Much of the damage that Benito Mussolini unleashed on Italian civil society was already evident by 1926, when Miriam Allen deFord published a staple-bound Little Blue Book titled The Truth About Mussolini. Reading the booklet this week, I was reminded of an afternoon just after the 2022 election when I sat with a friend at a Jerusalem café discussing the brewing national crisis. The café is located in a neighborhood with a tradition of multifaceted Zionism—young and old, religious and secular, native-born and immigrant, liberal and conservative—the kind of place you hear every political opinion. Now, after Benjamin Netanyahu’s win at the polls, the café owner displayed a copy of his autobiography Bibi: My Story—encased in a plastic sheath and propped up awkwardly on a reading stand—prominently on the counter next to the register. We won, the owner seemed to be saying to each customer who came to order, and this is the face of our victory.
Seeing Bibi’s face, I was reminded of Renato Bertelli’s sculpture, “Continuous Profile—Head of Mussolini,” reproduced during Il Duce‘s life in every material from black terracotta to white ivory. It was a little like the “loyalty medallion” with Bibi’s face, minted by Likud activists ahead of the 2022 election. Bibi had played down the incident, saying, “The loyalty that we need is loyalty to our values and principles.” He then enumerated a few of them, particularly the need to safeguard “the land of Israel, Israel’s security, the fight against Iran, a free market economy, lowering of prices.” At the time, they sounded like clichéd campaign slogans. Looking back, I noticed something else: he had failed to mention democracy. Under the guise of an election promise, he outlined a realignment of the values and principles that would guide Israel’s future.
Doublespeak like this is how politicians undermine existing systems of government. In 1919, just ahead of the first election in which he ran as a candidate, Mussolini said, “We utterly oppose all ideas of dictatorship.” In 1921, a few months before he came into power, he said that “Fascism is no longer liberation, but tyranny.” And in November 1922, just after coming into power, he said, “The rule of the Fascist Party will bring a new era of liberty—provided, of course, that all parties understand that this liberty must be entirely devoted to our country’s welfare.” These words were uttered by Italy’s fascist dictator.
Bibi, too, is well-versed in this kind of doublespeak. Not long ago—after having putting together the most illiberal government in Israel’s history—he proclaimed, “I made Israel among the most liberal countries on the planet.” He also said, “I’m a classic democrat . . . a classic believer in the balance between the three branches of government,” despite knowing that the executive and legislative branches are blurred in Israel—where prime ministers are legislators and where cabinet members are usually chosen from members of parliament. Few believe that Bibi speaks in good faith. Even his extremist partners, who joined him only because of the outsize powers he promised them, have called him a lying son of a liar. Their continued cooperation with him only underlines the extent to which he has united their agenda with his.
One thing I learned from The Truth About Mussolini is that fascism does not appear all at once. It develops over time, slowly pressuring existing forms of government, and then exposing its full dictatorial ambitions. When Mussolini founded the National Fascist Party, Italy had been a constitutional monarchy where the king held executive powers, and where laws were legislated by a bicameral parliament. The instability of the post-WWI period, exacerbated in no small part by fascists groups, led to three general elections in five years. But whereas most parties were weakened by this instability, the Fascist Party turned it into political power.
This all culminated with the March on Rome in October 1922, when the blackshirts—militias charged with political intimidation and violence—pressed for fascist rule with Mussolini as their leader. Fearing civil war, King Victor Emmanuel III handed the premiership to Mussolini. But this was only one step toward consolidating power. Mussolini then manipulated the system of government by changing election laws and initiating other legislation that guaranteed his party a parliamentary majority even when it did not garner a majority of the popular vote. And he did all this legally, exploiting genuine political crises and existing institutional weaknesses to overhaul the system to his advantage.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Benito Mussolini are not directly comparable. But parallels do exist in their methods and tendencies, causing me—and others around me—deep concern. These include, in particular, the consolidation of extreme parties under a single “bloc” and leader, the establishment of militias controlled by allied politicians, and the wholesale overhaul of foundational democratic institutions. All of this under a smokescreen of advisors, parliamentarians, officials, and “associates” whose efforts consistently strengthen Bibi’s own hold on power. Bibi may not be trying specifically to replicate fascist Italy. But he appears undeterred by the fascist tendencies—many of them spearheaded by close allies like Miri Regev and her 2016 “war on culture” or Yariv Levin’s current “war on the rule of law”—all of which are changing the country. Bibi repeatedly exploits the rules of democracy against itself. When he couldn’t put together a coalition, he sent the country to one election after another. When he was ousted, his “associates” placed unprecedented pressure on members of the ruling coalition. As soon as he regained power, other “associates” began placing even more pressure on the Supreme Court. No democratic institution can withstand concerted efforts to wear it down. There is a limit beyond which civil society is fundamentally weakened.
Today’s Million March on Jerusalem was announced just a day before the cabinet approved the creation of a “national guard” at the behest of an avowed extremist. Though anti-overhaul protests have largely been peaceful for sixteen straight weeks, the one pro-government rally that took place in late March led to attacks on passersby and journalists. It seems that Bibi has decided not to appear at the rally itself. It is an interesting choice. Mussolini, too, decided not personally to join the March on Rome. He went to Milan and waited for the surrender that would pave his way to total power. We can only hope that the March on Jerusalem will not play the historic role of the March on Rome.
It is time to admit the truth about MussoBibi. He has dismantled the hard-won democratic values and principles on which Israeli society—however imperfect—has been built. He has successfully propagated a cult of personality that considers him Israel’s only legitimate leader. And, should he succeed in this legislative overhaul, he will have unprecedented power to fully transform the nature of Israel itself.