Outmanoeuvring The Master. Lapid (Left) and Bennett With - Or Against - Netanyhu. Photo: Flash90

The Deal In Ideal, The “Go” In Ego

Netanyahu found his reverse Kantian Imperative used against him

By Amir Oren

The numbers foretold this story more than two months ago, once the polls closed in Israel’s fourth elections in two years: Binyamin Netanyahu would fail to break the 61-seat threshold to form a new government. His rivals could garner enough votes in the Knesset and unseat him, after a dozen years in power, if they found a formula good enough, far from perfect, to put them all in a tight tent, whose main feature is leaving Netanyahu out of it.

Following some twists and turns in the unfolding plot, it seems to be finally happening. With the unavoidable caveat noted, in a week’s time Israel will have a brand new management group, with a single holdover, Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, a 49-year-old politician since 2012 who formerly held the economy, education and defense portfolios, will not be as powerful as Netanyahu and most of his predecessors were. Bennett’s electoral base is quite narrow. He was handed the premiership because without him the government would have had to rely on two Arab lists, which was unacceptable to some coalition partners. But because Bennet is only one of seven party chiefs in the coalition, with a mere one-third of Yair Lapid’s Parliamentary strength, he will be at most first among equals.

Which brings to mind a famous crack by Israel Tal, one of the most remarkable of Israel’s military men, who retired at Major General though widely concidered an excellent candidate for Chief of the General Staff, the IDF’s only serving Lieutenant General. There three categories of CGS, noted Tal, having known all of them for Israel’s first six decades. There are those who stood head and shoulders above their peers – the Moshe Dayans and Yitzhak Rabins. There were the firsts among equals, by virtue of seniority and formal authority. And then there were those, names available by request, who stood head and shoulder below their peers. Bennett’s challenge would be to avoid relegation from the second group to the third.

Which begs the question, how have the mighty fallen? What happened to Netanyahu, the master politician left empty-handed?

There are several partial answers, none having to do with policy, all emenating from politics and personality. The Israeli public is still almost evenly divided in its perception of the man who led the government for 15 of the last 25 years. He has a die-hard following of a quarter of the electorate and an additional chunk, almost ad big, of voters who supported parochial lists exprcting them to prefer him for PM, if mathematically possible. A similar and slightly bigger group is vehemently anti-Bibi.

But it was not the people who brought Bibi down. The politicians did it. Netantahu has indeed acted in a divisive manner, pitting segments of the public against each other. At one time or another he demonised “the Arabs”, “the Left”, “the Police/Prosecution/Attorney General”, “the Media”. In one sense, though, he turned out to be the Great Unifier – he unified many politicians who served him throughout his career but came to resent his attitude towards them. No issue, no substance were involved. Only his exploitative, contemptuous habit of taking advantage of their loyal work for him, only to discard them on some whim, perhaps his wife’s.

Thus, he managed the extraordinary feat of uniting ambitious and competitive politicians, each with his own private aspirations to become top dog, in a common cause – first of all, above all, to oust him. The rest could wait. Of course Lapid, Gantz, Gideon Saar and Avigdor Liberman do not see Bennett as their superior, but it has become a bearable price to pay for the fulfilment of their vengeful dream.

As for the methods they used in forging their unlikely alliance, there is a special irony there. They learned them from the master himself and eventually turned them against him.

Netanyahu has always been his own man, defying the party line when it suited him to further his career. As for integrity, he had no qualms making promises he knew he would not be able to keep and breaking those he could (the latter, for fear of a precedent). But for the tricks to mesmerise the audience, a certain practice had to be maintained. The rest of the cast had to play by the rules, in order for Netanyahu to win by daring to break them. One can bypass a traffic jam if one is neither civil nor law-abiding and drives on the highway’s shoulder – alone. Had everyone acted like that, jungle-like, the outlaw would have had no advantage. Maradona scored with that “hand of God” because no-one else dared to so brazanly. But what if all others did, too?

This is putting Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative on its head. Lie, cheat, steal and demand that everyone else play by the book, lest chaos reign in the universe. Anazingly, it worked, because a defeatist Gantz joined Netanyahu after virtually beating him, and vital institutions – the Attorney General, the Supreme Court, the President – feared a collision with Netanyahu and his ferocious followers and meekly let him stay in office while being tried for bribery and other counts of corruption. An abnormal situation was handled in a make-believe normal fashion.

Came the March fourth elections, and Netanyahu fell back on Option B – if he can’t form a government, he would block Lapid from doing it, by denying him Bennett’s votes, thereby forcing a fifth round, all the while staying on as the Prime Minister of a transition government, essentially unaccountable to the Knesset.

Lapid, though, outmanoeuvred him, doing the logical but unnatural – offering the Prime Ministership he has so coveted to a rival, Bennett. All Lapid would get, as Alternate Prime Minister scheduled to swap places with Bennett two years hence would be some 80 percent of his dream, but it is far better than 100 percent of nothing.

The temptation was, as predicted, too much for Bennett to pass. To market his deal with his ideological opposites as a necessary evil, Bennett had to do a Bibi – feign a draft agreement with Netanyahu, lull him into believing that a Lapid government is no longer in the cards, then turn around, accuse Netanyahu of coming up short and sign with Lapid.

Netanyahu and Bennett chraged his other with being a liar. They were both right, deception being the coin of the realm in politics, but there was a small difference between them. Netanyahu came out the loser, Bennett – his disciple, former aide and alienated admirer – the winner. And if there is one  character trait Israelis cannot stand being loughed at for, it is being a sucker, or friar (may also be spelled as and refered to as fryer, a chicken being fried). An Israeli politician, per his supporters, should better be known as a liar rather than a fryer.

12 years ago, in the 2009 elections, Tzipi Livni’s party won more votes and Knesset seats than Likud headed by Netanyahu. Livni faced exorbitant demands by potential coalition partners. She refused to pay the price, suspecting that she would then be blackmailed into more concessions, with her claim to honesty compromised, only to find that it was to no avail, because Netanyahu offered even more. Livni’s associate, Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, a seasoned political operative, begged her to let him negotiate the messy details. She refused; Netanyahu outflanked her and cameback to power a decade after having lost it. Knowing what transpired over the last twelve years, Livni’s principled stand is less persuasive than it looked then, and Bar-On’s practical position has improved over time.

The basic fact of electoral politics in democracies is that in every ideal there lies a deal, and that in order to realize the battle cry a majority of Israelis held up in rallies against Netanyahu, “Go!”, some in his motley crew of rivals had to both put above everything else their egos – and others to store it for some post-Bibi future.