Sunday, May 20, 2012

‘King Bibi’ is ready for his close up, and ‘Time’ is willing to oblige

Craig Higgins

I feel a little slow on the draw. Time beat me, Barak Ravid of Ha’aretz and everybody else to the punch to give Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu a massive dose of free publicity and attention that’s size-appropriate for his ego. One of America’s finest news publications decided to crown Bibi King of Israel! Long May He Reign! I mention Mr. Ravid because he almost sounds miffed about not getting to do the laying on of hands himself. Not that he’s alone. According to Ravid, Netanyahu, “rarely has in-depth conversations with Israeli reporters, and makes do with short telephone conversations in which he passes messages on issues that are of priority to him, or speaks in order to minimize damage.” The Prime Minister apparently assumes that Ha’aretz, Yediot Ahronoth, and the others are out to get him and so doesn’t talk to them, other than to give out sound bites to the writers to fill space in their columns. In Israel reporters don’t understand the role that His Majesty has set out for them to play.

So King Bibi barely has time for the scribes there, preferring to bask in the glow of his American ‘journalist’ loyal subjects who line up to pay him homage. Time sent Managing Editor Rick Stengel to work on polishing the laurels of His Majesty for publication in the States. Stengel was given great access to Netanyahu at his private Jerusalem residence, and the Prime Minister disseminated bon mots of Bibi-Think to his new friend. Although a far more sophisticated politician than George W. Bush ever was Netanyahu shares 43’s love of an obedience streak when dealing with the Fourth Estate, and it’s clear the Time editor got the gig in part on his willingness to play gossip columnist.

So, what did Bibi want to gossip about? From the piece we are led to believe that the Prime Minister has risen to the ranks of peerage by brave deeds of political skill. Stengel writes, “Netanyahu is poised to become the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister since David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel. He has no national rival.” The proof of this claim is Netanyahu’s approval rating, “roughly 50%”, and the 94 seat- “bullet-proof majority” he has constructed by getting the ex-Likudniks from Kadima to go back to being Likudniks again. It’s also clear from the article that Netanyahu, a man who keeps a picture of Winston Churchill on a shelf behind his desk, is now eyeing his role as “a defining figure in Israeli history and a significant player on the world stage.” It’s not enough that His Highness has power and prestige; he must also cement his claim to being a demigod in the pantheon of World Leaders.

This kind of pomposity should surprise no-one; it has always been Netanyahu’s stock in trade. Stengel also dropped the tag word that sums up Bibi’s raison d’être as a political animal: Security. When he first ran for Prime Minister in 1996 they called him ‘Mr. Security’, meaning his focus was going to be more on swords than ploughshares. Nobody messed with Mr. Security then, except those who did, but now that he’s King Mr. Security it’s as if all the stars have aligned and the big moment has arrived for the former commando and son of a historian.

More hot air from the coronation of the Great Man in Time: Netanyahu, “would like to be a hero, but he will not be one at the expense of Israel's security.” Huh? What does that mean? Does that mean that Netanyahu is willing to set his Brobdingnagian ego aside to arrange a peace deal with Mahmoud Abbas, or drop the sabre he’s been rattling at Iran over its nuclear program? Or does His Majesty see a bully little war against the Islamic Republic as the sort of thing a humble servant of the people would do in time of crisis, and not heroic? Who knows? Kings have always used some caveat like Divine Will to change their mind as they see fit. Why should we expect no less from the new monarch in Jerusalem?

The fact is, Israel could use a real leader right now. They’re gearing up again for the socio-economic summer protests in Tel Aviv, and Gaza is a set piece from John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. The West Bank is a powder keg made worse by the settlers and the Border Police. Iran thumbs its nose at Israel’s irrational threats to bomb. What’s worse is that hasbara, Israel’s traditional tool in reducing bad press, has become increasingly ineffective in dealing with the country’s perpetual PR issues which result from its policies. The Netanyahu government’s intransigence on the Palestinian issue and its war-mongering pillow fight with Tehran have made it such that almost nobody thinks Israel is cool anymore, and its place in opinion polls is down there with the Iranians, Pakistan, and the like.

It seems like a country having a nervous breakdown. Mr. Stengel alludes in his column to David Ben Gurion in comparison with Netanyahu, suggesting the two be equated. But Ben Gurion, the ruthless author of the ethnic cleansing in 1948, was by all accounts a very pragmatic and resourceful evaluator of people and situations. As an example, consider the Mavi Marmara incident. While Ben Gurion would no doubt have approved of a commando raid on the vessel, once the situation turned into a major international incident with Turkey would he have allowed it to fester as King Bibi has? I doubt it. Israel’s first Prime Minister would’ve done what the current one has not, mustering the necessary support in his cabinet and the Knesset to mend relations with an essential regional ally. So is King Bibi cut from the same cloth as the founder? Mr. Stengel may think so, but I don’t. Netanyahu is more like French playwright Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the fictitious monarch of Poland who revels in greed and self-aggrandizement. King Bibi seems committed to making a splash in the history books no matter the blowback, with friends in high places willing to polish his graven image for American public consumption.

I’m disappointed in Time for enabling this egotist, and Netanyahu should be ashamed of himself for letting them do it. Only a public figure of such arrogance, so obsessed with his own legend and would-be place in history, and so deeply wrong on the direction he is attempting to put his country on a path to would allow himself to be so cheaply venerated. As long as this blowhard is allowed to keep his hand at the tiller, Israel will continue to flounder, crown or no crown.

About Craig Higgins

Craig Higgins is a graduate student and native of New Orleans with an interest in the Israel/Palestine conflict, and how it relates both to Middle Eastern and domestic US politics, particularly with regards to the 'special relationship' between Israel and the United States.

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