Jewish World Review May 19, 1999 /4 Sivan 5759
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So, what will that history think of Benjamin Netanyahu's term as leader of the Jewish state? The answer on one foot is not much.
Writing just hours after Netanyahu conceded defeat in his bid to be re-elected prime minister of Israel, it may be a bit hasty to start thinking of history. At 49, Bibi is the youngest ex-prime minister in the history of the state. Despite his Nixonesque exit from the Israeli political scene (what will we do if we don't have Bibi to kick around anymore?), one suspects we haven't heard the last of him yet.
Nevertheless, it is worth pondering how someone with so much talent could have turned his brief term in office into the political equivalent of the Bataan Death March.
His time in office was one long roller-coaster ride that never seemed to bottom out. Scandals, diplomatic disasters, political compromises and personal quarrels with his colleagues all contributed to the ongoing fiasco. By the end, not only was his personal credibility nil, but his party was destroyed as well.
WHAT WENT WRONG WITH BIBI?
Within weeks, he made a triumphant visit to the United States greeting American Jews in New York City like the king of Israel (as the Likud throng serenaded him after the fashion of Menachem Begin). From there it was on to Washington, where President Clinton had to eat crow by welcoming to the White House the man whom he had done everything to defeat.
After that, it was on to Capitol Hill, where he was greeted by the U.S. Congress as if he were Winston Churchill. In that speech, he memorably pledged to end Israel's dependence on American economic aid, a promise that brought both congressional representatives and American Jews to their feet in ecstatic applause.
Yes, he inherited terrible problems. There was an Oslo peace process that had transformed itself from a formula of land for peace into one of land for terror that cost hundreds of lives. There was also an American administration that already hated his guts and was unwilling to allow him to chart his own course to peace. There was a socialist economic system and a government bureaucracy that would have fit in nicely in East Germany standing in the way of his bold plans for transforming Israel's economy.
What went wrong? The answer was right in front of us, but we were all too busy either applauding or deploring his policies. It was the man himself. Meeting with a group of Jewish editors during that trip, he seemed to me to be boiling with resentment against the media and somehow lacking the confident air of a man in charge. Though American Jewry was going through a brief period of "Bibimania," that atmosphere of grievance, paranoia and distrust would set the tone for his entire administration.
And there was also his graceless post-election snub of American Jews who had worked hard to support him while he was leader of the opposition in Israel from 1993 to 1996.
A JEWISH RICHARD NIXON
No, Bibi wasn't corrupt in the way the Nixon administration had been. But he had the same sort of meanness in the way he treated friends, colleagues and the media.
Like Nixon, the fact that Netanyahu was a paranoid didn't mean that a lot of people were not, in fact, out to get him. But unlike Reagan (who faced the same sort of hostile press and government elites), Bibi couldn't fight back with a smile. Instead, he developed a Nixonian scowl that never left him.
Then there was the way he treated people. Not his opponents on the other side of the aisle, but his allies and even his friends. One by one, they were shunted aside and exiled from the prime minister's office. Likud leaders who might pose a threat to Netanyahu's hegemony were insulted, outmaneuvered and told to leave the party if they didn't like it.
When I visited Israel a year into Bibi's reign, everywhere I went, I heard horrible tales of the behavior of Netanyahu and his thuggish chief of staff, Avigdor Lieberman. The angriest people were not Laborites still licking their wounds from their 1996 defeat. It was the Likudniks who were the most disturbed, often swearing vengeance and vowing to get even when next they had the chance. They would.
Viewing him from afar and on those occasions where I got to see him up close as a journalist, I learned to think of him as the sort of person who always needs everyone to know that he is the smartest guy in the room. Even when it is true - as it often is - that is not an attractive characteristic. One can only imagine how much it grated on the nerves of his fellow egomaniac living in the White House!
Though I suppose this lesson may not apply in American politics, I have come to believe that character counts. No matter how brilliant a man is, if he isn't a mensch, then it will show up and destroy him sooner or later. I think this lack of character played a role in the key decisions of his government. Trying to have it both ways may be normal political behavior but Bibi took this to extremes.
THE DESTRUCTION OF A PARTY
The end result was that Netanyahu destroyed his party. Having done away with the Likud's nationalist ideology (which he had done so much to buttress in his own books), he was unable to replace it with anything coherent. And despite his constant talk about free markets and state-of-the-art technology, his progress toward reforming Israel's economy (which would have been his most lasting legacy) was meager.
As for the Likud, in three years, he demolished what it had taken nearly 50 years to build up from its upstart beginnings under Menachem Begin. Though a lot of the blame must also be pinned on the direct-election law, that's no mean feat.
Perhaps it all would have been different had he faced a weaker, less crafty candidate than his army comrade Ehud Barak. But this time, the faulty advice of Republican political consultant Arthur Finkelstein would not save him. Perhaps most of all because no man can be saved from himself.
Though we in the media like to pretend that ordinary people are stupid sheep whom we can manipulate with ease, it isn't true. They are often much smarter than we think. And that, in the end, is what did Bibi in.
Let's wish Ehud Barak better luck than Bibi and hope that he profits from
JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.
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