The Face of Netanyahu: Ugliness and Deadlock

The impasse Israel finds itself in today mirrors the limits of its prime minister’s imagination.

Carolina Landsmann
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, October 26, 2015.Credit: AFP
Carolina Landsmann

“So just sing a song for peace, don’t whisper a prayer, just sing a song for peace, with a loud shout.” This is exactly how – with a loud shout – Miri Aloni sang “Shir Lashalom” (“A Song for Peace”), at a Tel Aviv rally in support of the Oslo Accords. She was joined by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, cabinet ministers and the masses in attendance, all united under the slogan, “Yes to Peace, No to Violence.” A few minutes later, Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a militant underground dissident to his regime.

Aloni and “A Song for Peace” became engraved in the Israeli collective consciousness as a symbol of that rally, of the great hope it instilled in its participants – and of the despair in which Rabin’s murder left them. Aloni’s many fans know that she sings every Tuesday and Friday at the intersection of Allenby Road and Nahalat Binyamin at the entrance to Tel Aviv’s Carmel market. Watching her, even when she’s not singing “Song for Peace,” it’s difficult not to harken back to that November day, 20 years ago, and the hope for peace she conveyed in her singing. And it’s tough to ignore the tragic symbolism of her “deterioration” into street performance. In fact, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that not only Aloni, but also an entire historical possibility – of a free Israeli nation living in peace with its neighbors and open to the world – has no place on this country’s central stage, and that it can somehow exist only behind a curtain, possibly as memory, or as a shadow of the current reality.

History shapes itself like the plot of a story, and as in a story, there are primary protagonists and secondary characters (such as Aloni). Historical processes involve countless people and are driven by numerous forces that push and pull in different directions. But in the end, they always coalesce around a few individuals. Of course, history can also be seen as an evolution of ideas. But ideas are not carried in the air; they are carried in the bodies of human beings. Forces and ideas are channeled into the biographies of individuals, and the historical decisions are ultimately theirs. Those decisions take on the form and dimensions of their progenitors: Great historical moments are a product of decisions by individuals who possess a towering personality, and lackluster historical moments reflect the lowliness of their protagonists.

Every period or historical phenomenon has a face (or name). The face of Zionism is that of Herzl; of the state’s establishment, that of Ben-Gurion; of the American Civil War, Lincoln; of the struggle of the blacks in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr.; of the liberation of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. The face of the Holocaust is that of Hitler; of Soviet Communism, Lenin and then Stalin; in China, Mao; in Cuba, Castro. Gorbachev’s face hovers over Perestroika; the intifada is registered in Arafat’s name; the first Lebanon war in Sharon’s; the peace with Egypt bears the names of Sadat and Begin. Neoliberalism belongs to Thatcher and Reagan; the face of the Gulf War is Saddam Hussein; Lech Walesa is the face of Poland’s break with the Communist regime; de Gaulle is the face of Free France, Petain of the Vichy regime; and the face of the military regime in Chile belongs to Pinochet.

Precisely for this reason, the murder of Yitzhak Rabin also succeeded in murdering the fledgling Oslo Accords, because the face that hovered over the accords and the Israeli side’s hope for peace was that of Rabin. Of course, many others were also involved in Oslo, people who devoted their lives to peace and who mediated and persuaded and did the groundwork and acted behind the scenes. Of course, any given historical moment is the joint project of countless people. But the possibility of peace in the Middle East, and the historical possibility of ending the occupation, were rooted in the greatness of spirit and the courage of Yitzhak Rabin. The same greatness of spirit and courage that he showed as commander-in-chief during the Six-Day War.

The face that flies over the historical period of the “deadlock” is that of Benjamin Netanyahu. He embodies today’s historical moment. The ugliness of this period reflects his pettiness of spirit. The evil and despair of this period are merely the echo of his personality. The impasse Israel has reached mirrors the limits of his imagination. The Israeli horizon is as wide as the horizons of his heart.

That’s why the theme of the last election was Bibi himself. The “Anyone but Bibi” slogan reflected the insight of many, but not enough, segments of the Israeli public, that the person who is responsible for Israel’s deterioration to the present low point – no matter who is at his side, what ideas they may generate, or what forces pull or push, this way or that – cannot lead it into a better future. It’s not because he doesn’t want to; he simply is not capable: he is limited by the dimensions of his personality.

Yitzhak Rabin’s face was the face of the Oslo period. He embodied Israel’s real chance for peace. This is why the Oslo period, and its accompanying hope, ended when Rabin’s rule ended. In this same vein, in order to emerge from this period of deadlock, we must first see the end of Netanyahu’s regime.

The writer is a journalist for Haaretz.