Benjamin Netanyahu: The magnificent or the malevolent? – opinion

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The Jerusalem Post   07.12.2022


Benjamin Netanyahu: The magnificent or the malevolent? – opinion


Two leading politicians dominate Israel. One is magnificent. The other, malevolent. One is democratic, the other, demagogic. One is a grand strategist, the other, a petty egotist. One, a noble Zionist, defends the Jewish state and the Jewish people persistently, effectively, fighting terrorists, undermining dictators, yet making peace wherever he can. The other, a spiteful strongman, threatens Israeli democracy and Jewish unity daily, empowering anti-Zionists, embracing bigots, egging-on bullies. One has a strong sense of history. The other forgets that historians worry about a country’s soul not just its body. One is Benjamin Netanyahu; the other is… also Benjamin Netanyahu.   


Bibi the magnificent is eloquent, wise, patriotic and passionate. Calling himself “a 19th-century democrat,” this proud Zionist selflessly tries to “secure the life of the Jewish state and its future.” He has zero-tolerance for Palestinian terrorists, Iranian nuke-developers, and Jew-haters. He deploys the army “judiciously,” refusing to be “an adventurer,” because, honoring his fallen brother and all our kids, he sighs: “I know the cost of war.”


Bibi the malevolent, however, is vindictive, manipulative, divisive and demagogic. When supporters Christen him “king of Israel,” he beams and appears to many as a malicious narcissist forever grasping power. He has zero-tolerance for critics, liberals, most American Jews and most Israeli judges. And he wields power heavy-handedly, promoting his toadies, be they xenophobes, autocrats, or rabble-rousers.


When the journalist Bari Weiss interviewed Netanyahu, the transcript had “BW” questioning “BN.” BN should have been “BtM” because Bibi the Magnificent showed up. This beatific Bibi is also on display in his new autobiography – and his ongoing book tour. Unfortunately, Israelis do not know which Bibi a small margin of voters elected last month — after four stalemated elections.


Grandly dismissing the hysterical onslaught prematurely predicting the death of Israel’s democracy, Bibi the Magnificent sounded reassuring. He confirmed that he and the secular Likud would lead, not his extremist allies. He reaffirmed his faith in a democracy reflecting the people’s will – tempered by separation of powers. He described his story – and the Jewish people’s saga – movingly, demonstrating a profound, historic, sense of responsibility for the “miracle” spawned by his hero (and mine) Theodor Herzl. He identified Israel’s true enemies as the “backward killers” from without, be they Palestinian rejectionists or Iranian nuke-seekers, not liberals or critics from within.


Dismissing “these doom projections,” emphasizing that he’s Israel’s “longest-serving prime minister,” BtM praised Israel’s “open liberal society.” “I maintained Israel’s democratic nature,” he proclaimed. Mocking ultra-Orthodox as “Pennsylvania Dutch,” he promised that “Israel is not going to be governed by Talmudic law,” that “we’re not going to ban LGBT forums,” and that he won’t cancel feminism. His government’s “overriding policy,” he insisted, will be “determined by the Likud and frankly, by me.”


Most of BtM’s riffs were inspiring. Critics love writing Israel off, body and soul, yet Israel only gets stronger, freer, fairer, better, more tolerant, more democratic, and more just.


Netanyahu is no rookie. Israel often progressed because of him, and sometimes, despite him. He has mastered every leader’s most critical mission: keeping Israel safe; fighting when necessary and peace-making when possible. He’s outfoxed the Iranians repeatedly. And he is correct. Palestinian leaders “don’t want peace with Israel. They want peace without  Israel.”


It’s contradictory to complain about Bibi the strongman while assuming his junior partners will browbeat him. He has never let any Cabinet member upstage him, nor has any Cabinet member in history been as harmful as so many predict Itamar Ben-Gvir and a sub-cabinet member and fellow flame-thrower, Avi Maoz, will be. 


Nevertheless, many fears about this incoming government are justified – and one English-language interview won’t dispel them. The Bibi on display for the last two years was not the Zionist superhero who charmed so many via Bari Weiss and his book. His war against Israel’s judiciary and police mocked his valentines hailing America’s Framers and democracy’s healthy “checks and balances.” After un-democratically refusing to acknowledge Naftali Bennett as prime minister, he and his supporters sound silly when lecturing the new opposition about behaving respectfully. And, even before entering office, Ben-Gvir has already assailed the military chain of command by supporting a thuggish soldier properly disciplined for bullying in Hebron. The “strong” army Netanyahu advocates cannot tolerate Cabinet members who never served harassing those who devoted their entire lives to serving.  


Finally, the calm, centrist, constructive Zionism and the proud, functioning, formidable Israel Bibi championed requires a bridge-builder not a barn-burner, a true Zionist and patriot, not a friend to anti-Zionists and a foe of Israel’s governing institutions. Netanyahu should look to America as a warning — without common democratic values citizens won’t value one another – or their nation.


So, yes, the opposition should calm down — not because Netanyahu or the Likud set any example, but because we are not living in that 2002 dystopian Tom Cruise-Steven Spielberg film Minority  Report,  where people get jailed pre-emptively for pre-crimes. Too much pre-hysteria – presteria? – undermines the democratic opposition’s credibility. Warnings help. But doomsday scenarios risk exhausting most Israelis, inuring them if real abuses occur.


Most important, we need a Better Bibi not a Bitter Bibi moving back into the Prime Minister’s Office. As he noted, “I think I have more than a modest influence on” how Israel will be governed. Bibi the Malevolent has often run for office so Bibi the Magnificent can run Israel. Let’s keep pressing him to use the beautiful Zionist song he just sang to lead Israel not just peddle books.

A Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University currently living in Jerusalem, Gil Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and a leading Zionist activist. He is, most recently, the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People ( www.theljp.org )  . Two years ago he co-authored with Natan Sharansky Never Alone: Prison, Politics and  My People,  was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette. 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 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. 



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