Netanyahu's master class in how not to lead

Netanyahu has been indecisive and reactionary.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, April 2018 (photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, April 2018
(photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the African asylum-seeker situation has been a primer in how not to lead: indecisive, poorly-planned, reactionary. It’s also a lesson on the advantages of decision-making, debate and negotiation skills. Many of the skills we teach youth in our leadership program – in particular proper debate – seem to be sorely lacking among the upper echelons of our national leadership. Here are a few of the most important:
• Reasoned decision-making. Arguing the various sides beforehand leads to better decision-making. The greater the stakes, the more important it is to simulate the debate before making the decision. Had Netanyahu done this, he could have saved himself and Israel a great deal of embarrassment by making a well-calculated decision, rather than having to publicly flip-flop within hours.
• Cost-benefit analyses. Part of decision-making should be proper use of cost-benefit analysis to evaluate the potential gains and losses of the various alternatives. In that regard most of the proposals the government has offered fall flat – but other, more beneficial ideas could flourish instead.
• Logic. Spelling out the sides in a cogent fashion exposes gaps in logic. The official government position is rife with logical fallacies: false dichotomies (implying that anyone who seeks employment, or is even fit to work, cannot also be a refugee); straw men (broadening the argument beyond the 38,000 African refugee seekers already in Israel), red herrings (talking about who funds protests instead of the substance of the arguments), etc. The end result is a reduction in the quality of the discourse – and further harm to the decision-making apparatus.
• Substance over propaganda. In a formal debate, the government and its spokespersons would get called out for being light with facts and heavy on accusations; for scapegoating a minority population that has been steadily decreasing over the past half decade; for resource investment, infrastructural and socio-economic issues that have plagued south Tel Aviv for decades; for harping on age, gender and willingness to work as potential disqualifiers for refugee status (they do not play a role in the definition under international law); for virtually never providing data to back claims, and in particular being at odds with the data provided by immigration and law enforcement authorities. Instead the government provides propaganda, but eventually the real issues will emerge: underinvestment and haphazard law enforcement in the communities of south Tel Aviv.
• Anticipation of opposition. Proper preparation for a debate involves going in knowing your opponent’s best arguments, and with prepared rebuttals. Had this happened, then Netanyahu would have been ready to respond to the inevitable opposition he first faced, rather than flailing around, looking desperately for someone to blame, however implausible, and ultimately reversing course with a whimper.
• Negotiated compromise. Another real weak point of this government, which has trouble resolving differences of opinion among members of the same political party, to say nothing of a coalition that seems to perpetually hang together by a loose thread. Why not sit down representatives of the major stakeholders – south Tel Aviv residents who support and oppose deportation, refuge-seekers, local law enforcement, relevant government agencies, and legal experts, to discuss and find the compromise that best maximizes the various interests? Because that course is something that has proven to be an Achilles’ heel for this administration. Ultimately, everyone loses.
• Diplomacy. It isn’t just African asylum seekers who have been used as pawns and scapegoats, but Israel’s diplomatic relations themselves. Bilateral arrangements must be negotiated bilaterally, and clear arrangements reached between the various parties. By making public statements about other countries without their authorization and before reaching mutual understanding, the government set back relations with foreign states, relations that also bear a cost to cultivate.
• Transparency. Responsible governance in a democracy shouldn’t look for secret deals that surprise its own coalition or even party members. Our right to vote should lead to accountable leadership that considers our own interests – in an ideal world. When everything is cloak and dagger, it’s a sign that the system is malfunctioning.
• Creative problem-solving. The same tired ideas are run out time and again, rather than thinking creatively. For example, with so much talk over the lamentable state of south Tel Aviv, why not start by cleaning up that part of the city? Instead of imprisoning or deporting people based on skin color, put those resources into better law enforcement in the areas where crime is alleged to have risen, and target those who actually do break the law as the ones to face removal. This seems to address far more legitimate interests and arguments. Other ideas are out there, if bold thinking were applied.
It is time to teach these fundamental skills and practices – from proper open discourse to responsible decision-making, to creative problem-solving and negotiated compromise, to a future generation of leaders. Israel deserves better than this.
The author is founder and director of Debate for Peace, a national youth empowerment and leadership program. He has lived in south Tel Aviv for most of the past decade.