A Dose of Nuance: The dangers of prime ministerial comparisons

Begin, undoubtedly the greatest orator in Israel’s history, understood there are moments when words do not count, only actions do.

Netanyahu and Herzog (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST,REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Herzog
Just weeks before Israelis go to the polls, the Jewish state is hardly in the grips of election fever. This is not the sign-festooned pre-election Israel of yesteryear.
Yes, there are polls and there are campaigns, but people are paying it all much less attention than they have in the past.
The weather may be a factor, with the various campaigns waiting for the storms to pass before spending their money on wallpapering our cities and highways. Yet it’s more than that. With the Zionist Union (Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni) and the Likud (Benjamin Netanyahu) polling in what is pretty much a dead heat of 24-ish seats each these days, it is obvious that whatever the outcome and whoever wins, creating a coalition is going to be an overwhelming challenge.
Israel is likely to end up with a wobbly and incoherent government once again, which only highlights the absurdity of Netanyahu’s having called elections in the first place. Hence the public yawn.
So Bibi is trying to add some spice to an otherwise ho-hum campaign with a series of cleverer-than-usual ads. First there was the Bibi-sitter add, in which the prime minister shows up at a couple’s home to watch their kids – because, of course, he’s here for us, and because the children (Israel’s future) cannot be entrusted to anyone else. Cute.
Now, Netanyahu’s campaign has released a new clip comparing him to – of all people – David Ben-Gurion. Our prime minister is not the first to stare down an American president, the ad suggests. Yes, Barack Obama is peeved that Bibi plans to speak to Congress, but great Israeli prime ministers have often stood up to the United States, with historic results. The US, Bibi’s ad asserts, was opposed to Israel declaring independence in May 1948.
“But where would we be if Ben-Gurion had backed down?” the ad essentially asks. So, too, it implies: “Where will we be if Bibi does not use his speech before Congress to remind the world of the dangers of the deal the US is about to conclude with Iran?” Netanyahu, of course, is correct about Iran. Details of the deal, leaked by the Associated Press in Geneva (including the fact that it would leave 6,500 centrifuges spinning and end inspections after 10 to 15 years), leave no doubt as to Obama’s utter mendacity. That, in itself, is unfortunately no longer surprising.
Reasonable minds can also differ as to whether given the American administration’s obvious ill will, going to Congress is the smart move. There are good arguments both for and against.
But the Netanyahu campaign’s decision to compare the prime minister to Ben-Gurion is still peculiar. Even if we ignore the irony that Bibi’s forebear, Menachem Begin, and Ben-Gurion despised each other (I argue in my biography of Begin that Ben-Gurion actually sought to have Begin killed during the Altalena incident in June 1948), there is something strange about Bibi invoking “The Old Man.”
Whatever misgivings the US had about Israel declaring independence in 1948 had nothing whatsoever to do with a tiff between US president Harry S Truman and Ben-Gurion. Formerly secret CIA and State Department documents, now accessible to the public, reveal that the US was simply convinced that Israel would not survive its first war.
The CIA report stated: “The Jewish forces will initially have the advantage. However, as the Arabs gradually coordinate their war effort, the Jews will be forced to withdraw from isolated positions, and having been drawn into a war of attrition, will gradually be defeated.” Unless the US intervened to save them, the report concluded, “The Jews will be able to hold out no longer than two years.” That was the reason for the US’s misgivings.
Ben-Gurion, however, understood that the historic opportunity – which would come on May 14 with the lowering of the last Union Jack – would not repeat itself, and was determined not to miss it. He also believed that while the war would be costly and painful, Israel could win. So he declared independence (over the objections of many of his closest advisers).
His decision, however, had nothing to do with disdain for Truman or a desire to embarrass him. That comparison is utterly meaningless.
Netanyahu should also be wary of comparing himself to Ben-Gurion for other reasons. If he is going to (correctly) cite the wisdom of Ben-Gurion’s decision to declare independence despite American objections, is he also going to note Ben-Gurion’s refusal to capture the West Bank in 1948-1949, despite the fact that some of his generals wanted to take it? The war was winding down, and Ben-Gurion felt Israel had won enough; Israelis were exhausted and tired of the fight. It was time to attend to immigration and build an economy.
Furthermore, Ben-Gurion felt, there was no reason to complicate Israel’s demographic reality by taking on all the Arabs who lived there – so he ordered his generals to leave the West Bank untouched.
Is Bibi going to reference that Ben-Gurion as well? Will Netanyahu point to the Ben-Gurion of 1967 who, though no longer prime minister, said Israel should hold on to the Old City and the Golan, but return the West Bank right away? Israel today has no such option, of course, for unilaterally pulling out of the West Bank; with no guarantees of Israel’s security, it would be foolhardy. Yet the very same Ben-Gurion whom Bibi cites so approvingly had a vision for the Jewish state – and it did not include Judea and Samaria.
We can disagree with Ben-Gurion’s position, as did many people back then.
We should just be careful whom we cite.
And once we’re referring to great prime ministers of old, it may be worth noting – since this week is the yahrzeit of Menachem Begin, zichrono livracha, who died 23 years ago – how Begin handled the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak.
Begin knew the reactor would soon be hot, and he did not trust Shimon Peres, then leading in the polls, to do the job – so he knew it was up to him to get it done before the elections.
Yet he made no trip to Capitol Hill. He said nothing to anyone. He delayed the mission once when he feared the plan had been leaked, but then authorized it. When the eight planes had returned to base, Begin called Sam Lewis, the US ambassador, to inform him. Lewis was stunned, and knew president Ronald Reagan would be furious.
“Are you sure there’s nothing else you want me to convey to the president?” Lewis asked Begin, perhaps hoping for some contrition or an apology. But a “No” was all he got.
Begin, undoubtedly the greatest orator in Israel’s history, understood there are moments when words do not count, only actions do.
The attack on Osirak did much more to ensure the safety of the Jewish people than any tussle with Truman or Reagan could have, more than any speech to Congress ever will. While we’re making comparisons to prime ministers of yesteryear, that, too, is a simple fact well worth remembering.
The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul; he is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.