This is one of the truest but most difficult lessons in life: it is better to leave when they want you to stay than to stay when they want you to leave. Said another way, it is better to leave too early than to leave too late.
I certainly experienced that in my own life in the last nineteen months. We should all be equipped with an internal clock that tells us when it is time to stop doing something you enjoy, and were successful at, and let others have their shot. But we are not so equipped. And it is not an exact science. Our departure times cannot be calibrated like trains in Europe and this has always been a bane of the rabbinate and, classically (because the duration of a career is much shorter) in sports. Those who recall the great but aging Willie Mays falling down in the outfield know the sensation. No rabbi, doctor, lawyer, businessman, hi tech genius or athlete wants to fall down on the job. And this applies with particular cogency to politicians.
This is not about Joe Biden (although it could be) but about Binyamin Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest serving prime minister but is now hemorrhaging support and under siege. Granted, his enemies will always despise him and the criminal charges against him are frivolous, which is not to say he will necessarily be acquitted of them. Anyone who feels that Netanyahu has exploited his office to get rich will not be dissuaded by evidence or reality. It has become common in western societies for opposition politicians to use prosecution to weaken and then disable leaders who cannot be defeated at the polls.
Netanyahu is losing support among his followers, his base, and that warrants some analysis. Israel’s government has been paralyzed, more or less, for several years now, with repetitive and inconclusive elections. Netanyahu has not been able to, and cannot, form a parliamentary majority of like-minded coalition partners; whatever the reason, that is the reality. It is possible – and certainly will happen down the road – that other Likud or right-wing figures would be able to cobble together a governing coalition but PM Netanyahu has alienated so many people in his own party, and certainly in the other sectors of the Israeli political system, that he has crashed into his electoral ceiling.
Had he stepped aside this past March – when again his coalition fell just short of a Knesset majority – he might have been hailed as Israel’s greatest prime minister. Having weathered the Corona virus storm, he would be extolled for presiding over an unprecedented era in Israeli life of peace and prosperity, of growing international appreciation and diplomatic recognition, of leading the world’s charge against the Iranian nuclear program, of forming the closest possible ties with the United States, and of ushering Israel into the forefront of the world’s economies and technological entrepreneurs.
Instead, the Corona virus returned with a vengeance (it probably never really left) and Netanyahu had no coherent plan to combat it – much like every other leader (and critic of that leader) in the world. And now his failures stand out. Like elsewhere, Israel’s economy has taken a Corona hit and unemployment is high. The unfulfilled promises loom large – annexation of even part of Judea and Samaria, the legalization of settlements and their protection against baseless and evidence-free lawsuits, the on-again, off-again building/freeze in the settlements, limiting the powers of the Supreme Court and the Attorney-General, two institutions that frequently undermine democracy, and others.
For sure, some of these are – and will be – trotted out as new promises in the next election campaign and those who believe it deserve to be fooled again. But why do people hang on too long and ruin their legacy?
One reason is the belief, sincere or otherwise, that only they can do the job and there will be deterioration in performance, productivity and achievement if they leave. Whether or not it is true is irrelevant. The old quip – “the graveyards are full of indispensable men” – still pertains. The departure of a long-time leader causes feelings of displacement, confusion and occasionally even despair, but somehow the world muddles on. It is not the same, which is not to say that it is better or worse.
The second reason is more prevalent. It is difficult to relinquish positions of power and influence. King George III, just defeated by the colonies, and informed that General George Washington was going to resign his commission, give up power and return to Mount Vernon, said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” It was unthinkable, and Washington did it twice!
Both reasons are often conflated and both played a role in the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution that limits the service of an American president to no more than two terms. Proposed in 1947, and ratified less than four years later, it was an obvious reaction to FDR’s triumph in four consecutive elections, unprecedented in American history.
One might well ask: isn’t this amendment, and aren’t term limits generally, extreme encroachments on the democratic process? After all, FDR won his elections because majorities voted for him, albeit declining majorities in 1940 and 1944. But he won fair and square. Why, then, the limitation?
The paradox of the two reasons cited above for hanging on – the leader’s belief in his indispensability and the difficulty in relinquishing power – is that large numbers of people come to believe the same thing. It is the power of incumbency, the comfort level the electorate has with a reining leader. Life becomes, to some extent, unimaginable, without them.
Nothing is normal in politics or life these days but unremarked upon is this anomaly. If President Trump is re-elected (as of this writing, he has a greater than 47% chance of re-election) and he serves another full four years, it will be the first time in American history that four consecutive presidents each serve two full terms. In fact, when his three predecessors (Obama, Bush and Clinton) each served eight years in office, that became only the second time in American history such occurred, and the first in almost two centuries. Not since Jefferson, Madison and Monroe (1801-1825) did three consecutive presidents serve the full two terms. Presidents 42, 43, and 44 pulled off a feat that had not happened since it was done by Presidents 3, 4 and 5. That encompasses a lot of years and a lot of presidents, and yet it is true.
Incumbency carries great advantages but the recent success of presidential incumbents might be attributable at least partly to the public’s realization that he will be gone anyway in, maximum, another four years. Leader fatigue has no time to set in. (That is generally; among Trump’s detractors, “leader fatigue” beset them on January 21, 2017, if not already on November 9, 2016.)
Parliamentary democracies have no such built-in constraints. Thus, except for Menachem Begin who resigned and left office, Israel’s prime ministers have exited office repudiated by the voters (except for the two extraordinary cases of assassination and criminal corruption).
What is Netanyahu’s exit strategy? Well, he has none and thus his tenure is not likely to end well. Understandably, he does not want to leave by being forced out by his enemies. But he does have the ability to change course, groom successors and plan a comfortable post-politics life that can be filled with new challenges suitable for a person of his talents. It stands to reason that the tendentious criminal charges against him would disappear as well.
For that, one needs to sing a few bars like Kenny Rogers once did: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Most don’t know that, and their reputations, businesses, and careers suffer.
But those who know often find great rewards in the “after” life. It pays to plan and then to carry out that plan.