Alas, poor Bibi … Shakespeare’s Netanyahu

Alas, poor Bibi … Shakespeare’s Netanyahu

'Had Shakespeare still been around today, he could have written a tragedy about Netanyahu'.

Benjamin Netanyahu as Prospero.
Benjamin Netanyahu as Prospero.

AFTER Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had run out of time to form a coalition government in Israel, and just as the Blue and White leader, Benny Gantz, was about to try the same “Mission Implausible”, the Jerusalem Post ran an interesting front-page article (23/10). 

Under the heading, “The Shakespearean Tragedy of Benjamin Netanyahu”, Gil Hoffman wrote: “Had Shakespeare still been around today, he could have written a tragedy about … Netanyahu.” 

As I say, interesting. But I beg to differ. I don’t think Shakespeare could have written a tragedy about the Israeli leader. Even if he could have, he wouldn’t have. Because the Netanyahu story doesn’t fit Shakespeare’s idea of a tragic drama. 

But, as I shall try to show, the Bard could have written a comedy about Bibi, Sarah, son Yair, Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, the cigars, the Hollywood connection, and the ice-cream account. And he would have called the play The Tempest.

The Post article nominated Gantz as someone Bibi would see as a “usurper to the throne”, the potential “villain” was Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman who “stabbed Netanyahu in the back”, and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, who’s expected to indict him due to his “hubris and hedonism”, was another former trusted aide set to bring down his former boss.

I’m not persuaded that’s “tragedy” material. But even accepting Hoffman’s notion of Netanyahu as “a tragic hero, cursed both by fate and by his fatal flaw”, the problem remains: deciding which one, if any, of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies – Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth – could tell us anything about James Packer’s Israeli mate.

Now Hamlet’s Ophelia dies before he can marry her. And King Lear’s wife is “The Absent Mother” in a play about her husband and her daughters which doesn’t even name her. Othello’s wife Desdemona is blameless. But he lets Iago drive him crazy with jealousy. So he kills her, and then kills himself. Macbeth is ambitious, and wants to be King of Scotland. Lady Macbeth goads him to murder King Duncan. It ends badly for both of them.

So much for the tragedies. And so much for suggesting that Shakespeare could have written one like that about Bibi. Still, I haven’t met anybody in Israel who’d say that Sarah is “blameless”. In fact, everyone blames her for everything. Even if nobody can be as bad as much of the merciless Israeli media makes her out to be. 

But if Shakespeare’s tragedies don’t help much with figuring out Bibi and Israel’s politics, the comedies do. You can tell that just from the titles. Consider only Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, Measure for Measure, and Much Ado About Nothing. Ever the optimist, however, I’d also like to include All’s Well That Ends Well. 

But the most relevant comedy is The Tempest. And here’s why.

There are many reasons for Netanyahu’s longevity in office as prime minister for the past 10 years, often against the odds, and despite the looming indictments for corruption. But whatever his failures, one reason for his successes has been his ability to persuade sufficient numbers of Israeli voters that he’s indispensable; that there’s nobody else who can keep Israel safe. 

Some call this political magic. For others it merely proves he’s a wizard at practising populism’s dark arts. Whatever this “talent” – smart campaigning or illiberalism mobilised – it’s worked. At least until the second election this year. When Netanyahu faltered. Now the big question is whether he can somehow still conjure up the magic. Or whether the play is nearly over.

Enter Prospero. For this purpose, aka Bibi. 

One of Shakespeare’s most interesting characters, Prospero’s taught himself sorcery and can control other humans as well as the spirits. 

In The Tempest‘s epilogue – (Act V) – he addresses himself to the audience. Aka the Israeli voters. 

(An abridged version follows: it’s in contemporary English (cf. SparkNotes) which retains Shakespeare’s meaning.)

“Now my spells are broken.

And the only power I have is my own.

Which is very weak. Now you all have got the power to keep me prisoner here …

Release me 

So I can return to my dukedom with your help … 

Without applause my plan to please you has failed

Now I have no spirits to enslave

No magic to cast spells

And I’ll end up in despair …

Indulge me, forgive me, and set me free.”

Exit right.

Sam Lipski is chief executive of the Pratt Foundation and a former editor of The AJN.

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