Jim Shalom
A semi-retired physician

Netanyahu’s Leadership Trajectory

The government’s push for legal reforms have sparked a public uproar unprecedented in Israel’s history, leading to adverse consequences on various fronts, including the country’s security, international standing, and economy. The prevailing political chaos in Israel has cast a critical light on Binyamin Netanyahu’s leadership.

What defines an effective leader? The question may appear straightforward, but the answer is multifaceted. One fundamental aspect is the leader’s ability to govern the country efficiently. Despite its apparent simplicity, evaluating this premise is often complex, especially during ordinary circumstances. There are three key ways to assess a leader’s results: 1. Goal Attainment: Did the leader achieve their objectives? 2.Process Quality: How well was the goal pursued and accomplished? 3.Goal Suitability: Is the goal in the best interest of the country?

Evaluating the effectiveness of a policy in terms of cause and effect can be a challenging task. In the case of American politics, the economy may improve or get worse, not necessarily because of the policy pursued by the president in power, but rather by the policy implemented by the previous president as there could be a lag period during which the effects of previous administrations’ policies are still influencing the economy. Alternatively, the economy may change for reasons that have nothing to do with government policy. A lucid contemporary example is how COVID had a dramatic effect on the world economy. However, in the case of Israel, the cause-and-effect pattern is apparent because international agencies have directly linked the negative economic assessments to the judicial policy platform of the Israeli government.

How does one become a leader? The skills needed to attain a leadership position may differ from those required to be a successful leader. Nowadays, an aspiring leader not only needs intelligence and determination but also often self-centeredness and a fiercely competitive nature. Consider the potential candidate for the American presidency who must tirelessly promote themselves for years leading up to the election, attempting to persuade the public that they are the only suitable choice to lead the country. The prolonged self-promotion of a candidate contrasts with the situation when they assume power when the locus of control should shift from self-interest to the welfare of the country. Unfortunately, this shift in focus does not seem to have occurred in the case of Netanyahu . The lack of a shift is evident in his fervent promotion of the judicial reforms leading to a weakened court system which may help him deal with his pending court cases but undermine the balance of power between the government and courts.

In addition to the task of leading the country, there is often an expectation that the leader will also serve as a role model of behavior, setting a standard of propriety that citizens can aspire to emulate.

If we look back at Western history, leaders were not always paragons of virtue. Within the Jewish Bible, alongside depictions of successful leadership, the transgressions of heroes and leaders are also outlined. One notable example is the story of King David, where his valor in defeating Goliath is contrasted with his attraction to Bathsheba, leading him to deliberately send her husband Uriah off to battle to be slain, providing him with the opportunity to marry the widowed Bathsheba.

At first, I wondered why the writers of the Bible included such deprecatory events, especially when one of the main underlying themes of the Old Testament is to strive for goodness and lead an upright life. It seemed counterproductive to include stories that go against the moral teachings of the Bible. However, over time, I came to understand that while a society has a better chance of success and prosperity if its leaders set positive examples, it is also true that our leaders have imperfections and will inevitably make mistakes.

That being said, there can be varying degrees of wrongdoing, both in terms of quantity and severity. In the case of Netanyahu, his decision to form a government comprising extremists who prioritize their narrow agendas over the public good, all while attempting to present it as being in the public’s interest and denying its extremity, is not a trivial or isolated misstep but rather appears to be a form of deliberate deception.

In contrast, there have been several examples in Israel’s short history, where moral virtue has been central to an Israeli leader’s conduct. On the left, for instance, Yitzhak Rabin willingly resigned as prime minister when it was found that he held a foreign bank account which in those days was illegal. On the right, Menachem Begin earned respect for his integrity even from those who disagreed with him politically.

In assessing Netanyahu’s leadership skills, one cannot help but compare and contrast him with Donald Trump. Both are charismatic leaders. Both have had successful policy implementation at times during their tenure; both have a very loyal following consistently representing close to 50% of the voting population. However, it is also essential to note that both have questionable integrity, one manifestation of which is both their pending court appearances.

Why do Netanyahu (and Trump) continue to maintain their base of popular support?  Two different types of reasons can explain their loyal support. One reason is that their supporters agree with the policies they promote, even if they disapprove of their leaders’ personal conduct such as with the Evangelicals in the US. Similarly, in Israel, the religious Haredim prioritize Netanyahu’s facilitation of policies important to them, giving little weight to his personal religious values or ideology.

Another reason behind their enduring popularity lies in people’s attraction to charismatic leaders. While charisma often carries a positive connotation, there can be a downside to following a charismatic leader. Consider a scenario where a country’s economy is struggling, and the necessary solution involves raising taxes and cutting expenditures. In this case, two candidates are competing for leadership. Candidate 1 chooses to be honest with the public, stating that to improve the economy, there will be short-term austerity measures and reductions in services. On the other hand, Candidate 2, utilizing his charisma, simply asserts inaccurately without providing specifics that he can fix the economy without any tax increases or expenditure cuts. In this situation, many voters, drawn in by the allure of charisma may support candidate 2 even though a serious examination of the promises would likely reveal them to be misleading or unrealistic. A contemporary example of Netanyahu’s use of charisma is his recent inaccurate downplay of Israel’s present challenges on several American media networks.

What went wrong with Benyamin Netanyahu? He is a bright and experienced prime minister, quite possibly the most experienced among Western leaders today. His initial ascension to power in 1996 marked the beginning of the longest tenured prime minister in the country’s history.

One significant adverse factor may be his prolonged stay in power. The longer a politician remains in power, the higher the likelihood that they or their associates might be susceptible to corruption or complacency. Recognizing this potential danger, the American Congress passed the 22nd amendment in 1947, limiting the number of times a person can be elected President of the United States to two terms. Such a law, if applied in Israel, would have rendered Netanyahu ineligible for re-election.

Israelis take their politics seriously as do their leaders. Politics is not merely a 9-5 job for them.  However, some leaders, including possibly Netanyahu, may have failed to establish a clear boundary between their personal interests and the role they play as a leader. Over time it appears as if he believes that what benefits him personally is also what benefits the country, and also that the country is unable to function effectively without his leadership.

In his earlier terms as prime minister, Netanyahu aligned himself ideologically with most of his coalition partners. However, after the last election, none of those parties with ideological overlap were willing to work under his leadership. Faced with the dilemma of either withdrawing his candidacy as a leader or forming a government with partners who either promote radical policies incongruous with his past declarations or special interest parties, regrettably he ultimately chose to form what is now the present government.

The recent passage of the “unreasonable law” stands as a stark example of how Netanyahu appears willing to go to great lengths to retain his position as prime minister, even if it comes at the expense of what is truly best for the country. The process surrounding the law was riddled with irresponsibility. Proponents of the bill failed to facilitate serious public debate, preventing a thorough examination of its potential negative ramifications. Notably, Netanyahu did not engage with the Military chief of staff to discuss how the law might affect Israel’s security before its passage.

The law itself is deeply flawed for several reasons, with two major ones standing out. Firstly, it opens the door for ideological extremists to shape policy in a manner that serves narrow special interests, disregarding the greater public good. Secondly, it allows those in positions of power to make decisions without accountability, fostering an environment ripe for corruption, cronyism, discrimination, and the diversion of public funds away from their intended purposes.

Netanyahu’s perceived so-called success in getting this legislation passed, paradoxically highlights his failure as a leader to promote policies that truly serve the public interest. Moreover, recent reports from Likud party members suggest that he misled some of them regarding the final content of the bill. Sadly, one could conclude that Netanyahu is now using his considerable skills primarily for his own political self-preservation to the detriment of  what is best for the country.

About the Author
Jim Shalom is a specialist in family medicine, with interests in end-of-life care and the Israeli political scene. He resides in Galilee. He has spent most of his adult life living and working in Israel.
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