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Opinion: Is Israeli leader Netanyahu all-powerful or a victim?

On Nov. 23, at 8 p.m. sharp, a game-changer took place in Israel: Avichai Mandelblit, the nation’s attorney general, announced he would be indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Less than an hour later, Netanyahu appeared on live television, on every single news broadcast, and spoke in a hurt, insulted tone as a row of Israeli flags waved behind him, adding pathos.

Anyone who tried to follow Netanyahu’s response to the indictment could not help but be confused. For part of his speech, he sounded like a latter-day Alfred Dreyfus — weak and oppressed, a Jewish victim persecuted for his beliefs by the police and the state attorney’s office. For the remainder, he was more like another Frenchman, Louis XIV — a powerful, omnipotent leader insisting that any attempt to separate his fate from the fate of the country was nothing less than an evil conspiracy, in this case perpetrated by self-hating Jews who seek the destruction of Israel.

The rhetorical effect of this paradoxical combination is troubling indeed. For if Netanyahu truly is an exalted leader — who, according to his son Yair, speaking at a private event in New York, took a marginalized, failing nation that subsisted on exporting oranges and single-handedly turned it into a rich and advanced technological superpower admired by the entire world — how could he be so helpless before the unpatriotic government officials he himself has appointed? How could a talented prime minister who has reigned on and off for 25 years and consecutively for over a decade, manage to establish and nurture a treasonous, left-wing criminal justice system that would dare to invent so many false accusations against its all-powerful chief?

Netanyahu’s contradictory speech perfectly crystallized his megalomaniacal, persecuted personality. The leader of a superpower who can talk for hours about how Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East, while at the same time claim, without batting an eye, that any government that included Israel’s Arab parties would amount to a “historic nationalist terror attack on the state,” or warn Jewish citizens that “Arab voters are coming out in droves” on the day of an election.

And as Netanyahu’s legal standing erodes, the familiar bipolar nature of his personality, oscillating between enlightened, powerful leader and persecuted diaspora Jew, grows increasingly extreme, bringing Netanyahu to new realms of absurdity. This is how a sitting prime minister can read an indictment of his lack of honesty and integrity as “an attempted coup.” Because if Netanyahu and the country are one and the same, any charge against him is an act of defamation against the state, and any effort to put him behind bars is nothing less than a malicious attempt to cripple Israel, which, robbed of his gifted and brilliant leadership, would be stripped of its technological abilities and revert overnight to the failing, orange-gobbling country of the past.

If I could speak for a moment with either of my prime ministers — be it Bibi the adored Israeli commander in chief, or Benjamin the helpless Jewish victim persecuted for his beliefs — I would use the opportunity to beg for one thing: Please, in order to save the country you claim to hold so dear, resign from your position and release the chokehold that is tearing Israel apart and dragging it into a third election cycle, which will inevitably result in another stalemate. After all, the largest party in the Knesset, the Blue and White party, led by three former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff who love Israel just as much as you do, has already declared it would be happy to join a coalition with your Likud party, as long as its leader is not under indictment.

Now, all that is left is for you to vacate your seat and turn your attention to fighting for your exoneration. If you do it, your fans and enemies alike could not deny your selflessness. But if you do not, it is important that you understand that you will not go down in history as the Israeli Louis XIV, nor as the Zionist Alfred Dreyfus, but as a faded local version of Emperor Nero, a selfish, ruthless leader who preferred to scorch the earth behind him rather than allow another man to take his place on the throne.

Etgar Keret’s latest book is a story collection, “Fly, Already.”

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