24 Hours of Bibi: A Tragedy in Three Acts
It would be reckless to predict how it will happen or when it will happen, but as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu begins his tenth year in power this month, it is obvious to everyone — himself included — that this will most likely be his last. The dark, embarrassing, comical denouement of his decade in power is inexorably underway. The precise character of this fall will be determined by events far outside his control. The quality of the evidence collected against him by the Israel Police will affect when and whether prosecutors issue an indictment — and how many of them there are. Coalition partners will create tactical crises in order to time elections as they estimate will best serve them. And his own party members will have to decide how long to stay loyal and when to begin drawing knives.
But all this internal drama will take place in the shadow of two developments no Israeli can control. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is ill and has no obvious successor. Nearly all the scenarios for a post-Abbas West Bank are terrifying. A Hamas takeover, a bloody succession battle, or just a breakdown of authority could all lead to rupture in security cooperation. An attack on settlers could lead to a revenge attack and spiraling violence. So could a brazen attack on soldiers in the West Bank. A successful suicide attack inside Israel would inevitably lead to tighter security and a loss of income for West Bank Palestinians with all the attendant instability that might bring. If that’s not enough, we haven’t even begun to think through the possibility for a rapid escalation on the Syrian-Lebanese front that would make any Israeli-Palestinian violence look tiny in comparison.
Amidst all the tension and uncertainty, Netanyahu stepped out to a familiar setting for a performance of exactly the kind he loves the most — speaking about Israel in English to an adoring audience in the US with the cameras beaming the entire event to an Israeli TV audience. The speech garnered all the predictable positive and negative reactions from all the people one might expect to have positive and negative reactions. But if we want to understand the tragedy of Bibi, why he provokes such strong feelings in Israelis and people around the world who care about Israel, we shouldn’t make do with just this one video.
Because within a twenty-four-hour period last week, Bibi appeared in no less than three very different videos. Or at least, someone who looks remarkably like him appeared in three separate videos, though, appearances aside, it might as well have been three different men.
AIPAC Bibi strutted across the stage with catchy metaphors, memorable sound bites, and digestible visual aids. He was cheered by an adoring crowd. He kept complaining that the lighting made it impossible to see them, there’s no doubt this genuinely frustrated him, because his true audience wasn’t the assembled crowd of AIPAC delegates, but the Israelis watching the whole thing on TV back home. The AIPAC “audience” is best understood as a Greek theater’s chorus. Their reactions are there to guide the actual audience’s.
Bibi was speaking in the language he loves. Not Hebrew, but not quite English either. It’s a language he has developed and no other Israeli politician has managed to fully emulate. It’s English for the Israelis. Bibi’s performances in English-for-the-Israelis are not just how he got his career started; they are his essential moments. The Israeli who can speak to the world on Israel’s terms is precisely what so impresses many Israelis about him (and so enrages others). Bibi’s performances in English-for-the-Israelis work because they have the quality that any politician’s selling point must have and few actually do — they are completely genuine. They are an expression of his deeply-held worldview that what ails Israel is not so much bad policy choices as bad PR. Bibi without the mellifluous English is Moshe Dayan with two eyes.
But this isn’t the only English Bibi speaks. The very next morning he gave an extended interview on stage to the Economic Club of Washington, DC. The questions weren’t particularly difficult, but the talk was nevertheless unscripted. The prime minister is obviously tired, and his early request for another cushion for his chair indicates that he is suffering some kind of back pain. There are occasional turns of phrase that come from prepared sound bites, but they mostly fall flat and are unmemorable.
The notable moments of the interview don’t seem to be canned at all. They include stories of his own life, original and interesting analyses of the regional situation which have room for doubt and modesty rather than pretensions of omniscience. There are occasional comments which contradict earlier comments. There are even grammatical mistakes in Bibi’s English, as for example when he makes the very common Israeli mistake of maintaining a plural in a compound noun formation (“three-months strike” instead of “three-month strike”).
What’s most striking about Netanyahu’s performance in this interview (as in his very similar sit-down with Fareed Zakaria in Davos earlier this winter) was the relative moderation of the views he espoused on the Palestinian issue. He seems, quite unlike some of the other blowhards in his cabinet, to have understood the genuine dilemma Israel faces in the West Bank, even if he is unwilling or unable to do much about it now. But he can’t seem to bring himself to share this with his own constituency — not in Hebrew, and not in the English-for-Israelis they are watching him in.
There are real costs to this, as, for example, in the aftermath of the 2014 round of Israel-Palestinian negotiations where Bibi made far-reaching concessions which will inevitably become the starting point in the next round (if there ever is one), but couldn’t escape being blamed for the talks’ failure. The prime minister does not seem to want to confront his own public with what he knows are Israel’s limited options in the territory it has ruled for the last fifty years.
Only a few hours elapse between this video and the third video. Bibi is still wearing the same suit, the same Trumpian long red tie, only this time he is speaking in Hebrew. This Hebrew has none of the introspection or moderation of Sitting English Bibi and none of the uplifting cadences and empty slogans of AIPAC Bibi either. Hebrew Bibi speaks from a poorly-lit room with book-lined shelves behind him pugnaciously spouting conspiracy theories about the investigations against him and calling standard police procedures into question in terms that wouldn’t shame a mob boss. Hebrew Bibi is compelling for the same reason AIPAC Bibi is: At the moment he speaks, he seems to genuinely believe what he is saying.
It’s hard to believe the man who is essentially drunk-dialing the voting public on camera in the third video is the same intelligent man who sat down and improvised in the second, much less the eloquent if shallow man from the first, but they are and he is.
And this is his tragedy. Israel’s current prime minister isn’t just one of these men, but all three. It’s the secret to his staying power, but it’s also the fundamental reason why he has done so much nothing in the past years. Some of that nothing, notably staying out of the various Arab wars on Israel’s borders and refraining from the kind of pointless military adventures and bombastic retaliations that characterized the tenures of nearly all of his predecessors, has been for good. But much of that nothing, particularly the inability to take any affirmative action to wind down Israel’s suicidal entrenchment in the West Bank, is catastrophic.
Sitting Bibi clearly knows it, but AIPAC Bibi is just so effective at changing the topic that Hebrew Bibi is left with nothing too constructive to say.
Shany Mor is a former Director for Foreign Policy on the Israeli National Security Council.