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Jewish World Review May 19, 1999 /4 Sivan 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Not to Bibi: Netanyahu's Downfall Is His Own Doing

(JWR) ---- (
THREE YEARS is a very short time, even in the short history of the modern State of Israel. When you place it in the context of thousands of years of Jewish history, it is even shorter.

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.

It seems as if it were yesterday that we were watching the triumphant Bibi addressing his jubilant supporters following his victory over Shimon Peres in May 1996.

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.

When you act like
a jerk, even praying
at the Western Wall
won't help much
And there is no question that Israel's leftist-dominated media and their echoes in the American media were aiming to bring him down from the start. But at that moment, it seemed to me that it was unlikely that anything could stop this young, handsome, articulate and very smart man. The era of Bibi would be long and successful.

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.

With Netanyahu's reputation as a brilliant politician and a television whiz, Israel thought it had a younger, smarter version of Ronald Reagan. But what the country had done was elect 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.

The rumors about Netanyahu's personal problems seemed to fit in with his political behavior. This was not a nice guy or one who treated people - especially those close to him - decently. In that sense, one has to think of him as being very much like Bill Clinton, but without the charm that is the president's saving grace.

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.

He spent most of his three years talking tough about Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians' violations of the Oslo accords. That was intended to please his political base. But did he think they wouldn't notice that he was - at the same time - making more or less the same concessions as any Labor government would have done? Did he really believe that such a policy would bring him support from those who were enthusiastic about the peace process? How can someone so smart conspire to give both himself and the country the worst of both worlds: a man who spoke loudly and carried a very small stick.

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 the example.

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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04/09/99: From Silence to Cacophony: Holocaust metaphors are the coin of the realm
04/05/99: A Righteous but Confused Cause: Kosovo war shines a light on our principles and our hypocrisy
03/19/99:Jewish Art, Jewish Artists: Making beautiful music is no guarantee of goodness
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02/25/99: Changing Our Minds on School Choice
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02/11/99:Of Human Rights and Wrongs
02/05/99:The Bibiphobia Conspiracy
01/27/99: Israel and Us: Putting Up or Shutting Up
01/20/99: The High Cost of Jewish Education
01/14/99The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Have American Jews finally arrived?
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12/30/98 Memo to Bubba: Israel ain't Monica, keep yer hands off!
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10/30/98: Haunted by the past
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10/15/98: Converts, saints and Jews: Confronting the story of Edith Stein
10/02/98: Bibi: No Messiah, just a politician
9/11/98: Politics ‘98: By their enemies shall ye know them
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5/26/98: Hartford Seminary tangle points to bigger issues
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4/26/98: All-rightniks versus the alarmists: Focussing on the Jewish bottom line
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4/5/98: Hang up on Albright
3/29/98: Bigshots or activists?: Clinton's three clerics return from China
3/27/98: Will American Jews help Clinton push Israel into a corner?
3/22/98: Anti-Semitism then and now
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3/11/98: Remembering Eric Breindel
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3/5/98: Follow the money to Hamas
2/22/98: Re-writing "Anne Frank" - A distorted legacy
2/15/98: Religious persecution is still a Jewish issue
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2/1/98: Economic aid is not in Israel's interest
1/25/98: Jews are news, and a fair shake for Israel is hard to find

©1999, Jonathan Tobin