Israel’s leadership quandary

On June 7, 1981, eight Israeli fighter aircraft took off for Iraq in order to destroy Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor. Within less than an hour they had crossed 1,200 miles over the vast Jordan desert into Iraqi airspace (flying low to the ground in order to evade enemy radar), and destroyed their target. As recounted in Daniel Gordis’ Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, upon receiving the news that the operation was a success, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was in the midst of a reelection campaign and had been impatiently pacing back and forth in his residence, asked one of his aides, Yehuda Avner, to get Sam Lewis, the American ambassador to Israel, on the phone. Lewis was shocked to hear the news, and asked Begin whether there was anything else he could relay to President Reagan, anticipating a negative response from the White House.

I have always found this episode compelling, as it reveals the nature of the relationship between the prime minister of a small, marginally significant country in the Middle East, and the president of a global superpower.

Since the moment that he had been elected into power in 1977, what is commonly referred to in Israel as “hamahapach” – the reversal of 29 consecutive years of Labor dominated governments – Begin was committed to stopping Hussein from acquiring a nuclear weapons program. However, only after repeated covert operations failed to derail Hussein’s plans did Begin and his cabinet consider the daring air mission.

And what was the American position on this issue? As late as 1980, the State Department officials posited that there was “no hard evidence that Iraq has decided to acquire nuclear explosives.” Hussein was an ally against Iran, and there was little interest in rocking the boat. So Begin never boarded a jet in order to deliver a speech before Congress. There was no public debate over the merits of a diplomatic solution over a military strike. While Begin repeatedly told Lewis “either the U.S. does something to stop this reactor or we shall have to,” Israel gave no advanced warning before the operation. Begin felt compelled to act, and the United States would have to deal with the consequences, good or bad. “Better condemnation without a reactor than a reactor without condemnation,” he famously said.

That was a different time. Despite having a good sense as to what the military was preparing, Israel’s media, on its own accord, kept silent. Shimon Peres, head of the opposition party and leading Begin in the polls with only weeks before elections, withheld his criticism until after the mission was completed.

Did the operation against the Iraqi nuclear plant ensure Begin’s reelection in 1981? There is no way of knowing for sure, but he didn’t fail to remind Israelis of what danger had just been averted.

However, what is true in physics is often true in geopolitics: “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The Israeli strike on Osirak may have removed a deadly weapon from the hands of a megalomaniac in Iraq, but it ensured that the Iranians, who no doubt were quite pleased to see their enemy’s ambitions thwarted by the Jews, would take every precaution when developing their own program. Begin’s decision in 1981 did not create the problem the world faces today, but his legacy looms large as world leaders frantically weigh their options.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heir to the Likud party that Begin built. But while Netanyahu has made stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions a personal crusade, by doing so he has abandoned the socioeconomic policies that spoke loudest to Begin’s constituents, and seemingly ignores Israel’s pressing domestic needs. Government spending in the last few years has fallen well below the OECD average. One third of Israeli children live below the poverty line. For young couples, buying an apartment or a home is virtually impossible. Speaking as someone who spent the last ten years living in Israel, even the acquisition of a car requires serious financial flexibility. So while Iran may be a priority for Netanyahu, income inequality is what is driving the Israeli electorate. In the words of Gordis, “this election will not be about how to defend the state, but about how to ensure that what is developing here remains worth defending.”

Security is always a factor weighed by Israeli voters, but the elections being held on Tuesday aren’t only about anti-Semitic mullahs, Islamic State beheadings, or Hamas tunnels. (Actually, Netanyahu would prefer that it not be about Hamas tunnels, as there is increasing evidence that his government was aware of their existence and chose not to act upon that information.)

These elections were designed by Netanyahu in order to establish a new coalition that will be more receptive to his policies. Irked by the demands of coalition members – chiefly Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni – Netanyahu fired them both, called for early elections and spun the campaign as a referendum on his leadership of the country. If he knew in December that his party would be trailing in the polls the week of election day he likely wouldn’t have made that decision.

But these elections are about leadership. What kind of leadership Israel needs and what kind it deserves.

Israel needs leadership capable of devising comprehensive policies to tackle the challenges of transitioning into a high-tech economy without leaving portions of the population behind. It needs leadership that will preempt and prevent those who seek to do it harm by engaging in dialogue with its neighbors while upholding a strategy of deterrence. Most importantly, it need leadership that won’t resort to petty politics, won’t turn a blind eye to corruption, and won’t be afraid to make ideological sacrifices for sake of the greater good.

After six consecutive years in office and nine total years as Israel’s prime minister, most Israelis would agree that Netanyahu does not meet these standards. He is a divisive politician, largely detached from the challenges facing Israeli citizens. At the same time, it is difficult to say whether a credible alternative has appeared. It may take yet another Netanyahu-led coalition before enough disaffected voters unite to oust him from the seat of power.

This is indicative of a greater problem in Israeli politics, one that Bernard Wasserstein, a history professor at the University of Chicago, pointed out several weeks ago in The National Interest. “Put bluntly,” he writes “the country’s political life has become heavily Americanized. Television and social media have replaced public meetings. Ideological mentors have given way to image consultants. Polling is incessant. Meretricious, often-mendacious advertising is ubiquitous. Above all, as in the United States, money has assumed an ever more central role in the political process.” Netanyahu is the poster child of this transformation, and if he remains in office following Tuesday’s elections, it will be because of his mastery of the qualities Wasserstein highlighted, rather than those Menachem Begin embodied, or those I mentioned before.

In last week’s Torah portion, Moses is charged with the impossible task of rebuilding the Jewish People following the crisis of the golden calf. How does he accomplish this feat? By reminding the people of the laws of Shabbat, and instructing them to build the mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle intended to serve as a temporary dwelling for G-d’s presence. Why? According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

“The best way of turning a diverse, disconnected group into a team is to get them to build something together. Hence, the mishkan. The best way of strengthening relationships is to set aside dedicated time when we focus not on the pursuit of individual self interest but on the things we share, by praying together, studying Torah together, and celebrating together: in other words, Shabbat.”

Israel deserves leadership that will refocus its energies on the future of the country as a community. Whether such leadership exists today remains to be seen, but hopefully on Tuesday Israelis will be ready to place their trust in the devil they don’t know given that the one they do had his chance, and was found wanting.

About the Author
Gabriel Mitchell is a PhD candidate in Government & International Affairs at Virginia Tech University and the Israel-Turkey Project Coordinator at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Born in the United States, Gabriel moved to Israel in 2005. He writes regularly about events in Turkey and Israel and has been published in a number of newspapers and journals, including The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The New Republic, The American Interest, Hürriyet Daily News, Turkish Policy Quarterly, and The Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs. Gabriel holds an MA in Political Science from Hebrew University and BA in European and Middle Eastern History from The Ohio State University.
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