My person of the year: The prime minister

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Man Who Will Shape Israel's Destiny in 5774

It is not clear if even Netanyahu himself knows how he will act, but the fraught situation in Iran - and possibly other arenas - is finally bound to come to a head.

Ari Shavit
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Ari Shavit

Even before he became prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was the man that was.

When the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 and peace filled the land − exactly 20 years ago − it was clear to all that Netanyahu was history. Finished. Wiped out. When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated  in 1995, everyone knew that Netanyahu was a political dead-man-walking. A goner. Pulverized. Utterly hopeless.

In the first half of the 1990s, the strange, American-educated extraterrestrial who was not one of us was perceived as an alien agent, a sales agent and an agent of the forces of evil that this land would reject. Shimon Peres’ “blazers” ‏(as his group of proteges was known‏) were better than him, as were Labor’s group of eight, the so-called Likud princes and the folks at Dor Shalem Doresh Shalom ‏(“a whole generation demands peace” − the slogan of an Oslo-era peace movement‏). The good guys and the guys in-the-know definitely knew that Netanyahu was a man of the past, with no future. Yesterday’s man. The day-before-yesterday’s man. The 19th-century man.

Netanyahu will never be a real leader of Israel.

When Netanyahu became prime minister for the first time, in 1996, it immediately became clear how right the guys were. Nothing worked as it should, and nothing seemed to be the way it should, and the country was all in an uproar. The chief of staff insinuated that the prime minister was a danger to the state, and the director of the Shin Bet security service thought there was no one in the Prime Minister’s Bureau, and the press related day and night that the prime minister was the man in the empty suit.

No one was in doubt: The great peace with Arafat was tarrying solely because the dubious furniture salesman had duplicitously taken over the holy of holies. It was clear to everyone that the prime minister was a mistake and that the mistake must be fixed. Therefore, in 1999, there came together a coalition of elites ‏(in the realms of business, security, media and law‏) that managed to oust Bibi from power by underhanded means. Everyone knew then that it was over. Finished. The man-who-was was also the man-who-won’t-be.

Netanyahu will never be a real leader of Israel.

When Netanyahu became prime minister for the second time, in 2009, everyone knew it was a temporary thing. Barack Obama was already ensconced in the White House, and now Sara moved into the official residence on Smolenskin Street. Between Obama and Sara, the general consensus was, Bibi wouldn’t stand a chance. Between Rahm Emanuel and Likud’s hardliners, Bibi would sweat to death. The depraved coalition he forged with Ehud Barak couldn’t last. Any moment now, but truly any moment now, Netanyahu would fall. Within six to nine months, the government would collapse and Tzipi Livni would march into the Prime Minister’s Bureau and cleanse it of the loathsome man who defiled it by his very presence.

True, Netanyahu tricked us a first time and tricked us a second time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. A mistake remains a mistake, and soon the mistake will be corrected. Bibi won’t be. Bibi simply will not be.

Netanyahu will never be a real leader of Israel.

And now Rosh Hashanah is here. Another Rosh Hashanah. And for the eighth time, the prime minister of the new Hebrew calendar year is the same as that of the outgoing year: Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres’ blazers are retirees by now. Labor’s promising group of eight has scattered in all directions. The Likud princes melted in the scorching sun of local politics. There is no generation, no whole, no peace.

And yet, of all people, that extraterrestrial being is indubitably present. It is precisely that shady salesman in make-up who is indubitably governing. The man who was a danger to the state is himself the state. The non-man at the end of the hallway is the man who sits in the room at the end of the hallway.

So, it is hard to keep saying that that suit was a totally empty suit. It is hard to keep saying that the mistake was only a mistake. Evidently, there is something to Benjamin Netanyahu. He has many flaws and many scratches, but there is something to him. Messed up, but a head taller than his rivals. A non-leader, but still the only almost-leader Israel has.

