Benjamin Netanyahu is the most successful politician in Israeli history. He is the longest-serving prime minister and the only one to serve for ten years straight. He is, or at least was, the undisputed overlord of his Likud party and the most powerful prime minister since David Ben-Gurion.
Up until a few days ago, he justly deserved Time Magazine’s 2012 anointment as “King Bibi.”
With the possible exception of the late Foreign Minister Abba Eban, Netanyahu is the most gifted speaker and orator Israel has ever seen. And unlike Eban, who was a Demosthenes in English but a foreign-sounding klutz in Hebrew, Netanyahu is a spellbinder in both. He is as effective in rabble-rousing the restless masses in Israel as he is in riveting the haughty envoys at the United Nations General Assembly.
Netanyahu is the most educated and knowledgeable prime minister that Israel has ever had. He is a voracious reader of past and current political tracts, a best-selling author of books espousing Israel’s right-wing views and neoliberal policies, a politician who can hold his own against the best minds of Harvard or Oxford. Among his Likud colleagues, Netanyahu is a Gulliver surrounded by loopy Lilliputians.
By virtue of his 30-year long political career, Netanyahu has amassed vast experience in both international affairs and domestic politics. He is the artful dodger of Israel’s foreign policy, successfully keeping the world at bay as he pursues policies it abhors. He is also the wiliest of manipulators of Israel’s convoluted internal politics and the most ruthless of demagogues in swaying Israeli public opinion.
Looking out for number one
Netanyahu could have left an indelibly positive mark on the country he leads. He could have reformed Israel’s incoherent democracy, buttressed its besieged rule of law, overhauled the bloated civil service or streamlined the infuriating bureaucracy. He could have fostered mutual understanding, nurtured tolerance and preached for full equality. And yes, if he had been so inclined, he could have made peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu, however, won’t go down in history as an outstanding reformer, revolutionary, visionary or peacemaker, but as a prime minister who never stopped looking out for number one. He will be remembered for his harsh indictment on corruption charges, for clinging to power ignominiously rather than departing with honor, for inciting his many followers against Israel’s legal guardians, for being willing to debilitate if not obliterate Israeli democracy and to openly flirt with authoritarianism, if not quasi-fascism, to escape the long arm of the law.
After 13 years in power, Netanyahu is trying to gut the democratic system that made his career possible. On Tuesday night, he will be convening a mass demonstration in Tel Aviv, a move lifted directly from the playbook for populist, if not totalitarian, movements. He is enlisting the mob and the masses in what can only be described as an insurgence against the rule of law. He seems bound for failure, but if he succeeds, it will only be after he has driven the final nail into the coffin of Israeli democracy and rule of law.
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The roots of Netanyahu’s disavowal of the political and constitutional system that made him what he is are long-held and deep-seated. He imbibed his distrust of the media, his disdain for liberal elites and his paranoid fears of leftist plots from his frustrated Revisionist father. He acquired his penchant for generous handouts from friendly billionaires in his first few years of public service at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and at the United Nations.
He played fast and loose with the law, blurred the lines between public and private and deigned himself above accepted ethical considerations during his first term in office, more than two decades ago. And he went from bad to worse in the wake of his amazing 2009 comeback from political exile and his triumphant return to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
Vindicated by Trump’s election
Somewhere along the line, noticeably during his last years in office, Netanyahu has lost his bearings. His internal compass cracked. He went over the edge, moved from light into darkness and plunged headfirst from sanity into dementia.
Netanyahu’s failed 2015 effort to prevent U.S. President Barack Obama from concluding a nuclear deal with Iran radicalized him, turning his aversion to U.S. liberals, including American Jews, into unbridled resentment and hostility. He greeted the election of Donald Trump as complete vindication, inspiring him to emulate the U.S. president’s toxic, divisive and hate-filled rhetoric, along with Trump’s disdain for checks and balances, abhorrence of the legal establishment and willingness to buck tradition and flout the constitution in order to achieve his aims, which were gradually whittled down to simply remaining in power.
Driven and goaded by his tempestuous spouse and hotheaded son, Netanyahu grew increasingly petulant, resentful and isolated, on the one hand, but concurrently convinced of his singular and possibly messianic role, on the other. He and the state he leads became one: Any challenge to his authority, including duly diligent criminal investigations and prosecutions, was rendered in his eyes as sedition, mutiny and even treason.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s announcement last week of the three indictments against Netanyahu was a watershed event. It marked a line in the sand, the final failure of Netanyahu’s efforts to inflame public opinion in order to constrain the attorney general that he personally appointed. Rather than face the music, Netanyahu is trying to change it to his liking.
There is nothing in Israel’s history that suggests that a prime minister can at the same time be a criminal defendant charged with “high crimes and misdemeanors,” including bribery. Quite the contrary. Netanyahu should have realized long ago – and if not, then in the wake of Mendelblit’s indictments and surprisingly harsh public condemnation – that the jig is up. Game over.
His Likud colleagues know the truth. They realize that his condition is terminal. But they are petrified nonetheless by the thought of his vindictive retribution. Besides a coterie of dim toadies who actually believe the prime minister’s paranoid delusions, they, like Netanyahu, are simply placing their careers above the well-being of the state they swore to serve.
Thus, aided and abetted by his spineless partners, Netanyahu is entrenching himself, going to the mattresses, gearing for a long siege, pledging to fight until his last breath or until Israeli democracy collapses onto itself and capitulates to his every whim. Instead of a dignified exit or at least a time-out in which he could try to prove his self-proclaimed innocence, Netanyahu will have to be dragged kicking and screaming from his sanctuary in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.
His last stand is turning into a messy, potentially destructive and eminently ignoble affair. His only chance to survive the battle against the due process of law is by degrading, destabilizing and ultimately demolishing the very foundations of Israeli democracy, and fomenting civil unrest if not outright rebellion in the process.
It is a calamitous climax to an astonishing career; a sad ending to what might have been an illustrious tenure. It is a national tragedy for Israel no less than a personal disaster for Netanyahu himself, a leader whose devotion to his country was gradually replaced by an adulation of self.
He could have departed the stage as a hero to his fans and as a servant of Israeli democracy and the rule of law to all the rest. Netanyahu, however, will be ejected from the scene as a pathetic villain instead. His story is a classic tragedy in that Netanyahu, consumed by hubris, brought his woes upon himself.
His political epitaph will be formulated and encapsulated in three short and simple words: "What a waste."