Netanyahu Is Just a Mirror

Looking in the mirror is not always a pleasant experience. It can make you see that you have grown into a nation that has little reason to be proud of its choices.

Nations get the leaders they deserve, goes the saying. Given that Benjamin Netanyahu is about to become Israel's prime minister, we should ask what this teaches us about Israel in 2009.

Netanyahu is seemingly cosmopolitan. He grew up in the United States; he speaks excellent English and seems to know the world. In reality, though, he is locked into a worldview that is strikingly devoid of differentiation. Together with Avigdor Lieberman, he believes that Israel is the West's representative in the Middle East, but seems to have no clue that the West has largely washed its hands of Israel, because of its behavior. Behind his sophistication lies a worldview that is insular, suspicious and devoid of complexity.

Netanyahu is seemingly committed to the values of European liberalism - the rule of law and the idea of human rights - and he has been arguing for years that only the emergence of democracies in the Middle East will bring peace. But his proposal for what he calls an "economic peace" expresses a blatant disregard for human rights. It assumes that Palestinians will be quiet and happy if only they have better living conditions, and that their dignity and demand for self-determination can be swept under the carpet indefinitely. Since 1985, Netanyahu has been talking about terrorism as a force that has erupted onto the world scene, but he seems never to have taken into account that the movement he heads very much believed in such violence in the 1930s and 1940s, and he has never understood that Palestinian resistance is no different in its nature and motivation from Etzel and Lehi were in their day.

Netanyahu is seemingly bold and claims to be thinking "out of the box" - something he indeed did, at times, in the domain of economics. In the wake of last month's election, he was given a chance to show political creativity. He could have offered Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor the opportunity to join his Likud in a large coalition with the goal of changing the electoral system and the structure of the regime. He could then have called for new elections under the new system, and thus created the possibility of getting Israel's polity out of its total paralysis.

Instead, however, Netanyahu chose to stick to the predictable bickering with his "natural" coalition partners on matters of ministries, budget allocations and titles, on the way to creating a narrow right-wing government (his overtures to Tzipi Livni were devoid of real content). In the end, his political choices are governed by narrowness of mind and fear, and are devoid of imagination.

This is Israel's choice, and we should use the opportunity to think about what it tells us about Israel in the year 2009.

Israel is seemingly open to the world; at least in the domain of business, it has created some startlingly cosmopolitan ventures. But when it comes to politics and existential questions, Israel has been locked into a ghettoized state of mind for decades now, and is completely unaware of the effect of its behavior on the world. Israel is incapable of seeing that its actions gradually isolate it from the Western world to which it believes it belongs.

Israel prides itself on being the only real liberal democracy in the Middle East. Yet since 1967, it has acted as though it assumes that Palestinians are sub-human, and can be appeased with the perks offered them by Israel for serving its economy. All governments since 1974, including Rabin's and Barak's, have expanded settlements, operating under the assumption that trampling human rights and the dignity of Palestinians is a viable course of action. It has never internalized the understanding that liberal democracy is an all-or-nothing affair: Either all humans, irrespective of religion, ethnicity or color have the same rights, or liberal democracy becomes a sham.

Israel also prides itself on its creativity and entrepreneurship. But its politics has been fearful and petty-minded. It haggles over a few square inches, at the same time that it steals Palestinian lands by way of enclosures and the security barrier, with its baroque concoctions, and it has created a segregated road system for Jews and Palestinians, locking the latter into ever smaller pieces of land.

Bold moves are possible. Thinking big would have meant recognizing that only a regional settlement can save us, and grasping the historical opportunity presented by the Arab League's peace initiative, and engaging with it. But not a single leading politician has suggested doing that.

We should not be angry at Benjamin Netanyahu; after all, he only presents Israel a mirror of its own choices. Looking in the mirror is not always a pleasant experience. It can make you see that you have grown into a nation that has little reason to be proud of its choices. But sometimes looking in the mirror can also be the first step toward deciding that it is time for change.

Prof. Carlo Strenger, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, teaches in the psychology department of Tel Aviv University, and is a member of the World Federation of Scientists' Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism.