I’ve never liked Benjamin Netanyahu. I never thought he was the right person to lead Israel. It is therefore no surprise that I have never voted for him and have been critical of him for nearly 30 years.
But even with my opposition to his hawkish policies, my disdain of his brand of toxic politics and my aversion to his hedonistic personal conduct, I have always maintained a degree of begrudging respect for the man.
There is no denying his keen intellect, his political acumen, his managerial skills and his unparalleled drive and tenacity. His insistence on clinging to power even after establishing himself as Israel’s longest-tenured leader could be interpreted as an almost messianic belief that he is indispensable to the country. But it could also be seen as a deep devotion to a nation he loves so dearly.
Even after decades of watching the scheming, lying and backstabbing, I still tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, believing that deep in his heart of hearts, he truly thought he was doing the best thing for Israel.
The “old Bibi” would never have allowed the country to spiral into the unprecedented crisis it now faces. Wednesday’s shameless spectacle of a national address, in which Netanyahu compared the Jewish terrorists who ransacked the Palestinian village of Huwara to patriotic Jewish demonstrators in Tel Aviv fighting for Israeli democracy, was when he hit rock bottom.
Amid his web of lies and distortion, Netanyahu preached about the danger of the “red lines” his opponents had crossed. But in less than two months since returning to office, it is Netanyahu himself who has trampled over boundaries that he never would have breached before.
He has never been a saint. No one can forget his incitement leading up to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. He’s long been tied to corruption, has long been susceptible to the influence of his less stable family members and long ago sold out to the extortion of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that threaten Israel’s long-term wellbeing. But when it came to matters of national security, he could be counted on to act rationally and responsibly. Even his harshest critics could appreciate his aversion to military adventures and revolutionary measures.
Today’s Netanyahu, however, seems ready to flush away all his previous achievements – not to mention take Israel to the brink of its most harrowing domestic crisis ever – all to save his own skin.
The ‘old Bibi” wouldn’t even shake the hand of a hooligan like Itamar Ben-Gvir, let alone give such a pyromaniac control of a national Israeli police force that Ben-Gvir seems intent on turning into a private militia. The ‘old Bibi’, who considered himself an economic genius, would never have allowed a racist ultranationalist like Betzalel Smotrich to threaten the financial miracle that is the Israeli economy and especially its vaunted high-tech sector. Most of all, the ‘old Bibi’ would never have permitted an ideological zealot like Yariv Levin to lay waste to Israel’s democratic foundations and bring its society to the cusp of civil war.
If that sounds like a doomsday prophecy, it can no longer be dismissed as implausible.
Liberal Israelis were alarmed when Netanyahu first rose to power in 1996, after unseating Shimon Peres with promises of unraveling the Oslo Accords. But that Netanyahu kept negotiating with the Palestinians and had moderate figures like David Levy, Yitzhak Mordechai and Dan Meridor in his cabinet.
There were similar fears when Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, again on false promises of projecting strength and security. But even during the next decade of norm-busting and internal division, he trod carefully with Hamas and partnered with the likes of Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid. Despite his tough rhetoric, there was aways the sense that Netanyahu knew when to pull back.
That Netanyahu bears little resemblance to today’s version. Like many would-be tyrants, Netanyahu has now surrounded himself with fanatics, sycophants and charlatans who sever his connection with reality. No one should expect him to listen to his vociferous critics. But what about the people who until recently were among his greatest admirers and most trusted advisors?
His former hand-picked cabinet secretary and attorney general says his government is pushing a ‘regime coup.’ His former economic advisor and the Bank of Israel governor he appointed are among those predicting economic ruin. Even Trump crony David Friedman has turned on him. His closest friends and army buddies have made personal, almost desperate, pleas to reverse course.
The question is whether, after so many years of developing this strange combination of paranoia and omnipotence, there is anything left of the ‘old Bibi?’ For the sake of Israel, we can only hope.
Because even though it is Netanyahu who has enabled this storm to gather, he is still the only one who can bring Israel back to more stable ground.
His hardline partners are charging forward with reckless abandon. The protesters on the street are only growing more brazen by the day and appear unlikely to back down. The president’s efforts at compromise seem sincere but his calls for dialogue have been largely ignored and he projects little authority over either side.
Only Netanyahu has the power and gravitas to stop this out-of-control train. Netanyahu needs to order a freeze to the legislation drive, give everyone a chance to calm down and only then consider rebooting judicial reform from scratch.
It’s a long shot, given today’s climate and the political risk involved. But that’s what the ‘old Bibi’ would do.