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The Shattered Myth of Benjamin Netanyahu

The Shattered Myth of Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu has always known what he wants his political epitaph to be. “I would like to be remembered as the protector of Israel,” he told the journalist Fareed Zakaria in 2016. “That’s enough for me.” The longest-serving Israeli prime minister has repeated this refrain for more than a decade, in English and Hebrew. It is the core case he has made for himself to the Israeli people, part of a winning electoral argument begrudgingly credited even by some of his critics. You may not like me and you may not trust me, he would imply, but only I can keep you safe.

“The ability to spot danger in advance and prepare for it is the test of a body’s functioning,” Netanyahu once said on an Israeli talk show. “The Jewish nation has never excelled at foreseeing danger. We were surprised again and again—and the last time was the most awful one. That won’t happen under my leadership.” He concluded to applause: “This is what the state of Israel expects from me, and this is what I’ll do.”

Today, following the worst anti-Jewish violence since the Holocaust, that promise has been irrevocably broken. The myth that Netanyahu assiduously cultivated about his leadership stands exposed as a self-serving fiction, and he will be forever remembered as the security hawk who presided over the greatest security failure in Israeli history. He will never be elected prime minister again.

That’s because the October 7 attack did not just strike at the heart of one politician’s mythos, but at the core of his country’s founding ethos. The Hamas massacre has been likened by many to 9/11. But its existential import for Israelis is far worse. When President George W. Bush presided over the response to the worst terrorist attack on American soil, the country rallied behind him. Most voters did not think his administration could plausibly have anticipated such an audacious plot, and gave Bush a pass for not stopping it. But Israel was founded precisely because the Jewish people have long experienced devastating assaults—and the state was meant to prevent them.

In other words, unlike America, Israel exists to stop the next pogrom. But over the past two weeks, its people have been subjected to an endless stream of images that evoke Jewish history’s worst traumas: parents killed in front of their children, kids cowering in closets, families burned alive, terrified young people hiding in piles of leaves while death squads circle around them. “I’m a child of Holocaust survivors,” one Israeli woman told reporters. “I grew up hearing stories of the camps. I thought those were the worst stories. These stories are worse. And I think that’s the hardest thing for me. I never thought I would live to see something worse than the stories I grew up with.”

Americans could not imagine a coordinated mass-casualty attack on civilians; Israelis imagined it every day. Netanyahu told them that as long as he was in charge, they would not have to worry. It was a lie.

Israelis do not forgive failures to secure their safety. Golda Meir left politics after the debacle of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Israel lost nearly 3,000 soldiers following a surprise Egyptian and Syrian attack. Her name is reviled by some in the country to this day. But what happened on October 7, 2023, was worse than what happened on October 6, 1973. Meir lost soldiers—people who had purposely put their lives on the line. Netanyahu lost civilians—the people the state and its soldiers were supposed to protect.

The polls reflect the public’s outrage. In response to Hamas’s slaughter, Israelis have rallied around the flag, but not around Netanyahu. In one survey of Jewish Israelis, 86 percent of respondents—including 79 percent of government supporters—said that the catastrophic assault from Gaza was a failure of the country’s leadership. Fifty-six percent said that Netanyahu should resign after the current war ends. Electoral polls are even bleaker for the prime minister. The latest survey has the current hard-right coalition shrinking to just 42 seats out of 120, compared with 78 for the opposition—an astonishing collapse. Only 29 percent of voters said that they felt Netanyahu was still fit to be prime minister.

This anger has reverberated in the streets. Victims and survivors have berated government ministers during hospital visits to the wounded. The headquarters of Likud, the ruling party, was defaced with fake blood and pictures of Israeli hostages. Netanyahu himself reportedly aborted a speech to army reservists after some in the crowd heckled him. Eighty percent of Israelis want him to publicly take responsibility for the events of October 7, something he has not done.

Israelis have good reason for their disillusionment. Seen in hindsight, the litany of Netanyahu’s failures is long. By his own admission, he purposely propped up Hamas as a counterbalance to the more moderate Palestinian Authority, in order to keep the Palestinian public divided and prevent a negotiated two-state solution. In partnership with Washington, Netanyahu facilitated the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatar into Gaza, in an attempt to buy quiet from Hamas. Intelligence officials now believe that some of this money was used to fund the group’s terrorism. Netanyahu also increased permits for Gazans to work in Israel; some of the permit holders may have provided intelligence used to plan the attacks. In 2011, the prime minister released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners—including convicted mass murderers—in return for one Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas. This decision encouraged further kidnapping attempts, culminating in the successful abduction of some 200 Israelis this month. One of the prisoners released in 2011 was Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza today.

And the rot runs deeper. Since returning to power in December, Netanyahu has spent months shredding Israel’s social solidarity and projecting weakness to its foes. He provoked unprecedented domestic unrest with his coalition’s deeply unpopular attempt to gut Israel’s judiciary, pitting the country’s people against one another. He fired and then unfired his defense minister for warning that the plan was causing divisions that were undermining Israel’s security. And when the prime minister wasn’t hobbling his more competent officials over their internal dissent, he was empowering incompetent ones. He spent years driving out career civil servants and replacing them with ideological cronies. To maintain his tenuous hold on power while on trial for corruption, he personally facilitated the entry of a far-right alliance into Parliament, then gave its inept and inexperienced members key positions. This is how Israel ended up with Itamar Ben-Gvir, an anti-Arab demagogue who was rejected by the Israeli army because of his radicalism, as national-security minister.

Put another way, the disaster of October 7 was the overdetermined outcome of years of Netanyahu’s poor choices. In the end, the man known as “Mr. Security” failed by his own standard, and he failed to fulfill the fundamental expectation of his fellow citizens.

From Barack Obama to Donald Trump, the greatest politicians are great self-mythologizers: They tell a story about themselves and compel others to believe it. For decades, Netanyahu was the pied piper of Israeli politics, and his promises of security were music to Israeli ears. But today, that song is drowned out by air-raid sirens and the cries of murdered Jewish children echoing from the soil.

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