In Haaretz on Tuesday, Jonathan Lis published quotes from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Bible study session at the Prime Minister's Residence in which he ominously warned that Israel may not survive to see its 100th birthday in 31 years. Netanyahu apparently recommended that Israel should focus on surpassing the record of the Hasmonean kingdom, the last truly independent Jewish sovereignty in the land, which lasted for only 77 years and was wrapped up by the Roman Empire in 63 B.C.E.
- Netanyahu: Israel Must Face Future Security Threats to Reach 100
- The Myth of ultra-Orthodox as 'Original' Judaism's Last Survivors
- A Stereotypical Secular Tel Avivian's Manifesto
Intrigued, I called up a couple of people who were at the session, which was held in memory of Shmuel Ben-Artzi, Sara Netanyahu’s father. Around 50 people attended the two-hour event, which consisted of about 15 academics and public figures weighing in on biblical and Judaism-related topics, with Netanyahu responding to them.
“It was a rather disjointed conversation that wouldn’t have been particularly interesting if it didn’t take place in the Prime Minister’s Residence with him serving as a sort of moderator,” says one of the participants. “What made it interesting was how involved Bibi [Netanyahu] actually was. He listened intently to what each of us had to say, and it’s clear that even though he’s not an expert on Bible or Jewish history, he’s widely read on these subjects and takes them very seriously.”
The quotes that made the Haaretz headline came in response to remarks by writer and philosopher Micah Goodman, who spoke of the message of Sukkot, in which Jews are instructed to leave their homes and live in makeshift booths.
“Sukkot is all about embracing impermanence,” Goodman said. “Which is counterintuitive to Western culture and to most religions, which invest in permanent assets and symbols, and impermanence is denied. It was this message of impermanence to which Netanyahu latched on, saying ‘let’s try to be around for the state’s 100th anniversary. We have to cross the bar of 80 years that the Hasmonean kingdom didn’t reach.’”
One person present interpreted Netanyahu’s remarks as “‘forget eternity, if we make it to 100 we’ve done well. It sounded like another version of his old speech on how we’re in 1938 and Iran is Nazi Germany developing a nuclear weapon.”
More psychology than geopolitics
Netanyahu has given this comparison between Israel and the Hasmoneans a great deal of thought, and this wasn’t the first time he made it. Haaretz Editor Aluf Benn reported last month that it has come up recently in a number of conversations with the prime minister.
There is something profoundly sad about the prime minister of Israel obsessing over whether his country can last a century. Netanyahu has more accurate information than anyone else alive today – from Military Intelligence, the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission – on Israel’s military and economic situation today and just how the balance of power between it and potential enemies in the region has never been so much in Israel’s favor.
It’s sad, not because Netanyahu has stoked these existential fears among Israelis for political gain – of course he has, but that’s just standard political fearmongering. What’s sad is that Netanyahu, despite all he knows and his famous analytical skills, actually believes it.
The reasons for Netanyahu’s shaky belief in Israel’s survivability are more in the realm of psychology than geopolitics. His father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu, was always very dismissive of the level of Jewish statesmanship. In interviews he admitted that he was surprised that the Jews had succeeded in building an independent state and feared for its future. Also, the son is convinced that Israel’s current regional omnipotence is largely due to his stewardship, and in unguarded moments of frankness has said that no other Israeli leader can ensure the state’s security.
This irrational fear of Israel’s destruction is deeper than just the elder Netanyahu’s bleak view of Jewish history and Bibi’s inflated ego – especially since it’s not exclusive to Netanyahu himself. Survival phobia is of course a very Jewish thing, bred over many generations of persecution and pogroms, but if the past seven decades have proved anything, it’s that modern Israel is more than capable of protecting itself, and its neighbors are inherently incapable of uniting to destroy it.
That has never been more true than today, with the Middle East so intent on devouring itself that most regimes there are more interested in enlisting Israel as a secret ally than fighting it. Netanyahu knows this better than anyone, so his fears are more likely a deflection from the real challenges facing Israel’s leader.
Lack of Israeli cohesion
Gregg Carlstrom, a rare example of a foreign journalist spending time in Israel and leaving with a deep understanding of Israelis, has just brought out a book titled “How Long Will Israel Survive?: The Threat From Within.” Despite the apocalyptic title, it’s a sober assessment of the increasing fragility of Israeli society.
Carlstrom is no apologist for Israel, but he agrees with the ascendant Israeli right on one major point: The continuing occupation of the Palestinians and the expanding settlements in the West Bank are not a major threat to Israel’s survival. The military occupation has lasted 50 years and before that the Israeli Arabs were under martial law, and Israel has persevered and prospered. For all the diplomatic and media attention lavished on the occupation, there is no reason in 2017 to assume that Israel cannot continue sustaining the current situation. The lack of cohesion among Israeli Jews is a much more present and imminent danger.
Carlstrom expertly traces the multiple rifts between secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox, between those who strive for a more democratic Israel and those content with the recent authoritarian trends, and between the bubbles of conservative Jerusalem and cosmopolitan Tel Aviv on one side and the “periphery” on the other. And of course there’s the gaping divide between Jews and the non-Jewish minorities. All these are sapping Israel’s strength in a way that no war or intifada ever have.
One of the most telling quotes in the book is from an interview with settler leader and Israel’s current consul general in New York, Dani Dayan, who spoke wistfully of how he felt during Operation Protective Edge: “I hadn’t felt the country come together like that for a long time.”
That pointless Gaza campaign in the summer of 2014 that wasted the lives of 2,200 Palestinians and Israelis and led nowhere was also a rare experience of unity for over 90 percent of Israeli Jews. Nine months later, Dayan was one of Netanyahu’s advisers in the election campaign that Bibi won by fearmongering and inciting his base against Israeli Arabs and the powerless leftists. Fear is a comfort when it’s the only thing delivering unity for brief periods, like during war and on Election Day.
The short history of the Hasmonean kingdom is well worth studying, but Netanyahu seems to be drawing the wrong conclusions from the last period of Jewish sovereignty. The Roman annexation of Judea wasn’t a result of war or the machinations of hostile neighbors. The Hasmoneans had for decades proved adept at maneuvering between the surrounding empires, expanding borders and building a short-lived but prosperous nation. Their dynasty ended because it was weakened from within by the deepening divide between Jewish sects and cults and ultimately civil war.