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Netanyahu, the end

On the overdue demise of a leader who turned power for his people into his only real ideal and who confused their well-being with his own
Illustration by Avi Katz.
Illustration by Avi Katz.

Two years ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the central commemorative event at Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial. In a passionate speech, he celebrated the transformation of the Jewish people from helpless victim to thriving nation. Those who threaten us with destruction, he vowed, are themselves risking destruction.

Sitting in the audience of survivors and children of survivors, I felt grateful, for all my ambivalence about Netanyahu, that the Jewish people had a leader so committed to keeping us safe.

But then Netanyahu said this: “The simple truth is that, in our world the survival of the weak is precarious. In the face of murderous states and movements, their chances of survival aren’t high. The strong survive.”

In one sense, Netanyahu was stating an obvious truth: The first imperative of the Holocaust, that excess of powerlessness, is that Jews must always have the means to protect themselves. And yet Netanyahu’s statement betrayed an almost Nietzschean contempt for the weak – all the more extraordinary at Yad Vashem, on Holocaust Day. No sane Jew longs for the “moral purity” of powerlessness. But for two thousand years the “weak” Jews of exile not only survived but thrived, defying all predictions of our disappearance. A leader of Israel must temper gratitude for our reclaimed power with gratitude for the spiritual strength of our powerless ancestors.

I think back to that night at Yad Vashem as we watch Netanyahu clinging desperately to power, risking the stability of our democratic system. Rather than concede political mortality, as any normal politician in his place would do, he threatens to entangle us in a third round of elections, in demoralization and paralysis. A leader who turned power for his people into his only real ideal now turns against the interests of his people, confusing their well-being with his own.

And yet I confess that, even as I passionately anticipate Netanyahu’s imminent departure from office, a part of me hesitates. Who but Netanyahu can pacify the mad American king and the Russian despot? Who else can protect us from Iran and Syria and other neighbors waiting to do to the Jews what they do to their own people?

There is no small irony in that anxiety. After all, the Blue and White party, which now threatens to replace him, is headed by no less than three former commanders in chief of the IDF. It is a measure of Netanyahu’s place in our imagination that not even the cumulative counterweight of our most distinguished generals can entirely assuage our well-founded fears.

Netanyahu’s remarkable staying power – this summer he became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, outpacing David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin and Yitzchak Rabin – comes from one source: his ability to project power, to embody the Jewish will to survive. As the Middle East convulses, Netanyahu has kept Israel prosperous and safe. He presided over Israel’s emergence from a relative backwater to a global economic power, from a diplomatically isolated nation to one actively courted by world leaders and heads of developing countries. In the midst of an election campaign which he micro-managed, he commanded a multi-front silent war against Iran and its proxies, hitting Iranian bases in Iraq and Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Providence seemed to prepare Netanyahu for his role as protector of Israel. His father, Ben-Zion, was a historian of the Spanish Inquisition, of the medieval origins of racial antisemitism. And his older brother, Yoni, was the fallen hero of Israel’s most heroic moment, when, in 1976, commandos flew thousands of kilometers to rescue hostages at Entebbe Airport. Understanding threat and responding to threat: those were the legacies of the Netanyahu home.

But now Netanyahu has exhausted his capacity to protect us. He stumbled on the fatal temptation of rulers who come to see themselves as indispensable. All was permitted because his personal interests and the interests of the state converged. He became careless, allegedly accepting and even demanding gifts from wealthy friends, tradeoffs with media moguls.

The same tenacity with which Netanyahu has protected Israel is now absorbed in his war for political survival. It is no longer possible to separate what Netanyahu does to keep us safe with what he does to keep himself out of prison.

A week before the elections, rockets fired from Gaza forced him off the stage of a campaign rally in Ashdod. It was an embarrassing moment: His political opponents mocked him for his failure to curtail the ongoing rocket attacks. Netanyahu felt his credibility at risk. And so according to media reports he convened the security experts and told them to prepare for war against the Hamas regime in Gaza. The army balked: Were these rockets any more a threat to Israel than the thousands of rockets that have been fired at us in recent years, none of which provoked Netanyahu to declare war? The mad plan – which could have been dubbed, Operation Protective Shield for the Prime Minister’s Honor – was shelved.

The old Netanyahu would have never been tempted to risk Israeli lives for political calculations. That too was a source of his power. After all, he was part of what Israelis call the extended family of bereavement. Even Israelis who detested the prime minister knew he would not create new bereaved families unless Israel’s interests were truly at risk.

