Netanyahu Forgot the Life Force of Zionism

Israel's prime minister will step up the podium at UN General Assembly an arrogant victor, but his power politics mean he will one day leave behind him a country whose light has been extinguished.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at Ben-Gurion International Airport.Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

The man who will ascend the podium Thursday at the UN General Assembly to represent the Jewish state before the family of nations will do so with a sense of “I won.” The past year was good to him. He smote his political rivals hip and thigh: Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Kahlon, Gideon Sa’ar. He dealt a harsh blow to his bitter enemy Arnon “Noni" Mozes, publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily. He made laughingstocks of the Israeli media and the old Israeli elites, which he loathes.

In a brilliant “House of Cards”-style move, he nominated a messianist as the next police commissioner (with no opposition), and in another brilliant maneuver he will soon nominate (another) friendly attorney general. One after the other, Benjamin Netanyahu has neutralized most of the hostile power centers with which he has clashed for 20 years. Remember Roni Milo, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, David Levy, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, Amram Mitzna and Ami Ayalon? Netanyahu has routed all the possible political challengers of his generation to remain completely alone in the ring, the sole national leader.

The man who will ascend the UN podium to represent the Jewish state before the family of nations will do so with a sense of “I was right.” The New Middle East is very well-suited to Netanyahu’s deep-seated pessimism. While others waxed enthusiastic over the Arab Spring, he warned of the Arab winter — and he was right. While others made light of Islamic extremism, he warned of Islamic extremism — and he was right. While others believed in a permanent peace now, he did not believe in a permanent peace now — and he was right.

The world we inhabit in 2015 (Islamic State, murderous chaos in Syria, millions of refugees en route to Europe) bears far more resemblance to Bibi’s dark nightmares than it does to the rosy dreams of leaders of the international community and the Israeli left.

The prime minister’s vision of walls and fences (border fences in the south, the center and the north and a defensive shield in the skies above) looks far more realistic today than the vision of hummus in Damascus, Singapore in Gaza and Oslo in Hebron. Benzion Netanyahu’s son has good reason to feel that he foresaw the future while others failed to see.

But the arrogant victor who will ascend the UN podium on Thursday will represent the Jewish state before the family of nations in a flawed manner. Theodor Herzl did not just envision a state, but a model state. Zeev Jabotinsky didn’t believe only in nationalism, but also in human dignity and human rights. Chaim Weizmann did not speak only about the merits of power, but also about the power of merit. David Ben-Gurion always understood that Israel would not survive if its path ceased to be just. In different ways, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Menachem Begin, too, always balanced our duty to be strong with our commitment to be just.

The leaders of Zionism always understood that the moral dimension was the life force of Zionism. Benjamin Netanyahu does not understand this. He sees grand historical processes and plots sophisticated political maneuvers, but he is devoid of moral conscience. He has no love for anyone who is not a member of his family and he cannot assimilate any truth that is not his truth.

He has absolutely nothing of what made Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy inspirational leaders. Nor does he resemble his own heroes — Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. They were not only about power politics. Each of them also had a dream and a vision and a deep truth that burned within them. They sought to lead their nations to some shining peak.

People generally do not change during the second half of their seventh decade. But if the man who will represent us this evening at the UN General Assembly does not discover the importance of the moral dimension to our lives, he is liable to leave behind him a country whose light has been extinguished.

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