It is doubtful that anyone in the present administration in the White House, or anywhere in the world, has the patience or desire to get to the bottom of the motives behind the Netanyahu government. But those who nonetheless want to understand what makes the prime minister tick should look at the photographs of the happy and ostensibly non-political event that fell into the lap of the extended Netanyahu family this week: the victory of Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu's son Avner in the National Bible Quiz.
It was a pleasant sight, which looked as though it had emerged from an old photo: a proud and splendid-looking family, replete with two elderly patriarchal grandfathers surrounding it from both sides and casting an authoritative shadow. The family radiated expertise in and commitment to ancient texts, to the Hebrew Bible and to history, along with a sense of mission and a profound awareness of "Jewish destiny."
It's enough to look at the family to understand where the prime minister came from and how much he differs in his motives, his background and the purpose of his deeds not only from his predecessors, but from most of today's world leaders.
Perhaps the root of the present crisis with the United States, and the elusive but permanent sense of misunderstanding that accompanies Benjamin Netanyahu on the international scene, lies on this profound plane, rather than in his problematic day-to-day political behavior. This is a kind of deception that creates constant disappointment, during his previous term as in his present one. At first glance, at least, Netanyahu is considered a modern politician from a normal country. A tortuous statesman but pragmatic in essence, with whom in the final analysis one can close political deals on all issues, including Jerusalem.
But this is one big optical illusion. In effect, in terms of his basic opinions and worldview, Netanyahu is one of the most anachronistic and archaic prime ministers that Israel has ever had. "Older" even than most of his predecessors who were older in years than him. Some of them allowed themselves to be flexible and to lead a change in direction in accordance with the circumstances, being father figures themselves; Netanyahu, by contrast, was and remains, for good and for ill, shriveled up in the role of the perpetual good son. His primary interest is to satisfy the values from his father's home, even if it causes the entire world to rise up against him.
It is therefore no wonder that when the Americans and other international diplomats speak to him about apples, he talks to them about pears (at least when it comes to Jerusalem and the settlements). They are talking in the name of realpolitik, demography and geography, and he is replying in the name of principle. Although several of his predecessors did the same, it was not with such tortuous deceptiveness.
It's true that Netanyahu is indeed bound by coalition constraints, but we should not forget that that is also part of the very same deception; after all, Netanyahu forced these constraints - including the unfortunate cabinet appointments - on himself in advance, and in contravention of any logic of realpolitik. It was as though he was being careful not to "fail," God forbid, by getting involved in a genuinely pragmatic move. (If he really meant what he said in his speech about the principle of two states, why did he refuse to utter the words a year ago, in the coalition negotiations with Kadima?)
In effect, Netanyahu functions more like the prime minister of Jerusalem than like that of the country as a whole. Or rather, the prime minister of "Jerusalem," enclosed in quotation marks: not the actual city, with its geo-demographic problems and the practical solutions required as part of an overall agreement, but the so-called heavenly Jerusalem. Netanyahu is prime minister of the Jerusalem of principles, metaphors, oaths and declarations; the Jerusalem of the Bible, of the love of Zion and of our forefathers; the Jerusalem of the Western Wall tunnels and the bible quiz and the "rock of our existence"; a religious, mythical and declarative Jerusalem, where arrangements, compromises and solutions are inconceivable.
All this is almost the diametric opposite of the principles of practical Zionism - which, for all its proclaimed exaltation of Jerusalem, gave rise to the Hebrew revival and the Israeli ethos, in every part of the country where practical Zionism could be instituted wisely and with international diplomatic support.
It is good to elevate Jerusalem to the forefront of all our joy, as the Jewish saying has it. But when expanding and Judaizing it become a blind obsession, which clashes (as we are now seeing) with the clear and immediate interests of the entire State of Israel, we must ask what kind of leader we need at present. Do we need a good Jerusalemite who is considered an international enfant terrible, or do we need an Israeli prime minister?
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