Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama disagree. These two newly re-elected leaders — soon to meet face-to-face in Jerusalem — see the world and the Middle East in a different light. That is not rare. Their vantage points are different, their backgrounds night and day.
The manner in which they disagree, however — the public, unswerving nature of their quarrel — is unique to Netanyahu.
After reading a passionately argued essay by Benzion Netanyahu, the late historian and father of the prime minister, I believe that Benjamin Netanyahu, as opposed to his predecessors, feels that an open and unstinting airing of Israel’s position, even if it comes at the cost of the US president’s friendship, is not only proper but also advantageous in the long run.
To avoid such a public confrontation, Benzion Netanyahu argued in an essay written decades ago and re-released before his death last year, is “patently immoral.”
Netanyahu’s first presidential feud was with Bill Clinton. In the book “The Much Too Promised Land,” Aaron David Miller, the deputy director of the White House’s Arab-Israeli peace negotiations team, wrote that during their first meeting in the summer of 1996, Netanyahu lectured Clinton about the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Who the fuck does he think he is?” Miller quoted Clinton as remarking. “Who’s the fucking superpower here?”
A similar scene played itself out in May 2011. Seated alongside Netanyahu and before the national press corps, Obama listened respectfully, but with what looked like mounting annoyance, to a six-and-a-half minute Netanyahu lecture on Israel’s need for a peace that will not “crash eventually on the rocks of Middle Eastern reality.”
Jeffrey Goldberg quoted NBC’s Andrea Mitchell as saying afterward that some Israeli officials acknowledged that they were uncomfortable with the lecturing tone, but said that the prime minister “felt very strongly he had to say this to the world, [in] President Obama’s face.”
Many scratched their heads in bemused wonder at Netanyahu’s performance. Why had he alienated a US president who had just recently pledged his assistance at the UN? Why had he rankled the very president whose help he needed in dealing with Iran and its nuclear aspirations?
Some chalked it up to ego. Some to ideology. But I think it specifically relates to Benzion Netanyahu’s teachings about Jewish leadership.
Abroad and among academics, Professor Netanyahu, who died last year, was known for his scholarly work on the Spanish Inquisition and its irredeemably racist roots. In Israel, though, he was known for his sons, for his work as one of the chief editors of the Hebrew Encyclopedia, and for his essays on Zionism.
In a single volume, which came out in English in 2012, he drew the profiles of the five “fathers of Zionism.” [Disclosure: I edited the translation of some of the essays.] The book drew criticism for those not included: Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Leib Lilienblum and others. But it is most relevant today for its depiction of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the ideological father of the Likud Party.
Jabotinsky’s guiding light, throughout all of his public activities, “was the principle of resistance to subjugation,” Benzion Netanyahu wrote.
In Netanyahu senior’s reading, life in exile, in what is known as the Diaspora, leeched from the Jewish people the power to resist.
At one point, “we were a people distinguished by the power of persistence,” he wrote. “We did not allow anyone to humiliate us or to endanger our existence, to annul our freedom, or to attack our rights without fierce resistance.”
With time that changed. Exile from their land, the professor argued, sapped Jews of their natural tenacity. Alfonso de Cartagena, a Spanish bishop of Jewish heritage, remarked in the 15th century that Jews were a group marked by cowardice. This quality, Benzion wrote, “appears to have been true” and became “a known trait of the Jews in exile, especially in Eastern Europe, where we lived for eight hundred years.”
Worse yet, Netanyahu went on, the inability to resist by force, which was originally considered one of the plagues of exile, was lionized — so much so that it persisted into the 19th century and permeated the core of Zionism.
Jabotinsky changed that. “He taught the doctrine of resistance to a people that had not known its meaning for hundreds of years.”
According to Benzion Netanyahu, this basic element of the human constitution, once lacking in Jews, found expression in Jabotinsky’s thoughts on the “Arab question,” for which he prescribed an iron wall — Jabotinsky opined that it was “a feeling of contempt toward the Arab People” that lead Laborites to believe that the Arabs would sell their patriotism for a “developed railroad system” — and, even more crucially, in the political sphere.
The prevailing political wisdom at the time, according to Netanyahu, was characterized by future president of Israel Chaim Weizmann’s statement in advance of the 1927 Zionist Congress: “The starting point of our diplomatic work in the future must be — as it was in the past — maintaining our friendly relations with the mandatory authority and with its emissaries in Palestine. This is a truth that one must not find fault with.”
