In Netanyahu’s Iran dilemma, echoes of an old debate about the power of words

The PM, who highlighted his success in putting Iran on the global agenda in his first campaign speech last week, believes reality is shaped by what is said. In this, he is a direct descendant of Jabotinsky and Begin

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Amit Shabi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Amit Shabi/Flash90)

In 1931, at the 17th Zionist Congress, Zeev Jabotinsky tore up his membership card.

The father of Revisionist Zionism, a towering orator and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ideological forefather, demanded that the Congress clearly define the goals of the Zionist movement – as he saw it, a Jewish state in Palestine on both sides of the Jordan River. The president of the Congress at the time, Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, thought the exercise was a waste of time: Why grapple with words and their precise definition when there was so much actual work to be done?

Zeev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, was a firm believer in the power of words (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Zeev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, was a firm believer in the power of words (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This difference of opinion, which endures till today, is central to understanding Netanyahu. For while some tend to view Zionism as divided between left and right, secular and religious, Capitalist and Socialist, there is also a stark but often overlooked divide on the importance of words.

At first, verbiage — articles, essays, speeches — was the brick and mortar of the movement, and as Zionism grew, some continued to believe that words dictate reality and shape the future. But others, mostly disciples of the Labor movement, came to hold a dim view of oratory and believed that action alone determines the future. That camp includes people like David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon.

Netanyahu, however, is in the first camp. His supporters would argue that his rhetorical assertion of Israel’s rights and delineation of Israel’s challenges will shape the destiny of the country for generations to come and that, had there been a Revisionist Zionist leader in power in the early days of the state, a binding constitution would have promptly been put to paper in 1948. His detractors would say that he relies on rhetoric to the detriment of action — that he talks good policy, but doesn’t actually act upon it.

Professor Aryeh Naor, a former Cabinet secretary to prime minister Menachem Begin and the head of the Jabotinsky Institute in Israel, said that in terms of oratory the current prime minister was a direct descendant of Jabotinsky and Begin.

They are of a school that, Naor said, regards Zionism as something “that is done through the use of words.”

Netanyahu’s approach to two central policy issues — Iran and the legality of Jewish settlement in the West Bank — can be viewed through this lens.

Speaking last month at the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu told a world audience: “I’ve been speaking about the need to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons for over 15 years. I spoke about it in my first term in office and then I spoke about it when I left office. I spoke about it when it was fashionable and I spoke about it when it wasn’t fashionable….I speak about it now because when it comes to the survival of my country it is not only my right to speak; it is my duty to speak.”

To Netanyahu — who gave what amounted to his first election campaign address in the Knesset last Monday, highlighting his achievement in putting Iran at the top of the global agenda, as parliament voted to disperse ahead of the January 22 elections — speech is clearly one of the main tools through which Iran can be curbed.

His unfulfilled request for a red line on Iran’s nuclear program, which rankled the Obama administration, also seems to have been forged with the conviction that once the words are spoken, they will dictate the course of events.

On settlements, too, Netanyahu has charted a very different, much-articulated course from his no-nonsense and tight-lipped Likud predecessor, Ariel Sharon.

Sharon, the founder of the Likud party but very much a product of Labor Zionism, defined the two strains within the movement as political Zionism and pragmatic Zionism. The former, he wrote in his memoir, “believed in the power of words and legal terms and… gave a high priority to such things as pronouncements, declarations and formal agreements.”

Sharon was referring to Begin. Naor, Begin’s Cabinet secretary, confirmed that at Camp David the Israeli prime minister feuded endlessly with President Jimmy Carter over the word “sovereignty” in the context of what political status would be granted the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

“There would be no difference on the ground,” Naor said, “but to Begin it was important.”

Pragmatic Zionism, to which Sharon ardently subscribed, was always based on “facts on the ground: reclaim another acre, drain another swamp, acquire another cow,” as he put it. “Don’t talk about it, just get it done.”

In 2011, Sharon’s youngest son, Gilad, revealed in his own memoir that his father had been willing to grant the Palestinians a state — and not just “autonomy” — in the late 1970s. “Better to have a Palestinian state on part of the territory than autonomy across all of it,” Gilad heard his father say countless times. The terminology, Sharon felt, was irrelevant. The word “autonomy” on a document could metamorphose on the ground into a state, but an internationally recognized Palestinian state, which seemed like a bigger achievement for Egypt, would have fixed borders, allowing Israel to maintain the areas crucial to its security, Gilad Sharon said in a telephone interview.

The settlement movement — which Netanyahu has both championed and feuded with — has long embraced Sharon’s approach. Ze’ev Hever, the head of Amana, the building arm of the movement, hasn’t given an interview in decades. Instead, he covertly buys land, selects the settlers and sends them to a strategic area. Dozens of settlements have been founded in this manner, creating a new physical and political reality. Governmental permission often comes after the fact.

This approach has backfired under Netanyahu. In Migron, the largest of the outposts, which was evacuated in September, Netanyahu, to the profound consternation of the settler leaders, adhered strictly to the letter of the High Court of Justice’s ruling that the outpost must be removed.

Moreover, rather than continue to build in the manner that has proven so successful for the settlement movement over the past decades, he appointed former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy to head a three-person panel that would examine the legality of the settlement enterprise. Levy’s findings — his words — Netanyahu indicated, would do more to shape the future of Jewish settlement in the areas known as Judea and Samaria than the hilltop seizures favored by Sharon and Hever.

Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor and former director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, calls the two camps “constructivist” and “rhetorical.”

“There is certainly this delineation” within Zionism, he said. “But I propose an alternative classification, too: the reality and fantasy camps.”

Weizmann and Ben-Gurion, he said, were both realists who believed that the Zionists would be granted international legitimacy only if they accepted the imperfect Partition Plan. The “fantasy camp,” as led by the Revisionists, “believed that talk would create a new reality,” he said.

As an example, he mentioned Jabotinsky’s 1929 song “The East of the Jordan,” in which each stanza ends with the line “Two banks has the Jordan – This is ours and that one is as well.”

To think that stating that again and again will alter reality, said Avineri, “is a fantasy.”

Naor countered that Begin saw things differently — and so does Netanyahu.

Begin, he noted, was one of the only public figures in Israel who, between 1948 and 1967, insisted on talking about the historic right of the Jewish people to all of the Land of Israel. Said Naor: “Begin thought it is important that this be said. And the saying is what makes it into political fact.”

Netanyahu, for his part, has said much about the imperative to halt the Iranian nuclear drive. Perhaps, like Begin bombing Saddam Hussein’s reactor at Osirak in 1981, he will step away from the lectern and quietly order a military strike; perhaps his speeches will spur the international community to action; and perhaps the rhetoric will be received with resounding indifference.

What is certain is that the outcome of the Iranian face-off will go some way toward determining whether, in the decades-old Zionist divide, it is words that shape reality, or reality that bends words to its will.


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