It’s been a roller-coaster two weeks for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—from the triumph of AIPAC to the discontent and rancor at home in Jerusalem.
At AIPAC, Bibi had an audience of more than 18,000 people who were primed to adore him, and he was at his performance-best. This is the Bibi we know when he is abroad: cheery, upbeat, relaxed. He joked with the crowd, and their adulation made him happy, almost giddy. He was the master of engagement and charming informality.
AIPAC wants to love Israel. As Israel’s longest-running prime minister, Bibi sees himself as the Jewish incarnation of Louis XIV and seems to genuinely believe that he and the State of Israel are one. The crowds seemed to believe it, too. He didn’t have to do more—and didn’t do more—than offer the standard speech that he gives abroad: Iran is the epitome of all evil. The Palestinian Authority bears sole responsibility for the failure to make any progress towards peace. Everything about Israel is fabulous. Our technological prowess is legendary. Our initiative is incredible and our intelligence saves lives throughout the world.
No mention, of course, that police investigators have recommended that Bibi—“l’etat c’est moi” be indicted on two counts of bribery, along with fraud and breach of trust. Or that in exchange for champagne, expensive cigars and jewelry for his wife, he offered to provide perks and benefits to his “friends.” Or that he attempted to bribe and threaten the media in order to gain positive coverage for his family and himself.
AIPAC wanted unity, so Bibi gave them unity. “It is because we are inspired by the same ideas, because we are animated by the same values that America and Israel have forged an eternal bond that can never ever be broken,” he declared, and the crowd cheered wildly. President Donald Trump is the best friend Israel could hope for, he pronounced, and the crowd cheered once again.
No mention, of course, that under his administration, the Jewish community’s attachment to Israel has declined to unprecedented lows. Or that Trump is one of the most polarizing presidents that the American Jewish community has ever had to deal with.
AIPAC has been heading towards a more progressive position. “The progressive narrative for Israel is just as compelling and critical as the conservative one,” declared AIPAC president Mort Fridman at the launch of the conference, and the cast of speakers was certainly more progressive—and included more leftists—than ever before.
So Bibi offered them progressiveness. “These values are an inseparable part of America’s story, of Israel’s story,” he affirmed to standing ovations. “A story of freedom, justice, peace and hope.”
No mention of the anti-progressive and anti-liberal legislation that his coalition is promoting. Or of his shameful capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox. Or the growing objections to his xenophobic intent to deport African asylum seekers just as Jews all over the world sit down to the seder to celebrate our own journey to freedom. And even though there were certainly thousands of Reform and Conservative Jews in that audience, Bibi did not remind them that he has squelched the Western Wall compromise that would have granted them religious legitimacy in Israel.
“We love you, Bibi,” shouted a woman from the audience. “I love you, too, you,” he responded without a hint of modesty, as if merely accepting his due.
And then he came home.
Here, too, he has to play to his audience—the hard-right, nationalistic and anti-liberal constituency that could swing the next election. Like many of Trump’s voters, this constituency feeds on its resentment of the social, economic and ethnic elites that, they believe, have held them back, and they want revenge. They are primed to follow messages of hatred, xenophobia and divisiveness.
As he showed at AIPAC, Bibi knows how to give a crowd what they want. This is the Bibi we know at home: combative, oppositional, vengeful.
Here, too, he gives little more than his standard speech. The police are out to get him. The legal system is hounding him. The press is liberal and hates him. The left has forgotten how to be Jewish. The entire world is anti-Semitic.
In Israel, of course, he has to mention the impending indictment—especially since some of his formerly most trusted confidants have turned state’s witness. As the Israeli incarnation of Louis XIV, and Israeli’s longest-running Prime Minister, he makes it clear that he believes that if he goes down, then the state—or at least its institutions—must go down with him.
Bibi has always known that the best defense is a belligerent offense. In Bibi-spin, the criminal investigations won’t turn into the State of Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu. He’ll preempt and make then into Netanyahu vs. the State of Israel. He rages bitter against anyone who dares to suggest that it is a crime to accept gifts totaling more than $280,000 from rich friends in exchange for promoting their interests. In a vengeful, petulant Facebook video, he says that, in order to take him down, the police are willing to intimidate witnesses and suborn perjury. The police, he says, take witnesses “into detention, terrify them and tell them: ‘Your life is over, your family’s life is over…We’ll take everything from you, including your freedom. You want to get out of this? There’s one way—smear Netanyahu. It doesn’t matter if you tell the truth—the main thing is you smear Netanyahu.’”
But never fear, he says, I will survive. After his government was nearly toppled by the ultra-Orthodox earlier this week, he declared, “I promised to keep this government alive. And I have done so.”
He neglected to mention, of course, that, in order to stay alive—for the ostensible good of the nation, of course—he caved-in to ultra-Orthodox wrangling and agreed to broad exemptions from compulsory military service for ultra-Orthodox men.
Nor does he mention that under his administration, income distribution in Israel is among the most unequal in the entire Western world. That on standardized international tests, Israeli students are consistently slipping backwards. That the high-tech achievements that he praised at AIPAC are the result of neoliberal policies that benefit only a small segment of society, while the rest—including the very constituency he panders to—are losing economic ground and opportunity.
Like many of Trump’s voters, some will buy in to his messages of hate and dissension. And they probably would vote for him again, because he knows to give them what they want: a sense of vindication.
If elections are called in Israel, Bibi’s strategy will probably pay off, and he could be reelected. If he is indicted, then the law won’t force him to step down, but public pressure and the loss of political support will probably force him to.
But thankfully, Bibi’s political future is not in the hands of the adoring fans at AIPAC or the bitter voters in Israel. The Israeli criminal justice and legal systems will decide his fate. And hopefully, they aren’t primed for anything except the truth.