Middle Israel: You’re no Ben-Gurion, Mr. Prime Minister

Basic laws demand the consensus Netanyahu refuses to seek, and the humility he does not possess

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the cabinet meeting July 29, 2018 (photo credit: ALEX KOLOMOISKY / POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the cabinet meeting July 29, 2018
(photo credit: ALEX KOLOMOISKY / POOL)
"Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” said Democratic vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen to Republican Dan Quayle, in what became one of the most memorable moments in the history of televised debates.
The audience in Omaha, Nebraska’s Civic Auditorium responded to the broadside with applause and laughter because the young and little-known Quayle – in his eagerness to belittle his relative inexperience – had just compared his 13 congressional years with JFK’s 11.
Still, in terms of his gravitas, the under-accomplished and uncharismatic senator from Indiana really was no match for the slain president, not in 1988, when Quayle was 41, and not 30 years on.
Benjamin Netanyahu is no Dan Quayle.
Israel’s most telegenic politician is not only its most effective public speaker, but also a thinker, the writer of a historic analysis of the Jewish state’s position in the world alongside a platform for changing it, something no other Israeli prime minister has produced.
Netanyahu’s worldview not only runs deep, but also spreads wide, from geopolitics and diplomacy to economics and society. Even if this system of thought is controversial, and even though it conspicuously ignores crucial issues such as religion-state relations, it still sets him apart from most Israeli leaders and indeed justifies comparisons with David Ben-Gurion.
This is besides the length of Netanyahu’s premiership, which next winter will have stretched 10 consecutive years and 13 overall, and thus come within 10 weeks of surpassing Ben-Gurion’s time at Israel’s helm.
Add to this Netanyahu’s imprint on varied fronts, from security and diplomacy to the economy, and a comparison between him and Israel’s founding father becomes inevitable.
Sadly, the events surrounding the Nation-State Law suggest that such a comparison’s bottom line will be that Bibi Netanyahu is no David Ben-Gurion.
TO UNDERSTAND the folly at the heart of this saga, listen to the wisdom of Moshe Arens, Likud’s elder statesman who, as ambassador to Washington, made Netanyahu his deputy and, as a minister, made him ambassador to the UN and thus ignited his political career.
Arens attacked the bill twice.
First, when it was still on the drawing board, he argued that Israel’s Jewishness is a fact that needs no legislation. Israel, he wrote, is the Jewish state because its inhabitants are mostly Jews, its main spoken language is Hebrew, its books are published mostly in Hebrew, most of its songs are written and sung in Hebrew, the national anthem is “Hatikvah,” the flag contains the Star of David, its army’s name includes the word “Israel,” and above all it’s a Jewish state because of its Law of Return. “Nothing else was needed until now, and nothing else is needed now,” he concluded (Haaretz, 25 November 2014.)
And having cautioned already then that families of fallen Druze, Christian and Muslim soldiers “will see the bill as an insult,” Arens wrote last week that the law will disturb the Arab minority’s economic integration, and that the bill’s cancellation of Arabic’s status as an official language will hurt all Israeli Arabs, including the Druze, “who serve Israel loyally, knowing it is a Jewish state.”
Arens was not alone.
Dan Meridor, who served in two Netanyahu cabinets, and before that was Yitzhak Shamir’s justice minister and Menachem Begin’s cabinet secretary, said of the bill that it is “unnecessary, harmful, and mainly embarrassing.”
Even MK Bennie Begin – who also served in two Netanyahu cabinets, and in fact resigned from Netanyahu’s first government because of his opposition to its ceding of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority, meaning his patriotism needs no kosherness stamp, not even Netanyahu’s – said of the bill that it is “blatantly discriminatory.”
These misgivings alone should have made Netanyahu brake as the populists about him galloped to the chauvinistic realms where he now finds himself besieged.
Alas, like Aaron, the eloquent non-leader in the face of the mob’s golden calf, Netanyahu joined the multitude rather than confront it.
BEN-GURION never followed anyone’s lead, least of all the mob’s, on any matter of principle. This was certainly true when it came to things constitutional.
Ben-Gurion was not an angel. He was a man of quarrels, some of them petty and also reckless, and he also imposed military rule on Arab villages that was lifted only by his liberal successor Levi Eshkol. However, when it came to constitutional affairs, the Old Man understood the need for what Netanyahu, throughout his long years in power, has consistently refused to seek: consensus.
The quest for consensus is why Ben-Gurion avoided passing a constitution, as Bar-Ilan University law professor Nir Kedar showed in his book Ben-Gurion and the Constitution (Hebrew, 2015). Knowing his country’s cultural cleavages and social fragility, Ben-Gurion feared that a constitutional debate would split the society he had resolved to unite.
This is also why in 1948 Ben-Gurion went through pains to include among the signatories of the Declaration of Independence ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin, communist leader Meir Vilner, and Revisionist leaders Zvi Segal and Dr. Herzl Rosenblum.
Seen this way, the passage of a Basic Law – Israel’s substitute for a constitutional amendment – by a slim 62:55 majority is just what the doctor said to avoid, and the mother of all Pyrrhic victories.
As Arens said, the nation-state bill should never have been born. However, once it was sought, it demanded all the dialogue in which Netanyahu refuses to invest, and all the humility he does not possess.
Back in 1948, after the Declaration of Independence was finally drafted, its antagonistic signatories still tried to insert some last-minute changes. “Me too,” recalled four years later Dr. Rosenblum, who wanted “to soften” the clause about “the excessive loyalty to the UN partition’s borders.”
“I was ultimately persuaded to vote ‘yes’ without suggesting changes as we assembled, and so did the rest of the delegates whose requested changes were rejected,” recalled the disciple of Ben-Gurion’s great rival Ze’ev Jabotinsky, before concluding: “There was unity.”