Netanyahu’s Torment: How He Loaded the Political Gun Now Pointing at His Head

In recent months he’s gone from Superman to SuperSchlemiel, from political wizard to serial bungler, as he was known before he first lost power.

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Aya Tamam sculpts marzipan on a cupcake featuring Israel's Likud Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 3, 2015.Credit: AP

Benjamin Netanyahu could have called for early elections in August, when his approval ratings were sky high, rather than in December, when they were nose-diving back to earth. He could have thrived on the nationalistic winds that swept Israelis over the course of a stormy summer, rather than wither away in the shadow of the indifference and frustration that mark this winter of discontent. Netanyahu might have asked for a renewed vote of confidence when he was being depicted as a leader of experience and restraint, not when he began to be seen as a quick-shooting desperado who can no longer hide the anxiety gnawing at him from within.

But in the first week of December, Netanyahu nonetheless announced that he would seek early yet absolutely superfluous elections, effectively shortening his own tenure by more than two and a half years. He did so surprisingly and voluntarily, for reasons that haven’t been made any clearer since, unless one adopts the conventional yet incredible wisdom that his decision had something to do with the Knesset’s very preliminary adoption of a bill that could harm Sheldon Adelson’s newspaper, Yisrael Hayom.

Perhaps Netanyahu believed that his victory was in the bag, but over the course of the upcoming weekend he will have to contend with the nagging thought that it was he who may have willingly handed his rivals the political gun which his now pointing at his head. Perhaps he was infected by a “spirit of confusion” that Isaiah speaks of, or the Greek sin of hubris summed up in Proverbs 16: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

This is what makes Netanyahu’s tirade against “the world” that is trying to depose him so ridiculous. Until he voluntarily put his prime ministership on the line for no discernable rhyme or reason, no one in “the world” doubted the stability of his rule or its expected long lifespan. Even now, when Netanyahu’s replacement no longer seems so utterly unrealistic, it’s not clear how much effort the known universe is putting into his “deposal”, though his claim, like so many other things that Netanyahu has done recently, is turning into a double-edged sword: Some Israelis might tell themselves that if the whole (anti-Semitic) world is lining up against Netanyahu, then he must be doing something right, but if the whole (sane) world has it in for Netanyahu, others might surmise, perhaps it’s time for Israel to choose a leader that the world can tolerate just a little bit more.

Netanyahu’s main problem is that he’s evolved in recent months from Superman to SuperSchlemiel, from being widely admired as a political wizard to what was described in his first term as a “serial bungler”, just before he first lost power in 1999. Just like “King Midas in Reverse,” as the Hollies sang half a century ago, Netanyahu is suddenly “not the man to hold your trust, everything he touches turns to dust.” Netanyahu moved heaven and earth earlier this year to prevent Reuven Rivlin from becoming President? But that’s just what he got and now Rivlin doesn’t owe him a thing. He decided on Thursday to boycott and ostracize Israeli investigative reporter Raviv Drucker? He’s just anointed him as a Pulitzer-worthy Israeli equivalent of Woodward and Bernstein. He thought that the dry monotony of Isaac Herzog would do the Zionist Camp leader in? Turns out that after six years of Netanyahu the Jackhammer, as Amos Oz once dubbed him, some Israelis are longing for 50 shades of grey.

Netanyahu believed – perhaps he still believes – that his speech to Congress would not only galvanize the opposition to the Obama administration’s Iran deal but would boost his electoral prospects in the process. On this point, at least, he was apparently right – for the first 48 hours. Since then, the impression left by Netanyahu’s address on the Israeli public has dissipated and Democratic objections to the Iran deal have evaporated – with no small push from the Republican 47 Ronin and their controversial letter to Iranian leaders. And with all the rampant mistrust of Obama shared by many Israelis, most are still wary of picking an unwarranted fight with our greatest strategic ally, as former Mossad head Shabtai Shavit said this week in Tel Aviv.

Under these circumstances, even the so called “comfort zones” which Netanyahu supposedly retreats to in order to escape discussion of pesky issues such as the economy or housing prices have turned into dangerous minefields for him. Does anyone still believe that Israel achieved the glorious victory over Hamas that Netanyahu boasted of after last summer’s Operation Protective Edge? Do many people still think that Netanyahu, brilliant orator that he is, is also the best candidate to handle Israel’s relations with the world, in general, and with Washington, in particular? Are Israelis really convinced that antagonizing American President and brazenly challenging him in his own backyard are the most effective methods of neutralizing the existential danger posed by a nuclear Iran? We shall soon find out.

Netanyahu has only a few days left in which to reverse the trends that have been turning against him but he has precious few instruments left in his toolbox with which to do so. He can and will try to reignite the right-wing’s apparently dormant sentiments of tribalism and paranoia – the prime minister’s “Gevalt Campaign” as it is being called – in the hopes of persuading wavering Likudniks to return home at the very last minute. He can also pray for some massive game-changing mistake by one his rivals, preferably more representative than the condescending remarks made at last Saturday’s left-wing rally by artist Yair Garboz, which only created a short-term storm.

If Netanyahu pulls it off, he will be worthy of renewing his claim on two adjectives bestowed on him in the past: Bibi the King and Bibi the Magician. If he fails, however, his reckless decision to dissolve parliament will belong in the pantheon of inane political decisions made by Israeli leaders, most notably alongside Yitzhak Rabin’s similar move in 1976, which is remembered mockingly as the “brilliant ploy.” Rabin, then prime minister for the first time, decided to resign and seek new elections after some religious ministers had abstained in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence over the Shabbat arrival of Israel’s first F-15 aircraft. Rabin wrote later that he had done so in order to uphold the principle of good governance, but the consequences of his brilliant move, Netanyahu should have remembered, was unequivocal: the dissolution of the historic alliance between Labor and the religious parties and the first-ever loss of Labor rule to the Likud, which lasted for 15 years, before Rabin came back in 1992, or from then until this very day, if one takes a longer look.