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Netanyahu’s historical aspirations meet the image of Napoleon, the third

The legend says that in his Jerusalem childhood, Benjamin Netanyahu was a recurring victim of bullying. For a long period, whenever young Benjamin returned from elementary school to his upscale neighborhood of Rehavia, he would be accosted by the school bully at one of the stone walls, get beaten, and sometimes even robbed of his pocket money. According to that legend – one of the many tales shaping the fantasy of Bibi’s origin story, the bullying ceased when Netanyahu called his older and revered brother – Yoni – and he chased away the bully once and for all. Like any folklore tale, it seeks to explain a phenomenon in the world, and what this story aims to explain is Netanyahu’s obsession with the image of “strength.” You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand that a child systematically bullied will always want to portray themselves as a lion, while hiding the fact that they are a frightened cub in need of their (deceased) older brother’s protection.

After the encounters with the bully and even after he was chased away, Netanyahu would return home to the house of a historian. According to many, being the son of the historian Benzion Netanyahu is one of his strongest motivations for action – he wants a historical legacy. He wants to be written about in the annals. The combination of these tendencies – to be precepted as strong and to be engraved in history – creates in Netanyahu the drive to emulate and liken himself to great historical leaders and to see himself in their shoes. His model for imitation is the former Prime Minister of England, Winston Churchill. Sometimes, he’ll attempt to place himself on the level of the great U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. And of course, he aspires to see himself as an Israeli leader in the ranks of Ben-Gurion. Netanyahu’s historical aspirations indeed find their place in the image of an important historical figure. That’s the one of Napoleon. But not in Napoleon who conquered half of Europe and defined the 19th century, but rather in his nephew – Napoleon III – who was notorious for his hesitancy and indecisiveness.

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte III ruled France for 22 years, first as an elected president and then as a dictatorial emperor. In his youth, he fought with the national revolutionaries in Italy, and throughout his life, he saw himself and France as ambassadors of liberalism and the national idea. Napoleon was also obsessed with legitimate credentials. Since he did not inherit the crown but seized it in a coup, he saw great importance in carrying out massive projects to impress the established European monarchy. Indeed, since he was endowed with important qualities for any domestic leader such as charisma and mass persuasion – he carried out massive projects on a national scale such as the renovation of Paris by Haussmann. But Napoleon’s curse was that he was not interested in what he was good at – domestic affairs – but dreamed of fulfilling himself in a sphere he was bad at – as a great statesman like his uncle. Therefore, he often went on dangerous diplomatic adventures and implemented foreign policies that clashed with France’s interests.

His period was a period of disintegration of the European order that was designed to contain the imperial ambitions of his uncle and was embodied in the Treaty of Vienna, which he despised. As a result, during his period, France was forced to cope with the rise of a hungry and powerful force that threatened its dominance on the continental scene – the unifying Kingdom of Prussia under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, which became modern Germany. Throughout his reign, the foreign policy of the Sphinx of Tuileries was torn between his ideological tendencies, his monachal aspirations, and the need to deal with a changing balance of power and the rise of the German meteor led by the Iron Kaiser – an all-time master of “Realpolitik”. In other words, his reign was a showcase of irresponsibility and indecision.

The most significant case of that same indecisiveness is his failure against the same Bismarck in the struggle that turned into the Franco-Prussian War. At that time, Bismarck worked vigorously to unify Germany and establish an existential threat to France. Until those days, the Germanic peoples lived in kingdoms with defensive alliances whose power was sufficient for defense but not for offense. The significance of their unification was the establishment of a formidable state entity numbering 41 million Germans while Napoleon’s empire counted 36 million Frenchmen. Napoleon’s advisors urged him to ally with the Austrians – the conservative religious kingdom that vehemently opposed Bismarck’s national efforts. Napoleon, who saw himself as a national revolutionary, refused to ally with the Austrians whom he detested and chose to remain on the sidelines. In other words, the policy he chose was one of non-intervention. Eventually, this policy led France to struggle against a united and hungry Germany – a defiant state entity that was restrained only after it caused two world wars, destroyed Europe, and destroyed itself. As you might guess, France, unwillingly dragged into a fight with a formidable giant, lost to Prussia and Bismarck, in a defeat that led to the end of Napoleon’s rule and the dissolution of the Second Empire.

