For the first time since he took office, Netanyahu did something that angered his loyal base to the extent that they are threatening to vote for another party.
On Monday Benjamin Netanyahu proved two things: one, that his base of fanatically loyal voters are motivated primarily by racism; two, that Facebook’s “angry” emoticon can drive government policy that affects the lives of tens of thousands of human beings.
Netanyahu reversed his government’s policy of a decade when, at a Monday evening press conference, he announced that he had made a deal with the UNHCR: rather than giving the asylum seekers, primarily from Sudan and Eritrea, the choice between deportation to Rwanda or jail in Israel for an unspecified period, Israel would give work permits and temporary residency permits to half of them. The other half would be resettled in industrialized democracies like Sweden, Italy, Germany, and Canada.
Asylum seeker advocates were overjoyed. After years of seeing stateless people who had undergone harrowing journeys to escape horrific fates denied the most basic rights in Israel, even as they were hounded by racist politicians and their cruel policies, Netanyahu seemed to be offering a bit of hope for a more humane society.
In a video posted on Facebook, Netanyahu explained that he shared his supporters’ desire to get rid of all the asylum seekers, but that option no longer existed: Rwanda had withdrawn from the deal to accept them.
But now, with the UNHCR deal, explained the prime minister in simple phrases that a child would understand, the money that would have been spent on jailing the “infiltrators” would instead be used to rehabilitate the deprived inner-city neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, where the asylum seekers have lived for nearly a decade in a complex, uneasy relationship alongside a population of Israelis who are predominantly (but not exclusively) poor and Mizrahi Likud voters.
Those voters are frequently exploited by populist politicians who hold them up as an example of how the Ashkenazi leftist elite has neglected them. Culture Minister Miri Regev stood on a South Tel Aviv podium in 2012 and said that the Sudanese asylum seekers were a cancer in Israel’s body, protected by leftist NGOs at the expense of the well-being of local residents. Her speech was followed by a race riot in the neighborhood.
Hundreds of Netanyahu’s supporters left outraged comments and angry emoticons in response to his Facebook video about the UNHCR deal. One typical comment, from a man named Yarden Laks, translated, goes like this:
Mr. Prime Minister I am one of your greatest supporters. I think you are the best prime minister we have had here but today you made the mistake of your life and disappointed hundreds of your supporters with your cowardly surrender and defeatism. You know this yourself, because with every step you take you immediately post a social media status, but today you were silent all day. I am personally disappointed and hurt to the depths of my soul by your wretched decision. Now we are forced to look at victorious statuses from all the wretched people in this country, like [Socialist party and Joint List MK] Dov Khenin and his garbage friends. Know this Mr. Prime Minister: I won’t forget this and I won’t forgive. There is no forgiveness for what is simply a betrayal; you have spit in the face of all your supporters. I never said this but today you should be ashamed.
Yarden’s comment has, as of this writing, received over 800 “likes” — and several “loves.”
Within six hours of announcing the UNHCR deal, Netanyahu released a statement that he had frozen implementation pending meetings with local leaders in South Tel Aviv. By Tuesday morning he said he was pulling Israel out of the agreement, which he had already signed. As Haaretz‘s Chemi Shalev points out, for six hours the prime minister was a leader who made a wise decision. And then he reverted back to the status quo ante, of a politician with no vision or compassion, whose continued personal survival is dependent on the far-right elements of his party and his governing coalition.
The rebellion among Netanyahu’s supporters comes on the back of months of unqualified and unswerving support as police investigators released details of his alleged criminal corruption. The prime minister and his wife are believed to have engaged in bribery, graft and influence peddling, with former close aides turned state’s witness providing incriminating information to the police in almost daily interrogations. But Netanyahu’s base was unmoved by the mountain of incriminating evidence against the prime minister. They believed him, or pretended to believe him, when he said he was being unjustly targeted as the result of an elitist conspiracy.
Smoking thousands of dollars in cigars gifted to him by wealthy foreign businessmen interested in obtaining favorable investment terms in Israel was at worst an understandable flaw in a great leader, it seems. But failing to kick the black, non-Jewish, African “infiltrators” out of the Jewish homeland has proven to be the one thing that Netanyahu’s base will not stand. And without his base, Netanyahu is — if not nothing, then certainly vulnerable.
Donald Trump, the president who tweets, once said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone” and “wouldn’t lose voters.” He also claimed not to know who David Duke was, even as he referred to the Charlottesville demonstrators who chanted “Jews will not replace us” as “very fine people.” He described Haiti and other black majority countries as “shitholes,” and called Mexicans “rapists.” One wonders what would happen to Donald Trump’s base if he were to disavow the KKK, embrace non-white immigrants, and host a White House Passover seder, as his predecessor President Obama did, every one of the eight years he was president.
Compassion and love are dangerous things for elected authoritarian leaders who depend on a base that is motivated primarily by racism and hate.