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How George Washington can save Israel…and Netanyahu

Presidents' Day recalls the US founding father's principled decision to prioritize the common good over personal ambition
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a press conference in Tel Aviv, October 17, 2023. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool)

In the annals of history, there are defining moments that illuminate the path of leadership, where the actions of individuals shape the destiny of nations. As we commemorate US Presidents Day today, on George Washington’s birthday, we can draw wisdom from the legacy of America’s first president, whose principled decision to step down after two terms set a timeless example of democratic stewardship, despite the obvious opportunity he had as the founding father and military hero to continue to be elected to as many terms as he would have chosen to serve.

Washington’s resignation letter provides insight into the importance of term limits and the dangers of prolonged rule. He wrote, “The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position.”

These words resonate deeply in Israel’s current political climate, underscoring the necessity of checks and balances to safeguard against the concentration of power and the erosion of democratic principles.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, stands at a crossroads of history, facing challenges that echo the spirit of encroachment warned against by Washington. His tenure has been marred by controversy, his leadership overshadowed by allegations of corruption, cynical political maneuvering at the expense of Israel’s security, a widening societal divide — and now, of course, the fact that he presided over the unprecedented October 7 tragedy. Despite once acknowledging the necessity of term limits himself, Netanyahu now clings to power, prioritizing personal ambition over the broader interests of the nation.

Indeed, back in 1997, during his first year as prime minister, Netanyahu appeared on a news program where he committed to serving only two terms and to then “go home to do other things.” Asked how long he wanted to serve as prime minister, Netanyahu was unequivocal and resolute: “I have an answer carved in stone… I sought to introduce a clause that a prime minister could not serve more than two terms. Do your thing and leave. If you don’t get things done in the first term, maybe you’ll do them in the second term, but beyond that, you don’t need to.”

Netanyahu’s refusal today, almost 30 years later, to embrace his own suggested term limits underscores his prioritization of personal power over the broader interests of the nation. The tragedy for Netanyahu’s legacy is that had he stepped down following the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, he would have gone down as perhaps one of the greatest leaders in Israel’s history. He would have been remembered for steering Israel’s economy during the Second Intifada, being one of the first to identify the threat from Iran, and as an undeniable statesman behind the regional peace accords.

However, the events of October 7, when over 1,200 people were killed and more than 250 were taken hostage in Gaza in Israel’s worst-ever terror attack, serve as the ultimate reminder of the consequences of the negligence and malpractice in governance that prioritizes political expediency over public safety. Netanyahu’s administration, accused of neglecting intelligence warnings, failing to adequately respond to security threats, and fumbling civilian aid for Israelis in need, exemplifies the perils of unchecked power and the erosion of governmental responsibility.

Despite these challenges, Netanyahu still has an opportunity to transcend his growing legacy of corruption, divisiveness and failure. By embracing the principles of representative democracy and voluntarily relinquishing power, Netanyahu can set a precedent for future leaders and reaffirm his commitment to the welfare of the nation. This humble personal gesture that George Washington once took of incredible national significance, offers a pathway for Netanyahu to redeem himself and to leave behind a lasting legacy as a true statesman; one who in the end prioritized the common good over personal ambition and upheld the principles of democratic governance.

He would do well to listen to the words of George Washington.

The unchecked consolidation of power in the hands of a single individual poses a grave threat to the foundations of democratic nations. Netanyahu has the opportunity to heed Washington’s words and re-secure his place in history as a leader who, after everything, put his country first.

About the Author
Mati Gill is CEO of AION Labs, a venture studio with a first-of-its-kind company creation model for new start-ups utilizing AI for drug discovery and development. Prior to founding AION Labs, Mati was a senior executive at Teva Pharmaceuticals and served as Chief of Staff for Israel’s Minister of Public Security. He is an IDF veteran (Maj. res.)`and currently serves on the boards of the Israel Advanced Technology Industries Association (IATI) and the Israel America Chamber of Commerce (AmCham).
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