Analysis

Like Trump, Netanyahu Suddenly Seems Out of Touch and Off the Rails

Tax greed and overreaction to protests together with coronavirus laxity and annexation frenzy seem taken from the U.S. president's self-destructive playbook

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Trump puts his hands Netanyahu's shoulders as they deliver joint remarks on a Middle East peace plan proposal at the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020.
Trump puts his hands Netanyahu's shoulders as they deliver joint remarks on a Middle East peace plan proposal at the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020.Credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended Israelis a typical half-apology on Sunday for his scandalous demand to be exempted from back taxes he owes for state-funded improvements in his private home in Caesarea. Netanyahu conceded his timing was unfortunate but insisted that his demand, which has sparked widespread criticism, was and remains totally justified.

Netanyahu was compelled to show contrition because of the overwhelming and nearly unanimous public disgust sparked by his request, which was rushed through the Knesset Finance Committee last week. The left was incensed by the substance of Netanyahu’s demands, as expected, but close allies and supporters couldn’t hide their frustration either. Netanyahu, they claimed, needlessly injected his personal tax affairs into the national agenda at a time of crippling economic recession and a coronavirus pandemic that seems to be returning with a vengeance.

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LISTEN: Bibi's bonanza, arresting activists and the death of God TVCredit: Haaretz

Netanyahu’s initial justifications for the move only added insult to injury. The prime minister is a man of many millions whose expenses are all covered by the state budget, so his depiction by Likud ally Miki Zohar as barely subsisting on his meager government salary was bound to fall flat. Netanyahu’s catch-all claim that he is being singled out by tax authorities in comparison with previous prime ministers wasn’t very convincing either: None of his predecessors bilked the state for upkeep and upgrade of their private homes.

Netanyahu, contrary to his reputation as the ultimate mind reader of the public mood, miscalculated badly. With hundreds of thousands of Israelis facing unemployment and potential poverty, Netanyahu chose the worst time possible to line his own hefty pockets. His obtuseness was startling.

The common explanation was that Netanyahu was indeed a victim, not of discriminating tax authorities but of his own hubris. His seemingly endless back-from-the-dead run of political ploys, which recently made him prime minister for the fifth straight time, has gone to his head, supposedly.

The incident might have been dismissed as a fluke, were it not for the fact that Netanyahu and his proxies have been making the same kind of unforced errors and uncharacteristic miscalculations in other areas as well. In an eerie emulation of Donald Trump’s self-destructive responses to the coronavirus epidemic and the race riots in the U.S., Netanyahu suddenly seems similarly and self-injuriously out of touch with the current Israeli zeitgeist.

Over the weekend, while the media was still excoriating him for his tax bonanzas, Netanyahu’s main underling in the cabinet, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, managed to shoot him in the knees as well. Israeli police, acting on orders or on their own initiative, made the cardinal mistake of arresting air force pilot and reserve brigadier general Amir Haskel, one of the leaders of a hitherto modest and ongoing sit-in protest near the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. Things went downhill from there.

After news spread over social media of Haskel’s arrest and expressions of indignation began to pour forth, Ohana reacted: He posted an account of the circumstances of Haskel’s arrest, which claimed that the former pilot had been handcuffed after demonstrators had violated police guidelines, blocked the streets near the prime minister’s home, held up traffic and endangered public safety. Videos of the arrest along with eyewitness accounts showed that Ohana had misrepresented the sequence of events: The disruptions had occurred after, not before, Haskel’s arrest.

The hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 8, 2020.
The hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 8, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

The police, already under fire, decided that in for a penny, in for a pound: They demanded that to earn their release, Haskel and two other protest leaders arrested with him would have to sign a pledge not to return to Jerusalem for 15 days and leave a 5,000 shekel bond as well. When Haskel refused, police took him and his cohorts, bound and shackled, to the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, which promptly refuted their version of events, accused the police of trying to stifle dissent and released Haskel unconditionally.

A protest that had failed to garner significant public or media attention was within hours turbocharged into a full-blown scandal. Participation in the weekly Saturday night demonstration near Netanyahu’s home increased four or fivefold, from several hundred to several thousand. A demonstration that lacked gusto was embraced overnight by the anti-Netanyahu opposition. A protest that sorely needed a hero was given a martyr with impeccable credentials: A well-respected Israel Defense Forces pilot who has devoted his post-army career to study of the Holocaust.

