Analysis |

Netanyahu Has Become All-powerful Even Though Most Israelis No Longer Believe a Word He Says

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, August 24, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, August 24, 2020. Credit: Amit Shabi
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Benjamin Netanyahu convened on Sunday a press conference to announce his acceptance of a compromise with coalition partners Kahol Lavan, seemingly averting early elections, at least for the time being. “The country needs unity, not election,” Netanyahu said, right before he launched blistering attacks on the “hostile” media and his “unreliable” political partners, which, for all intents and purposes, sounded as if the election campaign was already well underway.

Most Israelis, one can safely assume, simply shrugged. They have long abandoned any hope of deciphering Netanyahu’s true intentions. Over the past two years, they have learned from bitter experience that what Netanyahu says in public has very little to do with what he plans to do in private. Truth, they have come to realize, is the first casualty of Netanyahu’s ongoing battle to solidify his rule and to avert the long arm of the law.

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The public has no idea whether Netanyahu intends to call an early election or not: He says it’s bad for the country, but his Likud colleagues and personal aides swear it’s a done deal, if not in November, as he originally planned, then in March 2021. If Netanyahu hadn’t wanted elections, he and his clique would not have conducted a concerted campaign over the past few months to inflate an obscure dispute with Kahol Lavan over the state budget into a dramatic national crisis, one that warrants the dismantling of the broad coalition Netanyahu and Benny Gantz set up only this summer, and taking Israel to its fourth, costly election in two years.

Outside Netanyahu’s fanatic base, no one in his right mind believes Netanyahu anyway. A poll released on Sunday by Channel 13 revealed that 50 percent of the Israeli public assumes that Netanyahu’s top priority in running the country is to is avoid his upcoming criminal trial, currently slated to start in January. Only 18 percent believe that Netanyahu’s actions stem from love of country and another 14 percent cite ideological differences with the center-left. After dragging the country thrice to elections because he failed to secure the 61-seat majority that would allow him to legislate his way out of the trial, it’s hard to blame Israelis for assuming that Netanyahu seeks a fourth ballot for no other reason.

Netanyahu holds his cards so close to his chest that it’s hard for anyone, including his closest Likud allies, to know or even guess what his ultimate goal is. Netanyahu, in fact, may not know himself. Even after deciding on a specific course, Netanyahu keeps enough detours and escape routes open to change or reverse course midway. In this case, he came to the conclusion that calling elections against the backdrop of a resurging coronavirus epidemic and an unprecedented economic slump isn’t such a great idea, especially when he would be seen as the main instigator of an early ballot, which the public vehemently opposes.

In some ways, Netanyahu is the victim of his own success. His total domination of Israeli politics, which bend to his every whim, has cast him as the preeminent mover and shaker of political events. He is the only one who truly calls the shots and is thus hard pressed to persuade anyone that early elections, just like any and all other significant political, diplomatic and economic developments, is the outcome of forces beyond his control. The Israeli legal and parliamentary system may claim otherwise, but Netanyahu has effectively instituted his own one-man rule. What he says goes, and any claim to the contrary invariably turns out to be a ruse, fake news or a flat-out falsehood.

Netanyahu, who already holds the record for longest-serving prime minister, can validly lay claim to being the most powerful leader in Israeli history as well. His only potential rival for the title is David Ben-Gurion, who, unlike Netanyahu, was revered as Israel’s Founding Father.

Ben-Gurion, however, could not afford to ignore the opinions and wishes of his formidable party colleagues and coalition partners – independent, self-made and strong-willed politicians who benefited from the same kind of independence mystique.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, has methodically purged Likud of any potential opponents or rivals, relegating them to the back benches and promoting slavish toadies who parrot his every line in their stead. After seizing absolute control of Likud, erasing its long history of internal democracy and pluralism, Netanyahu successfully corralled his natural coalition partners by promising them the world in exchange for their personal support and loyalty. He thus created and then conquered the homogenous and subservient right-wing bloc, through which he wields his impressive powers.

