The idea of a hero with a tragic flaw echoes throughout Western literature. It’s found in Homer, in classical Greek tragedy, and of course in the Bible. The tragic flaw is sometimes a character defect, a particular weakness in an otherwise powerful hero, or sometimes a single insuperable sin, that brings down upon the hero his doom in an inexorable, inescapable, and dramatic process. The great Achilles meets his undoing because of his tendency to excessive and uncontrollable rage; his famous heel is emblematic of how a single flaw can be the end of an otherwise invulnerable hero.
The ambition of Lady Macbeth, the indecision of Hamlet, and in real history, the overweening self-confidence that led Napoleon to invade Russia in June of 1812, are examples of tragic flaws that bring about the destruction of the protagonist.
Binyamin Netanyahu is a great man. And as Aristotle points out, you need a great man if you are going to write a great tragedy. Despite the accusations against him, he is not in politics for the money. There is no doubt that he has devoted his life to his, and my, country. He came back to Israel from a comfortable and profitable life in the US to do his duty as a soldier, and was wounded twice. Until recently he has been single-minded in his service. He defied an anti-Zionist American president, and spoke out in the American Congress against the Iran deal. Who else would have done that? Who else could have?
I have always supported Bibi. He is one of the few politicians who actually knows something about economics, and he is a student of history, his father’s son. He understands the region that we live in, as opposed, for example, to Shimon Peres who perceived it in fantastic terms, as though a “New Middle East” were just around the corner. It always seemed to me that we could depend on Bibi, even if I disagreed with particular decisions or policies. He wasn’t like the triumvirate Olmert-Livni-Peretz who bumbled us into a war they were incompetent to manage, at great cost in the blood of our children, and who then agreed to a Security Council resolution to end it that only pretended to prevent Hezbollah from rearming.
He has serious flaws, as we all do. Like a Siamese Fighting Fish, he didn’t allow those he saw as competitors to swim in the same tank. Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Gideon Sa’ar, and anyone in the Likud who was good enough to be a threat was banished (some people blame his wife for this, but Bibi ultimately had to decide). But perhaps the flaw that became fatal was his resentment that the State of Israel expects its Prime Ministers to be ascetics, like Menachem Begin or David Ben Gurion (Ben Gurion was addicted to books, but otherwise lived simply). For whatever reason, he thought it was acceptable to receive “gifts” from “friends” that would allow him to live like other prime ministers and presidents.
Bibi won elections. The Israeli public lost confidence in the Left, which had brought us the Oslo Accords and the terror war that followed. Bibi’s understanding of the electorate and the machinery of our coalition system enabled him to pull out a government from close elections, and he became the longest-serving PM in Israel’s history. Nobody could match his manipulation of our complex parliamentary system to get what he wanted. His enemies, some of them decent and others contemptible, despaired at being unable to defeat him.
So they attacked him in other ways. The Supreme Court became more and more activist in order to frustrate his plans, like the development of Israel’s newly discovered reserves of natural gas, or the deportation of illegal African migrants. The anti-Netanyahu media – that means about 90% of it – pounded away at him. And then they took aim at his Achilles heel and let fly their arrows.
In Hebrew the word teek can mean a purse or a bag. It can also mean a file or portfolio – like the one the police open on a suspected criminal. Some would say that the police and the prosecution tafru lo teek, sewed up a bag for him. In American English, we might say “they framed him.”
Some of what is alleged – taking expensive gifts for himself and his wife from rich foreigners who had business with the government – seems more than just ill-advised. But other charges seem to be novel interpretations of political wheeling and dealing, something at which nobody is more adept than Bibi.
The police investigation took about three years, during which there were almost continual leaks to the gleeful media, which put them on prime-time news almost every night. Many of the charges rest on testimony from government officials who were pressured – sometimes in improper ways – to become state’s witnesses. The whole spectacle caused great political damage to Netanyahu, who after all had not – and still has not – been found guilty of anything. This will be determined at his trial, which was scheduled to have already started, but which has been held up by the coronavirus restrictions.
All this took place during the run-up to the series of elections we are suffering through now, three in less than a year and possibly – we’ll know shortly – a fourth. Netanyahu’s opposition, Blue and White, was put together from retired generals and perennial center-leftist Yair Lapid. It doesn’t have a defined ideology except opposition to Netanyahu.
The arrows of his enemies struck home. He and his coalition partners got more votes in the last election than Blue and White and its partners, but not enough to form a government. Blue and White considered a minority government that depended on support from the Arab parties, but several of their MKs could not stomach allowing the anti-Zionist Arab MKs to hold a veto over government decisions. The idea was dropped. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz agreed to join a unity coalition with Bibi, causing some of Gantz’ partners to explode in fury; Blue and White broke up as a party, but Gantz and his faction have continued to negotiate with Bibi for a unity government. Meanwhile, the opposition threatens to pass a law in the Knesset that would prevent Bibi from taking office as PM in a rotation agreement even if a unity government were formed. And the Supreme Court is waiting until it can see the whites of Bibi’s eyes before handing down a decision that a person with indictments can’t become PM.
And now comes the really painful part.
The last three elections and the unity negotiations have all been focused on one issue: Bibi and his indictments. They are not discussing the response to the coronavirus, which has arguably already killed people because of a lack of firm guidance from the government about precisely who is responsible for government-funded nursing homes. They are not discussing the very difficult and complex question of precisely how and when to reopen parts of the economy that have been shut down, so as to avoid a massive depression. Thanks to the delay, we are not moving forward on sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria – for which it might already be too late, if Trump is not reelected.
No, it has all been about “to Bibi or not to Bibi.” That’s why we had three elections, and that’s why the negotiations have revolved around subjects like what to do if the Supreme Court jumps in and decides that Bibi can’t take his turn as PM. That’s why the unity government doesn’t exist now.
Bibi is functionally neutralized. He goes on TV to announce the latest addition or subtraction to the corona-related restrictions on our society, and to brag about how well we are doing (in fact, thanks to heroic efforts by the medical profession, not management by the government). Meanwhile, how many hours a day are devoted to fending off anti-Bibi legislation in the Knesset, or Supreme Court intervention? This is not the Bibi who went to America to stand up in front of the US Congress.
It doesn’t matter today if he is innocent or guilty. The country is more important than he is. We have to end the craziness and get down to business.
Here is what should happen: an emergency government, with rotation of PMs, should be established now. Today. It should be limited to a fixed period, perhaps 24 months. Bibi should agree to retire after that period. But his indictments will be suspended until then, at which time he can face trial.
Possibly someday those who put their personal animosity for Binyamin Netanyahu ahead of all else will understand his true value. For myself, I think he has been one of our greatest Prime Ministers. But now the war is over, and the hero has been brought low. The curtain can come down on the tragedy – but the Jewish state must continue.