George Orwell called politics “a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” Rarely has this been truer than in Israel at this strange time.
In the approach to a do-over election, it seems indisputable that the various opposition leaders all surpass Benjamin Netanyahu on the personal ethics front (policy is another story, and a long debate); but they fall sadly short on the Orwellometer described above.
Also assisting the prime minister is his advantage along two other dimensions that may be even more critical now than in Orwell’s innocent day: personal hubris and limitless fixation.
Modern communications has so weakened the intermediation of the press that is the loudest, not necessarily the worthiest, who get heard.
Getting heard is more than half the battle, and you need a lot of energy to make this kind of noise. It helps if you get up believing you have no equal on the planet and that the universe itself aches for your victory at the polls.
The French King Louis XIV is quoted as having said “the state is me” (“l’etat, c’est moi”) — but such direct claims have been surprisingly uncommon. Even the fascists tended to hold a little back; theirs was a genteeler time, in its way.
I remember hearing Donald Trump repeat “I alone can fix it” at the Republican National Convention in 2016. I almost literally rubbed my ears as I realized first that there was something very wrong with the man — and then that there may be something very right with his whole bizarre campaign.
The opposition figures in Israel seem far too sane, intelligent and historically literate to think they are indispensible, and disinclined to pretend.
They also come up short in the fixation rankings. There are limits to what they’ll do and say. They seem to care about dignity, theirs and the listener’s both. You can imagine them resigning if suspected of high crimes.
Against them, again, stands a man with no such constraints. He will lie convincingly without compunction (such as when he brushed off a televised pre-election question about seeking immunity for himself, then immediately proceeded to do just that). He will incite racism (such as the constant dog-whistles against Israeli Arabs). He will undermine institutions of the state (such as his frequent claims of a witch hunt by the police, prosecution and courts against him and his family).
You get the feeling that Netanyahu would bite off the head of a live rat on terrestrial, cable and satellite TV if that’s what it took to get the job done. You do not get that feeling with the Blue and White opposition quartet of Benny Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi, Moshe Yaalon or even the significantly higher-wattage Yair Lapid.
Of all the major figures opposing Netanyahu there is only one that might match him on hubris and fixation. The stars are not aligned for him at present, but it will be interesting to see what coming months may bring.
I remember sitting down for an interview with this man years ago and noticing after a time that something was strange. It took a while before I realized that Ehud Barak was speaking about himself in the third person. The Napoleon within him grew with each audacious word.
He was also pretty much right about everything he said. It was the early days of the Second Intifada in 2001. The country was on fire, Barak had just lost to Ariel Sharon, and here he was bemoaning the pointlessness of it all (free of any regret, like a prescient columnist who bears no responsibility himself).
He predicted the chaos will last three or four years. He said Israel will lose hundreds and the Palestinians will lose thousands and then both sides would return to the same place. He described that place as a choice between an initially non-democratic bi-national state or a version of the partition he proposed at Taba in the last days of his rule.
That is precisely what happened, and this is precisely where we are.
Barak, who ended Netanyahu’s first term with a brilliant campaign in 1999, also pulled out of Lebanon, fixing one of the right wing’s more damaging inanities.
But the left tends to be more cerebral and secular — which also translates into self-flagellation, overthinking and chaos. Unlike the Likud base, which seems willing to walk off any moral cliff with Netanyahu, they turned on Barak with a furor when his house of cards collapsed.
Many cannot forgive Barak for declaring after the failed Camp David summit in 2000 that there is “no partner.” That gave the right an effective weapon to deploy and it was probably unwise. But looking back, regarding Yasser Arafat at least, it might not have been unfair.
And Barak certainly made a host of political mistakes. He is disliked for having alienated most of his allies with hubris and insensitivity (as Netanyahu has done, in some cases to the point of lawsuits and state’s witness agreements against him).
As defense minister in 2008 he betrayed Ehud Olmert, hounding him into resigning because of a police investigation just as the wobbly then-premier was reoffering Barak’s own peace plan to the Palestinians. For a guy who supposedly can assemble clocks, that might not have been too bright.
Netanyahu won the election a few months later. Barak joined his government as Labor Party chief but the right had a majority and as junior partner he was weak. Real peace efforts never resumed and Israel and the Palestinians were set on their current destructive path.
Out of politics now since 2013, Barak, thinner and more bearded, is scouting around for a way back in. I was at a recent closed event with him and emerged with little doubt that he would seek Palestinian partners anew, if given half a chance. Unlike the incumbent, he understands very well that the status quo is a crime. I can also report his hubris and fixation are unbowed.
Anyone following Barak’s Twitter feed knows that today he has no equal in ripping the mask off the prime minister’s machinations.
“Millions of Israelis are sick of the fact that there is no one running against (Netanyahu) who is willing to enter the ring and fight … as aggressively and cruelly as is needed to win,” he says in one video. “To heal the wounds of destruction and evil that he has sown.”
Most figures in the opposition are reluctant to speak with such clarity for fear of offending the soft-right voters they hope to woo to their side. The timidity did not work too well in the April 9 election, and would probably fail again on Sept. 17.
It is said Barak may want to lead a super-party that includes his old Labor grouping, now on life support, or perhaps run alone. I imagine he’d jump at joining Blue and White if its quartet were willing to bring in a fifth.
I have trouble seeing the ranks parting for a puffed-up Spartan polling single digits now. But they would be wise to wake up fast, and learn from him nonetheless.