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Friday, January 11, 2013

Netanyahu: The Pathology


Source: The Jerusalem Post
By Martin Sherman


Into The Fray: The venomous ad hominem attacks on the PM by his political opponents have long exceeded the limits of rational criticism and reasoned dissent. 

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu calls early elec Photo: Marc Israel SellemLeah Rabin said yesterday that she preferred to shake the hand of PLO chief Yasser Arafat rather than that of Likud Party chairman Binyamin Netanyahu –The Jerusalem Post, November 16, 1995

Binyamin Netanyahu is a corrupt individual, a contentious liar who is ruining everything that is good about our society (November 1998)... We all want this nightmare to end, that this monstrosity called Netanyahu will get lost (March 1999)... – Leah Rabin, in letters published by Haaretz, October 26, 2009

In the 37 months that Netanyahu held office, Israeli citizens enjoyed one of the safest and quietest periods with regards to terrorism in 20 years... Of the five Israeli leaders examined [Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon], Netanyahu’s policies with regards to the prevention and deterrence of terrorism...were the most effective – Study by The Institute of Policy and Strategy, The Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, 2002.

The ongoing campaign of unrestrained, vicious Bibi-bashing underscores how intellectually corrupt the political discourse has become over the past two decades, and how detached the election process has become from the pressing substantive issues facing the nation.

Full disclosure

I am far from being an enthusiastic Netanyahu fan, and there is little chance of me voting for him later this month.

Indeed, I have considerable criticism of much of what he has – and has not – done, which I have expressed vigorously in the media, in both English and Hebrew, during both his first and second terms in office.

After his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, in which he declared willingness to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state, I published a full-page article in this paper, castigating him for what I saw as unwarranted capitulation.

Back in April 2003, when he was serving as finance minister, again in the Jerusalem Post, I expressed concern that his economic policy was overly imbued with “Friedmanist” orthodoxy which, given some of the unique challenges Israel faces, may prove inappropriate.

However, whatever the focus of the disagreement, it was confined to substantive issues of policy. Unlike much of the mainstream media, I scrupulously refrained from ad hominem attacks on the man himself, on alleged defects in his character, or of the conduct of his spouse.

Errors of judgment

To be sure, Netanyahu has had his share of blunders, both as prime minister and as head of the Likud. Several key decisions he has taken appear to be driven by blatantly flawed logic.

In 2009, he ran an atrociously poor election campaign. Despite having a star-studded line-up, with newly acquired (Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alon) – and reacquired (Bennie Begin and Dan Meridor) high-profile names, he almost managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory. The glaring lack of clarity and focus, of direction and resolve in the Likud’s message, left – almost inconceivably – Kadima, a party riddled with unprecedented charges of corruption and a disastrously failed record of performance, with the largest number of seats in the Knesset. It was only the good graces of fortune – and the gross incompetence of his rivals – that prevented Tzipi Livni being given the task of forming the government.

His previously mentioned Bar-Ilan speech completely – and adversely – transformed the structure of the discourse on the Palestinian issue, from a debate over whether there should, or should not, be a Palestinian state, to one over what the features that state should have.

By abandoning his previous opposition to Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu has managed to maneuver himself – and Israel – in to an unenviable corner, inevitably perceived as being deliberately disingenuous or impossibly intransigent.

Cogent cause for concern

His plan to merge the Likud with Yisrael Beytenu into a unified list for the coming election appears to be a major fiasco, which according to most polls has led to hemorrhaging of up to 10 seats relative to the number the two separate factions hold jointly in the current Knesset. This was hardly to be unexpected. Almost invariably, in politics, the whole is smaller than the sum of the parts, because, barring exceptional circumstances, there are always losses at the “margins,” making a post-election, rather a pre-election partnership seem a more judicious course to adopt.

This is hardly rocket science. For absent the union, those voters who might be vehemently averse to one faction/leader can always vote for the other. But after the union, if the aversion toward one of them is strong enough, some might well decide – indeed, appear to have decided – to abstain, or even vote for their second-preference party.

The validity of this “commonsense” analysis appears to be emerging in the polls, which hardly augurs spectacular success for the merged list.

These – and other – episodes indicate that a cogent case for concern can be made regarding the soundness of Netanyahu’s decision-making faculties and the steadfastness of his resolve.

However, whatever his faults there is little to justify the wholesale campaign of his denigration, demonization and delegitimization, either as a person or a politician, that has been waged against him ever since he first took over the leadership of the Likud in the early 1990s.

Decades of distinction

After all, Netanyahu has served his country with distinction and dedication for decades.

Prior to entering the political arena he served as a soldier and a diplomat; as an officer in an elite commando unit, participating in numerous daring combat operations; and later as a highly articulate and effective ambassador at the UN.

His impressive performance at the UN paved the way for him into politics in 1988. In 1992 he was elected to lead the Likud and head the opposition to Yitzhak Rabin’s government and the Oslo process it had instigated. His efforts were largely successful, and by the fateful night of November 4, 1995, on which Rabin was assassinated, Netanyahu was pulling steadily ahead of him in the opinion polls.

In his detailed study of the events leading up to this election, Prof. Gerald Steinberg reminds us of frequently forgotten – or is that often obscured – facts: “In January 1995... polls showed Rabin trailing Netanyahu by a narrow margin. Continued terrorism... reinforced this trend. However, in the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin...Netanyahu’s standing plunged. In February [1996], when Peres decided to hold early elections, the prime minister [Peres] maintained a substantial lead over Netanyahu.”

