What Netanyahu Can Give Himself, and Israel, for His 60th Birthday

Netanyahu at 60 needs to overhaul his worldview from Jewish Exceptionalism to Universalism

Benjamin Netanyahu celebrated his sixtieth birthday last week, and this might be a good moment for him to reflect on his future. He has shown that he can change up to a certain point. Unlike his first term as prime minister in the 1990s, he no longer believes that it is his sacred missions to attack Israel's "elites" (basically those in academia and the press who disagree with him), and instead sees them as potential allies.

But in certain respects Netanyahu's worldview has remained stagnant. Netanyahu, like most of us, thinks that beliefs that he formulated early in his career and propounded for decades must be true. He keeps harping on the theme Israel is the West's outpost in the Middle East, fighting the war of civilization against the forces of darkness. His worldview is a combination of his father's ideas that he has adopted uncritically and the old Jewish exceptionalism complex.

There is a lot of evidence that people can change at his age, not least in politics. Begin, Rabin, Peres and Sharon made central changes in their political worldviews late in their career. It is high time for Netanyahu to realize that his worldview is in need of a total overhaul. He is behaving like the tired driver in the joke who, entering the highway, turns on the radio. Suddenly there is an announcement: "Warning, there is a car driving on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway in the wrong direction." He looks around and says. "What are they talking about? There are hundreds of cars driving in the wrong direction."

If Netanyahu is so convinced that Israel represents the Western world, how come the whole Free World (a better term than "West" to denote the countries committed to liberal democracy) thinks otherwise? Could it be that not the Free World is headed in the wrong direction, but that Netanyahu is? And could it be that this is why the world doesn't take it well, when he lectures them on the forces of civilization and the powers of darkness?

In his address to the President's conference last week, Netanyahu reiterated his call for Israel to be a light upon the nations. In doing so, he continues the line that we are the chosen people meant to show the rest of the world the light.

There's just one tiny problem: the rest of the world really doesn't think that we have much to teach them when it comes to morality, and they certainly not that we should show them the light. They are asking for something much simpler: that we behave in a manner that befits the standards of international law, and that we finally realize that we are not God's gift to the world, but a part of the human race with the same rights and the same duties as all others; no less, no more.

Because Netanyahu likes big ideas, I have a suggestion as to how he could replace the outdated paradigm of Israel as the West's representative and humanity's exceptional light to the nations: Netanyahu likes to see himself as the embodiment of progress. He might therefore consider the fact that most modern Jews have dumped Jewish Exceptionalism and endorsed Universalism (four out of five Jews voted for Obama). This majority of Jews is now becoming more vocal, as shown in the emergence of J Street, the new pro-Israel and pro-peace lobby (that Netanyahu's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, is choosing to avoid).

There are good reasons for this. In the age of globalization only Universalist worldviews can help all to flourish. Any group's (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) insistence on being special is a recipe for catastrophe.

Endorsing Universalism is not just a matter of words; it needs to be backed up by deeds. Netanyahu's call to Mahmoud Abbas this week to lead the Palestinians towards peace, for good reasons, has not been met by enthusiasm. Does Netanyahu really expect Abbas to answer his hollow call, when all he does is stall Obama and Mitchell by continuing to build in the territories? Why should Palestinians believe that Israel means peace when all they actually see is further expansion of the settlements?

But what can Netanyahu do, given his coalition? The answer is that he might start thinking big (as he likes to say he does): His government was born in the sin of thinking small. He first pinned himself down by striking deals with his "natural" coalition partners, and making sure that Israel has a foreign minister that diplomats strenuously avoid if they can. He ended up with a coalition whose only grandness is the number of ministers and deputy ministers, that doesn't allow him a single bold move moving towards peace. And, in case he didn't notice, he is exacerbating Israel's isolation in the world.

Rectifying this means to start negotiations with Kadima on a new platform that is genuinely oriented towards peace with the Palestinians. Of course this is likely to cost him the support of Yisrael Beiteinu, but Israel only stands to gain from this. Netanyahu could finally start truly cooperating with Obama and Mitchell rather than playing hide-and-seek and stalling any true progress.

Do I actually believe that Netanyahu is capable of moving from old Jewish Exceptionalism towards Universalism? To start dealing with the Palestinians on the basis of the Universalist principle of seeking true dialogue and avoid petty manipulations? To stop relating to the rest of the world like we used to in the shtetl, when we had no power worth speaking of, trying to fool them all the time - while lecturing them on progress?

I certainly would like to think he can. After all, nobody would have predicted that Menachem Begin, of all people, would sign the peace treaty with Egypt, or Ariel Sharon, of all people, would leave the Gaza Strip. I therefore wish Mr. Netanyahu for his sixtieth birthday to show the world that leaders and nations can change!

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Previous blog entries by Carlo Strenger:

  • Why Israel's left has disappeared

  • One-state solution is a blueprint for a nightmare

  • A pragmatic vision for Israel's Left: A reply to Benny Morris

  • The future belongs to Jewish liberal universalism, Rosh Hashanah 5770

  • Why Israel must become a secular state: a thought for Yom Kippur 5770

  • Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu and the Holocaust: The ethics of memory

  • What can the Mideast learn from the phenomenon of Obama?

  • How to save Israel's universities