As summarized by controversial US diplomat Henry Kissinger – Napoleon’s ultimate goal was to abrogate the territorial clauses of the Vienna Settlement and to alter the state system on which it had been based. But he never understood that achieving his goal would also result in a unified Germany, an unprecedented continental foe to France. While Napoleon saw himself as the harbinger of the end of the Vienna settlement, Netanyahu perceive himself as the shield against the establishment of a Palestinian state. Although Netanyahu is an esteemed liar, when he claims that he aims to prevent its establishment by any means – he should be believed. Even as a toddler, he imbibed revisionist messages from his historian father and spent his youth arguing with pro-Palestinian elements about the very existence of the Palestinians in Philadelphia debate tournaments. This is Netanyahu’s most stable agenda – a Palestinian state is claimless and an existential threat to the State of Israel and his historical role is to prevent it. And like Napoleon, Netanyahu is also unable to see beyond his shoulder.

The continued Israeli refusal to recognize the Palestinian Authority as an independent administrative body with sovereign rights in the West Bank and Gaza, and the obstruction of any initiative to advance a political settlement, is likely to result in the establishment of a Palestinian state far more hostile than the one envisaged in the formula that incorporates Israel as a shaping factor. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, by its avoidance, Israel is positioning itself as a problematic and obstructive entity lacking a pragmatic approach to existential issues, deeming it “not worth dealing with”. This will damage, and already does damage, Israel’s relationship with its most crucial ally facilitating its existence – the US, as well as with other key states. Such a “respectable” status will necessarily make it difficult for Israel to maneuver in the future vis-à-vis any form of a Palestinian state when it is established. Secondly, Israeli disengagement from involvement in the political settlement will prevent it from having the opportunity to influence the internal identity of the reformed Palestinian Authority with which any proposal for renewing the political process is concerned. This is contrary to the Israeli national security interest, which is to have as much control as possible over the circumstances, identity, timing, and structure of the future unpreventable Palestinian state. As the saying goes – keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Another even more important role that Netanyahu has crowned himself is Israel’s defender against Iran. In this matter, too, he has adopted a Napoleonic approach. First, the notorious back-and-forth policy he chose regarding the nuclear agreement and its cancellation led to Iran being on the brink of becoming a nuclear state. Second, his procrastination and principled insistence on undermining any path to a political settlement with the Palestinians could cost Israel the historical opportunity to form a regional alliance against a potential Persian empire. Any political settlement with Israeli involvement is likely to be part of a comprehensive American plan to establish a moderate Sunni axis in the Middle East that will counter Iran – the greatest enemy and existential threat to the state of Israel. Israel’s reluctance to join such a coalition may severely impede efforts to address the Iranian arena – which is the most critical arena of all.

As we have seen above, Netanyahu is known for problematic traits that make it difficult for Israel to deal with the many threats it faces and the complex diplomatic conditions in which it operates. Stubbornness, procrastination, indecisiveness, lack of credibility, lack of confidence, and megalomania are all personal traits that are inherent in him and damage us. All these were traits also found in Napoleon and led him to his doomsday. However, today the problem with Netanyahu lies in a different parallel drawn with Louis Napoleon. Describing Napoleon to the Austrian emperor, diplomat Alex Hübner once wrote: “Foreign policy is only an instrument he uses to secure his rule in France, to legitimize his throne, to find his destiny”. Similarly, for years Netanyahu has been using Israel’s international difficulties, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to solidify his power. For him, the suffering of those living between Jordan and the Mediterranean is a work tool. And it doesn’t matter if it’s Palestinian or Israeli suffering, because when it rains, it rains on everyone. Also in the context of the Iranian nuclear issue, one could see how Netanyahu used it to clash with Obama and gain political capital within his nationalist base. Nowadays, it is clear to the international community, and to a lot of Israelis like myself, that Netanyahu is using the war in Gaza to postpone the day when he might have to sit on the defendant’s bench in one of his corruption trials as a regular civilian.

So indeed, Netanyahu does bear resemblance to an important historical figure – that of a fickle failed statesman who assumed a larger-than-life and larger-than-him persona. In the case of Napoleon, his failure led to the establishment of the Third out of the five republics that France has had to date. In the case of Israel, it does not seem that we will have further attempts to establish one.

About the Author
Omer Biran is a 4th year student for LL.B. in law with a direct route to M.A. in government. Former columnist / tech reporter for 'Under the Radar'. Research intern in 'The Institute for Policy' and Strategy at Reichman University. Former creator and presenter of the radio program 'The Megaphone' on the University Radio which dealt with protest music in a historical context.