Opinion |

Netanyahu's Right. Israel's Moral Depravity Is Paying Off

Predictions that Israel's rejection of peace would leave it ostracized have been greatly exaggerated

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reflected in a mirror as he attends a joint declaration with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, July 16, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reflected in a mirror as he attends a joint declaration with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, July 16, 2017. Credit: STEPHANE MAHE/REUTERS
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

The Moshe Sharett Heritage Society is not an easy place to find. The organization operates out of a small apartment in Tel Aviv that’s crammed with dusty books and other documents. Other prime ministers have had magnificent shrines built in their honor posthumously. The legacy of Menachem Begin is commemorated in a splendid building; likewise that of Yitzhak Rabin and David Ben-Gurion. Even the Yad Levi Eshkol organization, honoring Israel’s third prime minister, now has a respectable building.

But when it comes to the legacy of the second prime minister of the Jewish state, the only ones who apparently care are his son, Yaakov Sharett, now 90, Yaakov’s wife, Rina, and members of their family. Working with a minuscule budget, they devote whatever time they have to publishing the writings of Moshe Sharett, an intellectual who left more written material behind than most of Israel’s other leaders. Still, public interest in what he had to say is minimal. That Sharett is not remembered favorably by the right wing goes without saying, but he’s also not very popular among the old left, including veterans of Mapai, the forerunner of the Labor Party. They prefer Sharett’s bitter rival, Ben-Gurion – a more potent Mapai brand.

So it’s ironic that the Moshe Sharett Heritage Society is headquartered on Ben-Gurion Boulevard. Ben-Gurion and his loyalists subverted Sharett’s diplomatic and political efforts on any number of occasions. In some cases they abused him flagrantly.

Sharett, a political moderate, warned against the brutality, militarism and cult of power that dominated Ben-Gurionist Israel as early as the country’s first decade of existence. He led the moderate camp in Mapai, which aimed to restrain the aggressive responses of the fledgling state to cross-border incursions. In the 1950s, Sharett tried to curb Israel’s reprisal raids in Jordan. He was appalled at the attack on Qibya, in the West Bank (then under Jordanian rule), in October 1953, in which about 60 residents were massacred. Sharett warned that the mass killing would make the world see Israel as a state “lusting for blood.” In later years, he also cautioned against warmongering against Egypt by Ben-Gurion and by Moshe Dayan when he was chief of staff. In Sharett’s view – as foreign minister at the time – a preventive war would “necessarily set the world against us.” But he was forced out of office by Ben-Gurion, in June, 1956, and within a few months war broke out.

Did the Sinai Campaign against Egypt in 1956 turn the world against Israel? Not really. Yaakov Sharett admits today that the war actually consolidated the standing of the young state, and that fears of international isolation proved groundless. The negative diplomatic reaction predicted by his father did not materialize. Ben-Gurion’s muscular approach prevailed, and Israel only grew stronger militarily and diplomatically. Similarly, Sharett opposed the nuclear project at Dimona – and here too his dire forecasts were not borne out. The cult of “might makes right” helped transform Israel into a regional power.

Of course, we can amuse ourselves by conjecturing how things would have developed if the Sharett school of thought had won the day, and what the result would have been if this moderate person, who spoke Arabic and objected to military reprisal raids, had had more of an impact on the country’s character. But it was Ben-Gurion who ultimately triumphed, and his rival’s warnings became footnotes in the history books.

Moshe Sharett and David Ben-Gurion in 1951.Credit: GPO

“My country has parted from me,” Sharett wrote in his diary at the outset of the Sinai Campaign.

The case of Sharett versus Ben-Gurion illustrates a mistake that is frequently made by liberal-minded leaders and intellectuals when considering the country’s policies: the view that a militant approach and the rejection of peace initiatives will alienate Israel from the great powers, and lead to its isolation in the global arena.

As early as 1944, political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who foresaw the takeover of the Zionist leadership by individuals espousing a militant-activist line, warned that in such circumstances the Zionists “will have forfeited even the small chances that small peoples still have in this none too beautiful world of ours.” And, she predicted, “It will not be easy either to save the Jews or to save Palestine in the 20th century.”

For some reason, Arendt’s article “Zionism Reconsidered,” where this comment appeared, still widely considered to be dazzlingly prophetic. In fact, however, it illustrates the failure of such prophecies. History proves that, in terms of utilitarianism, power pays off. The blistering prophecies of the doves tend not to be realized – and, if calamities occur, they occur precisely when they are not predicted.

All this is particularly relevant today, in the era of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His speech last week about the left and media waging an “obsessive witch hunt” against him and his family was replete with countless falsehoods. However, on one matter he spoke the truth: The predictions of a “political tsunami” and of Israel’s ostracization have truly been refuted. “What tsunami? What isolation? What nonsense. The State of Israel is in an unprecedented political boom,” Netanyahu said.

One must admit that he’s right. Until a few years ago, it looked as though Israel was in a politically precarious position and that time was working against it. But Netanyahu succeeded in maneuvering the situation with considerable diplomatic skill. It can be said that he’s been able to shape Israel’s current political situation in the image of his militant worldview. He also gambled correctly on the rise of the Republicans in the United States and on the right-wing surge in Europe and elsewhere. He understood that the entity known as the “international community” is far from being determined in the pressure it is able and willing to apply to Israel. As of today, the Palestinian national movement is in the grip of an almost unprecedented crisis, both internally and diplomatically, while Israel maintains close ties with India and countries in Africa and in Eastern Europe.

Netanyahu's type of diplomacy is totally different from the peace politics of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, which led to the opening of Israeli embassies in an array of countries in the 1990s. Netanyahu’s diplomatic approach can be seen as one that is forging an “alliance of the miscreants,” or, alternately, an axis of evil.

Indeed, the prime minister has brought Israeli policy to a moral nadir. The country not only continues to dispossess Palestinians and to abuse them. It also shamelessly bypasses international limitations on the use of such unusually cruel weapons as cluster bombs. It is heightening its reliance on arms sales, sometimes via dubious transactions, and on open cooperation with some of the most benighted forces in the world – from the far right in Europe to Indian nationalists and the Al-Nusra Front in Syria.

In his monologue before Eastern European leaders in Budapest a month ago, Netanyahu articulated his diplomatic line explicitly: It’s based on dissociation from any semblance of morality. He lauded the openly force-based approach of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in contradistinction to the European Union, which posits political conditions for relations with other states. “I am not very politically correct. I know that’s a shock to some of you,” he told his interlocutors, but it’s more than likely that even the experienced politicians in his audience were thinking: Machiavelli has been resurrected.

The problem is that Israel’s moral standards are increasingly deteriorating.

“All crazy adventurism immediately becomes sublime heroism, and all criminal irresponsibility is held up as an example of pure nationalism,” Sharett wrote in his diary in 1957. From that point of view, at least, he was right.

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