Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics envied his political genius, but felt embittered by his failure to apply those gifts more courageously. (Image: AP)
The best description of how Israel’s longest prime ministership in history ended is in a leaf taken out of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In an engrossing scene where the Lord of Cawdor is confirmed to have been executed for treason, King Ducan is being briefed by his son Malcolm about how Cawdor repented his actions and pledged loyalty to His Majesty just before he was hanged.
“Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it”
Fewer words have better described any kind of departure — political, real life or in personal relations — as Malcolm’s description of the rebel Lord’s exit and how Duncan was pleased when he received the news. It may be sacrilege in literary terms to quote Shakespeare to recount the resignation of an Israeli Prime Minister. Many Jews consider the immortal English bard as having been an anti-Semite, especially citing his Merchant of Venice as the best illustration of this.
If that is an indiscretion, so be it, because Benjamin Netanyahu is a personality of Shakespearean proportions in real life. In a country where most prime ministers punch above the weight that their country gives them, Netanyahu outclassed all his predecessors. He may yet make a comeback, but for now what Israel needs is a return to calm, order and the normalcy of a normal state. In the days since his petulant exit from Israel’s most powerful political office, Netanyahu appears to have prepared the ground, even if unintentionally, for just that.
Israel is a country which values national interest above all else. It was contrary to this national character that Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister not to have a smooth transition to his successor Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu dispensed with the traditional transition ceremony, met Bennett for a mere 25 minutes before the new Prime Minister took charge, and there was no media statement after their meeting was held behind closed doors on the outgoing Prime Minister’s insistence.
In view of the sensitivities perennially associated with Israel’s security, meetings between incoming officials and the outgoing ones have always been the norm in any transition in Tel Aviv. But Netanyahu did not permit any of his key staff to brief their successors to equip the new government to perform effectively.
A meeting between Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Bennett did take place, but according to accounts, it was not exhaustive unlike previously. No further meetings between Netanyahu and Bennett are planned.
Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister has vowed to return to office sooner than later. Israel’s polity is fractious, its ruling coalitions have been similar to India’s until Narendra Modi secured parliamentary majority on its own for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. So it is not unlikely that Netanyahu may succeed in toppling Bennett’s government. However, his diagnosis of what ails the new government is way off the mark and similar to former United States President Donald Trump’s assumptions and assertions about his successor Joe Biden and his administration.
“The fraudulent government will fall quickly because it is united solely on hatred, exclusion and greed,” Netanyahu told members of the Knesset on the day he stepped down. Loss of power blinds politicians to political realities. This appears to be as true for Netanyahu as it has been for Trump since he was ousted him from the White House in last November’s election.
“I believe in this obsessively,” Netanyahu added. He may have let the cat out of the bag in this process. Obsession can be an Achille’s Heel for politicians. It prevents them from being flexible. When ambition becomes all-consuming, leaders can get singed before they realise it. If that is what the future holds for Netanyahu, a lot of sleaze will cause serious damage to Israel’s otherwise decently lively body politic.
It was entirely appropriate that on the day the change in government took place in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should have expressed his “profound gratitude” to Netanyahu for his contribution to India-Israel relations. Modi first congratulated Bennett on his elevation to high office, as protocol required, and two minutes later, in a second tweet, thanked Netanyahu. “I convey my profound gratitude for your leadership and personal attention to India-Israel strategic partnership,” Modi’s message to the outgoing Prime Minister said.
In doing so, Modi underscored the special relationship India has with Israel. He also made it clear that India’s dealings with Israel’s political class are not circumscribed by partisanship. They encompass the entire mainstream of Israeli politics. Rarely does Modi express feelings of the kind he shared with Netanyahu: his attention and praise are usually reserved for an incoming leader. After all, the business at hand is with the new head of state or government from that point onwards.
Modi’s tweets reflect the current uncertainties in Israeli politics: like every country which values its ties with the Jewish State, India is also not sure where Israel’s volatile politics is headed. Expressing gratitude to Netanyahu ensures that if he returns as Prime Minister any time soon, there is continuity in New Delhi’s engagement of him. This is especially needed to assuage Netanyahu’s feelings in his present petulant state in which he thinks he has been wronged by Bennett and unfairly pushed out of office.
Equally importantly, it takes into account the distinct possibility that the Bennett government maybe there to stay. Referring to planned celebrations next year of the 30th anniversary of full and upgraded relations with Israel, Modi’s message to Bennett was that ‘I look forward to meeting you and deepening the strategic partnership between our two countries.’ It will go down well with the large body of India-backers in Israel that Modi’s tweets to the incoming and outgoing Prime Ministers in Israel were in Hebrew and in English.