Mean-spirited mendacious malice

It was perhaps Netanyahu’s unexpected – and for some, inexplicable, indeed unacceptable – victory in the 1996 election that unleashed the torrent of enduring enmity toward him from much of the Rabinesque civil society elite.

Despite his (documented) public disapproval of incendiary accusations against Rabin and his government, Netanyahu was condemned for igniting the hostile ambience that allegedly culminated in the assassination. This precipitated the mood of mean-spirited and largely mendacious malice against him reflected in the introductory excerpts from Rabin’s widow.

Open-season was declared on Netanyahu. His success, against all odds, had for all intents and purposes made him fair game to blame for every conceivable malaise, real or imagined, afflicting Israel, the Middle East and humanity as a whole.

Consequently, Netanyahu has been given little credit for the numerous impressive feats he, and the governments he headed, have achieved.

Forgotten feats

On entering office he inherited daunting problems, both economic and security.

The Oslo process adopted by his predecessors had precipitated hitherto unprecedented levels of terror attacks against Israel. Netanyahu’s government managed to suppress these attacks to the lowest level for almost two decades.

If the figures are “lagged” to account for the fact that an incumbent’s policy takes time to have an effect, and at the start of his term, events are affected by that of his predecessor, Netanyahu’s performance figures improve, while those of others deteriorate.

Indeed, it was under his successors, Barak and Sharon, that terror once again soared, resulting in Operation Defensive Shield, and construction of the much-maligned security barrier.

Forgotten feats (cont.)

On the economic front, the much-vaunted growth commonly – but fallaciously – ascribed to the Oslowian peace process had ground almost to halt, in no small measure due to the deteriorating security situation.

Indeed, much of the post-Oslo growth was fueled largely by a gigantic budget deficit that almost brought Israel to the brink of financial catastrophe, as befell several Asian countries at the time. It was only the fiscal prudence of the Netanyahu government which steered the nation clear of the looming economic disaster that the cavalier fiscal promiscuity of Avraham Shohat, finance minister during the Rabin/Peres term, almost brought upon it.

Although many, myself included, were critical of the perceived “social insensitivity” of the economic policies Netanyahu undertook later as finance minister under Ariel Sharon, it can hardly be disputed that they were in large measure responsible for the current resilience of the Israeli economy and for its ability to weather the global crisis better than most other industrial countries.

And while Netanyahu can hardly be portrayed as a champion of egalitarian “social justice,” it was on his watch that unemployment, perhaps the most pernicious of social ills, has been kept at arguably the lowest levels in the developed world. Likewise the impressive pace his government’s construction of the security fence on the Sinai border has important, but seldom recognized “social justice” aspects as well.

As Nehemia Shtrasler recently pointed out in Haaretz: “Anyone opposing the border fence should realize that without it we would now be witnessing an influx of thousands of migrants a month, at a growing pace, with increasing damage to the weaker sectors of Israeli society.”

He drove the point home with a somewhat derogatory jeer: “Anyone claiming that all these migrants should be given a chance to work should at the same time demand that they be relocated to Ramat Aviv and other neighborhoods in well-to-do northern Tel Aviv.”

More malevolent myths

On the international stage Netanyahu has few if any equals. He has put Israel’s case in international forums with unmatched brilliance. I was in Washington in May 2011, when he confronted President Barack Obama on the issue of the 1967 borders and when he made his address to Congress. I can testify to huge waves of support and admiration he generated there, only to be vilified here by the mainstream Israeli media for undermining US-Israeli relations.

Recently he has been accused of being personally responsible for the controversial – and troubling – appointments by Obama of officials known to be antagonistic toward Israel.

In a recent article in Yediot Aharonot, Sever Plocker claimed this was “Obama’s revenge” for “Netanyahu’s blatant support for Republican candidate Romney.”

It is wildly far-fetched to believe the US president would appoint his top officials merely to spite Israel’s prime minister, rather than because of the compatibility of their worldviews to his, it is just as untrue. Indeed, I would challenge anyone to produce documented evidence of such” blatant support for Romney, for there is considerable evidence to the contrary.

Thus, at the recent Democratic Convention – where the rank-and-file proved itself to be distinctly chilly toward Israel – prominent speakers such as Robert Wexler and even John Kerry (Obama’s nominee for secretary of state) invoked Netanyahu for endorsing Obama’s pro-Israel credentials.

In a September 2012 Foreign Policy article, associate editor Uri Friedman wrote: “Netanyahu, for his part, has avoided jumping into the fray.” He noted that when pressed by both CBS’s Bob Schieffer and Fox’s Chris Wallace on his preference for the outcome of the US elections Netanyahu, rebuffed the question, retorting they were far too wise and experienced as journalists “to think that I’m going to get into your field of American politics.”

So much for blatant support for Romney...

Why I wrote this article...

This column is not intended as an electoral endorsement of Netanyahu. As I stated previously I am unlikely to vote for him – for reasons both substantive and “strategic.” Rather it is a protest and an appeal for more veracity and less vitriol in our public discourse.

The venomous ad hominem attacks on Netanyahu by his political opponents have long exceeded the limits of rational criticism or reasoned dissent, and have become a poisonous pathology.

Netanyahu is a man of tremendous talent and serious shortcomings. He should be judged on a judicious assessment of the balance between the two – not on some distorted, demonized image created by his obsessive opponents.

As the veteran left-wing media personality, Yaron London – someone even less likely than I to vote Likud – recently wrote, castigating the discriminatory double-standards and derogatory diatribe that Netanyahu is continuously subjected to: “My political views are vastly different from Netanyahu’s, but self-righteousness and gossip anger me more than political views that are opposed to mine.”

I concur!

Martin Sherman ( www.martinsherman.net ) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.