A Sad 70th Birthday for Netanyahu

Supporters hold a birthday cake for Benjamin Netanyahu outside the residence of the Attorney General, Jerusalem, October 29, 2019
Moti Milrod

Even at the height of the tongue-lashings of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the justified ones and the exaggerated ones, sometimes heart-rending moments pop up.

Such a moment occurred on his 70th birthday, celebrated last week in a private home in Tel Aviv, without politicians and with the best of his declared friends. Wealthy socialite Nicol Raidman, entertainer Moti Giladi, Yossi Cohen and the other lawyers; Likud vet Moshe Edery, political adviser Reuven Adler, singers Dudu Fisher and Yehoram Gaon. Supposedly a glittering, well-attended event. But in fact, nothing attests more to Netanyahu’s disengagement from the worlds to which he could have belonged.

Only two of the dozens of guests were intellectuals, writers Benny Ziffer and Eyal Megged. The next day the guest of honor sent a prime ministerial recorded message to another birthday boy, the singer Kobi Peretz. “I want to wish you everything good in the world,” Netanyahu said to Peretz, another friend from his youth, whose artistic work he delves into frequently and with whom he has heart-to-heart talks long into the night.

This is now the prime minister’s intellectual and social world. It’s hard to believe that deep in his heart he doesn’t feel frustration, confusion, loneliness, and perhaps even sadness and shame over the place he finds himself in. Even the greatest of his enemies, and they are many, don’t believe that this is his intellectual level, that this is the landscape he was brought up in, the essence of his cultural world.

Even less well-educated prime ministers surrounded themselves with intellectuals, authors, poets and philosophers, perhaps to enrich their intellectual world and satisfy their intellectual curiosity, perhaps to embellish their image. They had a need to meet with thinkers, to listen to what they had to say, or merely to be in their company – from David Ben-Gurion and Natan Alterman to Shimon Peres and Amos Oz.

Netanyahu put an end to that, and he’s not the most ignorant of politicians, far from it. On his birthday, leaning over his table were shouting, fawning, grotesque figures, Miri Regev here, anti-refugee activist May Golan there – each one more ridiculous, ignorant and common than the next – marking the boundaries of the miserable world of the prime minister of the People of the Book. Doesn’t it embarrass him? Doesn’t he feel the magnitude of the humiliation? Netanyahu in the land of Lilliputians?

He wasn’t always like that. Some remember his encounters with other cultural and artistic worlds. In the name of his boundlessly ambitious career he apparently decided to put an end to them. One can’t declare war on the old elites, hail the new elites and keep company with David Grossman. One can’t court the masses and hold a dialogue with Prof. Shlomo Avineri.

Even if it’s his choice, a cynical, propagandistic one, it’s impossible not to feel pity for the isolation of the hunted man at the top. Is this really the 70th birthday he wished for himself? Did he dream of such friendships in his youth? Netanyahu and Raidman? Bibi and Kobi? Is politics so cruel and demanding that it requires such complete enslavement to such alien worlds?

The heart refuses to believe it. Without knowing him, one could guess that he prefers other friends, other company, a different way of celebrating his birthday. That what they write about him in Haaretz and the New York Times is more important to him than what Israel Hayom and Yedioth Ahronoth have to say about him. That Peretz’s “thank you, sweetie” speaks to him less than Grossman’s “Life Plays a Lot With Me.” After all, other than their populism and ultra-nationalism, there’s no similarity between Donald Trump, the ignoramus from the White House, and Netanyahu, the intellectual from Balfour Street.

Now, of all times, when he is at the end of his career, when the question of his legacy might increasingly trouble him, one may ask: Between the criminal cases and May Golan declaiming, “We hope you’ll continue to lead us, that this birthday will be a blessing” – is this what you wanted? Is this what you dreamed of? Is this your world? Is this what you are? This, apparently, is what will remain.