One thing I have discovered in my travels is that people who reach the very top of any organization — a company, a government or even a newsroom — often lack a basic instinct that constrains the rest of us: they don’t mind looking ridiculous.
I have been near the top of organizations, but never reached an actual pinnacle (other than at this newsletter where I reign supreme). As such, when I look ridiculous I’m discomfited; I explain myself and try to fix it and concede error now and again. I think this is human and probably best for civilization, but it can be taken for weakness.
A prime exemplar of people without this problem is incoming Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Already the country’s longest-serving leader by cumulative years in office, he is set to return to the position this week atop a cabinet brimming with religious fanatics, convicted criminals and Jewish supremacists.
A classic demonstration of Netanyahu’s indifference to consistency has long attached to his 2008 admonition that PM Ehud Olmert resign because of a police probe.
“A prime minister up to his neck in police investigations,” he proclaimed then, “has no moral and public mandate to determine critical things for Israel, since there is a not-unfounded concern that he will decide based on his personal interest — for his political survival, and not in the national interest.”
Olmert dutifully resigned without a fuss — so reasonably as to perhaps suggest he never did belong at the very top.
You might expect someone so capable of articulating the ethical and logical position Netanyahu did to be discomfited upon finding themselves clinging to power just a few years later during a far broader investigation. Not so Netanyahu.
Netanyahu fiercely adhered himself to his seat many steps further into the crime-processing process — through the recommendation to indict by the police, the agreement of the prosecution and actual indictment by the attorney-general, all the way to his excruciatingly prolonged trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Throughout, he has been agitating against the police and legal system and claiming deep state conspiracies, and his new government aims to pass an override clause enabling politicians to cancel decisions of the Supreme Court. Just like he said, one clearly can identify a “not-unfounded concern” for the national interest.
But if Netanyahu feels any shame, it’s fair to say he has never betrayed a hint of it in public. And while the hypocrisy is epic, the example I cite has suffered from overuse.
Which is why it is so useful that Netanyahu has volunteered to provide a new one. This occurred in an interview a few weeks ago with the Canadian public intellectual Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist whose passion is goading progressives.
It is the latest in a series of appearances in which Netanyahu endeavors to assure foreign audiences that his government, which is set to eviscerate Israel’s economy and global standing, will do no such things. For this to fly, it’s critical that his interviewers be sympathetic (like uber-blogger Bari Weiss), indifferent or ignorant.
In the interview, Netanyahu boasted of having cut child allowances and other entitlements as finance minister 20 years ago, bravely enraging the Haredim.
“In order to put the fat man, the public sector, on a diet, I had to I had to cut back Israel’s lavish welfare system, which encouraged people to live on the dole and not to go out and work,” he recalled. “I cut child allowances — which in Israel were extraordinary — they go up with each successive child.”
“This was leading to demographic and economic collapse,” Netanyahu continued. “The ultra-Orthodox community didn’t work. They just had a lot of children, which the others … had to pay for… And when you cut that — well, Jordan, I can tell you don’t become very popular.”
(Led by Netanyahu, Likud fell to a lowest-ever 12 seats in the 2006 election, largely because Ariel Sharon split the party and absconded to his new centrist party, Kadima, with most of its electorate.)
Petersen, brilliant when it comes to attacking political correctness, is not a man unduly concerned with Israel. So perhaps he did now know Netanyahu undid the reforms upon returning to the leadership in 2009 on the wings of an alliance with the Haredim.
Let’s “unpack” this, as people now say.
It seems Netanyahu — outward-facing Netanyahu — understands the negative incentives of the setup with the Haredim, whereby child allowances subsidize a birthrate approaching seven children on average per family. He understands that this, combined with the low labor participation — Haredi men, at 50%, are the most non-working sector after Arab women — risks “economic collapse.” At the current birthrate Haredim will be the majority in two generations — an unsustainable proposition for a modern country that hopes to continue to prosper.
But inward-facing Netanyahu — the one who needs to avoid jail — is doubling down on the catastrophic arrangement. He has not just failed to address the child subsidy issue in the coalition negotiations but actually agreed to double the salaries provided by the Israeli taxpayer to Haredi men for lifelong study of religion, pushing them out of work.
It is of a piece with Netanyahu’s pre-election maneuver persuading a key Haredi group not to agree to a desperately-needed core curriculum in its schools, as it was about to do. Now Israel will suffer another four years of Haredi children condemned to a future as adults who are unemployable in a modern economy.
All this is clearly poised to destroy the so-called Start-Up Nation (as 200 tech leaders warned Netanyahu in recent days in an open letter). And it is breathtakingly the opposite of what Netanyahu was suggesting to poor Peterson.
Yet if Netanyahu is even a little embarrassed by any of it, then as with the other example, it is not discernable.
Could the brazen indifference to one’s own infuriating behavior truly be a sign of leadership qualities, as I am starting to suspect?
Peterson seems to think so. A signature theory of his is that the willingness to be not “agreeable” (and an inclination toward “absolute, all out warfare”) is key to reaching the top. He seems to take delight in irking all genders by claiming that men are more likely to be this way than women, and so their dominance is natural.
In a way, such thick skin cements Peterson’s own bona fides, as well as Netanyahu’s.
(A version of this article appeared originally in the Jerusalem Post)