Emperor Netanyahu and His New Clothes

All the elements of Hans Christian Andersen's immortal tale were in play in Israel's concocted political crisis this week

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 12, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 12, 2018.Credit: Emil salman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Hans Christian Andersen published “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in 1837, together with “The Little Mermaid.” The story of a ruler who fell prey to crooked tailors, which has been translated into over 100 languages and is securely enshrined in the canon of Western civilization, is thought to be based on a similar Spanish story about The King and the Three Impostors which is included in the Tales of Count Lucanor, written in 14th Century Spain. In the original, the three con men persuade the king that only legitimate sons and heirs will able to see their magical garment, thus luring him with the prospect of confiscating the properties of those who had assumed their estates by fraud. The part of Andersen’s little boy who breaks the Emperor’s spell by crying “he doesn’t have anything on” was filled by a black African, the only one who didn’t have anything to lose by telling the truth. Andersen is thought to have cast the child as hero in order to make the story accessible for his intended audience, and possibly to mark an incident in his own childhood when he saw Danish King Frederick VI on a horse in Copenhagen and shocked his mother by remarking “He’s only flesh and blood, like the rest of us.”

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The Emperor’s New Clothes, of course, is much more than a childish fairy tale. In addition to idealizing the strength that comes “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,” as the Book of Psalms notes, it includes biting satire on the vanity of kings who entrench themselves in their own deception and refuse to concede their mistakes. The fairy tale warns of the dangers of “yes men” assistants and advisers whose fear of speaking their mind distances their rulers from reality even further. It depicts a conformist society that is willing to answer “Amen” to their rulers’ most grotesque whims, out of loyalty, stupidity, fear of criticism or dread of standing out. 120 years before it was coined, Andersen portrayed Orwellian “Groupthink,” which crippled Israeli intelligence in the run up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which can lead societies to follow dangerous delusions that often end in calamity.

All of these were on display this week as Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, led by his own Likud colleagues, participated in their own theater of the absurd. They pretended to be dealing with a feigned crisis about the eternal issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox to the army, listening intently as the prime minister told the Knesset about severity of the crisis, a claim that only his blindest followers actually believed. Ministers and members of Knesset debated the pros and cons of the issue, presented facts and submitted statistics, gave ultimatums and offered compromise proposals, though most of them were well aware of the naked truth. They found it safer, and more convenient, to pretend that the hoax was real rather than admit that the crisis was manufactured to serve Netanyahu’s interests and to improve his chances of evading the law. Even when a politician like Naftali Bennett said openly that a collapse of the government under such circumstances could only be the result of personal interests, the coalition kept up the facade. When falsehoods become an accepted norm, the truth can lose its luster. It is seen as nothing more than another political gambit, no worthier than the greatest falsehood.

It’s hard to tell whether Netanyahu recognizes his own misdeeds or has truly convinced himself that he is the innocent victim of a dark political conspiracy. When he looks at himself in the mirror, does he know that his behavior was wrong, if not illegal, and that his defense is empty and transparent, or has he truly persuaded himself that he is as clean as a whistle and it is the police investigators and state attorneys who are the criminals. The Moorish king in the 14th Century stories written by Prince Juan Manuel of Villena can’t admit to himself that he can’t see the uniform supposedly sewn by his three tailoring hustlers, because that might incriminate him as a king who inherited his kingdom by fraud. Netanyahu knows that even the slightest concession of guilt could undermine his chances of staying in power.

Netanyahu’s assistants, confidantes and all-round toadies not only help him disseminate his faux-reality of a persecuted prime minister, their echoes may feed his own belief in the justice of his ways. Andersen’s emperor sends an old and trusted adviser to make sure his tailors aren’t cheating him, but the crooks explained in advance that failure to see their wonderful creation is irrevocable proof of stupidity and incompetence. Wary of falling into the trap, the minister tells the king that the royal garments are as fabulous as advertised. His testimony convinces the king to believe what his eyes can’t see, because the alternative is to admit that he is unfit to rule.

