One of my major discoveries is that people who reach the very top of any organization – a company, a government or even a newsroom – often lack a basic instinct that constrains the rest of us: they don’t mind looking ridiculous.
I have been near the top of organizations, but never reached it myself. When I look ridiculous I am discomfited, so I explain myself and try to fix it and concede I may be wrong. This can project a form of weakness, but may be human nonetheless.
A prime example of people without this problem is incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Already the country’s longest-serving leader by cumulative years in office, he seems set to return to the position to lead a cabinet top-heavy with religious fanatics, convicted criminals and Jewish supremacists.
In recent years, the classic example of Netanyahu’s indifference was his 2008 admonition that prime minister Ehud Olmert resign because of a police investigation. “A prime minister up to his neck in police investigations,” he said a in confident baritone, “has no moral and public mandate to determine critical things for Israel, since there is a not unfounded concern that he will decide based on his personal interest – for his political survival and not in the national interest.”
Olmert dutifully resigned – a move so reasonable that it perhaps revealed he never did belong at the top. Most persons capable of conceiving and so clearly articulating this ethical and logical position might have been discomfited by a few years later themselves clinging to power during a far broader investigation. But not so Netanyahu.
Indeed, Netanyahu feverishly cleaved himself to his mantle many steps further into the crime-processing process – through the recommendation to indict by the police, the agreement of the prosecution and indictment by the attorney-general, all the way to his excruciatingly prolonged trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Throughout, he has been agitating against the police and claiming deep state conspiracies, and his new government aims to pass an override clause enabling politicians to cancel decisions of the Supreme Court. There is rather more than a not unfounded concern that it is not in the national interest.
But if Netanyahu feels any shame, it’s fair to say he has never betrayed a hint of it in public. And while the hypocrisy is quite breathtaking, indeed epic, the example I cite has suffered somewhat from overuse.
This is why it is so useful that Netanyahu has volunteered in recent days to provide us with another one. This occurred in an interview a few weeks ago with the Canadian public intellectual Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist who made his mark by goading progressives.
It is the latest in a series of interviews by Netanyahu with North American figures in which he tries to assure foreign audiences that his government, which is set to eviscerate Israel’s global standing, will do no such thing. It is critical that his interviewers be either sympathetic (like conservative-leaning Jewish uber-blogger Bari Weiss) or ignorant.
IN THE interview, Netanyahu boasted of having cut child allowances and other entitlements as finance minister 20 years ago, courageously and selflessly enraging the haredim.
“In order to put the fat man, the public sector, on a diet I had to I had to cut back Israel’s lavish welfare system, which encouraged people to live on the dole and not to go out and work,” he recalled. “I cut child allowances – which in Israel were extraordinary, they go up with each successive child.
“This was leading to demographic and economic collapse,” Netanyahu continued. “The ultra-Orthodox community didn’t work; they just had a lot of children, which the others... had to pay for... and when you cut that – well, Jordan, I can tell you don’t become very popular.”
Peterson, a brilliant debater when it comes to attacking political correctness, is not a man unduly concerned with Israel. So perhaps he did not know that Netanyahu undid the reforms upon returning to the prime ministership on the wings of an alliance with the haredim.
Let’s unpack and lean into this.
Netanyahu knows his agreement with the haredim will destroy Israel's economy. He's doing it anyway
It seems Netanyahu – outward-facing Netanyahu – understands the negative incentive of the lunatic setup with the haredim, whereby child allowances subsidize a pathological rate of procreation approaching seven children on average per family. He understands that this combined with low labor participation – haredi men, at under 50%, are the most non-working sector after Arab women – risks economic collapse.
But the inward-facing Netanyahu – the one who needs to engineer a way out of jail – is doubling down on the catastrophic arrangement. He has not just failed to address the child subsidy issue in the coalition negotiations but actually agreed to double the salaries provided by the Israeli taxpayer to haredi men for the lifelong study of religion.
It is of a piece with his pre-election maneuver persuading a key haredi group not to agree to a desperately-needed core curriculum, as they were about to do. Now we will have another four years of haredi children being condemned to a future as adults who are unemployable in a modern economy.
All this is catastrophic – clearly poised to destroy the so-called Start-Up Nation, as 200 tech leaders warned Netanyahu in recent days in an open letter. And it is quite literally – breathtakingly – the opposite of what Netanyahu was telling Peterson. But if Netanyahu is in any way embarrassed by any of it, then as with the other example, it is not publicly discernible.
Could the brazen indifference to one’s own infuriating behavior truly be a sign of leadership qualities, as I am starting to suspect? Peterson seems to think so. A signature theory of his is that the willingness to be not agreeable and an inclination toward absolute, all-out warfare is key to reaching the top.
He manages to irk all genders by claiming that men are more likely to be this way than women – and that seems to delight him. In that, he also cements his own bona fides, as well as those of Netanyahu. Yair Lapid – a regular person, much like me or the reader – never really stood a chance.
The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press, and is a managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan.