Speaking to Congress in 2015 against the Iranian nuclear deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the geopolitics of the Middle East as a “deadly game of thrones” between competing radical Islamic ideologies, in which “there’s no place for America or for Israel, no peace for Christians, Jews or Muslims who don’t share the Islamist medieval creed.”
This was a sly pop culture nod to the hit HBO fantasy series in a speech tailored for an American audience.
And while it’s fun to think that Bibi spends his idle hours distracting himself with the flashing swordplay and fire-breathing dragons of Game of Thrones, the mention was likely suggested by one of the several younger Anglo-Israelis on his staff.
The prime minister has made no further reference to the series, which recently concluded its sixth season.
But its depiction of the political struggle among various parties for the Iron Throne of the fictional kingdom of Westeros does offer up some interesting parallels with his own brand of politics.
One of the key lessons of leadership the series repeatedly hammers home is that in a cruel world of competing interests, all the best intentions and highest values are useless, unless backed up by the real threat of force, and its occasional application when necessary. Time and time again the series, drawing from the rich pseudo- historical world created in the books of George R.R.
Martin, dashes viewer expectations by showing us its nominal heroes frustrated, or dealt far worse fates, by their failure to heed this simple principle.
This is particularly so when the stakes are so high as to become existential. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or your die,” quipped the current occupant of Westeros’ Iron Throne, Queen Cersei of House Lannister. That’s probably not a bad summation of precisely how the prime minister views the struggle between Israel and the minions of Iran’s radical Islamic regime, and perhaps more metaphorically, the domestic political contest for his own prime minister’s seat.
Although the Lannisters are the program’s ostensible antagonists, it is also complex enough to have depicted Cersai’s father, Tywin, a master of ruthless realpolitik machinations, as probably the most capable ruling figure yet presented. When times are tough in a land surrounded by enemies and riven with internal rifts, the show suggests, you can do far worse in the leadership stakes than the likes of a brilliant bastard such as Tywin Lannister.
All of which brings me to the prime minister. As a journalist working for both the foreign and local press over the years, I never cease to be amazed by the capacity of Netanyahu’s opponents and detractors to underestimate the man. Pundits and political rivals have been predicting his imminent downfall for years, and constantly betray surprise at both his ability to survive in office, and at the willingness of a majority of Israelis to support a premiership that will soon surpass in length that of founding father David Ben-Gurion.
Netanyahu’s ability to so effectively play the game of thrones can’t be chalked off simply to ruthlessness, which is no short supply in Israeli politics. There’s also the fact that – based on personal observation – he is really, really smart; not just shrewd on a basic gamesmanship level, but possessing the kind of far-ranging intelligence that enables him to read both the domestic political and regional geopolitical maps far better than most of his political opponents.
I know I won’t win over many of his detractors with that claim, but let me suggest an interesting intellectual exercise: Go back three decades to read Netanyahu’s book Fighting Terrorism, together with the Shimon Peres’s work The New Middle East written in the same period. One has turned out to be a veritable work of historical prophecy, while the other can now be best appreciated as imaginatively painting a fantasy world more implausible than just about everything in Game of Thrones save the dragons.
In these stormy times, then, it’s not at all surprising that sitting atop our own Iron Throne is a man who throughout his career has rejected the notion that a new Middle East or Arab Spring or Peace Now lies just beyond the horizon. Netanyahu’s one consistent message has been to refute such starry optimism and insist – to cite Martin’s most repeated cautionary mantra – that “Winter is coming,” if not already here.
BUT THAT’S not the end of the story, neither in the fictional world of Game of Thrones nor in the non-fictional realm of Israel.
Another lesson from the series is a cautionary warning that “You win or you die” can sometimes be carried too far, especially when it comes to domestic politics. In the final episode of this season, Cersai Lannister incinerates all her nearest rivals to power in a fiery blast of dragon-fire, seemingly solidifying her grip on the Iron Throne. Unfortunately, it also leaves her with precious few potential allies in her own camp even as external challenges mount.
At some point, too, the prime minister’s scorched earth strategy in dealing with potential rivals from within the Likud will catch up with him, leaving Netanyahu vulnerable when a serious challenge does eventually emerge that can capture Israel’s centrist majority. And while I doubt the defection of former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon marks the beginning of the end of Netanyahu’s rule, it has fed a growing sense even among his own nationalist camp that the prime minister may have finally burned too many of his political bridges.
Finally, while Game of Thrones has from its beginning demonstrated the occasional necessity for the raw force of realpolitik, it also acknowledges that truly great leaders, the kind that can inspire peoples and lead them to new, heroic heights, must offer them something more in the way of general compassion and a humane and optimistic vision for the future than “Winter is coming” and “You win or you die.”
For six seasons the series has kept viewers on edge with the hope that either Daenerys Targaryen or Jon Snow, the two outside contenders for the Iron Throne who embody a potential for leadership that speaks more to the better angels of human nature than the likes of a Tywin Lannister, will overcome their travails and gain the throne of Westeros.
While I suspect they will, real history, alas, is not a TV show, nor a morality play. In the meantime Israel has decided, understandably, that in this long, dark winter of the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu is the leader it needs. In better times perhaps, when the signs of real regional spring emerge, it may opt instead for the one it deserves.
Stay tuned.Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English TV News.