Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Why Netanyahu Is Not a Tragic Figure

As Israel becomes more deeply mired in national (in)security problems, a large majority of Israelis are voicing their opinion (in survey after survey) that PM Netanyahu is at least partly to blame for the mess and should resign – or at least call for new elections. Given his record-shattering lengthy tenure, not to mention previous stints as prime minister (not very successful at first) and then finance minister (highly successful) – a question arises: is he a tragic figure, given his imminent downfall?

The general definition of a tragic figure/hero is someone with a noble or virtuous character that ultimately meets a downfall, suffering, or defeat – usually because of extrinsic circumstances beyond their control, or something they do (or don’t do), unwittingly causing great harm to themselves and/or society. Thus, there are two central elements regarding such a tragic person: first, excellent internal morality or character; second, action or policy that inadvertently undercuts the individual’s social or political position. Regarding Bibi, let’s take each in turn.

First, regarding his character, it is best to hear out those who knew him best, especially if they don’t have a personal or ideological axe to grind. Here are four such high level Israeli officials who worked with him as closely as possible.

When Netanyahu conquered the Likud Central Committee on the way to his first tenure as prime minister in the early 1990s, Defense Minister Moshe Arens – a Likud party stalwart – told Bibi that “you win [in the Likud’s internal elections] but the country loses.” Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who served as the IDF Chief of Staff during Netanyahu’s first term in office, opined later on that “Bibi is dangerous for Israel, internally and externally.” Then in 2000, after watching Netanyahu in his first term as prime minister, former PM Yitzhak Shamir (a Likud pillar from the start), called Bibi an “angel of destruction” (mal’akh khabala). And to round out the “compliments,” in the early 2000s, PM Ariel Sharon noted that Netanyahu “gets panic-stricken and loses his composure” – here too, after watching Bibi’s behavior when he served as prime minister in the 1990s.

If all this is an indication of Netanyahu’s public actions, his private life is hardly any better. Married three times, at least once publicly admitting to an adulterous affair, he can hardly be considered a paragon of moral rectitude. Moreover, his ethical behavior is also highly problematic as evidenced by the revelations of his demanding and receiving 700,00 shekels ($200,000) worth of champagne and cigars from “friends,” at least one of whom allegedly needed a favor from him (for which he is now on trial). The value of the gifts is not in dispute – just what legal culpability they entail, if any. Add to this Bibi’s constant demands that the public purse pay for “renovations” at his Caesarea villa (the latest: fixing the tiles in his swimming pool!), and one can categorically assert that an exemplar of virtue he certainly is not.

What about the other half of tragedy i.e., actions that unwittingly lead to disaster? Here too the picture is quite clear. PM Netanyahu’s calling card has always been “Mr. Security.” That’s hard to maintain after the Oct. 7 massacre. There are those who would like to place the blame for this disaster on Israel’s army along with the country’s intelligence agencies, and there is no doubt that on a tactical level they messed up big time (the heads of the IDF and Shabak admitted responsibility immediately after). However, from a strategic standpoint, PM Netanyahu bears the brunt of blame.

First (but not foremost), because the individual leader at the top of any hierarchy is by definition responsible for what happens with, and to, the organization. Indeed, after the Second Lebanon War, the leader of the Opposition in the Knesset – Benjamin Netanyahu – had this to say about PM Olmert to the Winograd Commission of Inquiry investigating the handling of that war: “The responsibility of the ship’s captain is the prime minister – not to be a passive factor but rather a an active factor who determines policy….” Then a year later, after the Commission’s report was published, Netanyahu offered the following in the Knesset: “When the failure is so broad, what is necessary is changing the prime minister who failed.”

The second and related point is that the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 was a direct outgrowth of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policy over the previous decade. In order to ensure that no two-state solution was viable, he consciously and consistently enabled Hamas to strengthen itself in Gaza as a counterweight to the weakened Palestinian Administration in the West Bank. The “conception” (as it is called in Israel: ha’konseptziah) was that Hamas would always be deterred from directly attacking Israel. A few missiles shot into Israel here and there? In his eyes, a minor cost for ensuring eternal, Israeli security control over the territory of Greater Israel. This gigantic strategic blunder (blind to the reality of what Hamas was willing to do with its renewed strength) is the basis of Israeli public opinion today that wants Bibi out of office at all costs.

And this isn’t the only serious blow to his reputation as “Mr. Security”. Encouraging then-President Trump to abrogate the treaty with Iran regarding its nuclear bomb development was another big mistake, as it allowed Iran to (currently) reach enough uranium grade material to build several such bombs the minute it decides to do so. Add to that the ongoing mutual slaughter (organized gang warfare etc.) within Israel’s Arab sector, and Mr. Insecurity would be a far more appropriate appellation for Bibi.

The bottom line: from both perspectives – lack of admirable character and conscious mistaken policy – Bibi Netanyahu cannot be considered a tragic figure by any means. But a tragedy there surely is: Israel’s blindness over the years to their leaders profound personal flaws and disastrous policymaking. The country has finally woken up – very late, but still better than never.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: