The entire edifice of Benjamin Netanyahu’s political persona is built on the perception of “strength.” To hear his supporters tell it, Netanyahu will never waver on his bedrock principle of protecting Israel and its security, whether in the halls of the United Nations or on the floor of the U.S. Congress. His favorite politician is Winston Churchill, whose biographies adorn his bookshelves. He is a voice in the wilderness, a statesman of stature. Thus, even as Bibi regularly boasts poor personal approval ratings among the Israeli public, he is the only major party leader seen by its voters as a viable, experienced candidate who can be entrusted with life and death national security decisions.
The Israeli prime minister and his acolytes have been so successful in mainstreaming this image in Israel and abroad, even among Netanyahu’s critics, that few have realized its flaw: It isn’t remotely true.
Today’s events offer yet another crack in this increasingly implausible facade. Mere hours after announcing a deal with the United Nations to resettle Israel’s African asylum seeker population half in Israel and half in other Western countries, Netanyahu backtracked. Earlier in the day, he had fulsomely praised the plan as “the best possible” and defended it in a video on his Facebook page. What changed? He experienced a few hours of backlash from his right-wing base and on social media. Faced with entirely expected opposition, Netanyahu folded almost immediately and put the agreement on pause pending a meeting with supporters and further deliberation.
Some expert analysts believe that this is merely a holding pattern before Netanyahu inevitably accepts the agreement, which is his and Israel’s only good option on the issue. But Bibi’s utter unwillingness to stand up to his base for what he clearly knows is good policy is shameful. It is also a pattern.
Back in January 2016, Netanyahu made a similarly momentous announcement intended to resolve a long-running fissure in Israeli society. Then, as now, it was the result of a painstaking agreement brokered between all stakeholders. Then, as now, it received widespread praise from those impacted by the problem. And then, as now, Netanyahu blew up the agreement to quell his coalition and did lasting harm to Israel’s standing. This, of course, was what happened to the proposed egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall, which Netanyahu supported and then torpedoed when it became politically inconvenient, enraging American Jews whom he left holding the bag.
Then, as now, Netanyahu took what he knew was a positive outcome for Israel and its values and punted it for short-term political gain. Then, as now, he took an explosive situation and managed to inflame it further by seeming to genuinely resolve a problem, only to pull the rug out from everyone and leave them worse off than if he’d never promised anything.
Quite simply, when it comes to contentious as opposed to consensus issues, Netanyahu lacks a spine. Having seen his first term as prime minister capsized after he stood up to the settler right and signed the Wye River Memorandum ceding land for peace, he has been perpetually gun shy about challenging his coalition’s most irredentist elements. As a result, he has persistently capitulated to the nationalist right on settlements and the religious right on synagogue and state, not because he thinks they are always right, but because he thinks they determine his political survival. In this way, Netanyahu is not unlike Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who mouths platitudes about a two-state solution he knows is best, but has rejected peace plan after plan from Israeli and American leaders. In both cases, the leader knows that he is leading his people astray, but is afraid to challenge the rejectionists among them, and so abdicates his responsibilities instead.
When Netanyahu does seem to take a stand, it is almost invariably on issues where there is already broad Israeli agreement. Take the Iran deal. While Netanyahu’s opposition to the accord may have been unpopular in the Obama White House and European capitals, it was certainly popular in Israel, where the deal was opposed across the political spectrum—not to mention across numerous Arab countries in the Middle East. Expressing this widespread discontent did not take courage.
Likewise, while Netanyahu has directed two Gaza wars, they were both consensus defensive actions taken after Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli population centers and made daily life intolerable in much of Israel. To respond to this did not take courage. No political leader would have acted any differently in such a situation, and the anti-terror incursions were broadly supported by Israelis across the country.
In other words, the problem is not that Netanyahu cannot be trusted to make Israeli national security decisions when they are popular and easy. It’s that he cannot be trusted to do so when they are not. As Israeli opposition leader Avi Gabbay put it today in his criticism of Netanyahu’s self-serving U-turn on asylum seekers, “This is a sad, embarrassing, but mostly troubling evening. We have no reason to assume that on security matters the prime minister’s decision-making ability is any better.”
And therein lies the hard, bitter truth about Benjamin Netanyahu: He is not a courageous truth-telling statesman. He just plays one on TV.