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Israel: Do Not Forget Your Leaders’ Lessons

First Government of Israel, Courtesy National Photo Collection of Israel, Photography Department, Government Press Office

The recent conflagration between the White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has led to right-wing recriminations that we have seen way too often. “Biden never really supported Israel.” “We are doing more than any other country has for an enemy.” And the rest of it. This is to be expected from those who believe that blank cheques from the Western community are essentially entitlements rather than favours from sovereign states who are risking their own public opinion and diplomatic standing in other theatres of conflict. But the depth to which this idea has penetrated the body politic reveals a damaging problem: across the entire Israeli political spectrum, it seems politicians have forgotten the lessons of Israel’s great leaders.

That lesson is simple. The Jewish people have, for millennia, faced the worst persecution imaginable. We the Jewish people now have a state of our own. Whether we like it or not, we have to get used to the fact that not many people will like us. But while we will stand our ground, we will also make difficult compromises and always be realistic with what we can give and get. This logic is immensely important. It reflects the reality that wise Israeli politicians from days past have demonstrated, much to Israel’s benefit. Rather than complaining about how the world may treat Israel unfairly, or has a separate standard for Jerusalem compared to Tehran or Damascus, great Israeli leaders always made major compromises, knowing that at the end of the day, protecting the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise is far more important than protecting an isolated and messianic settlement deep inside the West Bank or making grandiloquent declarations of a Third Jewish Kingdom.

Let us go back in time to see how this worked. In 1937, the Jewish people were offered a state on just 17% of the land, far less than what was needed to accommodate Jewish immigration, and which necessarily meant that substantial numbers of Jews living in kibbutzim elsewhere would have to be relocated and Jewish yearning for Jerusalem would have to be put aside. Yet Chaim Weizmann celebrated that this land was bigger than that which constituted King David’s territorial holdings. These arrangements needn’t prove lasting-perhaps in the future there could be a bigger Israel still-but till then, we should accept the Peel Commission’s plan because it will prove our pragmatism and earnest desire for statehood and not greed.

In the 1940s, despite one the greatest atrocities ever perpetrated against any people in world history, the Yishuv never reversed this policy. In 1947, the UN offered a partition plan giving the Jews 55% of the British Mandate, a large portion of which was desert, and which would exclude Jerusalem (a corpus separatum). Yet the Yishuv accepted the partition plan, even if it did so reluctantly and with aspirations for far greater territory. In 1949, there was every reason to believe the newly born Israel could have driven Jordan out of far more territory than ended up being the case; in fact, the first Israeli government faced a confidence vote brought on from Menachem Begin in opposition to the armistice with Amman. But Israel chose the wiser path, knowing that it could not absorb hundreds of thousands of West Bank Palestinians and risk its diplomatic strength by continuing a war it had already won.

This ability to comprehend difficult political realities stretched into more recent developments in the history of Israel. Before leaving to the Camp David Summit in 1978, Menachem Begin promised he would move to the Sinai settlement of Yamit. But knowing there had to be a peace agreement with Anwar Sadat come what may, that the Egyptian President made a gamble that if unsuccessful would doom every successive peace effort, and that the United States would not go easy on Israel if it were responsible for a failure, Begin eventually promised to withdraw from every last grain of sand in Sinai. As it would turn out, this has given Israel one of the most strategically vital and lasting peace treaties it ever enjoyed.

The Oslo process and Israeli offers for Palestinian statehood were all birthed out of an understanding that Israel needed to at least demonstrate an ability to be forthcoming for its diplomatic and security survival. Without the Oslo Accords, there would be no peace with Jordan; King Abdullah told his Parliament that Arafat was the first to recognise Israel, not him. Yitzhak Rabin may have sung a song for peace but was not a rabid peacenik; he understood that in the post-Cold War setting, with Israel’s relevance to American foreign policy interests declining and the serious risk of becoming a leper state amid the First Intifada, he had to prove he would work with the Palestinians, and that the only way to do this was to recognise the PLO and work with Yasser Arafat. In 2000, Ehud Barak could see a Second Intifada brewing on the horizon. He knew that unless Israel made a bold offer to the Palestinians and engaged in good-faith permanent negotiations, Israel would face all kinds of problems from a region that had lost much of its faith in Israeli commitments for peace after Netanyahu’s shambolic first premiership. Even after the Intifada broke out, he continued to negotiate and at Taba, went far further than anything that was presented at Camp David. This was all because he knew there was no alternative, especially given that Israel would be easily blamed for any failed peace process.

