In his first term as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a young, charismatic, ideological, arrogant, confrontational and somewhat revolutionary leader. In his second and third terms as prime minister, Netanyahu was older, gray, pragmatic, compromising, cautious and counter-revolutionary.
While Netanyahu the First was eager to turn the world over and change Israel entirely, Netanyahu the Second tried to hide from the world and stabilize Israel. He didn’t make a breakthrough to peace and didn’t initiate war. He didn’t deal with Palestine and didn’t stop Iran. All he managed to do in the last five years was promise stability (security-wise), stability (economic) and stability (political).
The summer of 2014 shattered Netanyahu’s stability. When Hamas challenges Israel from the south, Al-Qaida is the neighbor to the north and rockets fall on Tel Aviv, it’s no longer possible to believe that Israel is a solid rock of stability as far as security is concerned. When economic growth becomes a slowdown which could turn into a recession, it’s no longer possible to say that Israel is a blooming oasis of economic stability. When the prime minister is isolated in his party, his cabinet and even his kitchen cabinet, it’s no longer possible to argue that Israel is politically stable.
The three plinths Netanyahu the Second’s rule leans on are almost completely eroded. Netanyahu is still seen as a presidential figure without competitors. But he has no real leadership statement with which he can come to the Israelis and inspire them.
The irony is subtle. Three times in his life Netanyahu did the right thing: In 1998 he signed an interim agreement with Yasser Arafat, in 2003 he saved Israel’s economy and in 2014 he prevented the disaster of an all-out war in the Gaza Strip. But Netanyahu was not rewarded for any of the right things he did – he was punished. When he lost the right wing in the 1990s, the center and left wing stabbed him in the back. When he lost the Likud working class in the 2000s, the upper classes (whom he had enriched) preferred Kadima to him. When his restrained approach in Operation Protective Edge made him lose points with the radicals, the moderates give him no credit.
Perhaps this is why Netanyahu aged so much between his first and second terms. He learned from personal experience that when you do, you fall. So in the last five years he did his best not to do. But at the end of this difficult summer, even the non-doing has exhausted itself. The stability’s collapse has led to the collapse of Netanyahu the Second.
In the coming autumn-winter the prime minister will face an identity dilemma. Since what has been will no longer be, more of the same will no longer do. If Netanyahu doesn’t redefine himself, the new, aggressive right will devour him. Only the sudden appearance of Netanyahu the Third can create a turning point. But does he have enough moral strength to reinvent himself? After the harebrained decision about the settlements, it’s extremely doubtful.
Benjamin Netanyahu is no gentleman. There is no friendship in him, no loyalty, no generosity and no gratitude. He doesn’t see other people and doesn’t consider them – unless they serve him or threaten him. But to his credit, he’s not cynical like the new politicians and not savage like the new nationalists. He has a grain of statesmanship and a grain of responsibility, as well as proven talent.
If Netanyahu learns how to channel his virtues and finally go with them to the center, he may be able to save himself. But if he sticks to his weaknesses, his time is up. It won’t be his Jabotinskyite sword that he falls on, but the fact that he didn’t know how to begin anew.