January 19, 2020

Netanyahu: The Two Narratives

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Netanyahu 1: From the beginning, we knew Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was corrupt and irresponsible. His path to power was cleared when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. Netanyahu bares a share of responsibility for that tragic event —he’d viciously attacked Rabin verbally and rallied incitement against him. He had no limits and didn’t care about the consequences of his actions. 

Netanyahu 2: From the start, they wouldn’t give him a chance. First, they blamed him for Rabin’s assassination. Then, they blamed him for the collapse of a bogus peace process with Yasser Arafat. He’d barely been elected when a fusillade of investigations into him began. The old establishment was determined to take him down, by whatever means. 

Netanyahu 1: He knew no limits in pitting people and groups against one another. Why did he need to whisper into a rabbi’s ear that “the left forgot how to be Jewish?” Because he thrived on mutual hatred. He fought against the media, the courts, democratic values. Rather than wanting to be a unifier, he was a divider. Oh, and he never liked to pay for services. He thought that he deserved to get everything for free. 

Netanyahu 2: Wouldn’t you become a paranoid if groups wielding great power sought to destroy you, politically and personally? Wouldn’t you become obsessed with the media’s power, when newspapers and TV channels are all filled with commentators whose only mantra is “Bibi must go” and whose only analysis of events is “It’s all Bibi’s fault?”

Netanyahu 1: Before Bibi, Likud had leaders who had dignity. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir — we didn’t like their policies but we knew their true motivation was to protect Israel. That it was not about them, it was about their country. They were honest, they were gentlemen, they were worthy rivals. It is good to have differences of opinions, and good to have political rivalries but some rules of civility must be maintained — and Bibi has no interest in maintaining them. 

Netanyahu 2: Ha! You called Begin a “baby killer” and “a terrorist” in demonstrations against the first Lebanon War. You betrayed Shamir in the 1990 “stinking (dirty) trick.” The only reason you miss these two is because they ultimately lost an election and let you — the left — hold onto power, not just in the government but also in academia, the courts, the media. Netanyahu bit you time and again and is determined to uproot the old Labor establishment. That’s why you dislike him (in fact, hate would be a more accurate term).

Netanyahu 1: He is bad a prime minister. He destroyed the peace process with the Palestinians and wants to annex and West Bank. He failed to stop Iran. He sells the country to the ultra-Orthodox parties. He alienated the Democratic Party in the U.S. and American Jews. 

Netanyahu 2: Look at the facts: In the mid-1990s, Israel was still a second-rate country, endangering itself by entertaining pipe dreams about a “new Middle East.” Netanyahu cut through that nonsense. He modernized Israel’s economy, stopped the detrimental process of compromises with terrorists who want to kill us, and correctly assessed that the Middle East wasn’t about to become a friendly territory for Jews. In fact, the opposition is angry at him not for being wrong, it’s angry at him for being right. When world leaders had delusions about an Arab Spring, Netanyahu was there to pour cold water on their heads. Sure, they didn’t like it but was he wrong?

Netanyahu 1: He has had too much power for too long, and power corrupts. In recent years, he became sloppy or overconfident or both. He thought he could do whatever he wanted  without paying a price. He could appoint “clown” ministers to important positions to spite his rivals (Culture Minister Miri Regev). He could pass legislation without regard to the sensitivities of others (nation-state bill). He could enjoy expensive cigars provided by wealthy acquaintances who needed to remain his allies (Case 1000). He could pressure the media, offering financial benefits in exchange for positive news coverage (Cases 2000, 4000). He was out of control.

Netanyahu 2: As much as they tried to do so by political means, his critics couldn’t take him down. The people wanted him as their prime minister. So ultimately, they turned to legal means. And because he never took any money from anyone, they started inventing crimes that don’t exist in law books. Accepting gifts is suddenly illegal (what about gifts received by Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon?). Getting positive news coverage is suddenly a crime (why didn’t anyone investigate the 40 members of Knesset supporting legislation that would benefit a certain newspaper?). To indict Netanyahu, they would use all means, employ all dirty tricks. This is a coup, not the pursuit of justice. 

Netanyahu 1: Finally, we got him. Now, for once, he should do the right thing and step down. We are tired of his trickery, his incitement, his never-ending campaign of hate. It’s time for him to act like a statesman and clear the way for a successor, either from within his party or from another party. And you know what? Maybe, if he does the right thing, we’d be willing to consider a deal of sorts. Clemency. This can be good both for you, Mr. Prime Minister, and for your country. 

Netanyahu 2: He must fight. He must not let the legal system, the old establishment, the left, win. The law doesn’t say that he should quit. The Knesset doesn’t have a majority of elected officials who’d vote to remove him from office. If he goes, it’d be exactly as he said: Rather than the people deciding who they want as their leader, a small cadre of insiders will get to determine the country’s political fate. This is the rule of the elite over the masses. This is undemocratic. Netanyahu, as a true democrat, not a fake one who only talks the talk but doesn’t face the consequences, must give them hell and fight — for himself, and also for the people who still want him as their leader.


As I write these words, Netanyahu seems poised to fight. 

As I write these words, Israel is facing a political and a legal crisis. 

As I write these words, two narratives clash, and the country is trapped between them. 

Thinking and reading about Netanyahu in recent weeks, I came across an interview with him and Larry King when he first visited the U.S. as prime minister in 1996. A lot has happened to Israel and to Netanyahu since those early days of his first term. A lot has changed. Not all for the better. 

Netanyahu: What does Israel do with its former prime ministers? First of all, in Israel there is no such thing as a former prime minister. They always try to come back. I’m going to break the mold.

King: You wouldn’t stay?

Netanyahu: Well, two terms and I’m out. Now, you may not believe this, but … I advocated a limit of two terms for the prime minister, two successive terms and then you’re out. And I would be delighted to serve my two terms and then go and write a book…

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.