Sara Himeles

What Israeli political leaders need now is courage

In 1955, then-US senator John F. Kennedy (and some say his speechwriter and close confidant Ted Sorensen) wrote “Profiles in Courage,” a series of biographies of eight US senators who defied the opinions of their parties and did what was right, incurring political fallout and loss in popularity as a result.

Reflecting on this study, Kennedy wrote: “To be courageous requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all. Politics merely furnishes one arena which imposes special tests of courage.”

Today, Israel’s government and Knesset members on both sides of the judicial reforms have an opportunity to act with courage — to prioritize what is best for the nation over political careers.

Examples of courageous political leadership are found not only in American history but also in Israeli and Jewish history. Here, too, we can identify profiles in courage — leaders who demonstrated their commitment to Israel’s security and moral essence while showing a willingness to compromise for the greater good.

Leaders like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin did what they believed was in the best interest of their nation despite facing significant opposition. Their stories offer guidance that could help today’s political leaders navigate Israel out of the current crisis. Let’s look at how they embodied the values of courage and compromise, choosing national responsibility over political expediency.

Begin, a founder of the Likud party and long-time advocate for a “greater Israel,” faced a dilemma with the prospect of peace with Egypt. The proposed peace agreement required a full Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, an idea that faced staunch opposition from his fellow Likud members.

Despite this opposition and his own deeply held beliefs, Begin chose peace. Addressing his Likud colleagues on the Knesset floor, he expressed the importance of peace over war and the sacrifices necessary for peace.

With the peace treaty, Israel gained its first-ever Arab peace partner, a testament to Begin’s commitment to prioritizing the national interest over political convenience.

Over a decade later, Yitzhak Rabin, a hero of Israel’s Six-Day War, faced a similar test. As Prime Minister, Rabin initiated secret negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a group Israel had refused to negotiate with, considering it a terrorist organization.

This bold step led to the 1993 Oslo Accords, the first recognition of mutual legitimacy between Israel and a future Palestinian state. Rabin’s decision sparked widespread backlash. Like Begin, he chose peace over political comfort, risking not merely his popularity but bearing the ultimate sacrifice.

What Israel urgently needs in this moment of crisis are leaders who can rise above partisan rhetoric and ideological rigidity. They must embrace the tradition of courageous compromise exemplified by Begin and Rabin. This tradition is born not only out of a commitment to peace, but also an understanding of the need for Jewish unity in the face of adversity — a lesson Jewish history illustrates abundantly.

In Israel today, public opinion shows a country yearning for a leadership of compromise and a moderate path. An Israel Democracy Institute poll conducted in June found that 36% of Israelis want the legislative process to be halted, 29% desire a broad agreement, and 25% want the reforms to pass in their current form. These numbers highlight the need for leaders willing to navigate the complexities of compromise.

The challenge lies in addressing an Israeli public divided on the judicial reforms. Knesset members willing to compromise in the opposition will need to reckon with those who reject any kind of judicial reform legislation. Those in the government will need to consider segments of the public who firmly support the reforms, opposing any type of compromise.

These are real pressures — but politicians can mitigate the political costs associated with compromise through effective communication. Explaining their decision to compromise, they could say the following:

Elected officials must balance loyalties to their constituents, ideologies, the nation, and in Israel’s case, the Jewish people. The judicial reforms presented each Knesset member with a choice between competing loyalties. As representatives of both their party and their nation, they recognize that their ultimate responsibility is to the nation.

This notion might seem too lofty for some, but this moment calls for principled leadership. While some supporters might be lost, many more will respect their courage and prioritization of the country’s best interests. Their leadership will have a powerful effect, inspiring other leaders to follow suit and advancing the cause of unity and peace within Israel.

It is heartening to see that voices of moderation from both sides of the issue are beginning to emerge. Key political figures — including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, National Unity chairman Benny Gantz, and several Likud Knesset members — have indicated a willingness to compromise on further reforms.

But with a majority of Israelis doubting the likelihood of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to compromise, it becomes more urgent for MKs in the coalition to lead by example.

If these voices prevail and enough leaders choose compromise and peace, then Israel can find its way out of the current crisis. Kennedy wisely wrote, “It is on national issues, on matters of conscience which challenge party and regional loyalties, that the test of courage is presented.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel echoed this, saying, “The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

This wisdom reminds us that it’s often in the midst of turmoil that true leaders reveal themselves — not through dogmatic persistence but through courageous compromise. Such compromise is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength and profound leadership. This is the leadership that Israel is in dire need of today, and the opportunity presented to each and every Knesset member.

By marching in the streets, waving Israeli flags and singing “Hatikvah” week after week, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are fulfilling their civic duties. It is time for Israel’s leaders to follow suit.

Many more Knesset members must show themselves as profiles in courage, coming together to agree on a way forward. Through such leadership, Israel can heal societal rifts and guide the nation toward peace, unity, and a secure future. Let this be the legacy they choose for themselves and Israel before it’s too late.

About the Author
Sara Himeles is editor-in-chief at Unpacked, a Jewish media brand for Gen Z. Previously, she handled communications for Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. Sara received rabbinical ordination from Ziegler at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and her BA from the University of Pennsylvania.
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