“The more I think about the Ford Administration, the more it seems I remember nothing.”
− John Updike, “Memories of the Ford Administration”
Since the coronation of Rehoboam of Judah, when the new king promised to chastise the people with scorpions, it’s doubtful whether there has been a leader like Benjamin Netanyahu: He rose to power twice and has made a brilliant lifelong career for himself, thanks mainly to his skills as a national party-pooper and professional killjoy. We usually expect a leader to infuse his nation and voters with hope, to reveal ways to improve their situation and to promise to lead his people to the light. Even Churchill, who promised his nation blood, sweat and tears, only mentioned those things as a price that had to be paid to achieve the great victory down the road.
Not so Netanyahu. From his first steps on the country’s political stage, he cast himself as the knight of the rueful countenance, rushing from the site of one terrorist attack to another and coming to power on the ruins of the Oslo accord − spouting just one dark message: “I told you (that there is no hope).”
As prime minister he was compelled to cloak this nihilistic approach in ostensibly operative garb, at which point the message became one of “lowering expectations.” That was the agenda and so it remains today, the stuff of a phenomenal success story. Indeed, Netanyahu’s “lowering expectations” agenda has − at least from his point of view − exceeded all expectations.
It should be noted that there are times when “the pessimistic feeling is somewhat justified,” as Alterman put it: At least bitter experience has shown us the dangers of vain expectations and too much optimism. Indeed, Netanyahu has to be credited with displaying caution and hesitation (if only he persists in this) which have, at least until now, prevented large-scale bloodshed. But whether he himself contributed to this or only read the situation well, Netanyahu also extinguished expectations as such − not to mention the very concept of “hope.” He did this as if he were closing a huge valve: At first, despite vigorous rotations of the handle, the flow abates only a little − meetings with the Palestinians continue, “discussions” take place. Afterward, the flow diminishes to a trickle − severing of relations here, irritation and isolation there, and responses of “outright rejection” by “attorney-mediator Molho,” or the like.
Gradually, we get used to a random drip (“a state visit to Cyprus”), and finally to complete dryness. Suddenly, it’s comfortable, even pleasant this way: After all, if there’s no water there are no mosquitoes; no expectations − no disappointments; no motion − no stumbling; no contacts − no walkouts; no diplomatic process − no terrorism; no hope − no failure.
It started small, in a reasonable, even logical way, but little by little, step by step, it became all-embracing. Politics has changed, thought is petrified, the words themselves have changed. Almost without our noticing, basic concepts such as “success,” “achievement” and “victory” have been redefined. Their threshold level was also lowered to the minimum, along with the expectations. If in the past “victory” was a triumph in battle or a political achievement that would move Israel forward, now every day that goes by without a major fiasco is considered an “achievement” in itself, and for many constitutes proof that we have “a good prime minister.”
A case in point is the Mavi Marmara episode in 2010, which was declared a “success” only because the ship was not sunk by a torpedo with all its passengers, and a frontal war with Turkey was averted. Similarly, there was the recent Israeli-initiated “round” in Gaza, whose achievements no one can recount but which was declared a major “victory” only because a mortar rocket did not land on an Israeli school, a one-ton bomb did not hit a Palestinian hospital, our forces committed no acts of friendly fire, a defense system that cost billions managed to work, hundreds of people were not killed in vain, a soldier was not captured, an Israeli tank shell did not land in the middle of a group of foreign correspondents − and only a million people, rather than seven million, spent a week in bomb shelters and not two years. In a state of lowered expectations, this is the face of victory.
“Lowered expectations” has another side − not only concrning hope, but also concrning worries. For example, talk of a second Holocaust or the Iranian bomb frightens us, but here, too, the Barak-Netanyahu government is lowering expectations: We will not all evaporate in a nuclear blast but only stagger − we and our remnants − amid the ruins that were once our homes, cities and streets, wrapped in rags, carrying bundles, leaning on a stick we cut from the branch of a tree burned in conventional bombings. And all this will ensue, mind you, “if the operation’s succeeds.”
Early Warner Bros. cartoons sometimes featured an enigmatic, expressionless black myna bird that appeared at unexpected moments only to cross the screen to the sounds of Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” − without any connection, without rhyme or reason. All around the plot thickens, the jungle heaves, spears fly, predators and prey run for cover − but our avian friend does his own thing, continues to strut and hop: indomitable, unhurt, unchanged even when he passes through a mountain or slams headfirst into a wall.
In the recent past, almost every prime minister has been politically eulogized in midterm. That’s it, the man is done for; his seat is wobbly, his coalition is crumbling, the investigators are closing in, he’s down in the polls, illness is taking its toll. In most cases, the reports of his political death are perhaps premature, but not exaggerated, because in these parts governments are doomed to die young.
Netanyahu, too, has been eulogized more than once during these three years: when he zigzagged to the right, when he winked to the left, when he went head-to-head with the U.S. president, when world leaders concluded that he is an incorrigible liar, when he got involved in those numberless faux pas, embarrassments and “image-battering” events that have made him, his lady and his bureau the butt of ridicule. “That’s it,” they said. “This is the end of him, this will finish him.”
Strangely, though, almost mystically, Netanyahu embodies the verse, “A thousand may fall at your left side, 10 thousand at your right, but it shall not reach you.” The lightning always strikes in his vicinity, leaving him rolling his eyes with an expression of affront.
“Mr. PR” might not be able to persuade the world of the justice of Israel’s case, but he has persuaded the Israeli public of the justice of his case: The bureau chief is to blame, the generations of spokesmen are to blame, "She who must be obeyed" is to blame, the ministers are to blame, the cabinet secretary is to blame, the opposition is to blame, the coalition is to blame, the Palestinians are to blame, the U.S. president is to blame, the Democrats are to blame, the EU is to blame, Ms. Ashton is to blame, the anti-Semitism is to blame, the Muslims are to blame, the media is to blame, the state comptroller is to blame, the UN is to blame, the previous government is to blame.
A peculiar thing has happened over time: Somehow, as in his previous term, Netanyahu leveraged people’s hostility and qualms about him this time around, and transformed them into a kind of agenda in their own right − into a built-in rationale for political existence. His own survival in spite of ridicule has become a type of allegory for the survival of AmYisrael in spite of anti-Semitism: Solutions have I none, hopes I do not offer, no message have I − but just because and despite everything, and everyone can jump off a cliff, for all I care − I am here, od avinu hai. And it just goes to show, and big hurray for me, that is, AmYisrael.
The Netanyahu government was sworn in hastily on the night of March 31 − to ensure that it would not be called the “April Fool’s government.” And the truth is that after three years, we can say in summary: Even if someone is pulling our leg, this is not a practical joke.
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