In a beautiful opinion piece in the Hebrew weekly Makor Rishon, Assaf Sagiv laments the lack of interest shown by many commentators in Benjamin Netanyahu’s historical perspective. Instead, they look only to his personality and lust for power to explain his actions. To Sagiv, psychological explanations miss the mark: Netanyahu operates out of a clear understanding of history, based on a deep recognition of the ebb and flow of rulers in the course of history.
Underneath Netanyahu’s extreme optimism about the future of the Jewish people in Israel (“we have been in the Land of Israel for close to 4,000 years” and we will be here “forever”) is an undercurrent of fatalist, existential anxiety. It is grounded in a belief in the inevitable laws of history as expounded by the 17th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, to whom Netanyahu refers in his book “A Place Among the Nations” where he notes that the lives of nations go through a series of stages —birth, youth, adulthood and eventually death.
Sagiv believes that Netanyahu has staked out for himself the historical role of the katechon — a Greek term meaning that which or the one who withholds. A concept originating in the New Testament, it is also used in political philosophy.
The katechon, explains Sagiv, “always operates in the shadow of the end of days, but does not rush toward it.” It in effect acts as to retard history, and is therefore an agent of the status quo.
Netanyahu seeks to preserve the status quo, to postpone dramatic changes. He believes that all progress leads the Jewish state in a dangerous direction, to what he believes is sudden catastrophe or slow decline — the inevitable fate of all nations.
It is interesting to compare someone whose view of history embodies historical necessity to someone with the gift of prophecy over his own future. The prophecy that was given to Oedipus the king and to his parents did not help him, nor did all his attempts to act as a katechon. On the contrary, all attempts to postpone his bitter fate only brought it closer. By the same token, knowing the inevitable fate of all nations does not require one to try to delay changes. Just the opposite: It means that one must be prepared at any moment for these changes to occur and to do the right thing at any given moment.
But more than this: If this end is indeed inevitable, then Netanyahu is only passing it on to the generations to come. Who are these future generations, if they are not the descendants of Netanyahu — of us all? Does he not have a duty to them? If not, it would be like Noah inviting into the ark only animals that were unable to reproduce — after them, the deluge! Netanyahu has arranged a historic “exit” for members of his generation, but only for them: Even if he believes that he has succeeded in holding back the enemies that jeopardize the future of the Jewish people, in doing it he has caused Israel to lose its identity. Whatever Netanyahu says about the enemies of the state, no one disagrees that Israel society itself is in an advanced stage of disintegration.
Perhaps that is what former Mossad director Meir Dagan, who died in March, meant when he said that personal interests (of his generation, that is) had won out over the national interest (that is, the constructive building of a future for the generations to come).
Above all, however, there is a fundamental logical flaw in thinking that the “status quo” is indeed static; that if things do not change, they genuinely do not change. The concept “diplomatic freeze” accurately reflects this error.
To adopt Vico’s analogy between the lives of nations and of human beings, then it is clear that a situation cannot truly be frozen, just as life cannot be frozen. To live means to be born, to grow old and to die. One must not confuse the healthy struggle against illness with the struggle against death. Death is not an illness. Israel has many children who refuse to grow up and adults who refuse to grow old, people who are terminally ill who refuse to die and babies who refuse to be born. They all make the same mistake, they all suffer from the same disease. No wonder the world does not recognize Israel: Israel tried so hard to prevent change that it changed beyond all recognition.
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