At 70, Israel Has Shunned Herzl's Dream for Netanyahu's Bleak Vision

Twenty-five years ago this month, Benjamin Netanyahu released ‘A Place Among the Nations.’ It remains the blueprint to his policies and the key to understanding today’s Israel

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party meeting in Jerusalem, March 2006.
Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party meeting in Jerusalem, March 2006. “When we’re working on a major speech, he’ll still bring out his book for inspiration,” says one long-serving aide.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The two most significant books in the history of political Zionism were published 97 years apart. And neither was written in Hebrew.

Theodor Herzl’s “Der Judenstaat” (1896), where he set out his solution for the “Jewish question” and the plan for a state, spurred the birth of the Zionist movement and the program for the establishment of a Jewish state in the ancient homeland.

But Herzl died 44 years before Israel was born; his vision was fulfilled by others, in very different circumstances, and didn’t quite turn out the orderly outpost of genteel European culture he had hoped.

“Der Judenstaat” may be of greater historical importance, but for an understanding of today’s Israel, and how it became what it is, read “A Place Among the Nations,” by Benjamin Netanyahu.

“A Place Among the Nations” was published 25 years ago this month, in April 1993, and never received the attention its author hoped for. As political manifestos go, at 467 pages it is a weighty tome and doesn’t make for easy reading. Its prose is dense, heavy with quote-laden, ponderous paragraphs. But reading it today, it is clear that the author, who has spent half the time since publication serving as Israel’s prime minister, set out not only his political ideology, but also a blueprint of his vision for Israel. A vision that Netanyahu has largely succeeded in fulfilling.

At the time, Netanyahu was the recently elected leader of the right-wing Likud party, which had lost power 10 months earlier to Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party in the 1992 Knesset election.

In many ways, the book was written to sum up the 10 years Netanyahu had spent as Israel’s most prominent spokesperson – starting in 1982 as deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington; moving two years later to serve as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations; and from 1988 as deputy foreign minister in Yitzhak Shamir’s government.

The cover of Benjamin Netanyahu's "A Place Among the Nations," published in April 1993. It received some favorable initial reviews in the United States.Credit: Bantam

He had become ubiquitous on American television screens during this period, and “A Place Among the Nations” was written in English as an attempt to capitalize on his celebrity status in the United States.

It is three books in one: a highly selective history of the Zionist enterprise; a polemic against the enemies of Zionism and weakhearted Jews and Israelis who feel they have to apologize on its behalf; and a policy paper on the parameters for future Middle East peace.

Like the Christians in Spain

Had it been shorter and less unwieldy, “A Place Among the Nations” would have been the ultimate hasbara [public diplomacy] handbook. Many of the standard tropes of Israel’s defenders are set out there and have been echoed in thousands of Facebook posts and tweets by people who have never even read it.

At its core is the belief that Israel’s cause is unassailably just and that it is possible and imperative to convince all Westerners of that fact – with the exception of dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites. Indeed, once the case for Israel has been properly presented, if you still disagree you probably are an anti-Semite.

Netanyahu’s arc of history goes back millennia, to the days of sovereign Judea when the Jews were a fighting nation. Even after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., they remained a majority in the land, under Roman and Byzantine occupation, until the first Muslim conquest in the seventh century.

Inspired by his father Prof. Benzion Netanyahu’s research on the history of the Jews in Spain, Bibi likens the struggle of the Jews for their land to the Reconquista of Spain. The Christian return to Granada after 800 years of Muslim rule prefigured the Jewish return to their ancient homeland 1,200 years after the Muslim conquest.

In Netanyahu’s book, the modern Israeli-Arab conflict (and the Palestinian issue within it) are inseparable from the 1,500-year struggle between the Christian West and the Muslim world for hegemony over Europe and the Middle East.

This is not only Netanyahu trying to create an equivalence between the West’s struggles and values, and those of Israel, but also part of his ongoing crusade to convince the international community that the Palestinian issue is no more than an irrelevant sideshow of a much bigger picture.

Netanyahu devotes pages to describing the land as an inconsequential backwater of the Ottoman Empire that remained largely uninhabited until Jewish immigration was renewed in earnest in the late 19th century. He adapts early Zionist writer Israel Zangwill’s claim that it was a “land without a people,” arguing that the Arabs living there at the time were mainly nomads or relatively recent arrivals.

The turning point, according to Netanyahu, was the rise of pan-Arab nationalism in the 1920s and the Europeans’ sympathy toward the Arabs, alongside deep-seated anti-Semitism within the British Colonial Service. A long list of culprits – the U.S. diplomatic corps, Soviet communism, Nazi Germany and the left-wing media – all in some degree collaborated with the genocidal urge of the Arab nations to destroy the Jewish presence, he believes. With the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, pan-Arabism began losing its potency. But the same dynamic reappeared with individual Arab dictators and radical Islam.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, at a rally with the party's former leader, Yitzhak Shamir, in May 1993 a month after "A Place Among the Nations" was first published.Credit: Alex Levac

Netanyahu’s long arc of history is bleak and never-ending: “The durability of the twin fanaticisms of Pan-Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism – their militarism, xenophobia, irredentism, and irreducible hatred of the existing order – is the true core of conflict in the Middle East,” he wrote.

