Benjamin Netanyahu: The magnificent or the malevolent? - opinion

Two leading politicians dominate Israel. One is magnificent and the other is malevolent. One is democratic and the other is demagogic. Both are Benjamin Netanyahu.

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU has mastered every leader’s most critical mission: keeping Israel safe, fighting when necessary and peace-making when possible, says the writer.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU has mastered every leader’s most critical mission: keeping Israel safe, fighting when necessary and peace-making when possible, says the writer.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Two leading politicians dominate Israel. One is magnificent and the other is malevolent. One is democratic and the other is demagogic. One is a grand strategist and the other is a petty egotist. One is a noble Zionist, who defends Israel and the Jewish people persistently and effectively, fighting terrorists and undermining dictators, yet making peace wherever he can. The other is a spiteful strongman, who threatens Israeli democracy and Jewish unity daily, empowering anti-Zionists, embracing bigots and egging-on bullies.

One has a strong sense of history and 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.

Netanyahu 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.”

Netanyahu the malevolent, however, is vindictive, manipulative, divisive and demagogic. When supporters crown 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.

Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Netanyahu the Magnificent talks to Bari Weiss

When journalist Bari Weiss interviewed Netanyahu, the transcript had “BW” questioning “BN.” BN should have been “BtMN” because Netanyahu the Magnificent showed up. This beatific Netanyahu is also on display in his new autobiography and his ongoing book tour. Unfortunately, Israelis do not know which Netanyahu 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, Netanyahu 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 and tempered by the 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, BtMN 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 BtMN’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 juster.

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 Netanyahu 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.

Netanyahu the Malevolent remains

Nevertheless, many fears about this incoming government are justified and one English-language interview won’t dispel them. The Netanyahu 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 undemocratically 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 to harass those who devoted their entire lives to serving.

Finally, the calm, centrist, constructive Zionism and the proud, functioning, formidable Israel Netanyahu championed requires a bridge-builder and 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 has set an 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 importantly, we need a better Netanyahu and not a bitter Netanyahu 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. Netanyahu the Malevolent has often run for office so Netanyahu 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.

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and four books on Zionism. He is 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).