Day 6

Benjamin Netanyahu predicted the rise of authoritarian populism. Now it's paying off for him

Israelis head the polls on April 9 and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent the home stretch of the campaign meeting with world leaders ranging from populist to authoritarian. Writer Ben Judah says those relationships have been crucial to his political success.

The Israeli PM spent recent weeks meeting with world leaders ranging from populist to authoritarian

An election billboard in Tel Aviv shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Ahead of Israel's April 9 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent the home stretch of the campaign meeting with world leaders ranging from populist to authoritarian

First, he met with U.S. President Donald Trump, then embattled president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and finally Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Writer and author Ben Judah tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that while that strategy may have once seemed confusing or even misguided, it now looks prescient.

He says it's a sign that Netanyahu was ahead of the curve in seeing the emergence of a new and powerful kind of politics.

Here is part of that conversation.

What are the common denominators you see in the leaders that Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to forge strong ties with over the course of his leadership?

Netanyahu has this longstanding belief that the future doesn't belong to liberal politicians alone, and to liberal states alone.

Netanyahu believes that the future of the West is going to be full of strongmen, populist leaders full of nationalism, full of very, very sharp divisions over Islam. 

And he has sought to develop strong ties with the populist strongmen that have emerged within the West and also with the populist strongmen beyond the West.

It's this belief that the future is not going to be some idyllic utopian liberal consensus.- Ben Judah

Ten years ago when [Netanyahu] came to power people didn't have that dark view of the world. Barack Obama was ascending, and people thought that he was going to lead the world towards a more pluralistic, liberal identification.

That wasn't Netanyahu's read on things. What do you think he saw then that others did not see?

I think that's coming from a very deep place to do with his relationship with his father who was a historian of the Spanish Inquisition; comes from a very deep place — within maybe even Zionism itself — is this belief that the future is not going to be some idyllic utopian liberal consensus. 

That the future will be much like the past: a sort of harsh place of warfare and conflict. A future where demography, religion [and] ethnicity are going to continue to be highly important. 

And I think this sort of historical sense helped shape Bibi's [Netanyahu's nickname] attitude towards this moment, where it was commonly believed across the West that there was only one place of convergence that Obama was supposed to represent.

That the idea that nationalists and strongmen — states like Putin's Russia — were sort of throwbacks that would melt away or fade away as history unfolds.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Netanyahu attend a joint press conference at the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence on June 25, 2012. (Amos Ben Gershom/Getty Images)

And now there is this new kind of nationalist — some would say racist or perhaps even anti-Semitic — streak among the followers of leaders in Eastern European bloc countries like Viktor Orban of Hungary or the leaders of ... Poland or Czech Republic.

These are the Euro-skeptics. They do see themselves as opposed to the liberal West. What do you hear from Jews and Israelis about Netanyahu's ties with leaders like Viktor Orban?

There are a lot of divisions within Israel and within the sort of broader Jewish world over this — and it's very fraught. 

Within Israel there's perhaps a majority opinion on the right that the country is under a permanent state of siege and hostility from the outside world. The country is unfairly victimized and held up as an example to be punished. 

And that because of its fragile security situation; because of its precarious place, Israel can't be too picky ... about who becomes its partners and allies.

And therefore politicians, as sort of noxious as they may be, like Bolosonaro in Brazil or Orban in Hungary or [China's] Xi Jinping or [India's] Narendra Modi — these are politicians that Israel needs to partner and work with. 

Israel is a small country and therefore has to work with the world as it is, and not dream of a world that's different.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Netanyahu wave to the press during a visit to the Western wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 1, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Among the alliances that Netanyahu has created, there's Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Orban as we mentioned, Bolsonaro who he just met with.

Last year he defended Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Kashoggi killing. How are these relationships helping Benjamin Netanyahu secure his authority at home in Israel?

Netanyahu is seen by most Israelis as a politician who has built strong ties and alliances where previously there were none. 

And the idea that Israel could be enjoying a discreet, cooperative relationship with Saudi Arabia is something that was unthinkable in the 1960s and the 1970s, given how strong its sentiments were about the Palestinian-Israeli-Arab conflict. 

And when Israelis look at the relationship that Netanyahu enjoys with Putin, they don't see a leader letting the country's sort of ethical standards down. They remember the fact that Israel had no relationship with the Soviet Union during key periods ... and the Soviet Union was actively supplying military forces that were used to invade Israel during wars in those decades. 

So, they think of it from a slightly different place.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shakes hands with Netanyahu during a press conference after their meeting in Jerusalem on Feb. 19, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AFP/Getty Images)

When they see Israel forging a strong relationship with Modi — a politician that's got a very questionable track record at home as well — they remember a period when Israel had next to no meaningful relationship with India. 

And India had a "Palestine-only" and "Palestine First" approach. 

Similarly with Brazil, this is not a country where Israel has historically had particularly strong or good or close relationships and it's seen as something positive — even if there are things that are unpleasant about Bolsonaro. 

You were in Jerusalem a few months ago when Italy's powerful and very right wing Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini was visiting. And you mentioned that he didn't meet with any of the Palestinian leadership.

How has this reorientation of Israel's alliances helped take pressure off Netanyahu to resolve the Palestinian question?

One thing that I was struck by was how shocked Palestinian officials were by the relationship that has emerged between Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

By what they saw as the totally unexpected rise in Christian Zionism in South and Latin America. They've been very much taken by surprise by the last decade. 

Right now the odds are on that he will [win]. How long that government will last with these impending indictments, I'm not sure.- Ben Judah

Netanyahu may or may not win this election. He may be indicted in three criminal cases — that still could happen — so, his future is not clear. But your argument is that he has changed Israel's place in the world. What do you think his legacy is?

Netanyahu is quite unique in Israeli politics because of his bilingualism. 

Netanyahu has this immense command of being a politician in English and in Hebrew. That I think has made him a very good salesman for Israel. 

It's also meant that he's been highly visible in the western Jewish diaspora. His faults have been highly visible. 

And he's been very willing to play politics with the diaspora, to cut it out or to ignore it in a way that no Israeli prime minister has done before.

And I believe that he has damaged the perception of Israel amongst the Western Jewish diaspora. 

Do you think he'll win?

Probably. Right now the odds are on that he will. How long that government will last with these impending indictments, I'm not sure.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Ben Judah, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.


  • An earlier version of this article included Slovakia in a list of countries with leaders supported, in part, by populist and nationalist voters. It was incorrect to include Slovakia in that list and Slovakia has been removed for that reason.
    Apr 13, 2019 10:32 AM ET