Netanyahu, alone at the top, makes a friend on the beach

Having distanced aides and security chiefs he no longer trusts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become a very lonely leader.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the opening ceremony for the Sha'ar Hagay national site near Jerusalem on Nov. 29, 2020. Photo by ALEX KOLOMIENSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Dec 1, 2020

What was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doing in the hours leading up to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the “father of Iran’s atomic bomb”? It turns out he was all by himself on a cliff overlooking the sea, near his home in Caesarea. He sat watching the waves in a black T-shirt and track pants, surrounded by a tight ring of security and snipers.

A few of those mesmerizing moments were captured for posterity by a 9-year-old boy named Uri, who was walking along the coast with his father on that Friday afternoon. The beach was empty because of the winter weather. It was his father who first realized that something was going on. He couldn’t help but notice the armored limos and the unusually high level of security just 200 meters away, so he told his son, “It must be Netanyahu.” Feeling particularly animated that day, Uri grabbed his father’s phone and started running toward the cliff. When Netanyahu saw him, he gestured to him to come over and asked his security detail to let the boy through. For the next few minutes, Netanyahu was filmed talking to a child, who was so close to the heavily guarded prime minister that he could actually touch him.

When Uri and his father got home, they were eager to share their story with the rest of the family. The boy’s grandfather, Maj. Gen. Itzhak Brik, sent the video to his friend, military correspondent Carmella Menashe, who posted it on Twitter the next day. The rare footage went viral, receiving hundreds of thousands of views. Even more exciting for Uri, he became a TV sensation overnight.

What we learn from the many interviews with Uri and his father is that Netanyahu did not arrange for the boy to be there. Nor did he prevent him from approaching either, even though that would have been easy for him. Apparently, he recognized the potential that the footage would have, so he cooperated and took no steps to prevent the clip from being posted online.

But this was Netanyahu. Even a video clip by a boy, which captured a very human moment in the prime minister’s life after a particularly exhausting week, became the subject of intense political controversy.

The boy’s family was accused of cynical collaboration with Netanyahu. The boy’s father tried to explain that the incident was authentic and not staged, and that the encounter with Netanyahu was “pure.” The boy repeated the story of his spontaneous encounter in dozens of interviews, but that was not enough to convince Netanyahu’s opponents. The event was politicized.

It’s too bad. Those few moments, captured on video, offer an authentic glimpse of an isolated Netanyahu, at least as much as possible. Thousands of words have been written about the prime minister’s isolation, noting that it has only intensified over the last few years. Much has been said about the darker sides of the prime minister’s personality, with a focus on his paranoid behaviors and his suspicion of even those closest to him.

It took a little boy to show what that this isolation really looks like. As it turns out, he captured the moment on an especially dramatic day, too. Based on the foreign press reports, Israel really was behind the daring assassination in eastern Tehran, meaning that Netanyahu gave the order to kill Fakhrizadeh. It was Netanyahu who introduced the Iranian scientist to the world at a 2018 press conference where the prime minister first disclosed that Israel had stolen Iran’s nuclear archive. Israeli intelligence agencies referred to Fakhrizadeh as Dr. Strangelove, based on Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film. Netanyahu also started calling Fakhrizadeh that.

What was Netanyahu thinking about as he sat there, watching the waves? And whom did he speak with briefly, when a member of his security detail handed him a phone (which was also captured on video)? Where did he go from there? All these details are missing from the video clip, leaving any answers to the imagination.

Netanyahu’s supporters consider the encounter to be heartwarming. His enemies argue feverishly that it was horribly cynical. Regardless, those few moments tell a much larger story than whatever appeared on camera.

It is often said that it is lonely at the top, but there can be no doubt that Netanyahu is more alone than any of his predecessors. As a result of the criminal investigations of the past few years, Netanyahu has become especially reticent, suspicious and bitter of late. His closest advisers have turned state witness against him, exacerbating his natural inclination to disregard others. The result is a combination of his tendency to paint the world in black and white — trusted allies and traitors — and to turn his back on people who were once close to him.

Netanyahu 2020 is a man who keeps all his cards as close to his chest as possible. This is not normally an issue when dealing with political and legal strategies. The problem is that some of the people kept out of the loop are key figures in the defense establishment.

The most recent example of this was his secret trip to Saudi Arabia on Nov. 22, which was eventually leaked to the press. According to media reports, Netanyahu didn’t even tell the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) about the trip. In fact, the prime minister ordered his military secretary not to tell anyone about it.

Haaretz reported last week that senior members of the defense establishment believe that Netanyahu’s distrust of Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi is especially extreme. This can be seen in the way the prime minister excludes Kochavi from dealing with issues deemed critical for national security. The most tangible example of the relationship between these two men is Netanyahu’s decision not to tell the IDF leadership about his trip to Saudi Arabia. The General Staff, including the chief of staff, only learned about it from the media.

Senior members of the defense establishment who spoke with Haaretz say that is just one example of many of Netanyahu’s outrageous distrust of Kochavi, which has only intensified since Benny Gantz was appointed defense minister. Netanyahu seems to think that because Gantz and Kochavi are old army buddies, Kochavi is necessarily aligned with Gantz.

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, everyone from the chief of staff down to the last of his advisers is suspected of being able to harm him politically. The real question is, how far does this go? Many Israelis wonder if Netanyahu’s rivals were right, and if the country’s political interests have been indeed harmed.

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