Netanyahu Is Following in Ben-Gurions Footsteps

Netanyahu's very clear philosophy melds a neoliberal socioeconomic outlook with a security strategy thats not far from the foundations laid down by the Labor Partys precursor, Mapai

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a state memorial ceremony for David Ben-Gurion, November 2017.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Benjamin Netanyahu isnt a hollow leader. Far from it. Hes a leader who has far more ideas than his political rivals.

Full disclosure: Im not a fan of his. Both his personal and public behavior greatly disturb me. The suspicions in the various corruption cases, his personal habits, his smugness and lack of humility all rub me the wrong way.

Despite all this, hes still Israels most important leader since David Ben-Gurion, whose greatness lies largely in that he shaped the way of thinking and the way things got done in a variety of matters for decades.

From this standpoint, Netanyahu is following in the first prime ministers footsteps. Even if we dont love his direction, management style and their ramifications for Israels future, its hard to blur the truth that Netanyahu has forged a very clear path. Its marked by a sharp, idea-based philosophy that melds a neoliberal socioeconomic outlook with a security strategy thats not so far from the foundations laid down by the Labor Partys precursor, Mapai.

The attempts to portray Netanyahu as a conservative who sanctifies the status quo and manages from moment to moment are baseless. This outlook, which the rival political camp fosters, not only distorts reality but also blurs another inconvenient truth. If anyone, its the Israeli left in all its variations that has become the camp that totally lacks the spine to establish a deep alternative to the hegemonic rights agenda. Its the right that has been constantly expanding; it now includes not only Likud but also the parties of Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, and some people in the Zionist Union.

The lefts second childhood

The reason is that the lefts cart of ideas is empty of any organizing and relevant idea. Its rooted in the simultaneously magnetic and emasculating power of the 1990s. In the short span between 1992 and 1996, the years of the Rabin government, the underpinnings were established for defining the second incarnation of the Israeli left, which was meant to replace the first incarnation, which Mapai had created and was wearing down.

The lefts second childhood rests on three basic assumptions that have turned out partly or entirely mistaken. The first: Israel is capable of shedding the origins of its Jewish and political culture to completely disengage from its religious-traditional past and transform itself into a European country.

The second: Israel is part of the East. Combining the anti-democratic elites with economic power will let it reach understandings on creating a new regional order. The third: The conflict with the Palestinians is a national struggle. Its starting point is 1967, which defines the center of the Jewish (and Palestinian) consensus, so a deal can be made to achieve peaceful relations.

Reality caused these assumptions to crumble one after the other. Israeli society rejected the leftist government. In doing so, it shed the attempt to create a secular, liberal and modern world of ideas, estranged from Jewish theology, tradition and history. Its just as philosopher-historian Gershom Scholem warned in 1926: A generation that takes over the most fruitful part of our tradition – its language – cannot, though it may ardently wish to, live without tradition.

Kierkegaard had it right

The collapse of the agreements with the Palestinians, and the terror that peaked in the second intifada, revealed the limits of the 67 discourse. They demonstrated that the 48 discourse is no less relevant and that the conflict isnt only between political entities (Israel-PLO/Palestinan Authority). Rather, it goes on at the communal level (Jewish-Palestinian) – a mix of principles that makes an absolute deal hard to achieve.

The two sides revealed their dubious ability, as representatives of both national and Diaspora movements, to overcome the gap between that states perspectives and the homelands perspectives. The Middle East – which erupted in the winter of 2010 and threatened the old elites on whom Israel had relied – also turned out to be a region unripe for optimism.

The right-wing hegemony is based on the ruins of the lefts basic assumptions. This hegemony has come to define the Israeli worldview, and the left remains stuck. Kierkegaard described love as a process in which a man stuck in the present looks nostalgically back at the past and tries to construct the face of tomorrow. Its a display of the falling in love that has characterized the Israeli left for more than two decades.

Instead of bravely examining its fundamental assumptions in order to forge a new way, the left is unable to establish a worldview that opposes Netanyahus agenda, one that doesnt turn its back on the logic dictating the current reality and isnt blind to the lefts world of values. This worldview would depart from the worn-out formulas and connect with alternatives in line with reality. The lefts hope to recycle the past makes the rights worldview Israels sole agenda.

Therefore, the scenario in the current reality of ridding the political scene of Netanyahu, which many leftists in Israel embrace, doesnt herald a revolution in the Israeli lefts agenda. The struggle against corruption and for integrity is important. Its the right thing to do and critical to preserving Israeli democracy, but it mustnt replace the goal of shaping a new vision for Israel.

Given that no force in Israeli politics is capable of posing an alternative to the rights way of thinking, we can assume that any changes in the system will probably be personal and nothing more.

Dr. Doron Matza is a research associate for the Forum for Regional Thinking and a former senior official for the Shin Bet security service.