A haughty and self-satisfied Benjamin Netanyahu gave senior pupils at the religious-comprehensive school of Ort Beit She'an a lesson this week in the basics of democracy. Netanyahu, who arrived at the school accompanied by the mayor, Jacky Levy, was received by the pupils with chants of "Bibi, Bibi" as he entered the school's synagogue and began reciting to them how as finance minister he had contributed toward Beit She'an.
Afterward, he moved over to a classroom "in order not to speak about current affairs in the synagogue," and told the 12-graders the proper rules of the game in a democracy: decisions are made at the polls, sometimes in a referendum, and sometimes in a ballot among members of the party. At all events, the loser must accept the majority opinion. A leader is chosen in order to take the helm in a certain way. It is inconceivable that he should lead people in the opposite direction, ignore his voters and a referendum that he initiated, and refuse to appear before them.
The director-general of the Education Ministry circulates the rules on when a politician appears in a school: It is forbidden to use public property for election propaganda; it is forbidden to introduce political propaganda in schools; one must avoid inviting anyone to lecture in a school when there is reason to believe that his remarks could constitute election propaganda; and a school principal who ignores this instruction can be brought to trial for a criminal offense and is liable to incur a six-month-long prison term or a fine.
The ministry encourages political education and involvement of pupils in society and state affairs, and permits meetings of intellectuals and people who deal with social and political problems inside the schools. At the same time, the principals are entrusted with keeping the balance when inviting lecturers who are likely to influence the pupils' positions.
Netanyahu was not comfortable about talking about his differences with Ariel Sharon ("current affairs," as he put it) in the synagogue, but did not hesitate to do so inside the classroom. His sensitivity did not lead him to be aware of involving the school principal, who could now face disciplinary charges if not more than that, for apparently contravening the education ministry's rules, if not the actual law.
His sensitivity also did not lead him to refrain from mixing apples and oranges, nor to avoid treating the pupils as if they were Likud members. His sensitivity was also lacking when he blurred the border, in the presence of the pupils, between his role as someone who had held official government positions and his role as someone who is competing for the leadership of his party. In his eyes, any public consists of potential voters that should be manipulated to gain their support, especially when the media are there to cover the event.
When he was asked whether his lecture to the pupils had not been bluntly tainted with forbidden political propaganda, his spokesmen responded in his name that he had spoken "in general terms" about the principles of democracy, had not mentioned names and not gone into the "details" of issues that are controversial. This is the response of a person who decides to move his remarks away from a synagogue and into a classroom because he plans "to talk about current events."
There are democracies where the leaders are expected to act honestly and to keep to appropriate codes of behavior. During his visit to Beit She'an, Netanyahu proved that he does not have these qualities. He also proved that his judgment is faulty - he once again was carried away by his emotions, and the chance of momentary gain pushed aside the responsibility and caution that should have guided him. What did he gain from the festive appearance before the school children? What is the return worth in comparison to the negative imprint left by his lecture?
There is no escape from the conclusion: This is the same Netanyahu of "The left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish" and of "They are a-f-r-a-i-d." He has remained an impetuous politician who is unable to resist the temptation of using the opportunity of a media gimmick rather than formulating a serious and credible worldview.
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