Netanyahu’s Sunday epitaph for the incident, however, was the most telling. Responding angrily to Kahol Lavan leader and alternate prime minister Benny Gantz’s frail efforts to defend the public’s right to protest, Netanyahu once again played the victim, lashing out at the left’s defense of Haskel and comparing it to its alleged silence when right-wing protestors are arrested. He then made the revealing Trumpian slip by describing the protestors outside his home, who have been demonstrating for months with nary an incident, as “rioters.” Next time, it might be “criminals” or “thugs.”

Netanyahu’s flaccid reaction to the resurgence of the coronavirus is also troubling, especially in light of his forceful first response, which had successfully flattened the infection rate curve and primed the Israeli economy for a gradual reopening. For as yet unresolved reasons, Netanyahu threw caution to the wind in early May, allowing the economy to reopen almost all at once and certainly at a faster pace than his health experts had advocated.

Gantz and Netanyahu in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020.
Gantz and Netanyahu in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020.Credit: Menahem Kahana / REUTERS

Netanyahu’s management of the resurging pandemic has been as listless and ineffectual as his original reaction was energetic and successful. He had originally stipulated that if Israel returned to a daily infection rate of 100 new cases, the government would revert to stricter lockdown measures. The infection rate has now passed 600 new cases a day, but Sunday’s session of the so-called coronavirus cabinet failed to take any meaningful action, despite Health Ministry warnings that the accelerated rate could soon lead to a dramatic increase in seriously ill patients in need of life support.

Netanyahu’s newfound, Trump-like passivity is especially curious given that his previous stewardship of the coronavirus crisis, which was completely at odds with Trump’s, was one of the main reasons for his recent upsurge in the polls. As with everything else connected to Netanyahu, his strange behavior raises immediate suspicions of an overarching master plot on the way to new elections, or of a devious stratagem that will let Netanyahu consolidate his hold on power by declaring a state of emergency allowing him, among other things, to further postpone his criminal trial.

All of which brings us to Netanyahu’s most unhinged and thus most Trumpian move of all – annexation. Only a few days before the July 1 target date he set, no one – possibly including Netanyahu himself – really knows whether, when, where and just how much Israel will annex, never mind why. Netanyahu is urging Israel to rush headlong and full speed ahead into a monumental decision that could upend its security, international standing and internal cohesion, for a prize that the army would rather forego and that few Israelis seem to covet: A recent opinion poll found that only 4% of Israelis said annexation should the government’s first priority.

Some Bibi observers believe that the same hubris that compelled Netanyahu to obliviously flaunt his obsessive milking of state coffers before economically anxious Israelis is also driving him to carry out annexation while thumbing his finger at the world, albeit behind Trump’s back.

Others see a cynical political gambit at play, as with the return of the coronavirus: Netanyahu is either aiming for a crisis that will allow him to call for an early election while blaming Gantz and other rivals on the left for the failure of his annexation move – or is actually banking on a crisis, foreign, domestic or both, that will allow him to seize emergency powers, delay his trial, seize control of the legal system and so on and so forth.

Nonetheless, the enormity of the gamble is completely out of character for Netanyahu, a risk-averse leader whose ultranationalist bark is often far worse than his pragmatic bite. For the past 25 years, Netanyahu is said to have absorbed the bitter lessons of his rash October 1996 decision to open tunnels to the Western Wall, which led to an outbreak of violence that left 17 Israeli soldiers and hundreds of Palestinians dead while undermining cooperation and dialogue with Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.

And yet, here he is, Netanyahu, taking the highest-risk gamble of all, disseminating best-case scenarios while ignoring clear and present dangers of international isolation, regional instability, the weakening if not dismantlement of the Palestinian Authority, violence, bloodshed and fierce internal upheaval. The cost-benefit ratio of annexation is so lopsided against Israel that one is hard-pressed to understand Netanyahu’s true motivations or intentions.

In fact, the most harebrained aspect of the entire annexation plan is Netanyahu’s appointment of Trump, of all people, to be the final and imperial arbiter of a fateful Israeli move. Netanyahu, who has lambasted foreign intervention in Israel’s relations with Arabs throughout his career, has placed Israel’s fate in the hands of an impetuous and ignorant U.S. president who is sinking in the polls and whose only consideration is how to reverse the fall.

Unlike Trump, Netanyahu still maintains his mystique as the grand wizard of political maneuverings, but his reputation may soon start to fray. Netanyahu is still viewed as an unbeatable master of the universe who keeps everyone else guessing, but there are growing indications that some of Trump’s bad traits – as if there are any others – are starting to rub off on his Israeli ally. At the rate he’s going, and with the prospects of a potentially hostile Democratic administration rising by the day, one wonders if Netanyahu isn’t headed for a spectacular fall that could miraculously coincide with what seems like the imminent crash and burn of the U.S. president. As historic endings go, this one seems more fitting than most.

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