“Jumping the shark” has come to mean a long-running franchise revealing inadvertently that it is past its prime. The phrase originated when Fonzie in “Happy Days” jumped over a shark in water skis – and the TV-sitcom went downhill from there, losing its focus, its edge, its original mission. In politics, we could use the phrase “becoming a shark”: as their grip on power fades, aging, ailing, failing leaders often become snarky, snarling, forgetting the light touch, the empathy, the vision, that once made them more appealing – and often more healing as leaders.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s press conference on Wednesday, April 21, triggered these thoughts – and fears. Netanyahu kept grinning like a hungry, hypocritical shark while lambasting Naftali Bennett and pretending to care about democracy by demanding direct elections for prime minister – undemocratically trying to change the rules of the game mid-match, because he is losing. The low point came when a reporter asked him about the reprehensible personal attacks burly, aggressive, Bibistas made against MK Ze’ev Elkin’s wife and five-year-old daughter, right outside the Elkin family home. “I am against personal assaults against anyone,” the Prime Minister said. “You can attack politically but there’s no need to attack personally – and certainly not family members.”
Fair enough. But, having exceeded his empathy quota after barely ten seconds, Netanyahu couldn’t resist adding: “but also not against my family members – also the terrible things done against me….”
There you had it – in a flash: the difference between the elegant, confident, magnanimous Bibi Netanyahu who dazzled New York and Washington in the 1980s – the New York Times called him “the toast of the town” – and today’s insecure, demagogic, loser who overstayed his welcome. Back then, Netanyahu would have seemingly taken the reporter’s bait – then Jew-jitsued, turning it into a three-course empathy feast. He would have shown genuine concern for the Elkin family, offered them more protection, and sternly lectured his own people about denouncing violence and respecting democracy. He would have woven in his absurd claim for direct elections into a mini-lecture about democracy that would have had people so moved by his concern for the Elkin family – despite them being his opponents – they wouldn’t have noticed the craven politicking. Instead, we just had more proof of what more and more Israelis are realizing: it’s time for Bibi to go.
Unlike some of my friends, I take no joy in Bibi-bashing. He is my prime minister. I have defended him for decades. I was dazzled by his public diplomacy skills when he represented Israel so ably in the United States and the United Nations. I was terrified for him – and for his hosts in the Montreal Jewish community – when pro-Palestinian thugs rioted at Concordia University in September, 2002, to stop him for speaking. I then spent months calling on my fellow (neighboring) academics to hold the hooligans accountable and defend free speech on campus. I have repeatedly thanked him for his many contributions to making Israel a start-up nation, a safer nation, an Abrahamic nation at peace with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan – and hopefully other countries soon — and now the world’s premier vaccination nation. I have angered many American friends by echoing his long, sustained, necessary, effective campaign against Iran’s evil mullahcracy going nuclear – and joined him in questioning many Democrats’ blindspot on the issue. And, as the father of soldiers, I have often been grateful that Israel had a steady hand on the military wheel, one who knows personally the costs and risks of war.
So, yes, just like stale cheese was tasty once, Netanyahu’s stale tenure today doesn’t negate the accomplishments of yesterday. But if anyone had doubts before, last week confirmed that Caesarea beckons, it’s time for Bibi to retire. With violence mounting in Gaza, in East Jerusalem, and, among our own homegrown Jewish thugs – we need a leader who has zero-tolerance for bigotry and bullying – be it with words, fists, rocks or rockets. Instead, we’re stuck with a leader who is trying to mainstream Kahanist anti-Arabs and is so busy woe-is-me-ing about attacks against him that he ends up sounding like he’s justifying attacks on his rivals. We also need a leader with time and mental energy to focus on Israel’s exit from Corona, economic revival, social stresses, and diplomatic challenges. Instead, we’re cursed with a leader who is on trial, and is distracted, as we all are by the spectacle. It’s humiliating to watch his obsessive, shameful, heavy-handed manipulations to get positive press coverage for him and his family, exposed, mocked, dissected, defused. And we need a leader not just with the vision to keep this diverse country together but with a heart big enough to love and care for all Israeli citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and all Jews around the world, in Israel and abroad. Instead, we have a wincing, whining, wheedling wheeler-dealer, whose press conference revealed a desperate demagogue who lost his moral compass on the way down, not an inspiring leader who can help us forge ahead.
Netanyahu had that false shark smile last Wednesday, which he repeatedly flashed, telegraphing his discomfort. And like an old aging shark, he is looking quite toothless these days, as his mandate runs out, his hooligans grumble, and the country gets ready, finally, to move on – we hope. It didn’t have to be this way – I say as a citizen. But as a biographer and an historian I wonder, maybe it did.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.