One could say that Ariel Sharon — after the October 2001 “Israel will not be Czechoslovakia” debacle — and Ehud Olmert adhered to a similar strategy vis-à-vis the US during their terms as prime minister.
In May 2002, before his fifth meeting with president George Bush, prime minister Sharon prepared a list of pointers for his senior staff, instructing them to, among other things, present facts and avoid whining, speak about common values such as the Bible, and avoid appeals that in any way pressured the White House.
Olmert recently castigated Netanyahu for his ongoing feud with the American president, asking at one point during a pre-election lecture last month, “Citizens of Israel, is this in our interest? To get into a grudge match with the strongman over there?”
Benzion Netanyahu, who wrote his essays many decades ago, and his ideal Jewish leader, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was a brilliant orator and writer, would both have responded with a categorical yes.
Clearly Prime Minister Netanyahu is his own man. He is not a clone of his father, who served as Jabotinsky’s secretary. And while Jabotinsky remains the founding father of the Likud’s ideology, with a giant likeness of him towering over Netanyahu as he spoke on election night, his doctrine is not law.
Yet a look at Jabotinsky’s beliefs on the nature and workings of politics is instructive. It helps to shed light on why Netanyahu appeared to be lecturing the American president in his own house; why he has resisted tremendous pressure to make sacrifices on the Palestinian front in exchange for guarantees on the Iranian front; and why he chose to take a much derided bomb diagram to the General Assembly of the United Nations.
The first element of Jabotinsky’s political approach was to present oneself and one’s cause with unapologetic pride. The widely believed refrain at the time regarding Jews, “We are weak, small, we are helpless and powerless. We can be crushed with a finger. No one is afraid of us and so on,” Jabotinsky wrote prior to World War I, is baseless and self-defeating. “In reality, we struggle, we are making a breakthrough forward, step by step, simply because we are a world power.”
Looked at through this lens, it is not surprising that Netanyahu has refused to be awed by the grandeur and might of the Oval Office. Surely he is not alone in this. But more than his predecessors he seems keen to convey this sentiment, in private conversation and on the public stage.
Next, according to Netanyahu’s reading of Jabotinsky, a leader must state his demand and resist all attempts at chiseling away at the edges and foundations of that truth. “If you have a right and you concede that right, either not out of your own free will or against your will, even if out of supposedly ‘pragmatic, cost-benefit’ calculations, then what is taken away from you is, simply, theft,” Benzion Netanyahu wrote. “Hence, you have fundamentally surrendered to robbery, even if you pretend to have been magnanimous.”
Extortion, he added, “grows with feeding.”
Here, perhaps, lies the root of Benjamin Netanyahu’s reported unwillingness to sacrifice territory in the West Bank in exchange for America’s help against the existential threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
To Jabotinsky, diplomacy was nothing more than a test of strength. “There is no friendship in diplomatic matters,” he said, “there is only pressure.”
Jabotinsky described government as a machine “which is subject to the laws of public pressure, just as a machine made of iron is subject to the laws of physical pressure.” Therefore, when faced with staunch British refusal to vacate mandatory Palestine, he called for what he termed “a political offensive.”
In practical political terms this meant “a sharply critical attack on British policy, criticism meant not only for the ears of the British public, but the ears of world public opinion,” according to Benzion Netanyahu. That stance, Jabotinsky knew, would spark confrontation with the British government “along the whole international front.”
The same is true, to varying degrees, of Israel’s West Bank settlements and its intentions to militarily stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
The vast majority of the world wants to see Israel’s settlers uprooted and a Palestinian flag flying over the territory. In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed a Supreme Court judge to examine the legality of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Justice Edmond Levy’s 89-page report found last year that Israel’s settlements were within the confines of international law.
The decision was ridiculed. A US State Department spokesperson said, “we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.”
Later in 2012, Netanyahu appeared before the General Assembly of the United Nations. For years he had been pushing an agenda that many sought to avoid — Iran’s arguably genocidal intentions and its burgeoning nuclear capacity. He had tried to publicly goad Obama into drawing a clear American “red line,” beyond which Iran would not be allowed to proceed. The administration refused. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded bluntly. “We’re not setting deadlines,” she said.
Netanyahu responded angrily. “The world tells Israel ‘Wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” he said in September.
That same month he spoke at the UN, with the world watching, and produced a cartoon bomb and a thick-tipped red marker and drew his own line. The gesture was widely mocked. But it was, in Benzion Netanyahu’s words, “not only a defense of our positions, but also, and mainly, a political offensive,” a Jabotinsky-like “frontal attack on enemy positions that would leave no room for compromise or concessions.”