As former Mossad chief Meir Dagan was laid to rest, his last speech kept resonating in my mind. Addressing a public event at Rabin Square shortly before the Knesset elections of March 2015, Dagan looked frail, having undergone liver transplant. He could not hide his emotion, betrayed by a choking voice. He clarified to his audience that he did not belong to any of the political parties that had organized the event and invited him to talk.
“Am I concerned by our leadership and by the lack of vision” he explained. His harsh criticism was directed at Benjamin Netanyahu. Dagan reminded his audience that, in the summer of 2015, Israel had fought Hamas for a month-and-a-half without tangible gains. “Where are you taking us, Mr. Prime Minister?” Dagan asked. “Why do want to be in charge of our destiny if you are so afraid of taking responsibility? Why should someone ask for leadership if he can’t lead?”
Dagan explicitly accused Netanyahu of wanting to cling to power at any price and of avoiding to make tough decisions. As a result of Netanyahu’s indecisiveness and duplicity, Dagan charged, Israel is heading toward a bi-national reality. Precisely because Dagan was convinced that Netanyahu is unable to make tough decisions, he rejected the claim that there is no alternative to his leadership. “We need to go back to sanity, to stop being afraid, and to take our fate into our own hands … What matters is not speeches but action” Dagan warned.
Dagan was no heart-bleeding liberal or starry-eyed peacenik. He was born on a train in 1945 to parents who had survived the Holocaust. All his life, the picture of his grandfather being shot by the Nazis haunted him. He was a war hero praised for his exploits, and a daring head of Mossad. In 2000 he joined Likud and campaigned against Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights. In 2001 he ran, together with the hawkish Uzi Landau, Ariel Sharon’s campaign for premiership. Under Dagan’s tenure (2002-2010), the Mossad was as efficient as it was merciless to Israel’s enemies.
It is as a realist and as a conservative that Dagan criticized Netanyahu. Dagan has passed away, but his message remains and must be carried on: Israel deserves a better leadership, and it is time for conservative Israelis to say so out loud.
Many credit Netanyahu for not giving in to the pressures of the Obama Administration. In reality, Netanyahu gave in on everything: he publicly accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state, agreed to a settlement freeze, and freed terrorists with blood on their hands. We do not know yet what he agreed to during the 2014 negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Many people in Israel have a peculiar way of understanding leadership: for the Left, leadership is measured by the willingness to withdraw from territories; for the Right, it is measured by the refusal to cede territory. Yet true leadership is about making tough decisions and being willing to pay a personal price for the good of the country. Netanyahu, by contrast, is all about playing for time, about meddling through, and about fooling most people most of the time.
The status quo with the Palestinians might be the least of many evils, but it also has outlived its viability. Western governments and most American Jews are no longer buying into it. Because an agreement with the Palestinians is more than unlikely, Israel will eventually have to choose between full annexation of the West Bank (with the granting of Israeli citizenship to all its residents), and a unilateral withdrawal to the security fence. Yet Netanyahu is committed to the status-quo, being apparently convinced that what has worked so far will continue to work, and that such strategy is the safest way for him to remain in power. This “Maginot Line” attitude has a price, however, and this price is likely to increase.
Netanyahu’s attitude toward US Jewry is a case in point. During his November 2015 visit to the United States, Netanyahu promised conservative and reform American Jews that he would promote their recognition and equality in Israel. Yet as soon as Netanyahu’s ultra-orthodox coalition partners threatened to topple the government over his proposed religious reforms, Netanyahu backed down. Indeed, it is likely that Netanyahu decided not to address the AIPAC conference this year in order to avoid hard and embarrassing questions from liberal American Jews.
Like Donald Trump today, Netanyahu figured out in 2015 what it takes to be elected. And like many American conservatives, Israelis like me feel betrayed and devoid of a political home. For an alternative to emerge, the truth must be said, especially by realists and conservatives like Meir Dagan. He set an example, and his message must be carried on.