A few years ago I chanced to meet Benjamin Netanyahu. It was at some social event, near the buffet table. A mutual friend introduced me to him ("he's from Haaretz") and promptly left us alone together. Netanyahu lost no time. He honed in on me with his political oration, a kind of intense, one-on-one campaign about the right way to deal with Arafat in particular and the Palestinian problem in general that included examples of his past successes as prime minister.
I do not remember the details, but I cannot forget the exaggerated effort he invested in impressing me, as if his fate hinged on my opinion of him. Perhaps I should have been flattered, but what I felt was a strange embarrassment at this surreal situation, especially his obvious need to prove his greatness to me, a total stranger.
I didn't need this chance meeting to identify this need in Netanyahu, but it clarified for me in a direct way the damage that this need wreaks on him as a public figure with leadership aspirations. What you are willing to tolerate from a stranger, even from an ordinary politician, you do not want to see in an individual who purports to lead you. Everyone needs validation from others, some more so and some less, but with Netanyahu this need borders on dependency. Time after time it takes over, drives him crazy and disconnects him from reality.
The phenomenon has many forms. Sometimes it leads Netanyahu to take credit for the achievements of others. For example: "During my term as prime minister, I saw to it that [Jonathan] Pollard received Israeli citizenship" (Pollard received Israeli citizenship during Peres' premiership.). Such instances do not represent an intentional lie or conscious will to mislead, but a virtual reality created out of a psychological need for recognition and credit. Sometimes it makes him blurt out information so false as to be ridiculous. For example: "Not long ago I received an offer to be the finance minister of Italy" (apparently a joking offer made by an unknown Italian industrialist). Sometimes it calls forth arrogant, entertaining performances: ("they're affrraidddd").
Sometimes Netanyahu tends to let out secret information to present himself in a prestigious light. That happened in 1995, when he revealed in the Knesset a secret military document written by a senior intelligence official, Zvi Stauber, merely because the document supported Netanyahu's stand on negotiations with Syria; that is also what happened to him last Wednesday, when he was dragged into a small provocation by Haim Yavin ("You didn't have a good word for Olmert, perhaps because he's doing well in the opinion polls at your expense"). Netanyahu confirmed for the first time the report of an Israeli Air Force action in Syria ("Here, too, I was involved from the first moment, and I gave my backing").
To minimize the political damage, Netanyahu's associates argued that the all-out onslaught was out of proportion, and that people love to hate and go overboard. Is that so? It seems to me this is not some hatred of mythical proportions, but rather the natural suspicion of a large public that has seen too many similar blunders. True, the response is also motivated by political interests, but Netanyahu will be going very easy on himself if he continues to play the victim. He has come by the skepticism honestly, just as he earned the high regard of devotees of a free-market economy and widespread privatization when he was finance minister.
On the other hand, claims that Netanyahu damaged Israel's security are self-righteous. The individual who said "this is very dangerous conduct that shows that the man is simply not worthy to lead" got carried away. There are many better reasons why the man is unworthy to lead. A rash statement blurted out on television is not "dangerous behavior." At most the behavior is touching and extracted a high political cost, allowing Netanyahu's opponents to benefit at his expense - the prime minister has already demonstrated the artful generosity of the victor ("Netanyahu did not mean to cause damage"), while his vice premier, Haim Ramon, called on Netanyahu to join the government that says "there is a partner," thus demonstrating his opinion of the head of the opposition. Perhaps these small humiliations will do for Netanyahu what a good therapist would do - free him from the obsessive need to prove himself to the world.
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