Center field: Netanyahu’s unwittingly Churchillian argument for term limits

Churchill’s diagnosis of his defeat in Great Britain in 1945 applies to Israel in 2015.

March 10, 2015 20:53
Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu . (photo credit: OHAD TZVEIGENBERG‏)

Last week before the US Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed comparisons with Winston Churchill; next week on Election Day he may want to dodge them. The witty Winston said that, “After a time, civil servants tend to become no longer servants and no longer civil.” More ominously, while confidently expecting re-election in 1945, Churchill lost.

Reviewing the final volume of the majestic Winston Churchill biography written by Sir Martin Gilbert, the great British historian and Zionist activist who died recently, historian Paul Addison explained Churchill’s loss in words that should spook Netanyahu: “His strident anti-socialist rhetoric disguised the lack of a coherent alternative, and he did what he could to prevent constructive policy-making.” Gilbert quoted Churchill as saying, in retrospect, “There was something pent up in the British people after 20 years which required relief.”

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I write regretfully; I am not a perennial Netanyahu-basher. I admired his eloquent defense of Israel and denunciation of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s. I applauded his diplomacy during the Oslo years, which limited violence while he was in office. I supported his audacity as finance minister, freeing the Israeli economy of its smothering socialist past. Most recently, I endorsed his careful but forceful leadership during the Gaza conflicts, keeping a local firefight from escalating into regional war.

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I salute this “right winger” for lifting West Bank checkpoints, cooperating effectively with Palestinian security and improving quality of life for most Palestinians – despite media claims. And I respect Netanyahu as a Jabotinskyite and Beginite, a liberal democrat, blocking the more thuggish Likudniks who tried subverting Israeli democracy.

But Churchill, and America’s Founding Fathers, were right: democracies need term limits. Leaders who stay too long, like fish and guests, start to stink. Netanyahu’s behavior confirms this truism: perceptions of complacency and corruption mount as creativity and credibility dwindle. Reports from the past few days alone shredded his trustworthiness, as this political will-o’-thewisp makes concessions for the Americans when negotiating with Palestinians just months ago then renounces his two-state call for party yahoos just days ago.

Most recently, he prefers running in place while blaming faulty allies and admittedly evil enemies for problems he doesn’t try solving.

Israelis and the Jewish people should thank him for his service and acknowledge: it’s time for him to go.

It’s time for him to go because the poor and middle class are suffering, caught with too much month left after their money runs out, month after month. It’s time for him to go because his government keeps investing in settlements and settlement infrastructure that don’t need the money while neglecting the periphery that does. It’s time for him to go because Israel has forgotten that no matter how recalcitrant our enemies are, we must defend our state effectively while pursuing peace passionately. It’s time for him to go because we need a leader not a ward healer, a mover and shaker not a placeholder, a uniter not a divider, a fresh visionary who generates hope rather than a tired politician who breeds despair.

The consensus that Netanyahu must go has been building, but voters have not fully embraced an alternative. The fight this election focuses on centrist voters wavering between yesterday’s “it boy,” Yair Lapid, the new kid on the block, Moshe Kahlon, and the viable alternative and current leader in the polls, Isaac Herzog.

Artist Yair Gerboz’s ugly remarks at Saturday night’s anti-Netanyahu rally, mocking “amulet-kissers, idol worshipers and bowers at the graves of saints,” echoed by the playwright Joshua Sobol, have given Herzog another opportunity to blow open the election.

Herzog should have jumped on this as aggressively as Netanyahu did, proclaiming that his Zionist Union has no room for bigots.

Here’s the chance for Herzog to confront the self-hating Left and again demonstrate his patriotism, as he did during the Gaza conflict. Here’s the chance for Herzog to teach about muscular moderation and constructive dissent to Israel’s destructive Left.

Here’s the chance to renounce decades of Labor orthodoxy and political correctness, emerging as the candidate of hope but not delusions. Here’s the chance to woo centrist voters from Lapid and Kahlon by living up to all he intended when he called his alliance the “Zionist Union.” And here’s the chance to show that, unlike Netanyahu, finally, there’s an Israeli leader brave enough to challenge his natural allies when they go extreme.

Instead, as Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett had a field day, mocking the Israeli Left’s pettiness and prejudices, a Zionist Union statement blandly said: “The event and its speakers were not arranged by us, and we condemn the statements that attacked a community for its faith.”

Herzog could have scored big politically while doing the right thing – and still can. As of this writing, Googling “Yair Gerboz” and “Herzog” in Hebrew has not yielded the bold repudiation Israeli centrists crave. Herzog’s advisors seem to have advised him to play it cautiously; I have begged him publicly since this campaign began to go bold, to dominate the news, to show his great potential to be the transformational leader Israelis await.

In fairness, no one else has dominated either – and media bias is in play. Most voters can’t recognize Kahlon’s face. Yair Lapid is AWOL. Avigdor Liberman and Bennett have entertained with sweeping, extreme statements that make headlines but make centrists squirm.

Churchill’s diagnosis of his defeat in Great Britain in 1945 applies to Israel in 2015.

There is “something pent up” among Israelis after years of attacks from without and drift within. There is still time for the man of this moment, Isaac Herzog, to provide “the required relief.” And the time has come for the man of past moments, Benjamin Netanyahu, to be retired, because he won’t retire on his own.

The author is a professor of history at McGill University and is teaching this semester at the Rothberg School at Hebrew University. His eleventh book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published this fall by Thomas Dunne/St.Martin’s Press. @GilTroy

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