The Tragedy of Benjamin Netanyahu
The ancient Greeks who invented the tragedy based it, in many ways, on an idea first articulated by the philosopher Heraclitus: ethos anthropo daimon — character is fate. What makes a man successful, they understood, is quite often what eventually destroys him. History has tended to bear this out, and at the moment, no public figure seems to embody it better than Benjamin Netanyahu.
As Israel’s longest serving prime minister, Netanyahu has been in many ways an extraordinary success. Among his achievements are normalization agreements with a series of Arab and Muslim states, a still-booming economy, a COVID-19 vaccination campaign that leads the world, spectacular covert operations against Iran, and a security policy that has, with one exception, avoided major conflict. Yet Netanyahu is now facing imminent defeat. With a deadlocked election result that leaves him unable to form a governing coalition, he appears to be, at long last, on his way out.
The most remarkable thing about this has been little commented upon: with all of Netanyahu’s accomplishments, why is it happening at all? Logically, Netanyahu should have won the elections running away. The fact that he hasn’t, and indeed stands on the edge of political oblivion, is almost incomprehensible.
The answer to this question, in classic Greek fashion, is that Netanyahu has been defeated by his own talents. It is not an exaggeration to say that Netanyahu is, if nothing else, a political genius. As he himself has reportedly said: everyone else plays checkers, while he plays chess. With a preternatural understanding of Israel’s convoluted political system, Netanyahu is a dancer, constantly maneuvering between friends and enemies, allies and rivals, shifting when necessary and holding fast at others, all in the service of his desire to remain, somehow, in power; and there are very few things he will not do, and few principles he will not abandon, to achieve victory.
The laundry list of these maneuvers is long, and goes back to the beginning of Netanyahu’s political career: his failure to condemn incitement against the late Yitzhak Rabin; his deliberate torpedoing of a unity government with obviously false claims of a cabinet conspiracy against him by then-ministers Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid; his infamous claim that “the Arabs are flowing to the polls”; his assertion that Lapid and Benny Gantz were collaborating with terror supporters; his recent betrayal of a rotation agreement with Gantz, and so on — it is a dark, but effective, legacy.
Netanyahu’s unscrupulous brilliance has worked for a long time, but the bill appears to have come due — and it is precisely that brilliance that has proved to be his Achilles’ Heel. With his endless machinations over a decade in power, Netanyahu has survived; but he has also alienated almost everyone, including his natural allies. Indeed, the “anti-Netanyahu bloc” that formed in the last elections included many right-wingers who in other circumstances would almost automatically join a Netanyahu-led government, such as Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett, and Avigdor Lieberman. Even Gantz and Lapid, who are firmly in the center, are not that far from Netanyahu on most policy questions, and could easily be included in a unity coalition were it not for their intense antipathy toward the prime minister himself.
One could view all of this as simple opportunism or shallow personal animosity on the part of Netanyahu’s enemies, and there is some truth in that. But it is not the primary cause. Opportunism can be finessed and personal animosity put aside in the world of politics. What cannot be finessed and put aside is total lack of faith. Put simply, Netanyahu’s political enemies don’t believe a word he says, don’t believe he will live up to his promises, and see no reason whatsoever to ally themselves with someone who will betray them at the first possible opportunity.
And they have good reason for thinking this, because Netanyahu has indeed lied to and betrayed almost everybody in Israeli politics. It is possible that he has done so because he feels he has to, that he is the only one who can successfully lead Israel, and thus principles must be compromised and disreputable things done in the name of a greater good. That this greater good has also been very good for Netanyahu, however, has not been lost on his victims.
Netanyahu has been an extremely good prime minister on his own terms. He may even be a great man. At the very least, as was once said of Napoleon, he is as great as a man can be without virtue. But Netanyahu is also a tragically flawed human being. In Sophocles’ masterpiece Oedipus Rex, it is Oedipus’ noble, selfless desire to save his subjects from a plague that proves to be his undoing. In Aeschylus’ Oresteia, it is Orestes’ filial loyalty to his murdered father that condemns him to be pursued by the Furies. It is possible that, like them, Netanyahu’s character will be his fate. It will be his own extraordinary gifts, and the sometimes terrible measures he has taken to serve them, that will prove to be his downfall.