09.23.11

Is Netanyahu the New Caligula?

Like his address to Congress in May, Netanyahu gave a bravado speech that was both delusional and detrimental to the wider cause of Israel.

The Roman emperor Caligula was reputed to have waged war on Poseidon, God of the Sea, displaying chests of seashells as “treasure” in a victory march; he was also reputed to have been mad. Benjamin Netanyahu is not mad, but his campaigns definitely bring this anecdote to mind: deploying hundreds of policeman in Ben Gurion Airport to stop “left wing activists” from entering Israel; lecturing the U.S. president on camera on his right to state U.S. policy; and now, fighting the Palestinian attempt to attain U.N. recognition.

All three events carry an identical imprimatur of deploying disproportionate means against much weaker or constrained opponents, then claiming an immense victory– which to many around the world, including much of Israel, appears to be delusional, at best, or downright detrimental, at worst. And there can be no doubt the official Israeli position on the U.N. vote on Palestine belongs firmly in the latter – but not in the Netanyahu bubble, which functions on its own three distinct lines of logic.

First, Netanyahu has no interest in the Palestinian issue in itself: it is a side show to his true ideological bent – which is to prove that Ben Gurion and the left-leaning establishment of the time made a historic mistake in agreeing to the division of Palestine in order to establish a Jewish state in 1948. His fight is to change history: to show the right was right, the Holy Land could be kept whole as the home of the Jewish people, and that to this end all means, including violence in every form, were and remain justified. U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state would void that aim. Worse still, by seeking the vote, the Abbas-led Palestinians are effectively burying their own historic stance, and officially accepting the division of the land into two states. This is a rerun of 1948, but not as Netanyahu envisions.

Second, Netanyahu is a connoisseur of weakness: his true and possibly sole political talent lies in finding the weakness of his opponent and hammering it mercilessly. Faced with strength, he crumbles – especially when dealing with his coalition partners. Indeed, his biggest partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is his biggest problem since he is his diametric opposite: a bruiser and a bully who despises weakness. He is well known to despise Netanyahu, and glories in taking on much bigger opponents such as Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. In his ex-Soviet fashion, he believes in strength for the sake of strength, no matter the cost – which to Israel, is often great.

Netanyahu occasionally allows his office to brief off-the-record against Lieberman, but on the whole he appears helpless when dealing with him. So he escapes abroad, preferably into the arms of the U.S. neo-cons, to whom he sold his soul many years ago – which is the third point. Netanyahu may be the prime minister of Israel, but his political masters sit in Washington D.C., utilizing him in their own battles with Obama and the Democrats. Whether inviting him to address Congress while Obama was out of the U.S., or driving a U.S. veto on the Palestinian vote, Republicans are happy to use Netanyahu in order to shame the current administration. The immense strategic cost this incurs to the U.S. does not seem to interest them in the least.

Netanyahu is a connoisseur of weakness: his true and possibly sole political talent lies in finding the weakness of his opponent and hammering it mercilessly.

Taken together, these points may be bleak, but they also may explain why Netanyahu is willing to drive a position in the U.N. that isolates Israel and weakens the U.S.: he has no choice. He is too weak a politician to do otherwise, and too bound with the historical narrative of the right-wing founding fathers of Israel (including his own father, who is now 101 years old). He is but a vessel of others – who can talk the talk, and leaves others to walk the walk.

So far Netanyahu has gotten away with this, because the Israeli political system is even more broken than that of the U.S., allowing him to use his talent for weakness to the best effect. But things changed this summer, with two months of mass protests focused on social issues. Even now, with the U.N. vote being promoted by the government as an existential threat, the social movement is ploughing ahead, refusing to be budged by the usual scare tactics of “security threats.” Netanyahu does not really understand this shift. He lives in his bubble of advisors, oligarchs and right-wing U.S. backers, Jewish and gentile.

Since he has cynically used the Israeli electoral system to twice get elected, then ride roughshod over the greater national interests in order to service his narrow array of constituencies, he cannot understand that another Israel is out there, not so much disagreeing with him as thoroughly fed up with him, his government and everything he represents. This is not, as Benny Morris suggested, the end of Israel – this is Israel at a turning point.

Rather than pander to Netanyahu, President Obama would do well to appeal to this constituency. So far, the only people he has never directly addressed are the Israelis. Netanyahu went over Obama’s head to address the U.S. Congress; the president should do the same and address the Israeli public. Assured of his friendship and U.S.-backing in the rocky road ahead, the protesting Israelis would have the courage to force Netanyahu to take the necessary steps to secure their future in the region – or else get rid of him. After all, one of the few facts known of Caligula was that despite his early popularity, it was his own guard that ended his reign.