Several weeks ago, an unnamed senior official from the Obama administration caused a stir when, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg, he said of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit”. Most commentators, Goldberg included, took it as a sign of the growing tensions between Netanyahu and Obama and rising impatience in Washington towards an often-ungrateful government in Jerusalem. Despite unprecedented military and diplomatic support and Secretary Kerry’s massive efforts in the peace talks last spring, Netanyahu’s cabinet has been consistently condescending (and sometimes downright hostile) towards the American administration—and Washington has had enough.
Putting the diplomatic rift aside, though, the sadder truth reflected in the official’s words is that Israel is in the midst of a serious leadership crisis. During his nine years as prime minister, the past six of which have been consecutive, Netanyahu has not only failed to reach any clear goals—he has refrained from setting them in the first place. In all three of his terms in office, Netanyahu has consistently defined his leadership by stating what he would not do, rather than providing a clear vision or any definite plans for the future. He declared his theoretical support for the two-state solution, but he has staunchly refused to make any meaningful concessions to further the peace process (although he did release Palestinian prisoners convicted of murder, he did so primarily to avoid freezing building projects in the settlements—Israel was given a choice between the two as signs of goodwill in last year’s talks). He vowed to alleviate growing economic inequality following the protests in 2011, but many of the reforms he declared ended up sidelined or suspended. In the last round of elections, held in January 2013, Netanyahu’s Likud party didn’t even publish a platform.
Meanwhile, the peace process is all but gone, and violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere is on the rise. Even the economy, in whose stability Netanyahu took so much pride in face of the global crisis (despite having come into office only in 2009), is slowing down; growth in 2014 is expected to fall to a five-year low, and on November 21 the Fitch Ratings agency downgraded Israel’s long-term foreign currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR).
Netanyahu’s view of leadership revolves around deflecting crises as they arise (as they inevitably do in the Middle East). This is evident not only in his policies (or lack thereof), but also in his rhetoric. When he first ran for prime minister in 1996, his most popular campaign slogan was “Peres will divide Jerusalem.” That is, he chose to spread fear about what leading candidate Shimon Peres (who later became president) would do, rather than clearly state any plans of his own for Israel’s future. His popularity is highest when Israeli voters feel their personal safety is threatened, and he has been a master at fostering those fears—by linking the Holocaust to Iran’s nuclear aspirations and conflating the Palestine Liberation Organization with Hamas and Hamas with ISIS—not to mention the remarks he has made over the past couple of weeks as violence in Jerusalem has escalated. In recent years, he has frequently stated that he would be “running the conflict,” rather than solving it—that is, maintaining, and thus perpetuating, the status quo.
Indeed, Netanyahu is increasingly referred to as “Mr. Status Quo”. Tired of his foot-dragging, particularly with regard to his commitment to the two-state solution, Sweden and Britain have both recently voted to independently recognize a Palestinian state. Both moves were symbolic, and served mostly to criticize Israeli policy on the world stage. But Netanyahu has been a far more able politician than he has been a leader. Though his cabinet may be losing touch with the international community, the irony is that the British and Swedish statements have simply played into his hands, fueling his spiel on European anti-Semitism and Israel being alone and friendless in the world. Similarly, though the unnamed official from Obama’s cabinet was right to observe that “the only thing [Netanyahu’s] interested in is protecting himself from political defeat,” his comments only increased Netanyahu’s popularity at home—thus protecting him from political defeat.
About six months ago, The Marker published a piece about Dr. Muhammad al-Nabari, the mayor of Hura, a small Bedouin town in the peripheral south of Israel. In his nine years on the job, al-Nabari has had an enormously positive impact: Hura’s budget has tripled, education has drastically improved, and several large-scale projects in agriculture and tourism are expected to get off the ground in the coming years. When asked about the secret of his success, al-Nabari replied that “The problem with many mayors is that they are mired in ongoing, day-to-day management. I don’t deal with that at all. I only deal with long-term projects … otherwise you can lose five years without getting anything done.”
Netanyahu has been prime minister since 2009; a lost five years, indeed. If crisis management is all Netanyahu cares for, he would do best to take al-Nabari’s advice and leave “long-term projects” to people more suitable for the role. As David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker last week, Israel is long overdue for a leader that “[prefers] to seize opportunities rather than to nurse grievances”.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Department of Defense