Amotz Asa- El
Jerusalem Post, June 3, 2021
“Historians will likely mark 2021 as the year his star fell, even if someday his career will rebound.”
This is not a eulogy. Even if these days’ drama indeed results in Bibi Netanyahu’s departure from the prime ministerial residence on Balfour Street, his shadow will still hover above us, possibly for years.
Even if the Bennett-Lapid government materializes, chances of a Netanyahu comeback will remain high: The coalition will be fragile, Iran might attack, and the court might acquit him, to mention but a few of the circumstances that could make Netanyahu spring back like a Jack-in-the-box.
Still, Netanyahu this week emerged as a leader in vertigo, if even one still living in denial and refusing to accept his fate. Historians will likely mark 2021 as the year his star fell, even if someday his career will rebound. After 12 straight years of political mastery, the wiz who habitually built coalitions, floored opponents and toyed with rival and allied parties – has run out of tricks.
Having thus agreed concerning this year’s significance, Netanyahu’s biographers will then turn to the much trickier question: What caused his downfall?
THE DOWNFALLS of powerful leaders are always complex, but they have often revolved around a massive event, or the rise of a new idea.
Lyndon Johnson, for instance, was finished off by an event – the Vietnam War, which he had no idea how to end. Similarly, Menachem Begin’s premiership ended because of the Lebanon War, whose mounting casualties he could not digest, and David Cameron’s premiership was felled by the Brexit referendum’s result, with which he did not agree, and for which he did not prepare.
Czar Nikolai’s career was buried by an ascendant idea – communism – whose potency he failed to assess, much the way Erich Honecker, Nikolai Ceausescu and the rest of the last communist leaders were dethroned by freedom’s drive.
Netanyahu’s downfall is not the result of any external shock.
Unlike Golda Meir, he had no Yom Kippur War. Unlike Herbert Hoover, he had no Great Crash. And unlike George W. Bush, he had no Hurricane Katrina. If anything, the big event that animated his premiership – the collapse of the Oslo peace process – actually helped, and even fueled, his success.
Similarly, his handling of the big event that animated his downfall, the corona pandemic, was praised even by his opponents. In fact, historians will likely see the pandemic’s impact on Netanyahu’s downfall as the inversion of its impact of the presidency of Donald Trump.
By the same token, Netanyahu’s downfall is not the result of a rising idea that he failed to detect or grasp; on the contrary.
As finance minister, he completed Israel’s capitalist revolution, in line with turn-of-century global trends. As prime minister the following decade, when he faced thousands marching in the streets demanding cheaper housing and food, Netanyahu launched a measured retreat from his monetarist orthodoxy, in line with the global quest for a more compassionate capitalism after the 2008 financial meltdown.
So no, Netanyahu’s downfall is not about events or ideas. It’s about character.
THE CHARACTER flaws that drove Netanyahu’s downfall were twofold: social and moral.
Socially, the number of people Netanyahu personally sidelined, alienated, humiliated and turned from close allies into sworn enemies is astonishing.
In the emerging coalition alone, they include Gideon Sa’ar, who was once his education minister, Avigdor Liberman, who was once his office’s director-general, Naftali Bennett, who was once his chief of staff, Ayelet Shaked, who was once his bureau chief, Yair Lapid, who was once his finance minister, and Benny Gantz, who still is his defense minister and nominal deputy.
This is a very partial list of people Netanyahu alienated and who lost trust in him since the 1990s, when he lost his first government’s foreign minister (David Levi), finance minister (Dan Meridor), defense minister (Yitzhak Mordecai), and science minister (Benny Begin).
By the following century, the loss of trust in Netanyahu had become so solid and widespread that none of his potential coalition partners would believe any of his fire-sale promises for double, triple and quadruple rotations of the prime ministers’ seat. How could anyone believe him after he violated in broad daylight his signed commitment to rotate with Gantz next fall?
How could Netanyahu not understand that leaving Gideon Sa’ar out of his last government (of more than 30 members) would make the wounded man hate and fight him? How could he not understand that Bennett would not forgive his attempt to create negative news about Bennett’s wife? How would Gantz forgive Netanyahu’s failure to let him know he was negotiating peace agreements?
Netanyahu’s people skills are not normal. Only an emotional cripple can so serially and so intensely humiliate people. If he can’t learn to feel the shame he causes other people, one would hope he could at least learn to calculate how, and at what price, they might respond to his arrogance. He couldn’t.
That, then, is the social-skills flaw that undid Netanyahu’s leadership. The moral flaw stems from it.
Just like he believed that since he is that smart, everyone else is that stupid, Netanyahu assumed that since he is that big, justice is that small. And so, what began with taking an alleged NIS 1 million-worth of gifts from two millionaires was soon followed by his insertion of a convicted bribe-taker into his cabinet, a disgrace that was but a prelude for Netanyahu’s gloveless attack on the judiciary which dared suggest that the man who thought he was this big, was actually this small.
Indeed, contrasting and balancing Netanyahu’s greatness and smallness will be his biographers’ trickiest task. His downfall, however, will be no mystery. It resulted from the smallness of a big leader who knew so much about history, economics and diplomacy, and so little about people, justice and trust.
Amotz Asa-El’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019) is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.
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