Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul has plunged Israel into an unprecedented civil crisis. And, despite his ostensible pause during the current parliamentary break, few believe that it will lead to a change of course. As some take the opportunity to regroup for the struggle against minority authoritarianism in Israel, I find myself recalling one of the most notable tyrants of world literature – Macbeth – and, reflecting on the damage that one individual bent on total power can cause a nation, wonder what lessons it can offer during our own national crisis.
Shakespeare’s Tragedie of Macbeth begins with the eponymous general being hailed a hero. He is called “brave” by the king’s elder son and “noble” by the king. He then encounters the witchlike Weird Sisters who prophesy two future events: first, that he will be named Thane of Cawdor – which is already true before he hears it from them – and, second, that he will be King of Scotland. Macbeth cannot wait the prophecy out and decides to take action by murdering the king. This shift is central in the play: the first taste of power, as Thane of Cawdor, whets his appetite for absolute power, to which he believes he is entitled. With one form of power in hand, he imagines another form in his mind – beginning his transformation from brave general to ruthless tyrant.
Bibi, too, was considered by many as one of Israel’s most talented and brave leaders. And, little by little, he came to be known as “King Bibi.” In our national tragedy, his nickname plays the part of a prophecy – and Bibi appears to have decided to take action and materialize his royal reign. The first step was to solidify his grip on the Likud party, which he did by weakening its stronger, more independent members, and empowering his own minions. Once he succeeded, he spread this approach to other parties, locking their leaders into partnerships and turning nominally separate parliamentary parties into a single bloc. Once this was achieved, he understood he could enact a similar takeover in the country as a whole. Recruiting a gang of cronies, he set about crowning himself king by murdering the ruling king — which, in a liberal democracy, is the rule of law.
In Macbeth’s case, once his transformation into tyrant is complete, his disorganized mind begins to oscillate between hallucination and paranoia. This, too, may happen to Bibi once he succeeds in killing the judiciary. We will turn from citizens of an imperfect but liberal democracy into subjects of a klepto-autocracy. Like Macbeth, Bibi may begin sacking his closest advisors, possibly by assassinating their characters the way Macbeth assassinated Banquo, in which case we will know that Bibi’s reign of terror has truly begun.
If this happens, no one knows how long Bibi’s reign will last. Or whether another dictator will rise in his wake and unleash a new reign of terror. Perhaps, as in The Tragedie of Macbeth, Bibi will use war as a way of consolidating power, launching the attack on Iran that he has been dangling as the ace up his sleeve for over a decade. Or perhaps, as in the play, the genuine inheritors of Israel’s liberal democracy will band together and, disguised as fig leaves or olive branches, will take back the land and bring an era of peace – not only in our own society but in the Middle East as a whole. There is no way of knowing how or when the tragedy of MacBibi will end. But it is clear that the events unfolding now are of tragic proportions.
What is already clear, and what will never change, is that Bibi’s role in the history of our people has turned tragic. But why? Considering Shakespeare’s play might offer some idea. It is not the people’s suffering that gives the play its tragic character. The tragedy is Macbeth’s because his actions did not reflect his own image at the outset as a brave and noble general. No matter how much he destroyed, he could not reconcile his image of himself with the actions he had taken, and the destruction he had caused. He could never admit to the potential of evil living in all one of us – including him. As soon as he placed his actions outside the realm of justice, he became a tragic figure.
The same could happen to Bibi should he undermine the judiciary. Like Macbeth, he could turn into a tragic figure. If that happens, we can only hope that, as in the play, his political life will end on the sword – which, in a liberal democracy, means in jail.