NEW YORK – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced two vastly different realities this week.
The first was the one he experienced in Washington and New York. This is the one where he talked about Iran and the Palestinians with President Donald Trump, was greeted by an enthusiastic standing ovation by 18,000 AIPAC supporters in Washington, DC, and discussed economic reform at a breakfast attended by some 500 US business leaders at the Economic Club of Washington, DC.
The other reality was one that he was physically absent from but constantly plugged into: the reality in Israel. This was a reality dominated by former close aide Nir Hefetz turning state’s witness, by leaks that Hefetz told police investigators that Yair Netanyahu has an unhealthy influence on his father, and by the ongoing coalition crisis over haredi conscription.
Though thousands of kilometers separated these two realities, they intermingled.
For instance, on Monday, the very day Netanyahu was to meet Trump in the Oval Office for their fifth meeting, word leaked out that Hefetz would sign a state’s witness agreement. On the morning of his meeting with Trump – a meeting dominated by Iran, and with the prime minister urging the president to either fully fix the Iranian nuclear agreement or fully nix it – – Netanyahu awoke with a note from one of his aides informing him of the Hefetz bombshell.
And on Tuesday, the day Netanyahu gave a masterful performance at AIPAC – rousing the crowd, the way he uniquely is able to do, with tales of Israeli achievements and promise – his coalition was teetering on the brink because of disputes over the haredi conscription law. He spoke to AIPAC in the morning, and was speaking long distance with his coalition partners in the afternoon.
These two realities brought out two very different Netanyahus.
There was the statesmanlike Netanyahu, the one on display sitting very comfortably alongside Trump in the Oval Office; the one who fired up the supporters at AIPAC the next day; and the one who met so naturally with Republican and Democrat legislators in the Capitol and presented Israel’s case.
And then there was the Facebook Netanyahu. The Netanyahu who on Wednesday posted a bitter video clip essentially accusing the police of persecuting him.
“I want to say a few words about the state’s witness industry. They take people whom they claim committed some crime,” Netanyahu said. “They place them under detention, terrify them, tell them ‘your life is over, your family’s lives are over, we will take everything from you, including your freedom. You want to get out of this? There is one way only – smear Netanyahu.
It’s not important if you tell delusional lies, as long as you smear Netanyahu.
“When there is something real, you don’t need even one state’s witness,” Netanyahu said. “And when there’s nothing, even a thousand state’s witnesses will not help. The obsessive chase after one state’s witness, and another, and another, is the best proof that there is nothing.”
Netanyahu, the world leader, on one hand; Netanyahu, who views himself as a persecuted politician, on the other.
“So they will continue,” he said. “They will continue with what they do, and I will continue with what I do – historic work here for the State of Israel.”
And that’s what happened this week. Netanyahu continued with his schedule, going to the US, meeting Trump, addressing audiences and being received warmly, as though there were no investigations.
And “they,” meaning the police, continued with their work – looking for more evidence, continuing their probe – as though Netanyahu were not engaging in high-stakes diplomacy abroad.
What was most striking was that if not for that Facebook post on Wednesday, one would have had little inkling while watching Netanyahu up close throughout the week that he was all too burdened by the investigations.
In briefings with reporters – both short ones on the plane and a much longer one in the Blair House after his meeting with Trump – he seemed relaxed and supremely confident.
He joked, appeared calm, and did not show any outward signs of stress from investigations that could conceivably not only cost him his job but also land him in jail.
If he was worried about all that, it was not evident – not when he met Trump, not when he spoke to AIPAC, nor when he took part in a tribute to outgoing Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky in New York on Thursday night. If he was distracted, he did a wonderful job hiding it.
During a loose on-stage interview at the Economics Club function in Washington with David Rubenstein, a billionaire financier and philanthropist who has a show on Bloomberg television where he interviews various business leaders, Netanyahu was asked if the ongoing investigations were not distracting him from his ability to serve as prime minister.
“I can’t say that I like it,” he said. “I can say it doesn’t detract, because I work my 16-hour days, and I just do it. I’m absolutely committed to defending Israel, liberating its economy. And [with] these twin pursuits, and seeking what could lead to peace between our neighbors, my hands are full, and I’m very satisfied with what I do, and the public apparently thinks that [as well], because you can see what the public says [in the polls].”
But then along comes a bitter Facebook post like the one on Wednesday, and it belies that supreme confidence.
While Netanyahu says – and his demeanor radiates – that in this “me vs them” equation, he will win out, no one really knows for sure. And what is at stake is not only Netanyahu’s personal and political future, but also his legacy: how he will be remembered, and what he will be remembered for. Will he be remembered for keeping Israel safe, or for breach of trust? For economic reform, or for bribery? The “legacy” issue came up in the interview with Rubenstein. The expectation going into that event was that it would be more of the same: More of Netanyahu talking about Israel as the “innovation nation”; more of how the country stands at the nexus where big data, connectivity and artificial intelligence all meet; more about how Israel betters the world and gains leverage through its technological and security expertise and prowess.
And he did use those well-worn talking points. But there was more.
Rubenstein, conducting a Barbara Walters-type interview, asked questions about Netanyahu’s biography and feelings.
He uncovered that when Netanyahu came to America at the age of eight years old, he knew no English, and set out acquiring perfect English thanks to the efforts of his mother, who helped him pronounce words such as “the” correctly, and a girl named Judy who sat next to him in class and took out “Dick and Jane” books and helped teach him English through sentences such as “see Spot run.”
Rubenstein asked Netanyahu who were the historical leaders he most admired and looked up to.
“Many,” the prime minister said. “I’d say Moses, Herzl, Churchill. Having dinner with them would be interesting.
With Moses I could get in a word, because he was a stammerer. Churchill, no way. And Herzl, he was tremendous, he was like a modern Moses.”
Which led to the next question, the legacy question. “If you had your chance to write your own legacy now and say this is what you accomplished with your life, what would you want people to say about what you’ve done?” Netanyahu paused, thought for five seconds, and then answered succinctly, “Defender of Israel, liberator of its economy.”
He is now battling to preserve that legacy, and is doing it in many different ways. He is doing it by continuing with business as usual, by going abroad and doing what he’s best at – presenting Israel’s case to world leaders, and giving highly effective speeches. But he is also doing it by casting aspersions on those investigating him.
The different approaches seem contradictory – one exalted, the other petty.
But they commingle easily in the same politician, much as the two realities Netanyahu faced this week intermingled across a continent and an ocean.