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Netanyahu’s identity crisis

Israel needs the great leader who takes risks for peace and forgoes military excess, not the petty politician who puts his own interests first
Illustration by Avi Katz
Illustration by Avi Katz

Israel is on a roller coaster ride because our prime minister is in the midst of an identity crisis. Is he a servant of the people’s interests or are the people a servant of his? Is he one of Israel’s greatest leaders or one of its most petty politicians?

With the announcement of the peace agreement with the UAE, we witnessed one side of Benjamin Netanyahu. Throughout his career as prime minister, his foreign and military policies have reflected deep centrist and moderate instincts. He engages in war, but only as an absolute last resort, and only in as limited a degree as necessary. For Netanyahu, military force is not a tool to achieve political ends. He pursues peace, but cautiously. If an opportunity is on the table, either of his initiative or that of others, he embraces it, even at the expense of his political interests.

This approach is in stark contrast to his political rhetoric. Netanyahu the politician speaks in dichotomous terms, juxtaposing us to them, and regularly emphasizes Israel’s loneliness and otherness. Israel’s survival is dependent on our power and military prowess and not on either the good will of others or on our ability to build bridges of peace, he argues. His base of support is directly connected to this rhetoric, as Israelis resonate with and trust his “realistic” assessment of the Middle East and have little faith in Shimon Peres-like utopian aspirations.

Yet at the same time, when the opportunity presented itself to further peace discussions with Palestinians, in the context of the Wye Accord, he ceded control over 13% of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinian Authority, including most of Hebron. Over the years, his pronouncements aside, he enforced stringent building restrictions on new settlements to a far greater degree than governments from the Left.

When engaging with Hamas missile attacks from Gaza, despite his proclamations, he regularly negotiates and uses the minimal military force possible. If a ground operation is unavoidable, he brings it to a conclusion at the earliest possible date, even as his base prods him to fight on.

And now, in a bold move, he removes annexation – his major political initiative over the last year – from the table, and embraces a new political horizon for Israel and Israelis. The UAE accord belies his core message of Israel’s “aloneness,” and reactivates Israelis’ engagement with peace and ignites our imagination about the possibilities of a better future, instead of the prophecies of hopelessness and the unbreakable cycle of war.

This is Netanyahu at his best, Netanyahu as leader and not politician. Netanyahu turns his back on his base and on his platform when the wellbeing of the country and the future of Israel demands it.

After the continued impasse of three elections, Netanyahu reached across the partisan divide and offered a hand of reconciliation to his political adversaries from the Blue and White party. At this moment, he declared, Israel needed to unite, heal its divisions, and work together to overcome the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19.

And yet once the coalition government was formed, Netanyahu the statesman disappeared and Bibi the politician took over.

At this moment of personal and financial crises and deep uncertainty, Israel needs a leader who sets a vision of collective responsibility and serves as a model of care and compassion. It is not merely Netanyahu’s search for ways to renege on the coalition agreement and constant haggling over ways to immunize himself from possible future decisions of the Supreme Court. It is the absence of a leader who puts Israel first and himself second.

As we find ourselves enmeshed in a second wave of Coronavirus infection, Israelis are vacationing across the country, flouting social distancing and mask wearing. The political hot potato du jour is the “right” of Breslov hasidim to travel en masse to the Rebbe’s grave in Uman for Rosh Hashanah despite the horrific health consequences to them and the country. Over 1,500 new infections a day and hundreds of deaths a month seem to be of little public concern.

Gone is the moral prioritization of life which characterized Israel’s policies and public discourse during the first wave. Gone is the call to protect the elderly. Gone is the language of mutual responsibility and noble citizenship. Gone is the demand to transcend sectoral interests. Gone is the humility required to confront the unknown.

These values have not dissipated. It is not that Israeli citizens have gone through a radical metamorphosis. It is our leaders who have succumbed to the pettiness of their politics. Citizens will not transcend self-interest if our politicians don’t transcend their own.

A national unity government is not built on a piece of paper nor even a detailed agreement. It is founded on a moral and cultural commitment to reconciliation for the sake of a larger good. It is fueled by a pledge to a new mode of discourse with those who were political adversaries. It is about relinquishing the perspective of politics as a zero-sum game. It is about focusing our collective skills and resources on that which is most important.

Israeli citizens will respond when we have a national unity government that serves as a light to the nation. Bibi insisted on being the first prime minister in the unity government rotation. This is not a shrewd political move but a responsibility, a sacred task and moral challenge. Success is not measured by whether he can outmaneuver and neutralize the neophyte Gantz, but whether he can heal the country.

It is time for Netanyahu to decide who he wants to be – a great leader or a petty politician.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis, and religious and lay leaders in Israel and North America. He is a prominent essayist, blogger and lecturer on issues of Israeli politics, policy, Judaism, and the Jewish community. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an M.A in political philosophy from New York University, an M.A. in religion from Temple University, and Rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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