Analysis |

The Agony, Ecstasy and Inevitable Tragedy of Benjamin Netanyahu

Resurgence of the coronavirus mars his historic UAE deal, as befits a potentially great leader undone by his own small-mindedness

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Benjamin Netanyahu is living out his greatest dream while simultaneously going through his worst nightmare. As he soars to the pinnacle of his career with the normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates, Netanyahu is plunging to its pits because of his inept management of the coronavirus pandemic and impending criminal trial. These are the best of times for Netanyahu, but in many ways, also the worst.

His critics claim that Netanyahu is getting his just desserts. The truth of his dismal performance in managing the coronavirus crisis is winning out over the PR and spin of his diplomatic feats. The imposition of his dismal record on the coronavirus on what he sees as his greatest diplomatic achievement, however, is also Netanyahu’s tragic tale in a nutshell.

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He is, without a doubt, a brilliant diplomatic tactician and probably the best political strategist in Israeli history. He possesses all the talents and traits that might have made him Israel’s best prime minister ever, but his glories are undone by his corruption, greed, self-pity and enduring addiction to incitement and division. Behind the leader who casts a giant shadow stands a small-minded man, totally devoid of any sense of self-awareness.

The juxtaposition of Netanyahu’s stellar diplomatic feat with his dismal handling of the coronavirus-induced national crisis symbolizes the duality of his existence. The prime minister’s plans to celebrate himself, Donald Trump and the UAE deal at a White House ceremony later this month could be scuttled if Israel is forced into a second total lockdown in an effort to ward off a resurgence of the coronavirus. His ecstasy could very well be supplanted by agony.

People wait in line to enter a store in Jerusalem during the coronavirus crisis, August 31, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Netanyahu’s distress was evident in a Monday evening press conference in which he tried to address the accelerating rate of detected coronavirus carriers, which has catapulted Israel to first place in the world in the rate of infections per capita. Netanyahu tried in vain to defend his government’s record and failed to rebuff accusations that he had placed political concerns over public health by caving to ultra-Orthodox objections to government-ordered lockdowns in several Haredi towns. Unusually for him, the narrative eluded Netanyahu’s control.

Netanyahu failed to dispel a growing public perception that he had lost control of the situation. The increasing criticism of the government’s muddled policies and often contradictory statements stood in stark contrast to the accolades Netanyahu garnered after containing the first wave of the coronavirus earlier this year. Suddenly, even hitherto slavish Likud officials dared rebuke their leader.

The coronavirus crisis is leaving an indelible stain on what Netanyahu views as the crowning achievement of his career. The agreement with the UAE, especially if other Gulf sheikhdoms follow in its wake, is a realization of the vision Netanyahu laid out four decades ago in his seminal book “A Place under the Sun.” It is also the culmination in practice of what he has been preaching since entering politics: Alliance with Sunni Arab countries under the umbrella of a U.S. led regional front against Iran, which sidelines Palestinians in the process.

If the UAE doesn’t get cold feet and follows through with its pledges of total normalization, the agreement slated to be signed at the White House could indeed herald a revolution in Israel’s regional standing. At its optimum, the agreement could see massive UAE investments in Israel’s hi-tech industry and other sectors, potentially improving its overall economic outlook dramatically.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and White House adviser Jared Kushner make joint statements to the press about the Israeli-UAE peace accords, in Jerusalem, August 30, 2020.Credit: Debbi Hill/AP

Netanyahu, however, has had a hard time enthusing the public about the tantalizing prospects of what he misleadingly describes as a breakthrough “peace for peace” deal with an Arab country. While they overwhelmingly welcomed the accord, Israelis are too preoccupied with the far more immediate and direct threats posed by the coronavirus and ensuing economic fallout. And Netanyahu has become such a divisive figure that his achievements will forever pale in comparison with what his critics see as his crimes, faults, willful distortions and incessant incitement.

