Like Trump, Netanyahu Suddenly Seems Out of Touch and Off the Rails

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended Israelis a typical half-apology on Sunday for his scandalous demand to be exempted from back taxes he owes for state-funded improvements in his private home in Caesarea. Netanyahu conceded his timing was unfortunate but insisted that his demand, which has sparked widespread criticism, was and remains totally justified.

Netanyahu was compelled to show contrition because of the overwhelming and nearly unanimous public disgust sparked by his request, which was rushed through the Knesset Finance Committee last week. The left was incensed by the substance of Netanyahu’s demands, as expected, but close allies and supporters couldn’t hide their frustration either. Netanyahu, they claimed, needlessly injected his personal tax affairs into the national agenda at a time of crippling economic recession and a coronavirus pandemic that seems to be returning with a vengeance.

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Netanyahu’s initial justifications for the move only added insult to injury. The prime minister is a man of many millions whose expenses are all covered by the state budget, so his depiction by Likud ally Miki Zohar as barely subsisting on his meager government salary was bound to fall flat. Netanyahu’s catch-all claim that he is being singled out by tax authorities in comparison with previous prime ministers wasn’t very convincing either: None of his predecessors bilked the state for upkeep and upgrade of their private homes.

Netanyahu, contrary to his reputation as the ultimate mind reader of the public mood, miscalculated badly. With hundreds of thousands of Israelis facing unemployment and potential poverty, Netanyahu chose the worst time possible to line his own hefty pockets. His obtuseness was startling.

The common explanation was that Netanyahu was indeed a victim, not of discriminating tax authorities but of his own hubris. His seemingly endless back-from-the-dead run of political ploys, which recently made him prime minister for the fifth straight time, has gone to his head, supposedly.

The incident might have been dismissed as a fluke, were it not for the fact that Netanyahu and his proxies have been making the same kind of unforced errors and uncharacteristic miscalculations in other areas as well. In an eerie emulation of Donald Trump’s self-destructive responses to the coronavirus epidemic and the race riots in the U.S., Netanyahu suddenly seems similarly and self-injuriously out of touch with the current Israeli zeitgeist.

Over the weekend, while the media was still excoriating him for his tax bonanzas, Netanyahu’s main underling in the cabinet, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, managed to shoot him in the knees as well. Israeli police, acting on orders or on their own initiative, made the cardinal mistake of arresting air force pilot and reserve brigadier general Amir Haskel, one of the leaders of a hitherto modest and ongoing sit-in protest near the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. Things went downhill from there.