in nature, a fear they’ve learnt to live with one way or another, a fear that has awkwardly settled itself in society, perhaps even an institutionalized form of fear, common in highly securitized societies like Israel’s.

During my recent visit to Israel, I saw three young adults (18-20ish) stroll towards the tram, nonchalantly carrying huge guns. I almost peed my pants, but the people around them didn’t even bat an eye. I quickly realized these armed youngsters are probably enrolled in the army, like every young Jewish person, because of the military duty. Afterwards I also found out that the gun laws in Israel are very loose and were recently eased even further. These laws allow military personnel and veterans to buy and carry guns in public. For me, this notion makes me feel unsafe. In Israel, the logic goes, the legislation is needed because how else can one defend him- or herself against all the security threats the Israeli nation faces?

Naturally, in a society where fear has already taken such an important place, it is not surprising that a party carries out a politics of fear. This was quite obvious in Likud’s campaign.

Take this campaign video, for example, which was later revoked because the Jordanian rapper, Firas Shehadeh, sued Likud over using his band’s music in it.

Although quite ludicrous, the video’s message is clear: Vote left, and ISIS will soon be knocking on our doors. Vote left, and Israel will start negotiating with terrorists. Vote left, and you’ll soon be unsafe. In fact, ISIS really has little to do with Israel. But then again, facts often become irrelevant in political campaigning.

Another campaign video by Likud which resonated quite well in Israel was the one that features Netanyahu as the ‘Bibi-sitter’, cleverly making use of the Prime Minister’s unnaturally cute pet name.

This video’s main message is: ‘We want peace, but not without conditions!’, implying that the Left would get itself into an unsafe kind of peace. Only the Right will make sure peace will be accompanied by strict conditions so that Israel will be safe. Netanyahu effectively portrays himself as the ideal father: Caring towards ‘his children’, merciless towards those who are out to hurt them. In contrast, the left is depicted as spineless, feminine beings, softies who want peace, who are weak, stupid in their idealism.

This uncompromising ‘tough cookie’ attitude returns in Netanyanhu’s stance toward Iran. He used his speech to the American congress to stress his eternal scepticism towards Iran’s ‘good intentions’, taking down Obama as collateral damage. But his obsession with Iran surely wasn’t just an election stunt. Taking a look at the Prime Ministers twitter account makes that quite clear.

Finally, part of his campaign was also instilling fear of the Israeli Arabs. At the moment, 20 percent of the Israeli population consists of Arabs. It is projected that by 2050 there will be as many Arabs in Israel as there are Jews. The high Arab fertility has been cast as a security issue, an existential threat to Israel, especially if they continue to increase their political activity, like voting. Likud’s dislike of Arabs voting became crystal clear when Netanyahu urged right-wingers to come out and vote because Arab citizens were going to the ballot box ‘in droves’.

‘It’s either us, or them’, Likuds main slogan goes, a slogan that probably makes around 80% of the world’s populations skin crawl because it reminds us of George W. Bush and his alleged fight against ‘terrorism’. For many Israeli, however, terrorism is not a vague concept they can analyse objectively. For them it’s something they’ve come into contact with personally, directly or indirectly. In such a societal reality, it’s very problematic for politicians to appear ‘weak’, and Likud has quite effectively portrayed ‘the Left’ as exactly that. The latter should try to redefine itself, work on its PR. Maybe start with some basic terminology. Who started naming the Left ‘dovish’ anyway?

Why would it be weak to take the plunge and actively work towards peace? I’d say it’s much braver than letting a conflict protract like Likud has been doing, as if paralyzed. Paralyzed by what?.. Fear?

Although it’s tempting to portray Likud’s politicians as scared little boys, it’s likelier they let the conflict linger for another reason. They understand very well that there would be nothing left of their winning party program if the dispute is indeed resolved.