Final Countdown 2019

A Referendum on the Dark, Distraught and Dangerous Side of Netanyahu's Otherwise Fine Mind

In their quest to destroy liberal Israel, the messianic right is piggybacking on Netanyahu’s frustrations and resentments

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a crowd at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, April 8, 2019.
Emil Salman

Benjamin Netanyahu is a prime minister with vast experience and enormous talent. During his ten straight years in power, Netanyahu weathered Barack Obama and rejoiced in Donald Trump. He charted new territories in Israel’s foreign relations, oversaw a stable and thriving economy and, most crucially, kept Israel’s enemies at bay and terror away from most, though not all, Israelis.

But these elections are not about Netanyahu’s strengths. If they were, Netanyahu should have been a shoo-in.  These elections are about Netanyahu’s weaknesses, and about the dark places they have led him. If he is re-elected tomorrow, there is a clear and present danger that Netanyahu will drag Israel along with him, into the netherworld where he now lives, changing it possibly forever.

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Power corrupts, and 13 years in power corrupt profoundly. Netanyahu’s insatiable need to be pampered by billionaires led to his first indictment. His irrational obsession with the media sparked two more. His narcissism blinded his eyes to his own behavior. His paranoia led him to believe in conspiracies. His sense of resentment, instilled since childhood, led him to lash out at his perceived enemies, wherever they may be, and they are everywhere: In media, academia, law enforcement, state prosecution, civil service, the army and security establishment – not to mention the New Israel Fund and the omnipresent George Soros.

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And his increasing sense of his own indispensability, another by-product of his 13 years at the helm, led him to equate his own fate with that of his country, thus providing the pretext for his war on its democratic underpinnings.

In his descent, Netanyahu is being pushed and encouraged by those who share his goals, but for very different reasons: The messianic, fundamentalist, anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-establishment and anti-peace far right. The parties to Likud’s right, along with the sizeable far-right component within the party, have piggybacked their strategic campaign to render Israel more Jewish and less democratic onto Netanyahu’s personal war for survival. In the process they have co-opted Netanyahu as one of their own and, with the benefit of Trump’s blasé, laissez-faire, see-no-evil approach, vice versa.

Netanyahu was, is and forever will be an ultra-nationalist. His 1984 book, "A Place Under the Sun," with its absolute rejection of Palestinian nationhood and fatalistic view of eternal war against radical Islam, is still a better guidebook to today’s Netanyahu than anything said or written since. His recent pledge to annex parts of the West Bank is more authentic Netanyahu than any of his past diplomatic milestones, in which he seemed to be transcending his homegrown beliefs, from Hebron through Wye to Bar-Ilan.  Netanyahu retreated from them all, often with days.

For the first nine of his thirteen years in power, Netanyahu seemed to be balancing between his rigid right-wing views and the need to maintain Israel’s international standing as well as its internal cohesion. Beginning in 2015, following his head-on clash with Obama and come-from-behind victory in the elections, Netanyahu altered course. He preferred a far-right government to a more moderate coalition with the Zionist Union. He distanced himself from American Jews and Democrat, who, in his view, had betrayed him in his fight against the Iran nuclear deal. He increasingly aligned and identified with Evangelicals as well as with Sheldon Adelson and the entire Jewish right.

But just as he was celebrating his greatest triumph following Trump’s election, his indiscretions – labeled by the attorney general as bribery and breach of trust – began to dog him. His enemies were trying to bring him down. As he faced the very real possibility of indictment, trial, imprisonment – and, worst of all, removal from office – Netanyahu’s phobias and complexes reached critical mass. His quest for survival fused with his nationalist and xenophobic inclinations. If he wins, they will rule.

Gantz and his fellow travelers are certainly no match for Netanyahu’s experience, savvy or cunning. If they win – contrary to current projections – the initial part of their tenure could be a total mess, to say the least. Nonetheless, they might restore a semblance of normalcy and steer Israel away, at the very last minute, from the potentially lethal mix of far-right extremism and the dark recesses of Netanyahu’s otherwise fine mind.