Benjamin Netanyanu Loves Power but Is a Pathetic Leader

In the railway-work-on-Shabbat crisis, if it’s true he was trying to flex his muscles against his transportation minister, we’re talking about a new degree of insecurity.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman at the Knesset, March 18, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loves to reference Winston Churchill; he’s even resumed joking about his Churchillian love for cigars. But what would Churchill say about Netanyahu now?

Near Tel Aviv’s main train station stopped an empty train and out of it emerged a very weak prime minister, one hysterical, haunted and easily pressured. Cowards don’t change; only what terrorizes them changes.

This time it was United Torah Judaism MKs Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, not to mention Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who though reasonably popular isn’t exactly a vote magnet. But Katz dared to express aspirations to succeed Netanyahu, and that’s how unstable the prime minister is. What’s incredible is the gap between his inherent weakness and his worship of the concept of power.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has had numerous well-attended meetings with media people; the public wasn’t invited. Lots of people wondered, out of curiosity mixed with anger, what in the world was said there.

The answer: lots words but nothing new; nothing you haven’t heard before. Many of his remarks were devoted to power. This is his worldview: Life is a jungle, the strong survive and the weak are annihilated. People fear the powerful and also want to forge alliances and do business with them. The weak get trampled.

Netanyahu drew three circles on the board representing the three areas in which Israel, under his leadership, has been wildly successful – security, economics and diplomacy. He had actually promised four areas, but the fourth circle – humanity and moral strength – he couldn’t talk about without choking in embarrassment.

But Netanyahu always has been a weak leader. This has been demonstrated innumerable times starting with the 1993 incident in which he tried to preempt the release of a video regarding an extramarital affair. He admitted to the affair, even though there was no evidence such a video existed. And now there’s his appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at a construction site for the Tel Aviv Light Rail, August 2016.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at a construction site for the Tel Aviv Light Rail, August 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod

The crisis over railway work on Shabbat is just another stop. If there’s any validity to the argument that he was trying to flex his muscles against Katz, we’re talking about a new degree of insecurity. According to that logic, he preferred to submit to the ultra-Orthodox with an act that undermines his popularity, perhaps in the spirit of the comedy troupe Hagashash Hahiver: “Be a man, humiliate yourself.”

The man who threatened to attack Iran and challenged Washington crumbled before coalition partners who have no other government to join. To finalize the details of the surrender he sent in another hero, his new bureau chief Yoav Horowitz, like Netanyahu a veteran of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit, perhaps in the spirit of the unit’s motto: “He who dares, wins.”

Netanyahu made a serious political mistake. Even sworn Likud supporters are getting fed up with him. He’s at the peak of his weakness. There’s only one thing more terrifying and that’s the weakness of the two large opposition parties he faces.

On the railway issue, Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid sent their Knesset chiefs out to do battle for them. Suddenly official party statements were being released in the names of Merav Michaeli and Ofer Shelah. From there they organized transportation for soldiers, with Lapid adding that if elderly people were stranded because the trains weren’t running, Yesh Atid would try to help them, too.

Herzog, meanwhile, said “Shabbat is important to me and the entire Jewish people in the deepest national and social sense.” The crisis was described as a decree from heaven, or an internal Likud spat. The most important thing was not to anger a single kippa-wearer or Netanyahu supporter, since we know they get furious when their idol is attacked.

The two opposition parties of course only worried about the transportation needs of the soldiers (about whom there’s a consensus) and the “weak” (who got mainly lip service). It’s as if regular people who just want to get to work at the beginning of the week aren’t entitled to representation.

In any case, this is the bitter truth: To the right of little left-wing Meretz – which does its best to act like a normal opposition party – secular, liberal and democratic Israelis have no one to speak for them.