The “old elites,” a phrase that gained currency in Israel during Netanyahu’s first term, were the bogeymen for the disparate parts of his political base: the Mizrahim, the ultra-orthodox Jews, the National-Religious, the Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They shared little except their antagonism to Israel’s perceived elite, the left-wing and largely secular Ashkenazi Jews of Israel. As Menachem Begin did 1977, Netanyahu, an Ashkenazi Jew, enlisted the votes of these “left-behinds,” sometimes called “second Israel,” to the political cause of the (Ashkenazi) right-wing. Almost every segment of Jewish-Israeli society that felt disenfranchised opposed the hated establishment, leaving only Israel’s Arab citizens aligned with the left.
For Netanyahu, catering to the base also came with political risk. Many in the Israeli political center were taken aback by his tone when, for example, he was caught on camera whispering into the ear of an octogenarian rabbi influential among religious Mizrahi voters that the left had “forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” Many voters in the center—not leftist themselves—disliked such tactics. Netanyahu was routed in the elections of 1999 in no small part because of a sense of fatigue with the partisanship of his first term. Like in the United States, a base offers loyalty and energy, but not always sufficient numbers.
At the same time, Netanyahu’s choice to voice the legitimate, sometimes-justified concerns of those who felt left behind had important benefits for Israeli society, in the symbolic realm at least. Mizrahi culture and heritage, for example, received more recognition and airtime in mainstream media.
In the United States, too, one lesson of Trump’s rise is that its ruling elite need to take a hard look at the many Americans alienated by the current power structures. It may have been high time for Washington to be shocked by its disconnect from much of the country. But without a leader able to transform grievance into empowerment and political victory into responsibility and ownership, the disconnect will only widen.
In the end, Netanyahu failed to transform his victory into a cathartic experience for the groups he claimed to elevate; he never stopped campaigning as the antithesis to the hated elite. The never-ending, cynical invocation of the political base’s grievances—something Netanyahu and others have now perfected—had severe consequences for Israeli society and politics. Even as he secured political power, Netanyahu preferred to play the role of leader of the opposition, to perpetuate a sense of victimhood among his supporters rather than transform his numerous political victories into agency, empowerment and, above all, responsibility.
Today, Netanyahu's gamble of catering to the base while neglecting the center is less risky than it was in the 1990s, as the Israeli right-wing has expanded. Hasmol, or “the left” in Hebrew, is now often used as a pejorative phrase. Rabin’s Oslo peace process, and the left as a political camp, were decimated by the Second Intifada, which began in the summer of 2000. The political center of Ariel Sharon and Olmert, which pushed for unilateral separation from the Palestinians, was rebuffed in Israeli voters’ eyes by the rockets that followed the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. It has now been 40 years since the rise of the Likud party of Begin and Netanyahu. Over that time, Labor, the once-hegemonic party of Israeli politics, has held the prime ministership for less than eight years (the centrist Kadima held it for three more). The right-wing’s reign in Israel today is no temporary fluke.