Opinion

What if Netanyahu Gave One Speech That Didn’t Boost Fanaticism and Divisiveness?

Even after four terms as PM, U.S. Jews have heard plenty of ugliness and equivocations, but not what Netanyahu really believes on peace and war, religion and state. That makes advocating for Zionism in America that much harder

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a handover ceremony for the new Israeli chief of staff on January 15, 2019.
JACK GUEZ / AFP

American Jews have a Bibi problem.  

To take one example, they are demonstrating little or no interest in Israel’s upcoming elections, scheduled for April 9. Part of the reason is that, as Americans consumed by the ongoing Trump tragedy, they have problems of their own. But more important, they are mostly assuming that even with corruption charges pending, Benjamin Netanyahu will emerge as the victor in this election, as he has four times before.

And American Jews - mostly liberal in politics and non-Orthodox in religious identification - don’t much care for Bibi. Some see him as ferociously reactionary, but more view him as right-wing in style but lacking any principles whatever. Incredibly, despite his tenure of almost 12 years as prime minister, they still have no clear sense of where the man stands and what he believes. 

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Winston Churchill, during one of the periods when he sat in the opposition in the British parliament, memorably remarked of the British government that they "simply cannot make up their minds, or they cannot get the Prime Minister to make up his mind. So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent."  

Could there be a better description of Bibi and his successive governments?  

On the subject of the two-state solution, for example, a matter of central importance to Israel’s well-being, he has been adamantly for, adamantly against, and adamantly equivocal. And the same is true for virtually every other political question of significance. 

Does the four-term Prime Minister believe in permanent occupation? In peace and reconciliation with the Arabs? In annexation of Palestinian territory, in whole or in part? In a particular plan for drawing Israel’s borders? 

The answer is maybe, perhaps, and it depends. And the result is that American Jews, stuck with an Israeli leader of hardly any principles and no discernible ideology, are contemplating the April election with a sigh and a collective shrug.

U.S. President Donald Trump, his aide Jared Kushner and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting in Jerusalem, May 2017.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

Israel’s political position in the United States is reasonably strong, and I agree with Aaron Miller, Jonathan Tobin, and others who have written in Haaretz that both Democrats and Republicans are likely to remain committed to the security of Israel and the Israel-American relationship for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think that Netanyahu’s endless equivocations and evasions have no consequences.  

As we know from experience and research, young Jews, and especially those on campus, are more distant from Israel than their parents and grandparents. Jewish students are not a monolith, of course, but the great majority are instinctively sympathetic to Israel. If they are now indifferent, and many are, this indifference does not flow from left-wing naivete or the hostility of BDS supporters. And neither is it primarily due to a lack of Jewish education.  

It comes, in large measure, from an inability to understand what in heaven’s name the Prime Minister of Israel believes in and what the government of Israel stands for. And directly related is the matter of what Zionism is all about.    

It is true, of course, that Israel is surrounded by enemies, and that Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran are all devoted to her destruction. Most Jewish students hear these facts regularly and are sensible enough to accept them.   

Likud election campaign 2015. 'It's either them or us. Only the Likud. Only Netanyahu.'
Ilan Assayag

But the presence of murderous adversaries provides a reason why Israel must exist. It does not provide a reason why Israel should be admired, embraced, appreciated, or loved. It does not convey the drama and the majesty of Zionist ideals. It does not tell young Jewish students a single thing about the blend of political realism and ethical idealism that lies at the heart of Zionism.  

And it does not explain the deep, visceral identification that, until very recently, Jews everywhere felt toward the Jewish state, and that, thankfully, some still do.

To be sure, every rabbi, Jewish leader, and Jewish parent is obligated to address such questions and to teach their children the Zionist dream - including the fact that dreams, once fulfilled, will at times be disappointing.  

Still, it is unfortunately the case that when Israel’s long-serving elected leader - the only leader of Israel that today’s college students remember – fails to define and embody a Zionism that speaks to today’s Jewish youth, the task of other teachers of Zionism becomes immeasurably more difficult.

A Likud campaign poster in south Tel Aviv: "It's us or them," it reads. "A Hebrew city or the Islamic movement in Jaffa."

Is it too late for Bibi to assume the mantle of leadership, for Israel’s citizens and the Jewish people? Is it too late for the leader to lead, defining the ideology that he lives by and the vision of the state that he heads? That is likely the case, but it is impossible to know for sure. Perhaps he will surprise us.  

The quality of political leadership is nowhere outstanding these days, as Americans well know.  But Israel, in view of its exposed situation, needs it more than other, more fortunate countries.  

We should not expect Bibi to lead like a liberal. But with more than two months left in the election campaign, he still has time to address issues that Zionist leaders of all persuasions must address, and that a Begin, Sharon, Rabin, or Peres would not have feared to confront.

What are some of the things that Jewish students - and Jews everywhere - would like to hear from the Prime Minister between now and April 9?  

Tomer Appelbaum

Let us imagine Bibi saying:

* I believe Israel must be a Jewish and democratic state.

* I embrace Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and its commitment to the Jewishness of Israel, her democratic character, and human rights for all her citizens.

* I am a supporter of settlements, but my government will promote settlements in such a way that Israel’s Jewish and democratic essence will not be compromised.

* Jewish terror is an abomination and a profound affront to Jewish values, and Jews who engage in terror will be pursued and apprehended by our security forces and punished to the full extent of the law.

* I am deeply concerned by the troubled relations between Israel and world Jewry, and while I understand the concerns of the Orthodox parties and hope to see them in my coalition, I will make it a top priority to repair the bonds that connect us to the non-Orthodox movements and to the Jewish people everywhere.

* The current situation in Judea and Samaria imposes significant burdens on Palestinians, and Israel will do everything in her power to minimize those burdens.

* The horror of the Holocaust is forever imprinted in our memory, and the State of Israel will never cooperate, directly or indirectly, with European governments intent on distorting Holocaust history and minimizing their responsibility for the slaughter of Jews.  

* I strongly support the law affirming that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, but I have heard the concerns of the Druze community and others, and I will take steps to guarantee equality and human rights under law for every Israeli citizen.

* There may not be a partner for peace at this moment, and there can be legitimate disagreement about how peace can be obtained, but any government that I head will remain actively committed to making peace with the Palestinians and all our Arab neighbors, and to the task of building with them a future together.  

There is no reason why any Israeli politician, including a right-wing politician, could not express these sentiments. In other times, such views would be seen as mainstream Zionist thinking.  They are not the dovish positions that I hold, but they would be a welcome and respectable alternative to the far more reactionary ideas often expressed these days by the Israeli right.  

Is it naïve and unrealistic to think that Bibi would utter them? Probably. But if he were to do so, his words would rally much support from Israelis across the political spectrum, from students on campus in America and elsewhere, and from Jews around the world.

And Netanyahu - too often a voice for narrow fanaticism and ugly divisiveness - would emerge as something else: an advocate for an Israel of law, equal justice, decency, and hope. 

For Bibi, a measure of redemption, and for Zionism, a measure of renewal. Mr. Prime Minister, we are awaiting your words.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie