Analysis

Netanyahu’s Tirades Against Protesters Highlight His Growing Detachment From Reality

Critics routinely lambaste the prime minister’s corruption and incitement, but mostly ignore his compulsive lying and flights of farcical fantasy

Chemi Shalev
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A protester wearing a Netanyahu mask and devil horns at the demonstration in Tel Aviv, August 1, 2020.
A protester wearing a Netanyahu mask and devil horns at the demonstration in Tel Aviv, August 1, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Chemi Shalev

Benjamin Netanyahu lives in a world of his own. It is a dark and treacherous place. The Israeli prime minister believes he is surrounded by powerful enemies who have banded together to destroy him. The elites, media, police, justice system, malevolent external forces and the thousands of protestors demonstrating outside his home in Jerusalem are all part of a “Deep State” plot aimed at getting rid of him by whatever means possible.

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Netanyahu is not new to his concocted world. He has been railing against sinister elites and “enlisted” media from the moment he entered politics over 30 years ago. In the past, however, Netanyahu kept his conspiracy theories separate from the actual day-to-day management of Israel’s affairs. His incitement against the nasty leftists out to get him peaked during election campaigns; it was seen as posturing meant to inflame supporters and drive them to the polling booths.

Netanyahu’s police investigations and subsequent criminal indictments, however, changed the equation. His efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the proceedings against him became Netanyahu’s number one priority, propelling his paranoid fantasies to center stage. The most powerful man in the country started depicting himself as a helpless nebbish, victimized by sinister forces that, for the most part, remain unseen.

Netanyahu’s assertions of an all-encompassing plot that includes the police, the Justice Ministry, the judicial branch and the media are unfounded, unsubstantiated and patently absurd. They are nonetheless amplified and disseminated by Netanyahu’s lackeys and growing legions of dedicated disciples in the media. They’ve been embraced by many of his right-wing followers and – apparently far more ominously – by Netanyahu himself.

A demonstration near the Prime Minister's Residence
A demonstration near the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, Aug. 1, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The prime minister’s premeditated outburst at Sunday’s cabinet meeting against the “North Korean” media is a case in point. The media largely ignored the picketers outside Netanyahu’s home throughout the past four years and only started to cover the demonstrations when their numbers swelled from hundreds to thousands, in the wake of Netanyahu’s perceived failures in stemming the coronavirus epidemic and ensuing economic crisis. The current wave of protests is unprecedented in size and intensity, but Netanyahu and his parrots in the press maintain that the media is aiding, abetting and even instigating them as part of the nefarious plot against him.

Netanyahu has pointedly refrained from condemning the right-wing hooligans who have attacked protestors, but he pounces on any trivial critical talkback on social media to cast himself as a persecuted prime minister whose life is being threatened by an army of potential assassins. “There’s never been such a recruitment,” he asserted. “I wanted to say Soviet, but its already North Korean, the enlistment of the media in favor of the protestors.”

Netanyahu is so consumed by his obsessive self-victimization that he is blind to the outpouring of public rage at Israel’s coronavirus-induced paralysis. He is so absorbed in his efforts to avert standing trial for corruption that he views the protests as part and parcel of the overarching conspiracy against him. The demonstrators, he said on Sunday, are engaged in an anti-democratic plot under the guise of democratic protests.

Netanyahu’s supporters can no longer claim that he is capable of separating his duties as prime minister from his personal campaign to undermine the country’s legal authorities and portray himself as their victim. Netanyahu’s plummet in the polls is a direct result of the public perception that, instead of focusing on efforts to prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus, he was busy extracting tax exemptions from the state’s coffers, fighting for foreign billionaires to be allowed to finance his legal fees and attacking the country’s attorneys and judges for daring to indict him in the first place.

But Netanyahu, like U.S. President Donald Trump, is no longer capable of admitting mistakes or accepting responsibility for his errors. His only recourse, therefore, is to portray mounting opposition to his policies and persona as hostile moves perpetrated by the powerful cabal he has concocted. The notion that his tirades against the conspirators is a cynical manipulation would actually be comforting; it’s the thought that he wholeheartedly believes in them that is a source of grave concern.

Netanyahu was reviled from the outset by center-left voters for his personal corruption as well as his right-wing policies, including his stalled annexation plans. In recent months, he has lost support in the center right in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic and economic meltdown. Yet the most troubling aspect of Netanyahu’s performance has been largely ignored: He seems to have lost touch with reality, a symptom once considered undesirable for a country’s leader.

Protesters carry a sculpture of Netanyahu coming out of a submarine at the protest in Jerusalem, August 1, 2020.
Protesters carry a sculpture of Netanyahu coming out of a submarine at the protest in Jerusalem, August 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Like Trump, Netanyahu’s frequent fabrications are taken for granted. His word is considered worthless by critics and fans alike. Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement with Benny Gantz and immediately started to renege on some of its main clauses, but the overwhelming general reaction has been nothing more than a shrug. It’s Netanyahu, you know, what did you expect?

The same is true, however, for Netanyahu’s growing detachment from reality. The prime minister’s fantasies are routinely embraced by his acolytes on the right and just as regularly ignored by his critics. The prime minister spouts preposterous propositions about “witch hunts” and “North Korean” media coverage without supplying one iota of evidence to back up his claims but, it’s Netanyahu, you know, what did you expect?

Well, a prime minister tethered to reality, for one thing. But perhaps such a demand is anachronistic. The upcoming U.S. election will test this theory, as will another Israeli ballot, should Netanyahu have his way with his current maneuvers aimed at calling an early vote. Both ballots will pit not only moderation against extremism and truth against rampant falsehoods, but lunacy against sanity itself.

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