columnIsrael News

Netanyahu’s reckoning?

The prime minister may be something close to a great man, but his persistent refusal to take responsibility for his failures could be his undoing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset debate, June 24, 2024. Credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset debate, June 24, 2024. Credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

As the war in Gaza appears to be winding down and another appears to be winding up on Israel’s northern border, Israeli politics is returning to something like its usual state: angry contention.

For many months, the political divisions that threatened to rip the country to pieces in the year before the Oct. 7 massacre were buried by war. The interregnum appears to be over. The street protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have heated up again, with the issue of a hostage deal added to the usual grievances. Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, recently quit the War Cabinet and with it the government in a very public spat with the prime minister. A recent Kan News poll showed Netanyahu would lose his Knesset majority by a considerable margin in the next election.

There is, in the end, only one reason for this discord: Netanyahu himself. Those who hate the prime minister—and they are legion—are determined to topple him once again whether through elections or other means.

However, those who have already written Netanyahu’s political obituary should proceed with caution. He is beyond question the most talented and successful Israeli politician of his generation. He commands a fiercely loyal base that will never abandon him. If Israelis emerge from this war feeling like they won something like a victory, it is entirely possible that Netanyahu will survive.

Still, this raises the question of whether Netanyahu should survive. In the interests of full disclosure, I will reveal my bias: I think Netanyahu should have resigned on Oct. 8 for the sake of personal honor, if for no other reason. Certainly, in many other countries with parliamentary systems, Netanyahu and his government could never have survived such a colossal military and intelligence failure.

For example, in 1940, when Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies proved a disaster, his Conservative Party removed him and replaced him with Winston Churchill. There was never a chance that this would happen in Israel, as Netanyahu’s Likud Party has always been fiercely loyal to its leaders. Nonetheless, the issue of personal honor remains.

To resign for such reasons, however, would have demanded something Netanyahu often fiercely resists: Taking responsibility for his failures.

Regarding Oct. 7, Netanyahu is almost alone in his failure to do so. Most other Israeli leaders, including those like Naftali Bennett and others who were not in power when the attack occurred, have already taken their fair share of responsibility. Netanyahu has not.

It is fairly easy to envision Netanyahu’s line of defense, especially in the next elections. He will almost certainly say something like: The Israel Defense Forces and the security establishment boxed me into their failed strategy. The United States wouldn’t let me deal properly with Hamas. Primary responsibility for the disaster rests with the previous Bennett-Lapid government. I am being scapegoated by a biased media and the Biden administration wants to force me out. It’s not my fault.

I think this refusal is sincere. I admit that this is speculation, but I am convinced that Netanyahu genuinely believes that he bears little or no responsibility for the failures of Oct. 7. This is not so much a result of arrogance or narcissism. It is because of how Netanyahu views his opponents.

Much like Richard Nixon, Netanyahu is a brilliant man often undone by the fact that he defines himself entirely by his enemies. Certainly, he has his fair share, and the hatred he arouses in his opponents is often disproportionate and unfair. Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s fervent belief that he is an infinitely aggrieved and persecuted party goes beyond reality. There is an air of paranoia to his worldview.

This is, in some ways, tragic. Because if anything may ultimately undo Netanyahu, I think it will be his failure to take responsibility. Blaming everybody else and stoking up his base’s outrage may save him, but it will be a hollow and cheap victory. It will be, in many ways, very small.

One can defend Netanyahu’s actions, of course. One could say it would have been foolish for a prime minister to resign during Israel’s most serious war in decades. Netanyahu has proven to be a relatively effective war leader. He has stood up to American pressure when it mattered. He remains one of the most skilled political tacticians in the world, and a skilled tactician is what Israel needs right now.

Yet all of this elides the simple truth that if the ship sinks while the captain is asleep in his bunk, it’s still the captain’s fault. The buck has to stop somewhere. In Israel, like it or not, it stops with the prime minister. Netanyahu’s refusal to accept the buck results in a very strange paradox: If Netanyahu is responsible for nothing, then he is simultaneously saying that he is both a strong leader and a helpless figurehead at the mercy of forces that will not allow him even to save the country from disaster.

This may prove to be an effective defense but it is a risky one. It may prompt people to ask: “Since you can’t actually do anything as prime minister, what’s the point in having you as prime minister?”

Should they ask this question, it’s not clear where Israelis may turn. Another Likud figure could replace him as leader and thus as prime minister, but Netanyahu has proven very effective at neutralizing any potential rivals. Gantz currently appears to be leading Netanyahu in most polls. A former prime minister like Bennett could return to power. Israelis may seek out a leader even more right-wing than Netanyahu. Moreover, given that Bennett served as prime minister despite winning less than 10% of the vote, it is theoretically possible that anyone could replace Netanyahu.

One wonders, of course, if any replacement is preferable. For example, would Bennett or Gantz be willing to stand up to Washington when necessary? Would they be willing to defy the world’s opprobrium? Would they be willing to go the distance?

The answer may be “no” to all three. If so, Israel may be well served by retaining Netanyahu for the moment. Nonetheless, it is more or less certain that one thing Netanyahu is not willing to do is take responsibility. Whatever one thinks of him, this is a very serious character flaw, and a leader’s character does matter.

Character, moreover, is fate. Love him or hate him, Netanyahu is something very close to a great man, if only because of his extraordinary longevity. But if, out of his deep sense of grievance, he cannot bring himself to admit to his own failures, he will in some ways undo everything he hoped would be his legacy. This would be a profoundly tragic ending. Nonetheless, it is the ending that any leader who cannot acknowledge the reality of his own power deserves.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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