Richard Nixon was a transformative president. He opened the gate to China, forged detente with the Soviet Union, took America out of Vietnam, abolished the military draft, completed the desegregation of schools, carried out reforms in welfare and environmental protection and saved Israel in the Yom Kippur War. But his presidency ended as a train wreck, with Nixon cast as a paranoid perpetrator, walking around the White House in his pajamas while talking to the portraits on the wall. His ignominious exit tarred his achievements for eternity.
Benjamin Netanyahu is now in danger of following in Nixon’s foul footpath. Even if one opposes his policies, there is no denying that Netanyahu has left a giant mark on Israel’s history, and, in his eyes, only for the better. During his twelve years as prime minister and two more in the Finance Ministry, Netanyahu stifled the Oslo Accords and strangled the two-state solution, privatized the Israeli economy but kept it stable, enhanced the role of settlers and undermined the rule of law, rebuffed Barack Obama and welcomed Donald Trump and a looming confrontation with Iran. In the process, Netanyahu has created a political coalition that currently looks invincible, just like the Republican Party did after Nixon adopted the “Southern Strategy” and wrested the white South away from the Democrats. Until the Watergate Affair exploded.
And while the 1972 break-in to the Democratic National Committee in Washington and White House efforts to block its probe form an immediate association with the 2016 Russian hacking of Democratic computers and Trump’s ongoing effort to sabotage its investigation, Nixon also claimed, like Netanyahu, that nothing will come out of Watergate because he did nothing wrong. He too was convinced that political rivals, prejudiced investigators and liberal journalists were making mountains out of a molehill in order to eject him from office. He too enjoyed the support of blind followers and village idiots who believed in his conspiracy theories until the bitter end. He too bunkered down in his office despite the incriminating writing that was already on its walls, thus forfeiting the opportunity to quit his post with dignity.
And while comparisons to Trump are widespread and justified, Nixon’s personality provides a better guide to Netanyahu’s behavior, and not from today. Twenty years ago, if I may cite myself, I wrote that Nixon, like Netanyahu, was the son of a rigid father who felt deprived, grew up in the shadow of promising elder brothers who died, lived a Spartan lifestyle and excelled at his studies, felt like an outsider in hostile surroundings, achieved political success at an early age and built himself as a crusader against traitorous leftists, in his case Communists. Nixon too was blessed with enormous ambition, a keen mind and sharp political instincts that took him to the very top, despite the humiliating setbacks he suffered along the way.
Their shared tragedy was that success, spectacular as it was, did nothing to mitigate the paranoia and self-victimization they grew up with or to curtail their lust for revenge or to diminish their tendency to see a plot in every corner or to enhance their ability to account for their own failings. As a result of all these, they lost their capacity to discern looming personal and political calamities and to avert them in time.
Even if he remains prime minister, Netanyahu is now gingerly marching in what the late Ariel Sharon liked to describe as the corales, the steer’s last trail before the slaughter from which there is no escape. He is on his way to a Nixonian end. Every time he attacks his investigators, diminishes the severity of his known misdeeds and refuses to accept any responsibility for his actions, Netanyahu’s image in Israeli public opinion, including many on the right, is entrenched as a compulsive crook who is clinging to his prime ministerial bedposts. If he continues on his present path, this is how Netanyahu will go down in history as well, with his achievements consigned to oblivion.
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