His consolidation of personal authority and emergence as an all-powerful prime minister is doubly impressive but equally bizarre, given that most people no longer believe a word he says and have consequently stopped listening. Like Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s avid fans in his political base are devout adherents of his cult of personality: They believe anything he says today, even if it’s the opposite of what he claimed yesterday, but aren’t bothered much if their idol is caught red-handed spreading falsehoods either. All’s fair in love and war, they believe, especially in the holy crusade against their detested leftist, liberal, elitist rivals on the center-left.

The prime minister has steadily and successfully cemented his dominant position in Israeli politics in inverse proportion to his ever-diminishing credibility – and herein lies his tragedy. His proven tendency to bend the truth to suit his needs mars his every achievement, most recently and notably his diplomatic coup with the United Arab Emirates. The overwhelming majority of the public acknowledges the normalization agreement with the Gulf princedom as a historic diplomatic breakthrough, but their admiration for Netanyahu’s success in securing the UAE deal is blunted by a widespread perception that even in his moment of glory, the prime minister is distorting facts and hiding inconvenient truths in an effort to magnify his personal achievement.

Netanyahu, after all, concealed his U.S.-brokered negotiations with the UAE from most of the national security establishment as well as his Kahol Lavan foreign and defense ministers, offering a fear of leaks as a flimsy excuse for what most people assume was his refusal to share the credit or ensuing limelight. His claim that West Bank annexation was only temporarily postponed was immediately undercut by the Trump administration’s assertion to the contrary, just as his denial of any explicit or tacit Israeli agreement to the sale of advanced F-35s to the UAE was cast in doubt by Trump’s public acknowledgement – that the lucrative but long-delayed weapons deal was suddenly, by miraculous coincidence, back on the table again.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Security Cabinet meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, August 20, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Netanyahu can rightly assert that in one fell swoop, his UAE deal reinforced Israel’s legitimacy, created unprecedented and tempting horizons for regional collaboration in security, economy and tourism and, perhaps most importantly from his point of view, sidelined the Palestinians to boot.

Any other Israeli leader besides Netanyahu would be basking in glory right now, hailed by nearly one and all as a great statesman, worthy of a place alongside Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin in the pantheon of historic peacemakers.

Netanyahu, however, is bound to be denied. His divisive leadership has irreversibly alienated the center-left majority. Anti-Netanyahu voters may grudgingly recognize his achievement but nonetheless refuse to change their negative opinion of its initiator and protagonist. The lukewarm reaction of his opponents and much of the media infuriates Netanyahu, who refuses to acknowledge his own crucial role in divorcing achievement from achiever, preferring to blame his critics’ inherent and irrational hostility towards him.

Small wonder that Netanyahu waxed lyrical at first about the new, promising and potentially lucrative horizons created by his UAE deal at his Sunday press conference, but ended it on his usual sour note, with bitter harangues against the media, the legal system and the left in general, along with a generous portion of his ludicrous self-pity and claims of victimhood.

It is the sad story of Netanyahu’s ostensibly triumphant career, in a nutshell: A gifted prime minister, superior to most of his peers in ingenuity, experience, intellectual prowess and grasp of the Middle East, undone by his own arrogance, personal greed and chronic lying. Netanyahu had greatness within his grasp but for his weakness, paranoia and inability to assess his own statements and actions critically and objectively.

Whether his criminal trial ends Netanyahu’s political career or is ultimately quashed, he is destined to go down in history, as he was accurately portrayed in his first term already, as the Israeli equivalent of Richard Nixon. The 37th U.S. president was a brilliant political tactician and exceptional diplomatic statesman with unique and historic achievements to his name, but he departed public life as a crook, his legacy forever tarnished by the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Netanyahu, a latter-day version of “Tricky Dick,” seems destined to follow in his footsteps.

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