The Emperor Has No Hair

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's strength lies in his ability to hide his weaknesses from the public.

Dani Bar On
Dani Bar On
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Dani Bar On
Dani Bar On

News flash: Benjamin Netanyahu is bald.

True, this isn’t usually the stuff of headlines, and hairlines certainly aren't the normal topic of the opinion section, but I decided to break with journalistic tradition. Close inspection of our prime minister's scalp in photographs from recent years – call it the “Haaretz inspection” – shows that the man has hardly any hairs left on his head and is now stringent about plastering down and combing-over his few remaining strands.

He is also making sure to get plenty of attention from his hairdresser and to position himself at carefully chosen camera angles.

Just how the prime minister chooses to cloak his baldness is a matter between him and the royal hairstylist. He is free to comb-over to his heart's content, as long as his attention stays fixed on the treasure of his hair, not the treasury of the nation.

But this is not the prime minister's first dance with the cloak and the dagger. Take blogger Tal Schneider's piece for Haaretz, "Netanyahu's crutch: Why has the PM been avoiding photo ops?" In it, she asserts that following a leg injury, Netanyahu's crutches were carefully tucked out of view so – heaven forbid – the public wouldn’t see him using them.

And don't forget that when Netanyahu gives a speech at the start of Cabinet meetings, and there are cameras there, he reads from pages in an enormous font. All of this is to avoid him being photographed wearing reading glasses, which, like so many men of a certain age, he needs.

You can also spot what looks as his attempts to conceal and embellish in the crash political intervention at the "Voice of Israel" radio station, including the attempt to "balance" presenters and keep the politics from veering too far away from his camp. Stack all of these examples up, and it is impossible not to wonder how such a stable and political prime minister is still making such exalted efforts to strengthen his image in the media.

Netanyahu's behavior paints a picture of a man terrified of having his deficiencies exposed in public. This can be seen, of course, as an essentially psychological issue; a prime minister is allowed to have flaws such as these and others, as long as he performs his job correctly. Like they say in England: The proof is in the pudding.

But the problem with Netanyahu is that there is no pudding. There is the continuing stagnation of the political sphere, the refusal to resolve the issue of conscripting the ultra-Orthodox into the army, the unbreakable habit of cutting budgets that are easy to cut and taxing those that are easy to tax. There is also the fear of elections, and that fear is what got him tangled up in the laughable coalition that recently unraveled around him.

All of the above are smoke and mirrors, repeated attempts to camouflage problems at any price by finding some sort of solution, no matter how ridiculous. What matters is not the consequence. What matters is that they not see the crutches, the baldness, the smudged lenses.

Netanyahu has been his before with accusations that he preoccupied with style, not substance. The mudslinging started the last time he was in office, back in 1996. But instead of changing, as he promised, he got shiftier. His sleights of hand grew more deft.

He takes from Fred to give to Sam, he makes conflicting promises, stopping up each hole in his disintegrating coalition with chewing gum, just as long as he keeps chugging along. No man wants his weaknesses to be seen, but for the prime minister the fear of maintaining his public image has become the be-all and end-all.

Of course you need two to tango, and in order for this ruse to be carried out, the public needs to play. Although a recent survey of Netanyahu’s popularity didn't give him the top marks of his career, it is still hard to find a political alternative to replace him.

First and foremost, it seems, the citizens of Israel are yearning for a kind father figure, one who will go easy on them, won't barrage them with reminders of the various back-breaking burdens of their daily lives. They want someone to stroke their heads and remind them that everything is okay, even if that isn't always the case.

Netanyahu has learned from the best. This was also the secret behind the appeal of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and it is the essence of the success of the current image of President Shimon Peres, who transformed from a divisive political figure to everyone's grandfather. These days, he is beloved, an 89-year-old who doles out tips for better living in Yedioth Ahronoth.

Neither man was afraid to make difficult decisions in their political lives. But they rose to the height of their popularity at a time when their chief asset was their image. For Sharon, this came before his first election to the premiership. For Peres, it has been since he stepped into the role of president.

We can only dream of leaders that are willing to admit their mistakes, who truly comprehend that even they are only human, and on occasion they can make their doubts and difficulties known to the public. After all, even Winston Churchill, who is so admired by Netanyahu, won his fame with his "blood, sweat and tears" speech, a talk that had its pomp, for sure, but was also honest and direct.

As for Churchill's political daring, Netanyahu can only dream of having such abilities, no matter how powerful he becomes, or how polished he appears.