Netanyahu: Erratic, Obsessive, Paranoid?
My “bad news” file on American Jews and Israel is filling up. I also keep a “good news” file, but I felt it more urgent to present three examples of recent news and encounters of particular concern.
1. Young liberal Jews committed to Israel are having a hard time finding a home.
I recently met with some young Jews in their 20s, all Jewish activists and devoted to Israel. A group of them shared a sentiment that I had not previously heard. They said that they found themselves in the gap between AIPAC and J Street and therefore without a pro-Israel organizational home. What did they mean, I asked?
AIPAC, they acknowledged, is impressive and does good work, but despite its claim to be bipartisan and open to a variety of views, it does not really encourage or accept criticism of Israel’s right-wing government. J Street, on the other hand, while it has an emphatic two-state orientation, expresses its criticism with a harshness that sometimes seems to border on hostility. In the first case, heavy on love but light on criticism; in the second case, heavy on criticism but light on love.
These young people are involved and serious Jews. They possess a deep commitment to Israel and her security, along with a mindset that is often critical of Israel’s policies. They are looking for a Jewish group that will be open to their approach and will enable them to give expression to their pro-Israel activism. They should be able to find one, but they can’t. And this is a tragedy because we need them in Jewish organizational ranks.
2. Benjamin Netanyahu is acting erratically.
Last year, a friend of mine who had just finished a series of meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu confided to me that something seemed wrong with him. Mr. Netanyahu appeared to be forgetful and unfocused. At each meeting he seemed to have forgotten what had been concluded at the previous meeting. He relied heavily on aides who whispered in his ear throughout the deliberations, working hard to keep him on track.
I heard this report but paid no attention. The Prime Minister of Israel is busy and under enormous pressure. And there could have been a dozen explanations for Mr. Netanyahu’s behavior: Illness. A crisis unknown to my friend. A personal problem. Even Prime Ministers are human and given to occasional stumbles.
But I was reminded of my friend’s comment in recent weeks as Bibi’s behavior has gotten more erratic and bizarre. The crisis over the new public broadcasting corporation is the latest example of the actions of a leader who is beginning to seem unbalanced and out of control. The crisis—now apparently resolved—involved a threat by Mr. Netanyahu to call elections unless the establishment of the new broadcasting corporation was postponed, even though it had been created at his behest.
Not one Israeli in a hundred knows the difference between the newly-created public broadcasting corporation and the Israel Broadcasting Authority that it is replacing. And not one Israeli in a hundred could explain the exact terms of the compromise that was ultimately reached. And yet here was the Prime Minister threatening elections that no one wanted, including his own party and coalition partners.
The most obvious explanation for Netanyahu’s actions is that he is something of a madman when it comes to the media. He is so desperate to avoid negative media coverage that he is prepared to go to absurd lengths to retain as much control as possible over media outlets. The just-reached compromise, it appears, gives him effective control of a news division that will now come into being, alongside the broadcasting corporation that he originally proposed. But the whole affair has been so chaotic, insane, and ignominious that even Israel’s most sophisticated commentators are not entirely sure why Bibi has been doing what he has been doing.
Is his behavior attributable to a general paranoia that seems to have overtaken him of late? To panic over multiple criminal investigations of his actions that the police are now conducting? To fear of rivals to his leadership? To pressure from his wife? To an out-of-control ego? To all of the above? Nobody knows for sure.
I am not suggesting that Netanyahu is a raving lunatic. And Americans, of course, are the last people on earth right now who are entitled to complain about somebody else’s paranoid, obsessive, and erratic political leader. But the point is that Israel is a small, vulnerable country that requires a leader with a steady hand. And yet it now has a Prime Minister who talks of going to elections and disrupting the normal functioning of his government for reasons that defy human understanding.
If Bibi were to be replaced as Prime Minister, might his successor be worse? He very well might. (Think Lieberman or Bennett.) Still, elected four times and already the second-longest serving Israeli Prime Minister, Bibi is looking increasingly weary, panicky, and a bit unstable. Decisions about the future rest with Israel’s voters and political parties, of course. But when they do get to choose, I hope they will see that four terms in one of the world’s most difficult political jobs is more than enough for anyone.
3. The celebrity-stricken Jewish press remains hopelessly, foolishly and sickeningly smitten with Jared and Ivanka.
I wrote about this celebrity worship two months ago, pointing out the sycophantic shallowness of so much of what is being presented to Jewish readers as news. My hope then was that, with time, the Jewish media would move on. After all, the United States had elected a talented and skillful demagogue as President, and surely the Jared-and-Ivanka-are-Jewish story would give way to more weighty and significant matters.
Well, I was wrong. An example is the March 31 online edition of the Forward, with the caption “Jared and Ivanka” at the top, and seven articles – the entire edition – devoted to the Jewish first daughter and her spouse. The Forward is a serious paper, and some of the material was serious or semi-serious. But much was the usual mix of gossip and trash – Jared and Ivanka’s neighbors, friends, and holiday observances – that we have come to expect.
There is one truly important story about Jared and Ivanka right now, and it has nothing to do with them being Jewish. It has to do with the fact that our President is bringing his immediate family into the White House for the simple reason that given his suspicious, authoritarian nature and his isolation from established political power centers, he refuses to trust anyone other than his close family. In other words, what is happening here is what happens in authoritarian governments and banana republics around the world. This is the story that the Jewish media needs to cover, and it cannot be covered adequately if it is obscured by gossip and puffery.
This, then, is the bad news, or some of it at least.
But will we despair? Absolutely not. As Jews, we take the long view. After all, we are an ancient people and the messiah has not yet come. At Passover next week, and on other occasions sacred and secular, we will gather in our families and communities and talk of the good news for our people and the Jewish state, of the work we have yet to do, and of what encourages and inspires us as Jews.