A few of Netanyahu’s loyal followers are so entranced by his demagoguery that they actually believe the concocted conspiracy theories that he peddles to the public. Others, including most of his ministers, know very well that it’s just a mirage, but they realize that it has become a litmus test for their loyalty and are well aware of the heavy political price they will pay if they fail it. They can’t produce any corroboration for Netanyahu’s fantasies about a police force and Justice Ministry that are victimizing him and trying to frame him by cajoling state witnesses to give false testimonies - because such confirmation doesn’t exist - but they have no choice but to tell their voters that they endorse his every word. When Netanyahu hears senior government ministers movingly portray him as an innocent victim and latter day Dreyfus, Netanyahu may tell himself that there must be some substance to his cock-and-bull after all.

Throughout his years at the helm, Netanyahu has surrounded himself with kowtowers and sycophants who praise his every word, and has distanced himself from independent-minded politicians who thought it was their civic duty to “speak truth to power”. He doesn’t debate those who oppose his views, as might be expected of the leader of an ostensibly democratic country, but prefers to incite against them and delegitimize their views, and, in the case of the media, to try and destroy them outright. The longer he is in power, the more he is successful in stifling his critics and seizing total control of the discourse in his party, his government and among large parts of the public, first on the actual political, defense and economic issues of the day and now on his own personality and behavior.

It’s hard today to remember that two and three decades ago, the Likud was the perennially divided but nonetheless most stimulating and vibrant party in the country. The party was divided into three competing camps - one following Yitzhak Shamir, the second Ariel Sharon and the third David Levy - which may have mounted obstacles to actually ruling but also provided a vital platform for fierce public debate in which the leader was not exempt from criticism and his words were not treated as gospel. Today, no one in the Likud dares contradict Netanyahu, for fear of being harmed.

Not one  of these heroes, many of whom consider themselves worthy of national leadership, questioned Netanyahu’s self-defeating battle against the Iran nuclear deal or his politically-motivated confrontations with Barack Obama. None of them wonder whether he hasn’t recklessly cast his lot with the universally reviled Donald Trump, who can’t seem to say a bad word about Russia even when his own country joins international sanctions over a failed attempted murder by nerve agent carried out on the soil of such a trusted ally like Great Britain and who openly admitted this week that he invented facts in a conversation with the leader of another great friend like Canada. None of them have anything to say about the total derailment of the peace process or the strangulation of Gaza. None, with the glaring exception of Benny Begin, have ever found the courage to stand up against the Netanyahu-inspired assault on the Israeli Supreme Court, and all of them have kept silent as Netanyahu drums up hate and hostility and sows division among Israel’s various social and political groups.

This was the decision that awaited the public in the early elections that Netanyahu planned to hold in June, which can still take place later this year if he isn’t forced to remove himself from office after being indicted; not peace and security or economy and social welfare but a personal referendum on his own future, and as a result, on a fateful choice between truth and falsehood. Netanyahu’s reelection would have given him a mandate not only to crush his investigators and deter his attorneys but would endorse the big lie of his own innocence and the treasonous conspiracy that is supposedly out to get him. All elections are crucial, of course, but these would have constituted a crossing of the Rubicon, from which there might be no return. Fraud would be legitimized, deception canonized and breach of trust confirmed as law of the land.

But Netanyahu’s gambit may have backfired on him, even if its failure wasn’t a moral one but the result of the vested interests of politicians who had no wish to face the voting public right now. Netanyahu’s foiled maneuvers nonetheless dent his image as an all-powerful political magician and may thus puncture, ever so slightly, the bubble of his own irreproachability, if not with his loyal base than at least among the voters he needs to get the 4-5 Knesset seats that will keep him in power. The danger is far from over, but at least it can kindle a slender hope that truth is on the march, as Emil Zola said of the original Dreyfus, and nothing can stop it now.

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