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The Dangerous Politics of Playing the Victim
The leaders of Israel and Serbia share one thing: They’ve perfected the politics of persecution. Here’s why that strategy won’t keep working.
Critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have long compared him to illiberal nationalists, such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, and strongmen who have consolidated control to stay in power, such as Viktor Orban and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But to understand Netanyahu’s ability to survive against daunting political odds—he faces potential indictment for alleged corruption and recently failed to form a government—there is a better comparison: Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia.
Netanyahu and Vucic each preside over unresolved violent conflicts in which their more powerful countries are widely viewed as the aggressors. Both began as propagandists who learned to portray their countries as victims to the world. And both later leveraged their narrative skills to drive their individual political ascents—by portraying themselves, simultaneously, as victims and saviors.
Like Israel, Serbia is a small country with outsized problems and one that lives in the shadow of vicious recent wars. The last one—fought in 1999 over Kosovo, with NATO intervention—has never been resolved.
Vucic rose to public prominence during Yugoslavia’s crackup. He had just turned 28 when he became information minister under then-President Slobodan Milosevic in 1998, three years after the Srebrenica massacres in Bosnia. Three weeks before he started the job, Serbian forces launched a deadly two-day attack in Kosovo, killing dozens of civilians and sparking international media attention. Serbia needed a lot of explaining, and Vucic cut his teeth defending Belgrade in the face of foreign criticism.
Netanyahu also began his diplomatic career during a crisis in which his country was seen as the aggressor: the Lebanon war of 1982. He was 32 when he became the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Shortly afterward, Israeli forces allowed an allied Lebanese militia to massacre civilians in two Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, shocking the world. Netanyahu then became explainer-in-chief as ambassador to the United Nations from 1984 to 1988 while Israel dug into its occupation of both southern Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
Both men insisted to the world that their countries’ aggression was justified because their people were the victims. Vucic argued that military force was necessary to defend against the Kosovo Liberation Army, which Serbia viewed as a terrorist organization. Netanyahu staked his career on Israel’s war of survival against terrorism. Both criticized the Western press for maligning their countries and denounced news organizations for falling for propaganda.
Netanyahu lost an election in 1999, and Vucic lost his job in 2000 after Milosevic’s fall. But they honed their skills while waiting in the political opposition. By the time they returned—Netanyahu in 2009 as prime minister, Vucic in 2012 as deputy prime minister—each began to depict himself as the underdog who would overcome influential international pressures and entrenched local interests to save his nation.
After Netanyahu took office again, the international media once again became the enemy. In 2010, Israeli commandos raided a flotilla seeking to break Israel’s siege on Gaza, killing 10 Turkish citizens. Erdogan as Turkish prime minister lauded the victims as martyrs, and global media denounced the attack. Netanyahu rushed back from abroad and called an urgent press conference. Speaking in Hebrew, he said, “Israel is facing an attack of international hypocrisy—and not for the first time.” At home, those words transformed the incident from an Israeli blunder into an assault on the country.
Over the next few years, Netanyahu relentlessly called out the foreign media, the U.N., or any vocal public critic of his government for “delegitimizing” Israel. Israelis clung to the idea that they were David rather than Goliath. Silver-tongued Netanyahu, with his polished English, was their savior, defending Israel from its purported enemies, from Erdogan to the New York Times.
In Serbia, the unresolved status of Kosovo, and the Serb minority living there, similarly reinforces the country’s self-image as a victim. The brutal wars of the 1990s are remembered in Serbia today as necessary to protect Serb minorities in other republics seceding from Yugoslavia or are fused with the older history of Serb suffering at the hands of the Nazi-aligned Croatian Ustashe during World War II. Despite the well-established atrocities perpetrated by Bosnian Serb forces in Bosnia, a survey conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2011 showed that 69 percent of Serbs surveyed felt that Serbs had suffered the most in the wars.
Throughout the 2000s, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia kept the wound—and the underdog narrative—in the headlines by prosecuting war criminals, many of them Serbs. While foreign observers commended the heavy life sentences handed to Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic for their crimes in Bosnia, the two men were celebrated as heroes at home. Many Serbs felt like victims of victors’ justice. When Karadzic was originally convicted in 2016, Vucic responded, “We will not let anyone trample on Serbs because they are Serbs.”
