Measuring Up: Inside Netanyahu's Head

Here's my post this week on Global Post:

JERUSALEM — In Hebrew the word for “to visit” – levaker – is the same as the word for “to criticize.” He visited me; he criticized me. Exactly the same.

So why would you invite 30 of the most critical people in the country to visit you every Sunday, to sit around your table and run their mouths?

You wouldn’t. Unless you wanted trouble.

That’s exactly what the new Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has done. Each Sunday, an enormous cabinet – more than half the parliamentarians in the governing coalition are ministers and deputy ministers – will troop up the stairs to his office, preening for the cameras before they settle into their caramel leather chairs and let rip at the boss.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Last time he was Prime Minister – from 1996 to 1999 – Netanyahu held together a shaky coalition of rightists and hawkish centrists as long as he could. The religious-nationalists in the cabinet brought him down in the end.

Bruised he went into exile as a “consultant” for companies doing business in the U.S. He returned rich, bought a villa in the exclusive Mediterranean town of Caesarea, and gradually eased back into the politics of the Likud Party. His message, delivered in private in those days, was that he had learned his lesson. He was a different man. For a time he even tried to get people to stop calling him by his childhood nickname, “Bibi.”

One of the reasons the far right abandoned him in 1999 was, according to legislators, that he would always promise whatever you wanted, trying to make you happy, to make you like him. Then he’d contradict himself by pledging to do whatever the next person to enter his office wanted. When he returned to politics, Netanyahu said, he would no more be manipulated into giving tiny parties just what they demanded.

Take a look at this new government and you have to wonder if that’s true.

Netanyahu handed the rightist Yisrael Beitenu control of the Police Ministry, though the party’s leader is under police investigation for money laundering and fraud.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party is practiced at squeezing prime ministers and received four ministerial seats in return for the support of its mere 11 legislators.

Ha-Beit Ha-Yehudi is an ultra-right backer of West Bank settlement and is sure to make problems for Netanyahu next time U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comes calling.

The least of his troubles ought to be Labor, traditionally powerful and center-left, because it stands for little except keeping its leader, Ehud Barak, in the Defense Ministry. Still some of the Labor legislators say they’ll rebel against Barak and won’t support the government.

Even within Netanyahu’s own Likud Party, some leaders are grumbling that they failed to secure top cabinet jobs.

The government has 69 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. Politically, socially, ethnically, it’s all over the map. Technically three of Netanyahu’s four partners could block his majority in parliament.

The new prime minister seems to be repeating his self-defeating pattern.

Where does this tendency come from? From the Netanyahu family.

Global Post editor-in-chief C.M. Sennott last week examined the way Bibi’s relationship with his father drives him ( I’d expand upon that: Bibi’s family relationships determine his performance as Prime Minister — and may have set him up for another failure as Prime Minister.

As a young man, Bibi lived in the shadow of the dominant father detailed by Sennott. He was also most definitely in second place behind his elder brother Yoni. In the nationalist-Zionist set of the day, Yoni was seen as a future chief of the army, even a prime minister. He died in the 1976 rescue of hostages at Entebbe, Uganda, leading the commando force that stormed a hijacked Air France jetliner.

That death — both heroic and tragic — preserved Yoni as he had been, a perfect example which any human — certainly one who followed such a compromising path as politics – could never quite live up to.

When Bibi became Prime Minister, he might have overcome this. But he didn’t. His performance back then showed that he had to leave room for Yoni to continue to be superior to him. It was as though surpassing Yoni would’ve been an act of defiance against the father who idolized his departed son. So Bibi sabotaged himself.

When I met him shortly before his ouster he was a shadow of the confident orator who narrowly won an election three years before. He toyed with a cigar stub and stared at his crystal ashtray, barely attempting eye contact. He was generally acknowledged to have been a poor prime minister.

I put this family theory to Netanyahu as delicately as I could when I rode in the armored car he called his Batmobile on election day in January 2003.

“I used to be in a hurry,” he said. “Now I’m not anxious. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I only have to prove things to myself. I’ve climbed the greasy pole. Now I’m perched on a branch.”

Uh-huh… I pushed him on the role his departed brother played psychologically in his first term as Prime Minister.

“In public life you shouldn’t press Rewind,” he said. “Or Fast Forward. You can press Eject, or you can press Play.”

Analyze that. Well, without Rewind, you can’t analyze anything. It’s the definition of repression.

We drove to the Har Hamenuchot cemetery on a stark Jerusalem hillside. It was the third jahrzeit — the anniversary — of the death of Tsila, Netanyahu’s mother. His father, Ben-Zion, stood stern and jowly, like John Gielgud cast as a headmaster. He wore a flat cap and a blue raincoat and was still, staring ahead as though unaware of the crowd of several hundred. Bibi read kaddish with his brother Ido, though his usually powerful baritone was a barely audible whisper.

The inscription on Tsila’s grave was in particularly complex language. I asked Bibi to clarify it for me. “It’s a very high Hebrew. My father wrote it,” he said. “It’s hard to translate.”

Perched on a branch back then, Netanyahu has crawled out all the way along the limb with his new coalition. If he can’t master his own psychological demons as Prime Minister this time, he won’t be the only one to take a fall.

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