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Netanyahu: Between A Statesman And A Wheeler-Dealer Politician – OpEd


By Yossi Mekelberg*

We might have witnessed the last chapter of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. He may even disappear from Israeli politics sooner than his farewell speech to the Knesset as prime minister suggested. Similar to other dominant and long-serving leaders, he leaves office well past his pick value, demonstrating all the megalomaniacal attributes of someone who refuses to accept defeat, or acknowledge that anyone else in the entire country is worthy of taking from him the mantle of its leadership.

It is a tall order to examine Netanyahu’s legacy in full and assess its full impact on the country, its people and those further afield, considering his long political career that has spun out for almost 40 years, during which time he has served in almost all influential positions in government, and been involved in the most fateful events of those years. He first made a name for himself as one of Israel’s most successful ambassadors to the UN, pleading and advocating his country’s case with eloquence and conviction. Like most politicians, he probably began his career with more honesty and integrity than when he left office last week, though not many do so having been indicted on three cases of corruption. Those who knew him from his nascent years in politics testify that truth was never necessarily his first port of call; populist rhetoric has always been his preferred modus operandi, trumping substantive and strategic analysis, despite being gifted with such skills; and his love of a lifestyle that he could not afford unless others paid for it characterized him from his early times on the big stage, until it eventually caught up with him.

There was always an air of over-confidence that became blunt arrogance the longer that Netanyahu stayed in power. He fashioned himself, and perhaps even convinced himself, that he was the chosen one to defend the chosen people from their eternal and existential enemies. He is not alone among Israelis who perceive Iran, their Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, or Hamas, as posing an immediate and acute danger to Israel and the stability of the region. But his inflexible strategic outlook led him to perceive these enemies in absolute terms, leaving little room for diplomatic engagement. Yet, his actions have been living proof that there are no military solutions to these issues. At the end of the day, throughout the entire 12 years of his second period in office, despite Gaza being blockaded and several rounds of bloodshed between Israel and Hamas sowing death and destruction, Israel’s security has not improved one iota. Instead, Hamas has demonstrated that it is continually improving its capabilities, and in the face of one of the most powerful military machines in the world, can succeed in hitting targets deep within Israel for a prolonged period. Similarly, it is certainly an imperative to bring a halt to Iran’s nuclear program and its destabilizing adventurism, but Netanyahu’s need to vilify and humiliate that country has only served to harden the position of the regime in Tehran and empower the most extreme elements within it.

History will no doubt give Netanyahu ample credit for the Abraham Accords and the normalization of relations with four Arab countries, which were without a shadow of a doubt momentous events in Israel’s regional relations. But Lady Luck also played a crucial part in reaching these accords, in terms of a combination of profound changes in the region and unique conditions in the international system. To his credit, Netanyahu grasped the opportunity with both hands. Yet, it did not instill in him the courage and vision to use this opportune moment to extend the hand of peace to the Palestinians, which by any account should be Israel’s top priority. No one compromised the declared Zionist dream of being Jewish and democratic more than Netanyahu, and no one accelerated the progress towards an apartheid state more than he, by entrenching the occupation and legalizing the discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. He cynically and deplorably incited against them and questioned their loyalty with the single aim of consolidating his racist political base. This side of him, that knew no limits to vilifying political opponents and the media, typified him in his quest for power. A mere few months before he was first elected prime minister in 1996, he was leading the vile incitements against the Oslo Accords, creating the fevered atmosphere that led to the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Throughout Netanyahu’s career, legitimate political differences were turned into toxic discourse that poisoned not only politics, but the society at large, and paralyzed constructive and civilized political debate, which is one of the foundations of a functioning democracy. Netanyahu took the strategy of divide and rule down its darkest alleyways.

Netanyahu’s adherence to realpolitik in international affairs, together with his contempt for democratic values, led to a warming of relations with countries such as China and Russia, and with populist right-wing governments in Europe and elsewhere, at the expense of relations with Israel’s closest ally, the US, as well as with the more liberal-progressive elements in Europe. There was an aspect of statesmanship in this act of diversifying allies, but also utter disdain for the fundamental tenets on which his country was established, woven in with his own delusions of grandeur as a big player able to defy external pressures, something that Israelis, especially his base, love in a leader.

However, as much as there was a statesman in Netanyahu, controversial as he was, what eventually took him over as an individual and as a leader was his obsession with power and money, producing a hybrid of Dr. Statesman and Mr. Wheeler-Dealer who would stop at nothing to remain in power indefinitely, and combining sheer hedonism with arrogance and paranoia in the face of political rivals and the media. This culminated in his last few days in office, when he demonstrated an extraordinary lack of dignity, integrity and respect for the democratic process. In the coming months and years, Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate will be closely tied to his corruption trial and the court’s verdict. Should he want to preserve any of the positives of his lengthy time in office, he would be wise to stop expressing his calculated contempt for the justice system, and refrain from cynically exploiting the fractured nature of Israeli society for his own personal benefit. Otherwise, that is what he will be remembered for.

*Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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