But the true political brilliance of both Vucic and Netanyahu lies in their ability to manifest the victim-victor narrative in their own individual story. When Vucic returned to political prominence, he rapidly asserted that people were out to kill him. That was not entirely far-fetched; the Balkans have an illustrious tradition of political assassinations that continues to this day. Alongside his advances toward dialogue with Kosovo, Vucic also went after one of the country’s top oligarchs, Miroslav Miskovic, as part of a broader program of attacking corruption. This made him a hero to the public for a time, as well as a potential target of the underworld.
But after becoming prime minister in 2014, Vucic began to exert greater direct influence over the media. An increasingly compliant press reported ever more elaborate plots against him. The headlines of tabloids under his direct influence screamed that political forces were trying to topple him, killers were waiting to ambush him, and assassins were plotting to blow him up with a bazooka.
Netanyahu’s imagery isn’t far off. On Feb. 28, Israel’s attorney general announced a decision to indict him on a series of corruption-related charges, pending a hearing. Netanyahu responded by declaring: “The witch hunt against me stops at nothing. They’ve spilled my blood, and they are still spilling the blood of my wife.”
The greatest narrative achievement of leaders like Netanyahu and Vucic is the ability to portray themselves as being persecuted because of their devotion to their people and their defense of the nation. Allegations of corruption, nepotism, or authoritarian tactics, in this view, are just a tool wielded by their enemies.
Vucic had an easy sell after targeting the oligarchs. Now, according to a close advisor, every political threat is blamed on the tycoons, privatizers, and foreigners—minus the Gulf investors he has ushered in to bankroll huge projects, which he defends as a crucial source of growth.
Netanyahu also insists that he is being attacked merely because of his devotion to his country. In 2008, a media investigation probed possible improper funding for a trip Netanyahu took during the second Lebanon war in 2006, during which he did rounds of interviews. Netanyahu responded that “what we have here is political persecution against me. … I labored morning and night on behalf of Israel.” And following the announcement by Israeli police recommending his indictment in early 2018, Netanyahu told citizens, “You all know that I do everything with only one thing in mind: the good of the state.”
Netanyahu uses the same tactic to deflect pressures from abroad. When the U.S. government expressed disappointment for his opposition to concessions in negotiations with Palestinians in 2014, he said, “Anonymous figures attack me only because I defend Israel’s security.” His personal struggle is a matter of national survival.
Vucic won the country’s presidency handily in 2017 after serving as prime minister, while Netanyahu initially seemed ready to coast into his fourth consecutive term (fifth in total) this year before coalition negotiations collapsed, forcing him to run again in September.
Both men can boast achievements in the areas where strongman populists excel: positive macroeconomic indicators, improved integration into the global economy, diplomatic success, and splashy infrastructure projects. But they have also used their positions to erode democratic and liberal institutions. They attack, pressure, or control the media and delegitimize critics in order to consolidate power.
Vucic and Netanyahu nevertheless enjoy a base of supporters who bask in their achievements, even if these average citizens don’t benefit personally. For unemployed Serbs or young Israelis who can barely pay the rent, their leaders’ success symbolizes national triumph. These voters are willing to sacrifice a few liberal ideals in exchange for such a victory.
But Serbs and Israelis have something else in common: Citizens aren’t so forgiving when illiberal governance seems tailored to protect a leader personally.
Since December 2018, Serbia has been racked by demonstrations. Only the ideological cacophony within these protests has kept them from being more effective; demonstrators include ultra-nationalists and liberal humanists alike. But they share one thing: anger against Vucic and rejection of his anti-democratic tactics.
There have been similar mass protests in Israel. In December 2017, the Israeli parliament sought to ram through a law designed to shield Netanyahu personally, as the police wrapped up their investigations of his corruption cases. The bill sparked a spontaneous, angry mass demonstration, prompting Netanyahu to modify the law. This year, in late May, roughly 100,000 people rallied in Tel Aviv against Netanyahu’s demands that future coalition partners support personal legal protections in his next term.
Both Vucic and Netanyahu may now be facing a breaking point. When the assault on institutions no longer looks self-sacrificing but self-aggrandizing, and when the leader is exposed as acting for himself rather than for the state, the victim-savior facade can collapse. This narrative has driven Vucic’s ascent and Netanyahu’s remarkable staying power so far—but being a victim won’t save them forever.
This story appears in the Summer 2019 print issue.