And now that credibility is gone. An Israeli leader who lacks the moral authority to take this country to war can no longer keep us safe.

Netanyahu has no real friends or confidants; members of his inner circle have turned state’s evidence against him. Avigdor Liberman, once his most trusted aide, is determined to bring him down. Netanyahu so distrusts the fawning members of his Likud parliamentary faction that he compelled them to sign a personal loyalty oath to him during the elections. Even President Trump, who appeared together with Netanyahu in Likud campaign billboards, has betrayed him: After the election, Trump pointedly noted that he hadn’t phoned the prime minister, that his relationship with Israel isn’t confined to any one leader. Trump likes a winner, and Netanyahu, he senses, has become a loser.

The master of politics understood all the dynamics of power except for this: the need to ensure your colleagues’ trust, to maintain the credibility of your word. For a while, far longer than many thought possible, it worked. But now all his manipulations, his false promises and outright lies, have risen up against him. Responding to Netanyahu’s faux appeal for national unity after the election, Liberman publicly mocked him: “Enough with your tricks and shticks.” He seemed to be speaking for the whole political system, including Netanyahu’s erstwhile allies.

The truth is, Netanyahu was often unfairly attacked and stigmatized. Much of the media really did pursue him. And the leaks from the police investigations into his cases were outrageous. And yes, the courts skewed drastically toward the secular left agenda (though that is less true today). There is much balance that needs to be restored to Israeli society. And yet to treat our democratic institutions as enemies of the state, as Netanyahu has increasingly done, is to risk the foundations of Jewish sovereignty.

Netanyahu’s attempt to realign Israel with the emerging international illiberal order turned out to be not merely tactical – an attempt to gain political advantages for the Jewish state – but an expression of his own inclinations. In the process, he legitimized regimes that traffic in anti-Semitism and in Holocaust revisionism. That became the final irony of Netanyahu’s politics of Jewish power: in the name of protecting the interests of Israel, he sullied the memory of the Jews of powerlessness.

Under different circumstances, a desperate leader like Netanyahu might be tempted to draw on the military to maintain power. But one of the blessings of Israel is that its army is a repository of democratic norms.

In fact, Israeli democracy is a miracle. Born in war, the country hasn’t known a day of real peace, living under constant terror assault and political and economic siege and periodically forced to defend its borders. Into this pressure cooker have come waves of impoverished refugees from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, regions lacking democratic traditions. Israel is a laboratory for democracy under extremity. Despite overwhelming threats that might have defeated less vigorous democracies, Israel struggles to remain faithful to its founding principles of decency.

But miracles are a defiance of the laws of nature and must be protected and nurtured. After a decade of uninterrupted rule by Netanyahu, Israel desperately needs a leader who will treat its democratic institutions as precious assets rather than as obstacles to his goals.

We need a leader who understands that morality – far from being a luxury for a nation under existential threat – is an essential component of our security, necessity for maintaining the support of our friends. Yet just as Netanyahu failed to appreciate the role of decency in assuring his own political power, so he failed to appreciate the need for loyalty to democratic principles in maintaining Israel’s power.

The good news is that the attempts by Netanyahu and his allies to undermine democratic norms have failed. Whatever happens in the coming weeks, this election is already a victory for Israeli democracy. The threat of a nationalist-ultra-Orthodox coalition dependent on the racist fringe party, Otzma Yehudit, has passed. Otzma didn’t even make it across the electoral threshold. The Yemina party, which pledged, in the same breath, to “take care” of both Hamas and the Supreme Court, as though the latter too were a security threat, has been diminished, its leaders now turning against each other. The Likud’s attempt to intimidate Arabs from coming out to vote by placing cameras in polling booths in Arab communities backfired; instead, Israeli Arabs acted like free citizens in a democracy. And finally, Netanyahu’s last desperate election promise – to annex the Jordan Valley and extend Israeli law to settlements – has also been shelved, sparing us the threat of a bi-national state forced to choose between its essential Jewish and democratic identities.

It may take time, but Netanyahu will be forced to concede defeat. The only question is how much damage he will do until then. Israel is resilient and the system will endure. But the fall of our most talented and ambitious and ruthless politician will linger in the national psyche, as the tragedy of a Samson blinded and bound to the pillars of power.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.

About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.
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