Alone in the field

There is no doubt about it whatsoever: Benjamin Netanyahu is the man of the new year. For better or worse, for peace or war, for salvation or calamity − he is the man who will shape our destiny in 5774. And he will do so because he is prime minister at a time when at least once a month the Israeli prime minister makes a decision that can drastically change the regional reality here. Netanyahu will do so because among the makers of fateful decisions who sit in the cabinet, only he and the defense minister ‏(and maybe the justice minister‏) are worthy of making fateful decisions.
Netanyahu will do so because, amazingly enough, he is the only man around. Enlightened and moderate Israel has not in the last 20 years put forward a single weighty contender to counter him as an alternative.

The utter political failure of those opposed to Netanyahu and those who hate Netanyahu and those who dismiss Netanyahu has left Netanyahu the sole player on the field. A solo pilot in the cockpit and lone captain on the bridge. In their fiascoes, the good guys and the guys in-the-know made Benjamin Netanyahu man of the year once, then a third time and then a ninth time. Their ongoing weakness was responsible for electing him leader of the decade.

But this coming year will be different from all the previous years of Bibi-in-power, and there are two reasons for that: This year, both Netanyahu’s Palestinian game and his Iran game could reach their endgames.

First, there’s Palestine. John Kerry is not bluffing. When he says nine months, he means nine months. The Americans have no time, and the Palestinians have no time, and the Middle East is stuck. Therefore, the moment of truth will arrive. Over the course of the new Hebrew year that begins tonight, Netanyahu will have to reveal his cards and show his face and decide if he is going to take action.

If he succeeds in generating a significant move that advances Israel toward partition of the land − he will become a different Netanyahu. He will lose the right and conquer the center and redefine himself as a leader who made history in the positive sense of the word.

But if no cat comes out of the bag − the bag will become deflated and gray. The ability to dither and to have your cake and eat it, too, will be lost. Even the most cautious and restrained hope will be dashed. Netanyahu will prove he is what his detractors always claimed that he is: a mirage. Fata morgana. A very right-wing person playing at deceptive shows of moderation.

Then there is Iran: David Albright isn’t bluffing. Albright is one of the world’s leading experts on the Iranian nuclear program who does not work for any one government or another. Albright claims that time has run out. This time, really, time has run out. By the summer of 2014, Iran will cross the black line that comes after the red lines and will be able to “break out” toward nuclear-weapon capability without the West or Israel being able to stop it. True: We have already heard predictions of this sort more than once. There was a boy who cried wolf in 2008 and a boy who cried wolf in 2010, and there was a boy who cried wolf in 2012. But most Israelis are not aware of the fact that most of those wolves were real wolves. Most Israelis are not aware that Israel lost most of its battles against the wolves. Therefore, the wolf of 5774 will have especially sharp teeth. The odds are high that in the course of the new Hebrew year, the Iranian drama will reach new heights.

This time everything will be quieter. Supposedly the skies will be clear skies. But in the next few months, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benjamin Netanyahu’s mission-of-a-lifetime will come face-to-face. The prime minister will see the whites of his destiny’s eyes. No one knows how he will act. It is doubtful whether he himself knows how he will act. But either way, Netanyahu’s familiar old Iranian game will come to an end. What was shall be no more.

Stretch out in your armchairs, gents. Take an apple in hand, ladies. And place a deep bowl on the table with lots of honey. With Syria splitting apart from the north and with Egypt overturning from the south and with the Middle East dissolving in front of our eyes − everything is about to become new. With Iran going nuclear in the east and with resolve dissipating in the west − everything is on the line.

Israel is very strong. In many respects, Israel is stronger than ever. But the world is a crazy world, and our reality is a reality that has lost its mind. In all of this hullabaloo, only one man is standing on the bridge. Only one man will determine which way we sail in the storm. Wish him good luck, ladies and gentlemen. Even if you still hate him, you have no choice but to pray Benjamin Netanyahu will become a worthy Israeli leader in the coming year.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu. Illustration by Amos Biderman.Credit: Amos Biderman

Comments