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Issue 6, Fall 2022

Populism in Power: Is the Leader Bound by the People? “Illegal Infiltrators” and Netanyahu's Rule

By: Gayil Talshir


Populist leaders emphasize the bond between the leader and his people: but is the leader bound by the people? The paper deciphers the phenomenon of "populism in power" through the case study of Netanyahu’s policy change regarding illegal immigrants from Africa to Israel. "Populism in power" pertains to leaders who took their once-upon-a-time moderate rightwing ruling parties to the nationalist-populist end: Trump, Netanyahu, Orbán and others. Netanyahu, often portrayed as "the magician," sought to maintain a distinction between virtual incitement against "others" (Arabs, immigrants, and refugees as well as "the elites") during election campaigns and responsible leadership when in power. What brought him to abolish his own policy outline—devised with the UN to transfer half of the illegal immigrants to other democratic countries in return for provisional work permits for the other half—leading to all of the immigrants remaining in Israel without a legal status? This case demonstrates that once a leader unleashes the populist genie, bottling it again is not an option. When in power, populism is not merely game of rhetoric—the public will not allow the leader back down from his populist policies. This paper critically examines who constitutes "the people," what Netanyahu’s leadership style is, and how "direct representation" works for populist leaders in power.