Netanyahu's Flight to Washington and the Politics of Humiliation

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during his visit to Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during his visit to Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky/AP
Iris Leal
Iris Leal

It’s difficult to decide what was more shocking, the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning to fly to Washington for a ceremony to which he could have sent his foreign minister, as the United Arab Emirates is doing, while Israel is in a state of emergency and headed for another full lockdown, or that he had planned to fly there on a private plane, with his wife and their two sons, rather than with the rest of the Israeli delegation.

The official reason for the scandalous decision to fly separately – which was reversed Friday – was the need to comply with social distancing rules to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but the Boeing 777 the delegation is using has a first-class, a business and an economy section, with 300 seats. Netanyahu, who just two days earlier spent hours in a closed room with his fellow Likud lawmakers discussing his legal issues (this time, it was a call to appoint an independent commission of inquiry to examine the law enforcement system), can sit separately and at a safe distance.

Sara Netanyahu’s well-known anxiety about viruses and bacteria – about which humiliated former employees in the family’s Jerusalem home have testified in court – can make it hard to maintain a normal routine. When the victims of this are rich and powerful, they can cope by bending reality. But under the current emergency situation – for which the prime minister is responsible – someone should have been brave enough to tell her that her capriciousness ends here, and to then weather a few hours of horrific screaming.

The question, then, remains: How did the Netanyahus think it was legitimate to fly to Washington in a private plane, leaving behind a country that is worried, hurting, depressed and grieving, on the verge of a long lockdown? Since the deliberation on his tax reimbursements, which Netanyahu forced the Knesset Finance Committee to hold, as businesses were noisily crashing around him, hardly a day has gone by without the prime minister examining how many scandalously callous decisions he can pile on to the branch on which he and his voters are sitting before it breaks.

The boiling frog anecdote is apt here. So is the metaphor of a vaccine, the body’s reaction to which is to build up antibodies to the virus or bacteria. Both describe what Netanyahu is doing.

But as opposed to the conventional wisdom, which is to see “Bibism” as a cult whose brainwashed members will accept anything, I think that the moment of rebellion will come. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman often uses the expression “politics of humiliation” to describe Trump’s and Netanyahu’s cynical use of the ongoing sense of grievance of their supporters. Friedman argues that this sense of humiliation felt by Trump voters accounted for most of his strength in the 2016 election.

Netanyahu crony Nathan Eshel spoke of the sense of humiliation felt by the prime minister’s voters, in a recording that was leaked ahead of the March election: “Hate is what unites our camp,” Eshel said in it. But the politics of humiliation can work for a certain period and then suddenly turn on its masters, and both sides can play at this game. Anyone who believes that all Likud supporters are sworn champions of “Bibism” is in error.

There are many Likud voters who see Netanyahu’s powerlessness; who see that the Wizard of Oz is just a man with subpar managerial skills and a short attention span, most of which is focused on his criminal trial. They know that they will pay a heavy price for this and they know that when they feel it, when they can no longer make their mortgage payments, or their children can no longer pay their college tuition, when people around them are getting sick and are dying from the coronavirus, that the source of the humiliation will change. It could happen in the United States in November, and it could happen here.

The cancellation of the private flight proved that Netanyahu realized that the optics of the Netanyahu family, including the slacker son, on a private plane while Israeli Jews are dipping their Rosh Hashanah apples into melancholy, is something that even his supporters will not tolerate.

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