Despite all the Likud lamentations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should see the 2013 election results as a gift. Israeli voters demolished the growing stereotype of them as overwhelming right-wing and religious, let alone allegedly racist, anti-democratic, and theocratic. Blue-and-white ballot boxes across the country tallied Israel’s centrist sentiments, chaotic complexity, and democratic dynamism. And when a country’s standing improves, so does its leader’s.
But this was more than a propaganda victory and a blow against the oversimplifiers and delegitimizers so quick to say “this is not my Israel any more,” as if you can judge a thriving, multi-dimensional nation so easily. Forging a coalition anchored in the center-left will allow Bibi to be the Bibi he’s always wanted to be.
Bibi can be a bold, principled yet pragmatic leader. He should remember that morality in politics, especially for Israel, is fundamental not mere posturing. Wise men say that “Anyone engaged in political or military conflict in this century must seek to persuade international audiences that his cause is just.”
Moreover, historically, “Israel’s greatest shield,” has been “its moral stature.” In compromising with Yair Lapid and others, in refusing to buy off politicians with useless Cabinet posts, and in snubbing anti-Zionists, Bibi will be making “the tough decisions.” On personnel matters, and in establishing new principles responsive to middle class needs, rebuffing political extortionists by asserting broader principles such as universal national service—not always military in nature – Bibi should proclaim that when “it is the right policy … it is worth fighting for.” In staring down the shortsighted compromisers, the greedy glory-seekers, the corrupt allies, the appeasers, he should remember Winston Churchill, who bemoaned what he called “the want of foresight, the unwillingness to act when action will be simple and effective, the lack of clear thinking, the confusion of counsel until emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong.” And in leading this old-new land into a moral politics rooted in tradition but suited to twenty-first century realities, Bibi should remember “the timeless words spoken to Joshua over 3,000 years ago, let us be strong and of good courage.”
These calls for pathbreaking, ethical leadership do not come from lily livered liberals preaching ethics, dismissed by the right as the “yefeh nefesh,” delicate souls living in lala land. These calls are from the author and orator, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Despite having spent too much time in the last four years catering to coalition blackmailers, Netanyahu has shown the potential to be a bolder leader. When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon assigned Netanyahu the Treasury Ministry in 2003 the task was thankless: Bibi would be blamed for any failures and Sharon would share in any successes. Eventually, the success was so great Bibi’s reputation grew too. The needed Netanyahu reforms “1.0” need a 2.0 -- building on the economic prosperity he fostered by helping to free Israel from its socialist shackles, he now must blend start-up-friendly capitalism with a robust and humane safety net for the poorest, along with a shot at a living wage and reasonable prices for the middle class. Israel’s superior economic performance compared to the US these last few years is a marvel – and a credit to Netanyahu. Middle class Israelis would have been even more burdened had the economy crashed and the recovery been as anemic as America’s.
Beyond the economy, Netanyahu has encouraged traditional Zionist values through education reforms and his Heritage sites initiatives. He, Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, and Likud princes like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, upheld the Ze’ev Jabotinsky-Menachem Begin liberal democratic values they were raised on, by blocking anti-democratic and racist legislation. And Netanyahu’s leadership during the recent Gaza conflict inflicted maximum damage on Hamas and minimum damage on Israel’s reputation, demonstrating far more discipline than Ehud Olmert in avoiding an unwinnable quagmire.
Unfortunately, Bibi and the Likud helped voters overlook these impressive accomplishments. Middle class frustrations grew as the costs of basic taxes and services ballooned. The Palestinians outmaneuvered Israel as Bibi was too passive on the peace front while overreacting to Palestinians’ otherwise empty UN follies. Stumbling in and out of a coalition with Kadima highlighted Bibi’s fear of the ultra-orthodox on the draft issue, while entering an electoral alliance with a morally compromised Avigdor Lieberman backfired.
Netanyahu should learn from his rival Barack Obama – who still leads Israel’s best friend – the United States of America. Obama won seven million fewer popular votes in 2012 when compared to 2008. But reelected is reelected. Obama has acted like a big winner since America’s Election Day. Judging by the polls and the ecstatic news coverage, Americans love it.
So lead Bibi lead. Pioneer a new approach to capitalism that has the rest of the world admiring Israel as an exemplary society while emulating it. Inspire Bibi inspire. Stand strong against citizens shirking their national duties, shifting the conversation from one of ultra-Orthodox or Arab collective goodies to one of how all individuals can serve their country. Risk Bibi risk. Return to Bar Ilan. Update your two-states-for-two-nations speech which polls show reflects the Israeli consensus. Then call the Palestinians’ bluff by freezing settlements, drawing maps, and offering to negotiate. At best, some progress might occur; at worst Israel will score points with others, including America’s newly-inaugurated, newly-empowered president. So lead Bibi lead. Live by your teachings that moral stature counts, that Israel is a values nation, that the secular idealism of a Begin, of a Jabotinsky, was not just a counter to religion but was actually a point of overlap, the basis for what we would nowadays call – and hail – as a common platform to renew Israel as a model nation, a healthy society, a valued friend, a strong economy, and a safe country.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His latest book Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was just published.