The tragedy of Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud Party election event in the northern Israeli city of Safed, March 8.
Photo by David Cohen/Flash90

By Jonathan S. Tobin

It didn’t have to end this way. In what may be only a matter of days, Benjamin Netanyahu’s unprecedented 12-year run as prime minister of Israel looks to be coming to an end. Though he is coming off a year in which he added new luster to a record of great achievements in office, a bizarre coalition of left-wingers, centrists and right-wingers is about to unceremoniously toss him out of office.

Unless Netanyahu and his increasingly desperate and angry supporters are somehow able to sabotage the creation of a “government of change” or the potential partners allow disputes over cabinet posts to blow up the arrangement, Yamina Party leader Naftali Bennett may soon be sworn in as the country’s new prime minister.

The creation of the so-called unity government was made possible by one man and one man only. And his name is Benjamin Netanyahu.

The reason Netanyahu has failed to form a majority coalition of his own is the stuff of Greek tragedy. Fresh off his triumphant handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the establishment of the Abraham Accords, Netanyahu is entitled to say that he’s going out at the top of his game. Those accomplishments could have been reasons for keeping him at his post, especially with challenges such as the perils facing Israel from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, and the Biden administration’s efforts to shift the geostrategic balance in the region further against the Jewish state and its new Arab allies. But rather than policy differences, such a coalition was rendered impossible by Netanyahu’s personal untrustworthiness.

Netanyahu could have easily averted this outcome. A right-wing government with a strong majority would have been a certainty had he chosen to step aside, either by going into temporary retirement or seeking election as Israel’s ceremonial president. Indeed, some in the Likud, including Minister of Finance Yisrael Katz, asked him to do so. Rather than giving up his grip on power, Netanyahu’s belief in his own indispensability prevailed. It speaks volumes about him that he would rather see a coalition with left-wingers in power than a Likud-led government led by someone not named Netanyahu.

This points to the fact that, like the protagonist of a classic Greek play, Netanyahu is not so much being brought down by the actions of malevolent rivals or outside factors but by the flaws in his own personality.

While he may go down in history as one of his country’s greatest leaders, such a person deserves a better or at least a more dignified end to his political career than what appears to be in store for him.

Yet some of the same singular qualities that made him a great leader, including a sense that he alone could solve the country’s problems, contained the seeds of his downfall. Traits such as his refusal to treat other politicians with lesser talents as colleagues to be listened to or trusted, and regarding himself as not bound by the same rules as everyone else, helped him get where he is and sustained him in power. But his hamartia—as the Greeks labeled the weaknesses of the heroes of their myths—has also led him to this moment when they have bound both ideological friends and foes together against him. Love him or hate him, that is a tragedy. Still, it’s one largely of his own making.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin

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