For some time, I’ve been thinking that Israel has been stuck in Act IV of a Shakespearean tragedy. King Lear, to be precise. Finally, last week began the unraveling and resolution, Act V.
In the end, the protagonist, Lear, no longer has the ability to rage, and on the rare occasions he does, it is for naught. Everyone is worn out by so much relentless deceit and trickery, and more than a few submit to death. All the king’s cleverness and masterful manipulation turn and destroy all that had been good, loyal, and pure around him.
And so, Bibi, like Lear, collapses into the denouement, the end of it all, the decline, the tragic resolution of his fate. A great man who has accomplished so much was unable to see his own frailty; to assess his position at all honestly.
Blinded to his weaknesses, perhaps by hubris, he was unable to accept the outcome that was clear to so many others. He remained stuck in Act III, where he was at the height of his power and things always seemed to coalesce in his favor.
Benjamin Netanyahu is every bit the Shakespearean tragic hero. While the majority of Israelis support the “change” government that will be sworn in on Sunday, there is little Schadenfreude in Bibi’s fall. There is a sense that one of the great leaders of modern Israel self-destructed, which is just sad.
As journalist Ben Caspit summarized in his superb biography on Netanyahu (recently translated into English), he seemed a leader always on the verge of greatness, but unable to make the bold decisions that would truly change the course of history. This criticism is directed in particular at his avoidance of a serious commitment to advancing a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority.
It has been more than a week now since the Change coalition was finalized, with right-wing Naftali Bennett kicking off as prime minister in a rotation arrangement that will have him give up the seat after two years to the centrist Yair Lapid. The coalition is as diverse as possible, including an Islamist party, two left-wing parties, and Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beitenu” and “New Hope” led by Likud breakaway Gideon Sa’ar.
In fact, it is notable that Lieberman, Bennett, and Sa’ar, in their earlier careers were each stalwart loyalists and key aides to Bibi. All have come to despise the man and his politics. Many pundit types have been musing lately that Bennett was still psychologically beholden to Netanyahu. Ultimately, he would not be able to buck the elder statesman’s powers of persuasion. I expect that Bibi is more than a little shocked at Bennet’s rebellion as well.
Only once in the last week has Netanyahu lashed out at his former protégé, saying he was “left-wing” and “blinded by ambition to be prime minister,” caring only about the office and not Israel. He has left much of the messaging to be disseminated on Likud’s Twitter account. Among the more colorful charges is Likud’s allegation that this election a “fraud,” clearly referring to Bennett selling out his right-wing voters and siding with what Netanyahu disparages as the left. The greatest insult possible.
The “left-wing” thing is something Bibi has been throwing around a lot, actually, which makes him sound and look silly. The right has robust representation in the new coalition, as do the center and left. This Change government is precisely what the electorate signaled it wants; a government that will actually function and overcome ideology.
Aside from one bizarre outburst earlier this week, Netanyahu has been uncustomarily quiet. Even his henchmen have lost their bite. A key loyalist, MK Miki Zohar, conceded that there is a remote possibility that Likud may still persuade one or two “Change” MKs to abandon the coalition, but he also said that possibility was remote.
This more controlled demeanor came about suddenly earlier in the week after the head of the Shin Bet police force warned that the level of incitement and hatred emanating from Likudniks and their allies was alarming enough to suggest the possibility of extreme violence.
From one day to the next, it was like a switch was flicked.
On Tuesday, the three main ultra-Orthodox party leaders convened a coordinated press conference vilifying Naftali Bennett, in particular, in very colorful terms.
MK Litzman dismissed him as a reform Jew, which is a huge insult for him, and demanded Bennett remove his yarmulke. But that was comparatively mild. United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni condemned Bennett and Lapid for being wicked and destroying the Jewish state, all of which was echoed by Shas leader Aryeh Deri.
Their rather unhinged outbursts did them no favors, nor did it do much to aid their Likud allies. This raging entitlement assumed by a small minority of the population is exactly what the Israeli electorate has made clear, four times in the last two years, that it does not want.
The Haredi leaders are probably much more concerned about losing control of the Knesset Finance committee than they are with the integrity of Naftali Bennett’s head covering. The Haredi way of life in Israel has become excessively dependent on state largesse, which the majority of Israelis do not support continuing. It is likely, in fact, particularly following the organized attack on the incoming PM, that certain religious reforms that have the Haredi trifecta apoplectic will only accelerate under a new government.
It’s nothing too extreme: Just breaking up the monopoly over kashrut certifications and revisiting certain controls around religious practice and conversion that are simply not suited to a modern Jewish and multi-cultural country. Control of the religious economy is also a lucrative business.
Despite his bitterness, Prime Minister Netanyahu will go quietly and with dignity. It may all seem terribly unjust, but it is the hand of democracy. And if he is as honest with himself in the end, as was King Lear, so much of his undoing ultimately was because of how he treated those most devoted to him.