Netanyahu’s resigning tomorrow, today, would help Israel transition from a politics of demagoguery and division to an era of good governance.
In March 1968, Lyndon Johnson realized that the only way to try winning the Vietnam War was by ending his political career. He abruptly abandoned his reelection campaign, vowing to govern the best he could for his remaining 10 months. Benjamin Netanyahu should make a similar move.
On October 7, I promised myself that, until the war ended, I would not look back and engage in recriminations about what went wrong. Nor would I look forward, predicting what will happen militarily or pushing a political outcome for “the day after.” Nevertheless, on Monday, on the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Daily Inside Analysis podcast (Sunday through Thursday at 6 p.m. Israel time, 11 a.m. US Eastern time), our moderator, Yaakov Katz, asked the question of the hour: With the prime minister MIA, with the government barely functioning, with confidence in the coalition cratering, “how can Benjamin Netanyahu rebuild trust in his leadership and government?”
Suddenly, it became clear. He shouldn’t resign today. That would trigger a vicious, distracting domestic battle that would make the Machiavellian television show Succession look like Sesame Street. Instead, Netanyahu should vow today to retire tomorrow – as soon as the war ends.
We were discussing a fascinating JPPI poll assessing public trust, conducted by our fellow panelist Shmuel Rosner with Camil Fuchs. The most reassuring results showed that 74% of Israelis feel confident that Israel will win this war and 98% have faith in our soldiers. More sobering was that a majority doesn’t trust the government, with 65% of Israeli Jews doubting Netanyahu.
Most Israelis today harbor Entebbe fantasies, including, I assume, Bibi. We hope this war won’t be as long and bloody as we fear. We hope that once the troops enter Gaza, Hamas will collapse, and the IDF will free our hostages, Entebbe-style.
Such miracles would restore public trust. But fantasies can be dangerous, especially in wartime. They can encourage leaders to take irresponsible risks, while demoralizing the public prematurely. Better to gird for a long slog.
Even before lightning has a chance to strike, Netanyahu should take a page from Johnson’s playbook.
The decades in Washington
Johnson spent three decades in Washington, with a burning ambition to become president and make history. He loved being president. He loved trying to help make America better, and he loved giving visitors cigarette lighters, pens, and pocket knives with the presidential seal. But he loved America and the American people even more.
On March 31, 1968, vowing to limit the bombing of North Vietnam and extricate America from its quagmire, he proclaimed: “I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes, or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office – the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
LBJ wowed the nation. “The speech was magnificently delivered,” his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, marveled. “Those who love him must have loved him more. And those who hate him must at least have thought: Here is a man.”
Taking a similar high road would save Netanyahu from the humiliation of being thrown out, while sparing Israelis the trauma of fighting over him as soon as we stop fighting our real enemies. This classy move would help restore the Netanyahu aura, as much as possible – especially if he engineers a decisive victory. The move would end the constant backbiting, even now, questioning Netanyahu’s motives, wondering whether he is using Israeli soldiers as pawns to save his career or as the noble warriors they are, trying to defend our beloved home.
More substantively, Netanyahu’s resigning tomorrow, today, would help Israel transition from a politics of demagoguery and division to an era of good governance. Netanyahu could reassure the public, empathize with those mourning, inspire the home front.
He could replace incompetent cabinet members, while empowering a new generation of leaders. For the first time in his career, he would free himself from his pathological need to cut down everyone around him as potential rivals, allowing him to become an expansive senior statesman, mentoring potential successors.
The JPPI poll shows a remarkable sense of unity now – 81% feel the solidarity. For months, many of us warned that our enemies posed the greatest danger, not our political rivals – and Hamas taught that lesson too well.
If we unleash round after round of finger-pointing and I-told-you-so-ing, “the day after” risks becoming as ugly and stalemated as “the day before.” But, with the speech of his life, Netanyahu could put Israel back on track. He could end the constant fights over his future, avoiding a sixth election debating Bibi, yes or no. And he could show all Israelis, Left and Right, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and Arab, that it’s time to go back to rebuilding our future, through solidarity, self-sacrifice, and common sense.
The writer, a senior fellow in Zionist thought at the Jewish People Policy Institute, is an American presidential historian and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.