(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'With great power comes great responsibility" - words of wisdom from Spider-Man's uncle Ben. Perhaps the man, before his untimely death, familiarized himself with the writings of the mid-20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a thinker admired across the political spectrum.
Niebuhr warned that some of the greatest perils to democracy arose from the fanaticism of moral idealists not conscious of the corruption of self-interest; he also counseled that a nation with an inordinate degree of political power was doubly tempted to exceed the bounds of historical possibilities.
Uncle Ben, a fictitious character, captured Niebuhr's insights well: One with power must recognize that strength and use it wisely to the benefit of all. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should pay heed, and approach policy with a realism unafraid to deploy Israeli power, while mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a healthy dose of self-awareness.
Netanyahu, however, does not pursue policy - from dealing with the Palestinians to his economic agenda - with a keen understanding of both Israel's strengths and its limits, but rather he tackles issues from a position of self-righteous victimhood and uncompromising ideology.
The Israeli Right has long accused the Left of a narcissistic omnipotence - a belief that Israel, as the regional superpower, alone holds the ability to make or break peace with the Palestinians, and if only Israel would placate the ever-increasing Palestinian demands, then peace would come.
Yet the Right often comes from a stance of narcissistic powerlessness, a view that puts the burden entirely on the Palestinians for peace and argues that Israel's actions have no effect upon the Palestinian body politic.
Both sides simplify what making peace will entail: steps forward in the peace process, and the opinions and actions of both Israelis and Palestinians, reflect the ongoing give-and-take of negotiations and the contingency of events on the ground.
Netanyahu surely demonstrates the Right's narcissistic weakness, as seen in his demand for a Palestinian recognition of Israel's Jewish nature as a prerequisite for negotiations. For many Palestinians, the unwillingness to recognize Israel's Jewish character comes not from a pathological reluctance to recognize Israel's reality; rather, that hesitancy serves as a means to gain concessions and a better final settlement. The Palestinians are understandably tentative about losing their recognition trump card in negotiations, particularly when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman remarked in a recent speech at the ministry that Israel was not obligated by the Annapolis process, and Netanyahu himself has never explicitly endorsed a two-state solution.
The prime minister thinks that Israel must negotiate from a position of strength - as Israel cannot appease Palestinian intransigence - and so he puts forth his demand for recognition from the Palestinians.
However, he predicates his position on a belief in Israel's inherent frailty, that small and besieged Israel can never show weakness. If Netanyahu knew his Niebuhr, he would recognize Israel as a military powerhouse, in a position of overwhelming strength in comparison to the Palestinians. Palestinian rejectionist elements can huff-and-puff all they want, but they will never blow the house down; and as for Palestinian moderates, the recognition of Israel's Jewish character will come with the reciprocity of negotiations.
NETANYAHU LIKEWISE manages economic policy with a form of narcissistic powerlessness, that of a free-market ideologue who believes that the government is powerless to make capitalism more fair and equitable.
Netanyahu's finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, who comes equipped with a repertoire of conservative clichÃ©s but little else, has criticized the United States and Britain for deficit spending in response to the world economic crisis. Steinitz and Netanyahu have budget cuts in the works, but they intend no change in the tax reductions for the wealthy that Netanyahu enacted during his time as finance minister.
Ironically enough, the prime minister has faith in the power of government to improve the lives of Palestinians. The government will provide security for the Palestinians, through the West Bank's extensive military infrastructure, and it will give them prosperity, through Netanyahu's "economic peace" plan. If Netanyahu has so much faith in the power of government to provide for the Palestinians, he should know that Israel - with pockets of extreme poverty and a wide wealth gap between rich and poor - is in need of an economic peace plan.
He remains stuck in the age of Milton Friedman, the champion of free-market economics who served in the Reagan administration.
Netanyahu should recognize that we are again living in the age of John Maynard Keynes, the great liberal economist of the early 20th century who advocated government as an essential tool to promote fairness and liberty. The economy of a modern liberal state should provide people with as much say as feasibly possible over the direction their lives will take, but poverty and economic instability can corrode that freedom. Government, argued Keynes, could help alleviate those ills and thus augment a society's liberty.
The world economic crisis has shown the imperfections of unencumbered capitalism, a crisis that calls for government to tinker with the market, and so today we have a Keynesian resurgence. Netanyahu will apply Keynesian principles for the Palestinians, thereby increasing their economic autonomy, but will deprive them of the other trappings of a liberal society, namely citizenship and voting rights. As for the Israelis, however, he will leave them to the vagaries of the market, at a time when the global recession creates dangerous uncertainty.
Netanyahu has great power, but he has not shown great responsibility.
He misapplies government power to those who want the Israeli state out of their lives - the Palestinians - and gives little to the Israelis.
He displays the fanaticism of a moral idealist, arguing from a position of unyielding, righteous victimhood when negotiating with the Palestinians; and he tempts the bounds of historical possibility when he defies American calls for a two-state solution. Netanyahu would be wise to learn from Niebuhr - his wisdom can be found even from characters in comic books.
Ellis Weintraub is currently pursuing a master's in Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.