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Benjamin Netanyahu: Machiavelli’s new prince

Netanyahu's latest political masterstroke would have done Machiavelli proud

Israel’s largest daily newspaper dubbed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “king” for creating a large unity government by brokering a deal with Shaul Mofaz, leader of the Kadima Party. But “prince” is a more appropriate term to describe this recent maneuver. If Niccolò Machiavelli were alive, he surely would have added a new chapter to his masterwork to include the Israeli prime minister as a leader whose strategy should be studied and emulated if he succeeds in converting his large domestic base of support into greater security and prosperity for Israel. A new election would have given Netanyahu another term in office but more than likely also an even more fragmented coalition than the one he already labeled “ungovernable.”

But Netanyahu’s links to Machiavelli go well beyond his strategic impulses. Like Machiavelli, Netanyahu is more hated and feared than understood. While Machiavelli has been charged with justifying a tyrannical and hypocritical politics, he actually showed how powerlessness produces the kind of chaos and corruption that a calculated deployment of violence can avert. Netanyahu knows that his capacity for advancing a peace that gives security and a prosperity that expands opportunity depends on the possession of a sufficient domestic power base.

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, late 16th century
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, late 16th century

And like Machiavelli, who wrote about how his small city-state of Florence might survive against the military might of its powerful enemies, Netanyahu also knows the daily reality of threats and attacks against the country he governs. Machiavelli lived during a period of great humanistic achievement, much of which was given momentum by the writers and artists working in his beloved Florence. Netanyahu presides over a country that has brought many of the benefits of sovereignty and modernity to its citizens. In its more than six decades, Israel, with its limited natural resources, has created a robust economy that takes full advantage of the global market and generates impressive growth. Technological changes have been rapidly integrated to provide its citizens with the most modern of infrastructures and access to the most sophisticated means of communication. Having paid dearly for their independence and been shadowed ever since by threats and attacks, Israelis have understandably channeled considerable capital and initiative into their military to produce one of the most proficient armies in the world. But Netanyahu is constantly reminded that Israel’s position in the region and in the global economy is still beset by ancient hatreds as well as by newly invented antagonisms. So, he weaves his policies with caution, trying to avoid risk in order to sustain stability. With a fractious small governing coalition, prudence became increasingly viewed as inaction and the prime minister as paralyzed by threats from one party or another to withdraw support.

Perhaps because Netanyahu speaks of the settlers as “brothers” and formed his current coalition around political parties either principally or pragmatically opposed to dividing Jerusalem and dismantling Jewish settlements, the logic casting him as the chief obstacle to Middle East peace seems irrefutable. Even those who find sincerity in Netanyahu’s commitment to peace because of his paramount concern over the threat posed by a nuclear Iran have not produced arguments compelling enough to alter the common wisdom of this prime minister as incapable of forging a set of policies sufficiently attractive to bring Palestinians back to negotiations let alone to an agreement to end their conflict with Israel.

Still, what many see as gimmicks can also be regarded as a fusion of principles and expediency and as reflective of tensions that have long shadowed Israel’s history. For the messianic visions that gave Zionism its energy could not bring it its greatest success — the establishment of a state in 1948. That achievement came not from the movement’s utopian idealism but rather from its capacity to set priorities, discipline most of its members, and to understand that the visionary promises of founding a Jewish state on a purely just social order simply could not be kept.

King or prince? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
King or prince? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Just as Israel’s leaders in the past did not structure their policies in absolute accordance with the visions they publicly celebrated and claimed to embrace so has Netanyahu affirmed this more recent set of ideals even as he generates policies that are intended to check the likelihood these ideals will ever be fully realized.

How Israelis understand their past and the founding of their state is not identical to how their country was, in reality, established, settled, and developed. And like his predecessors, Prime Minister Netanyahu must respect this collective memory and the altruistic commitments it memorializes even as he constructs a policy consistent with the country’s actual history and sustainable for Israel’s long-term future. This is a strategy Machiavelli — the man who gave us the phrase “the ends justify the means” — would surely comprehend but celebrate only if used to advance the welfare of the state as well as of its citizens.

About the Author
Donna Robinson Divine is a Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College and a Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) board member