Netanyahu, however, is unlikely to blame himself. As far as he’s concerned, his glory is being denied because of the elitist establishment’s long-held antipathy towards him and his political camp. It is the same kind of thought-process that enables Netanyahu to turn a blind eye to his own corruption, to discount his investigation by police and indictment by the attorney general and to rail against a sinister conspiracy out to get him, which is nothing more than a figment of his imagination.

Like his ally Donald Trump, Netanyahu is a devout practitioner of “grievance politics,” which, along with nativism and incitement against elites, comprises the basic toolbox of all populists. He has united the right-wing camp behind him by nurturing its historic and inherent resentments and sense of deprivation, casting his impending criminal trial as the latest effort by leftist, Ashkenazi elites to subjugate his largely North African, Russian and religious constituency.

A protester wearing a Netanyahu mask at the protest in Jerusalem, August 29, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Like Trump, Netanyahu has convinced his supporters that their ideological and political clash with the center-left is nothing less than a fight for survival, a war in which the winners take all. Faced with such an existential threat, Netanyahu’s supporters discount or disregard evidence of his personal corruption and general malpractice in handling the coronavirus, pledging total allegiance to their besieged and beleaguered tribal chief. Unlike Trump, and despite his diminishing numbers in the polls, Netanyahu is still the odds -on favorite to win the next election.

His detractors rightly accuse Netanyahu of divisive demagoguery and intentional promotion of long-held grievances that might have otherwise been buried long ago. They cite the fact that Netanyahu is an elitist, by background and by choice, as proof that his leadership of Israel’s “coalition of the downtrodden,” as it is known, is nothing more than a well-staged act that reeks of hypocrisy. They fail to appreciate that Netanyahu identifies personally and totally with his own outbursts against the stifling elites – his antipathy, in fact, is far more intense than that of his audience.

Netanyahu was born to an illustrious historian, reared in the best schools in Jerusalem and Philadelphia and is a graduate of the Hebrew University and MIT. He is a brilliant orator, acknowledged intellectual and genius tactician who went on to capture the prime ministership by storm and to return for a second stint, becoming the longest serving leader in history and the most powerful man in the country in the process. In his soul, however, Netanyahu was and remains a resentful and aggrieved outsider.

Despite his long years at the helm, Netanyahu has never escaped the impressions of his father’s ostracization in the academic arena, supposedly because of his revisionist ideology rather than intellectual shortcomings; his own social isolation, real or perceived, by his Mapai-reared peers in elementary school; or his back and forth moves, with and without his family, between Israel and the U.S. as a child and young adult. A direct line connects Netanyahu’s sense of deprivation in adolescence to his paranoia and feelings of persecution as his country’s leader.

The leitmotif of Netanyahu’s entire life has been his never-ending, Sisyphean efforts to be “accepted” by his elitist peers and his ensuing rage and indignation when they fail to do so. The chip on his shoulder is a heavy rock that cripples his ability to perceive himself as others perceive him and to correct course accordingly.

Netanyahu’s deep-seated umbrage manifested itself clearly in recent weeks, after his breakthrough agreement with the UAE failed to change his detractors’ attitude. He cast himself as a peacemaker worthy of a place alongside Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, but his ostensibly peace-worshipping leftist detractors continue to despise him and snipe at him as always. Rather than taking realistic stock of his own role in perpetuating the hostility directed toward him, Netanyahu, as is his wont, is taking out his anger and frustration on anyone and everyone else.

Like Rodney Dangerfield, Netanyahu “don’t get no respect” but unlike the late New York comic, he sees no humor in his plight. He is awash in self-victimization, a sense of injustice and a burning rage to get even with those who fail to acknowledge his greatness. As he approaches the climax of his career, Netanyahu seems destined to leave the public arena hurt and resentful, with a grudge that will dog him forever.

It will be a fitting end for a man whose strengths could have placed him in the pantheon of Israeli leaders but whose weaknesses will tarnish his reputation forever. Netanyahu can count himself lucky if his legacy turns out to be analogous to that of statesman and crook Richard Nixon. At the rate he’s going, he’s more likely to go down as a more refined but ultimately no less damaging Israeli version of his good friend and best ally Trump.

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