New York – Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu was just sworn in for his fifth term as Israel’s prime minister. This week, at the District Court in Jerusalem, he went on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery.
In the last election, Netanyahu’s political detractors denounced him as a dictator, likening him to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or France’s Louis XIV, who famously proclaimed "I am the state.” His supporters cheered him as "Bibi, King of Israel.” Netanyahu modestly compares himself to his hero, Winston Churchill.
There is some truth in all of these comparisons. But the figure he most resembles is Michael Jordan — the basketball superstar who led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships and became, by nearly all accounts, basketball’s GOAT (greatest of all time) player. "The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary about Jordan, has become one of the most downloaded documentaries of the COVID-19 era.
Jordan, of course, combined phenomenal natural talent, a fanatical work ethic, high professional IQ and an absolute refusal to accept anything short of victory. He bullied his teammates to get them to perform to his standards. He nursed grudges against opponents to keep himself fired up. He intimidated referees into giving him the benefit of the doubt. His philosophy was simple: Win at any cost.
That’s Netanyahu in a nutshell — a relentless competitor who loves to play on the brightest stages for the highest stakes. The two share an arrogant self-confidence blended with a strong streak of paranoia. Like Mike, Bibi is the guy with the longest cigar in the room, the biggest ego in the building and the victories that come with a refusal to finish anywhere but first.
This dominating will to power is what won Bibi re-election. The Blue and White Party, his main coalition partner, ran on the electoral vow that it would never serve in a government led by a man facing criminal charges for breach of trust, fraud and bribery. And yet, here they are, with a seat at Bibi’s table.
Blue and White leader Benjamin Gantz has the title of defense minister and alternating prime minister (he steps into the top job in 18 months, by agreement), but he has already accepted his de facto role as Bibi’s second banana. In a prime time TV interview aired this week, Gantz publicly ate his campaign promise not to serve in a government under Netanyahu and refused to say a negative word about his new boss.
Bibi will treat Gantz with respect as long as he is useful — and then dump him without a second thought. That’s how he deals with coalition partners and the Likud Party "supporting cast” (the phrase Jordan used for his teammates). Everyone, including Gantz, knows this. But if you want to play, you play by the rules of the GOAT.
Netanyahu’s reputation for winning precedes him into the courtroom. He will work the crowd against the judges and turn boos from the press gallery into adrenaline. The judges are presumably honest, but they are also human and they have never been under the kind of pressure Bibi knows how to bring, through rallying supporters, in press conferences, social media, leaks and other means.
The prosecutors, too, are nervous. They have stacks of evidence. They have run the case a thousand times. They don't see how they can lose. But Bibi does. And that’s what they are afraid of.
Bibi’s basic strategy is to play out the clock. The district court proceedings will take a year at least. If he loses, he can appeal to the Supreme Court and gain more time. Until then, he enjoys the presumption of innocence and the Supreme Court's own recent ruling that he is eligible to serve as prime minister even with pending criminal indictments hanging over him.
"The Last Dance" ends with Jordan ruminating on his career. From the living room of his seaside mansion, he radiates charisma, charm and satisfaction. He is now too old for the game, but competitive fires don’t go out so easily. (The film is a long argument that, with apologies to fellow NBA superstar LeBron James, Jordan is still the GOAT.)
Bibi owns a seaside villa too — on the Mediterranean coast — but he isn’t about to retire. He’s already said that he intends to run again when the next election rolls around. And why not? He turns 71 in the fall and is still very clearly at the top of his game. If he comes out of court with a win, as his adversaries fear, who knows when his last dance will be?
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.