Donald Trump’s defeat in the U.S. election is a devastating loss for the Israeli right. So devastating, in fact, that its top media influencers in Israel are joining Trump and much of the Republican Party in falsely alleging nationwide voter fraud. In doing so, they are not only protecting their favorite U.S. president of all time, but are also laying the foundations for similar assaults on the democratic process in Israel.
The developments have been disturbing to watch: pundit after pundit apes the party line without showing any proof for the allegations that Democrats have “stolen” the election. Following Trump’s loss, Caroline Glick, the former senior contributing editor of the right-wing Jerusalem Post and one of the Israeli far right’s most prominent English voices, has accused Democrats of fomenting the current crisis and jeopardizing the very foundations of American democracy.
Gadi Taub, an erstwhile darling of the Israeli liberal intelligentsia, has been sharing videos of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, a far-right pundit who has become a shill for white supremacists in the United States. Guy Bechor, a popular right-wing analyst, spends his days publishing baseless updates that read like they have been directly cribbed from Trump’s communications team.
Perhaps most disturbing to watch has been Avri Gilad, a morning talk show host who previously held dovish views but has taken a turn to the right over the last years. On Tuesday, Gilad berated a breaking news reporter on live television for referring to Biden as the winner. Gilad, who takes issue with the way Israeli news outlets are covering the election results, lashed out at the reporter for insinuating that Trump was lying, while claiming that it is “impossible to call Joe Biden the president-elect, since the process is not over and there are legal disputes.”
These are not marginal figures in the Israeli public discourse. The fact that they are promulgating fake news and conspiracy theories on the pages and airwaves of Israel’s most popular media outlets is a reminder that Trumpism is not an American phenomenon alone. Furthermore, the fact that many of them are taking positions that even Fox News — Trump’s media home base — finds too extreme, is telling of the shifts that have taken hold of the Israeli right over the past four years.
The popularity of Trumpism in Israel is not an aberration. A year and a half after the Israeli public elected the most right-wing government in the country’s history, Trump’s election served as a sign for many voters that the right’s maximalist ambitions were no longer a pipe dream. Where previous administrations stood in the way, Trump gave Netanyahu carte blanche to do as he wished, with no worries of repercussions from Washington. In short, he gave Israelis a feeling of invincibility. It should therefore come as no surprise that Israelis support the former president more than almost any other people in the world.
Long before his political opponents, Netanyahu understood the critical role that media plays in molding the minds of the citizenry. That’s exactly why he has spent the past years trying to shut down Israel’s new public broadcaster before its launching; negotiating a quid pro quo that would give him favorable coverage in Israel’s best-selling newspaper; allegedly booting a minister, a director general, and major internet reform in exchange for favorable media coverage by a telecommunications tycoon; dissolving a government because it had planned to support a law that would force the free pro-Bibi newspaper Israel Hayom to charge a symbolic sum; and promoting friendly journalists to top positions in the media.
It is also why Netanyahu insisted on serving as communications minister between 2014-2017, after which he ensured the post was filled by his closest allies, while paving the way for the right-wing Channel 20 to broadcast news and the milquetoast i24NEWS to receive a license in Israel (the latter allegedly had to temper its criticism of Netanyahu and get rid of its flagship program, hosted by +972 founder Ami Kaufman, in order to be able to broadcast in Israel).
In the meantime, Netanyahu has surrounded himself with journalists and commentators who amplify his political messaging, defend his (disastrous) fight against COVID-19, protect him from the so-called “Bolshevism” of the mainstream media, and delegitimize his opponents. Like Fox News and OANN in Trump’s America, Netanyahu’s allies in the media have been working to undercut anything and everything his opponents say about him — even if it means gaslighting an entire country.
Like Trump, Netanyahu is watching his poll numbers drop, and has thus been setting the stage for the total delegitimization of an already feeble democratic process. He has accused Palestinian citizens of voting “in droves,” tried to actively suppress their votes, and alleged massive voter fraud by the Arab public. Now his Likud party is trying to pass a law that would politicize election oversight and equip election officials with cameras inside polling stations. This is the game plan — and Netanyahu’s allies in the media, eager to play their part, have long abdicated their role as journalists to support it.