Grumpy Old Man: The un-Bibi

A lot of Israeli voters are fed up with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I am one of them.

March 12, 2015 11:57
Elections in Israel

Elections in Israel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Next Tuesday, I’ll head into the voting booth at the elementary school around the corner. I’ll slide out a party ballot from the tray of ballot slips and place it in the envelope given me by the precinct staff. I’ll exit the booth, push the envelope into the slot of the light-blue ballot box, and leave.

So easy, this fundamental act of democracy (and mechanically, so archaic, considering the hi-tech nation we are). Yet historically, at least for me, it’s been very, very difficult – for I can’t remember an election campaign in which I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking and even agonizing about the choice I’d be making, sometimes even right up until the point where I chose a ballot inside the booth.

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You see, I’m not a member of a political party. And aside from Zionism, I’m encumbered with little in the way of ideological baggage. Also, I’m not inclined to follow a certain leadership figure through thick and thin. Realities and possibilities, always dynamic in our neck of the woods, have guided my decisions.

It would go something like this: Party A is strong on defense. But wait – it’s weak on social issues. Party B is strong on social issues. But wait – it’s naïve about the prospects for peace. Party C gets it about peace, but it’s too ideologically driven about the West Bank. Party D applies no ideologies to the thorny issue of occupying another people, but it’s led by someone who has questionable relationships with questionable people.

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Not this time, though. This time it will be easy as pie.

There are numerous campaign issues on our plates, but for the vast swath of the electorate, starting with the moderate Left, running through the Center and ending with the moderate Right, this election cycle has just one issue: Benjamin Netanyahu and his viability as a leader versus the liability his leadership poses.

KEEPING IN MIND a popular American ad campaign from the late 1960s, in which Madison Avenue went up against the perennial cola powerhouses by promoting a clear, bubbly, lemon-lime soft drink as the “un-cola,” I’m looking for the un-Bibi.

Go ahead. Laugh. You can describe me with derision or an unprintable oath. You can move on to the next opinion piece.

But it’s not going to change anything.

I’m fed up. A lot of people are.

I can’t say our prime minister is always wrong. The essence of what recently took him to Capitol Hill, this business about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, makes me nervous. So does US President Barack Obama’s apparently desperate lunge for a deal with Tehran, if only for a positive legacy in foreign policy.

But what has Bibi actually done? Has he done anything serious to move the peace process forward? Did he accomplish anything this summer in the Gaza Strip? Is he bringing down the astronomical cost of housing and other essentials? Has he done anything to unify us, even if only a little? No, he’s not much of a doer. He’s more in the mold of Yitzhak Shamir, the elfin, do-nothing prime minister who understood his job description as digging in and not moving an inch – and even admitted as much after he retired. The only difference is that Netanyahu doesn’t want it to be so blatant, so once in a while he makes noises and goes through the motions. But then he makes like Shamir.

And, like Shamir, he admits it – although with a bit more subtlety and without waiting for retirement. After Meir Dagan blasted him from the podium in Tel Aviv last Saturday evening – with tremendous force and brimming with emotion – the best the prime minister could do was send out a lackey to call the ex-Mossad chief an ingrate for turning on the person who had pulled strings when he desperately needed a new liver.

Liver? The gall! In terms of accomplishments, Bibi has done but two things. He has insulted and infuriated some of the only people left in the world who might be our allies. And worse, he has instilled nothing but a blanket sense of fear, loathing and distrust over much of the country, rather than a sense of hope and high expectations.

And he’s done it from a pedestal of loftiness and hauteur, the perch of a know-it-all.

Conveying it perfectly is one of the photos that came out of his speech to AIPAC the day before his highly controversial address to Congress. The Jerusalem Post can’t use it because of contractual obligations, so I’ll describe the photo as showing Bibi with an index finger held up, as if he’s checking the wind. His head is tilted downward but his eyes are aimed straight out into his audience. And the mouth? It’s set in a crooked smile.

At first glance, the prime minister comes across as a benevolent headmaster admonishing a student who failed to do his homework. Except that the crooked smile is really the smirk we’ve come to know all too well.

That smirk issues no benevolence.

There’s conceit and condescension, hubris and haughtiness. It’s the pose of the Bibi who knows everything and knows it better than anyone else. It’s the arrogance we’ve come to recognize so well for the more-than two-and-a-half decades he’s been a central figure on the political scene.

Netanyahu’s handlers seem to be aware of this problem. For the current campaign, they’ve been showing us a kinder, gentler Bibi – the kind you can trust to babysit your kids, the kind who likes to get his family out for a romp in the Jerusalem snow, the kind who’s genuinely befuddled by all the noise surrounding a few lousy bottles.

This has been the campaign of Bibi the Regular Guy. Even the photo on his election posters shows a face that seems more relaxed and friendly than in past campaigns. It’s a Bibi who’s given up the Chateaubriand and fine wine in favor of burgers and beer, someone you can invite over to watch TV or sit in for an absent partner in your weekly Canasta game.

His strategists seem to think they can keep him above the nastiness of the campaign ads that have sought to portray Israeli leftists as fawning pawns for Islamic State, and Israeli workers seeking a decent living – even if unfairly – as being no better than Hamas. When the ads lead to a backlash, Bibi, high above it all, is able to disavow his involvement.

In America, they end election ads with the candidate looking straight into the camera. “My name is Whatever and I approve this message.” It’s often referred to as the “stand by your ad” proviso.

It came out of 2002 legislation on campaign reform that sought to enforce a modicum of respectability and fairness in the marketplace of democracy.

Not here, though. Here, there are underlings who can be blamed. Of course, it’s possible that Netanyahu didn’t know, but the crude social divisiveness he’s happily sown over the years has made discourse of this kind the norm, whether it’s in political attack ads or aboard airliners whose cabin crews have to put up with the growing phenomenon of the Ugly Israeli.

DON’T BE fooled. Just as the “new Nixon” of 1968 was in reality the old Nixon, this is the same old Bibi.

So in my search for the un-Bibi, allow me to appropriate the title of a traditional Irish tune. While I wish the current prime minister a long, healthy, happy and prosperous life back in Caesarea (or wherever he might exile himself should he lose), I’ll sign off by saying this: Bibi, we knew ye o’ so well.

But this time, don’t come back.

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