Netanyahu, self-styled peerless leader, refuses to accept he presided over catastrophe

The dissonance between the PM’s self-image as uniquely capable of protecting Israel, and the worst disaster in our history – on his watch – has completely shattered his equilibrium

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (Dana Kopel/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (Dana Kopel/POOL)

Benjamin Netanyahu is never wrong. In his own eyes at least, he is a unique, supreme leader, capable of helming a country at least the size of the United States. Netanyahu calls it “added value.”

His inflated self-esteem is nothing new. I heard his long, self-aggrandizing lectures, full of wild gesticulations, as far back as 30 years ago, on the role of leadership and his peerless capacity for filling it.

This lofty self-assessment flourished as the years went by. As he won election after election, he grew larger and larger in his own mind, eventually losing sight of the ground beneath him.

Netanyahu sees himself as something of a secular messiah, holding Israel up with his two giant hands, its fate dependent entirely on him. If he leaves it, it will fall. If he stays, it will survive and prosper.

Netanyahu never hid this position: he will keep our children safe, he will protect us, he will “save the State of Israel” — as he still had the gall to say at his press conference on Saturday evening.

I’ve seen Netanyahu at many events, large and small, on the cusp of fateful decisions. On days like these, he seems to be on another planet. A prime example was in January 2020, when Netanyahu celebrated then-US president Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” at Blair House, aka the President’s Guest House, in Washington, DC.

With the unveiling of the plan, it looked like Netanyahu was about ready to annex the West Bank, claim sovereignty over the settlements, divide Jerusalem, transfer villages and neighborhoods to the Palestinian Authority and solve the problems of the Middle East, in a kind of delusional hallucination that was quickly shattered by his White House hosts.

Netanyahu saw himself as something of a secular messiah, holding Israel up with his two giant hands, her fate dependent entirely on him

His inner circle, and especially his closest family members, have nurtured his sole-savior-of-Israel narrative. To them, Netanyahu is doing the people of Israel a great favor by consenting to lead them. Ovadia Yosef, the late chief rabbi of Israel, once called Netanyahu a “blind goat,” but in his own eyes Netanyahu is a roaring lion, one of the greatest leaders in the history of the West.

After the November 2022 elections, Netanyahu boasted in a private conversation that he was only the third leader in the Western world in the last 100 years to get re-elected as prime minister for the third time.

And indeed, nothing is more important to Netanyahu than his place in history. In recent years, the more he portrayed himself in the image of the Redeemer, and was seen as such by his family, the more he belittled the contributions of others.

He even took to putting down Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion in recent years, at least when it came to international relations. As far as Netanyahu was concerned, he had a better understanding of US dynamics, and as such was better able to harness them in war and peace than Ben-Gurion.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters after the first exit poll results for the Israeli parliamentary elections, at his Likud party’s headquarters in Jerusalem, March. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, file)

Even on Saturday evening, amid the greatest catastrophe in the history of the country — for which he is responsible — he tried to spin the story.

Israel is fighting its second War of Independence, Netanyahu said — even though, thank God, we are not actually facing an existential threat. As in his previous speeches, he declared that he is here to save us all and that this is his life’s mission — even though many would happily forgo his leadership, which brought such disaster down upon us.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks to family members of people being held hostage in Gaza, during a meeting in Ramle, October 15, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In recent years, the corruption case in which Netanyahu is standing trial scared the living daylights out of him. He turned the country upside down in the past year to try to prevent the proceedings from staining his legacy. The country was tearing itself apart over the judicial overhaul campaign, but Netanyahu would not be moved — until he was finally forced to give in to the hundreds of thousands of protesters.

Now, Netanyahu is horrified by the notion that he is the man who brought the “mini-holocaust” upon Israel, as the October 7 catastrophe is being dubbed.

The dissonance between Netanyahu’s self-image as an all-powerful supreme leader and the worst disaster in the country’s history — on his watch — has completely unsettled the prime minister, shattering his equilibrium.

In the first week after the Hamas massacre of over 1,400 people in the Gaza-adjacent communities, he was in a state of complete shock, at least according to several cabinet ministers.

From the very first day of the war, he has tried to evade his responsibility for the surprise attack, and to claim that the army and security services had failed him. And his cronies were whistling the same tune. On the evening of October 7, Likud activist Baruch Hassan asked the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yossi Shelly, how this could have happened, and received the answer via WhatsApp, “Ask the army.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and IDF chief Herzi Halevi, October 23, 2023. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Moving forward, Netanyahu hewed closely to that narrative, sometimes blaming Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, other times IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi.

On Sunday, in an interview with Omari Essenheim on the Kan public broadcaster, Iddo Netanyahu, the prime minister’s brother, called on National Unity chairman Benny Gantz to resign from his position.

Even when the security chiefs themselves took responsibility, Netanyahu distanced himself from the blame.

On Saturday night, Netanyahu was asked at his press conference with Gallant and Gantz whether he took responsibility and whether a state commission of inquiry would be established. The prime minister dodged twice.

Late that night, hours after a reporter at the press conference had suggested that the Shin Bet chief and head of IDF intelligence had warned him in writing of the growing likelihood of war, and it appeared to him and his loyalists that responsibility for the debacle was sticking to him, Netanyahu attacked the intelligence chiefs with full force in a tweet. Even in the middle of ground incursions into the Gaza Strip and the ongoing hostage crisis, what shook him to the core was the idea that the allegations were endangering his legacy.

But this time he went too far. Calling out the security chiefs in the middle of a war that Netanyahu himself has defined as a second War of Independence was seen as unacceptable and unforgivable, by political and security elites and Likud activists alike.

A bus with a campaign poster for opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party passes by the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on October 30, 2022. The poster says: “The 61st seat depends only on you!” (Olivier Ftoussi/Flash90)

Hassan, a key Likud activist from Netanya, slammed Netanyahu on Sunday for his tweet. In a voice message he sent to Zman Yisrael — The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site — and to various Likud ministers and Knesset members, Hassan said: “You can tell Bibi in no uncertain terms: If he tweets against the army one more time, he’ll no longer be welcome in the Likud party. Got it?… Leave the army alone.”

Giving Zman Yisrael permission to publish the recording, Hassan added, “We were brought up on the value that in times of war we are united, and the army is untouchable. To me, [Netanyahu’s] tweet is a betrayal of those values. The nation’s army is sacred, especially in wartime. They risk their lives and pay in blood, and the politicians and all of us owe them our souls.”

The outrage against Netanyahu was threatening to erupt. He was forced to delete the tweet, and later admitted in another tweet: “I was wrong, I apologize.”

The supreme leader folded, ushering in a new phase in Netanyahu’s life – the beginning of the end. It will be rife with such apologies and admissions of fault. This time, he will have no choice.

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