Admittedly far too late in his premiership, Ehud Olmert demonstrated this leadership as well. Upon Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, he closed off his doomed plans for unilateral withdrawals, which was never going to end well given that withdrawing from most of the West Bank without an agreement with the Palestinians wasn’t realistic given its strategic value to Israel. Despite the lure of saying there was no partner due to the Ramallah/Gaza division in the Palestinian leadership, he pursued peace talks and produced an offer that the Palestinians could never outrightly reject, but ultimately couldn’t accept either because of Olmert’s own desperate lack of legitimacy after his indictment and resignation.

It is obvious that Netanyahu refuses to learn any of these lessons. From the foolhardy approach of supporting the USA’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal which, while a bad deal, at least bought time (whereas today Tehran is a nuclear-threshold state) to the absolute monstrosity that was enabling the financing of Hamas to keep Palestinians divided, a matter of policy he publicly stated and that Bezalel Smotrich seconded when he said in 2015 that Hamas was an ‘asset’; Bibi Netanyahu has cast aside all of the crucial lessons that built the State of Israel into a successful and secure nation in the first place.

And it is apparent that rather than dealing with difficult realities, he is attempting to reject their very existence. Ron Dermer, described as a discourteous bully by former French Ambassador to Israel Gerard Araud, found himself shouting and waving his hands when speaking with American officials despite Washington’s continued generous support for Israel. The best he and Tzachi Hanegbi could do was to make the utterly unpersuasive case that famine wasn’t likely in Gaza to the Americans. This isn’t to even get started on the talentless buffoons who are outside Bibi’s inner circle. We’ve seen these beauties like Nir Barkat, who was utterly eviscerated by as great a friend of Israel as former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough on MSNBC, and Israel Katz, who is utterly incapable of stringing a sentence in English. And don’t even start on the coalition’s right flank.

But perhaps even worse, there is even an outright rejection of the generosity Israel’s greatest ally, Joe Biden, has shown. Apparently, the American President must subscribe to right-wing Israeli histrionics or is otherwise a closet Hamasnik. Despite Donald Trump’s demonstrably non-committal attitude when it comes to Israel-something that journalists from the not quite leftist Israel Hayom acknowledges as deeply problematic-Itamar Ben-Gvir seems happy to prance around television studios declaring the Donald would be better for Israel than the first self-proclaimed non-Jewish Zionist American President. Boaz Bismuth seems happy to remind the American President on X (formerly Twitter) of his statement “Don’t” after the UN Security Council vote, forgetting about the sheer level of support the White House has given Israel over six long months.

All this reveals a dangerous sense of hubris and entitlement. The Government of Israel expects the world and the United States to support their every last move unquestioningly and uncritically. Anything short of this is unacceptable. This has been fostered by a culture under Bibi that the Americans could always be manipulated, that Israel never had to make difficult choices, and could always wriggle its way out of problems. Never mind the chorus of Israel-critical voices even among those who support the Jewish state like Richard Haass and Norm Ornstein. Netanyahu is accustomed to the diplomatic and political capital built after decades of hard work by previous Israeli administrations. Clearly is the Captain of the Israeli equivalent to the Titanic, and history will remember that on Thursday 4 April 2024, the ship hit the iceberg. Let us hope Israeli politicians do not merely paper over the cracks, but steady the ship before it’s too late.

About the Author
Priyankar Kandarpa is an ardent supporter of Israel's existence as a secure, moral, democratic state to fulfill the original mission of Zionists to ensure the Jewish people a truly recognized, legitimate place among the nations. He closely researches matters regarding the so-called 'Permanent Status' issues and the history of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. He studies History and Politics at the University of Oxford.