Therefore, for Netanyahu, the conflict is not about the Palestinians, borders or refugees. It’s not even about Israel. It rises from an implacable Arab and Muslim hatred toward the West, and Israel as the West’s outpost in the Middle East. This being the case, real peace can only come when the Arabs recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist.

This is one of the key paragraphs in the book: “We must assume that for our generation and perhaps the next, the task of peacemaking is with the Arab world as it is, unreformed and undemocratic. The prevalence of radicalism in the Middle East – and the danger that, in the absence of any democratic traditions, a non-radical regime can turn radical overnight – means that peace in the Middle East must have security arrangements built into it. I have already noted that for the foreseeable future the only kind of peace that will endure in the region between Arab and Arab and between Arab and Jew is the peace of deterrence.”

The millions of Palestinians, Netanyahu argued, are the responsibility of their Arab brothers, who had used them for too long as a cudgel against Israel and a fake cause to distract the world’s attention from their own human rights violations.

Why, he asked, when it was so obviously in the Arab nations’ interest to make peace with Israel, to enjoy cooperation in science, medicine and water management, had they not done so? The fact that they refused to do so had little to do with sympathy for the Palestinians’ plight; it stemmed from their genocidal hatred of the Jews.

Jews and Zionists who thought differently from him – especially Israelis who “believed that the Arabs loathed war as much as they themselves did and that, given a proper explication of Israel’s peaceful intentions, the Arabs would embrace and welcome us” – were “cloyingly sentimental” and would only encourage further Arab demands and aggression, he noted.

Then came Oslo...

The initial reception toward the book was largely positive and it was reviewed favorably in some American newspapers. But the Oslo Accords, which were signed five months after “A Place Among the Nations” was published, caught Netanyahu by surprise. In his book he had insisted that there must be no question of Israel relinquishing control of the West Bank and the Golan Heights – vital buffer zones for a tiny state surrounded by enemies. The Palestinians living there, whose existence Netanyahu begrudgingly acknowledged, should be offered – at most – limited autonomy.

Shimon Peres signing the Oslo Accords as Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat look on, September 13, 1993.Credit: AFP PHOTO / J. DAVID AKE

But Netanyahu had been sidelined and “the New Middle East” – the title of a hastily written book by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, published later that year, with Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab nations working together to build a prosperous region – suddenly seemed much more realistic than Netanyahu’s harsh prescriptions.

Netanyahu didn’t change his formula, but issued future editions with a new title: “A Durable Peace.”

In a new preface, he described Oslo as “a peace that undermines Israel’s defenses and leaves unresolved central issues, such as the fate of Jerusalem and the Arab refugees, is one that is sure to crumble over time. It should be passed over until a more sustainable, more realistic peace is achieved.”

A later edition of the book in Hebrew carried on its cover the label “The book that predicted the failure of Oslo and sets out the path to safeguarding Israel’s security and future.”

In line with the changing times, he may have made a few cosmetic changes of emphasis, but the formula remained the same. “At the heart of the solution that I advocate is not only a fair and durable division of territory and powers but also a reasoned hope that the Palestinians will recognize that no other solution will be acceptable to the overwhelming majority of Israelis; and that this realization in turn would foster over time a gradual, if grudging, reconciliation with the permanence of Israel’s existence and the need to come to concrete terms with it.”

This is Netanyahu’s credo. While the world has been telling Israel for 50 years that the occupation of the Palestinians is unsustainable and that time is working against Israel, he has insisted that time is actually in its favor – as long as Israel refuses to make concessions.

And this is the line he has stuck to in his policies, even when at the start of the Obama administration he made a tactical retreat and seemed to be agreeing to the two-state solution, under certain conditions. Now he has reverted to form and speaks of a “state-minus” – basically the same old prescription of limited autonomy.

The book that never stops giving

A quarter of a century after the publication of its first edition, not only is “A Place Among the Nations” still the essence of Netanyahu’s policy, it remains an inexhaustible source for his speeches as well. “When we’re working on a major speech, he’ll still bring out his book for inspiration,” says one long-serving aide. “He loves it and is convinced it still rings true.”

Netanyahu continues to insist the Palestinian issue is a distraction from the real issues of the Middle East, telling foreign visitors it’s “a rabbit hole” that misinformed Westerners insist on going down.

And if the improving relations with Egypt, the Saudis and some of the other Gulf regimes is anything to go by, it’s working. The Palestinian cause has never been so low on the international agenda or the Palestinians themselves so isolated and helpless.

“The Jews are no longer helpless,” Netanyahu wrote. “No longer lacking the capacities to assert their case and to fight for it. It is an uncontestable fact that the establishment of the Jewish state has retrieved for the Jews the ability to again seize their destiny, to again control their fate. And if that ability is still in the making, if the Jewish people needs time to shed its apolitical habits of thought and behavior acquired in years of exile, this process will have to be substantially accelerated.”

He promised to do that 25 years ago in his book, and that is exactly what he has been doing. We may not like his reasoning or the results, and believe that in the long-run it is still unsustainable. But for now, Netanyahu’s vision is taking shape before our eyes.

Anshel Pfeffer’s “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu” will be published in the United States by Basic Books on May 1.

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