Good leadership is like oxygen – you just take it for granted; bad leadership is like pollution – you keep choking on it, as the poison accumulates.
In Israel, the poisonous prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu flails about, bashing the courts, rousing thugs who threaten judges. Netanyahu’s demagoguery shows why indicted leaders should resign. His corruption trial overshadows every move. He attacks the courts to frame his trial as right vs. left not right vs. wrong. And, even worse, while stumbling toward annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria – or not, Netanyahu is playing with the most profound questions regarding Israel’s security and soul – with impure motives that undermine his legitimacy.
Israel has every right to assert sovereignty over the territories it won in a war of self-defense in 1967. Moreover, Israel has rights from the Bible – reaffirmed by the British Mandate and the San Remo Conference — to settle west of the Jordan River. And Israel owes the delegitimizing, terrorist-loving, violent, rejectionist Palestinian leadership nothing.
But knowing our rights and exercising them are two different things. The first only requires memory – the second demands wisdom. As a democracy, Israel must never welcome some people as equal citizens – while making others second-class non-citizens. And considering our fragile neighborhood, we need good leaders acting responsibly.
Our defendant-politician who has practiced realpolitik so effectively now seems really out of practice diplomatically – because his trial has him out of sorts. If Netanyahu annexes these bits of territory, he won’t strengthen Israel. But he will probably weaken Jordan, thereby hurting Israel’s security.
Netanyahu risks undoing two of his greatest diplomatic triumphs. He has marginalized the Palestinians while befriending some Arab regimes. With one gesture, he could return the Palestinian cause to center-stage diplomatically – at the height of an explosive American presidential campaign — while sabotaging those new Arab alliances.
On a deeper level, formalizing inequality by only giving Jews rights will damage Israeli democracy. And for what? He won’t even unite his deeply-divided base.
Bibi’s Likud claims to be the nationalist party. But attacking your country’s institutions, strategic relationships, and founding ideals are unpatriotic acts. This unpatriotic nationalist, this criminal suspect making suspicious moves, must be stopped.
Unfortunately, the man deputized by 1.2 million Israelis to stop Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, seems paralyzed. He stands there, clueless, like some cartoon character who’s been sliced up like a piece of baloney, but hasn’t looked in the mirror and gasped yet.
Gantz failed to unseat Bibi. He destroyed his Blue-and-White Party. He’s fallen into Bibi’s trap and been blamed for their bloated, costly, government. Can Gantz at least do the math – and start dismissing Bibi as “a quarter-pounder” who has rarely won more than 26% of the vote? Gantz should act bravely, patriotically. Let him absorb the blame from the right-wingers who will never vote for him anyway – and block this foolish distraction from the wise leadership we need in fighting Corona, rebooting the economy, and seeking a just, intelligent, and mutually-safe resolution to the conflict.
If Netanyahu – and the bullying egomaniac he worships, Donald Trump – are unpatriotic nationalists, their enemies are too often nihilistic universalists. Universalists claim to reject nationalism because they love humanity. But their love is selective, seared by a burning hatred for humans who dare disagree with them.
In America today, it’s chilling to watch elites lose faith in themselves, in their country, in its founding – and liberating – ideals. And it’s exhausting to keep up with the logic – learning that if you say the wrong thing it’s violent, but if you loot and arson for the right reason it’s not violent. An historian writing in the New York Times claims America “was built on looting” and that “obsessing over looting … deflects from the core problem” of racism.
Beyond justifying violence in a destructive way, the historical reading is off. Reform in America has been driven by Martin Luther King-like rhetoric challenging Americans to fulfill their highest ideals, not by cynics trashing those values while claiming America’s a criminal regime. The 1960s’ riots victimized African-Americans and threatened progress. Neither Brown versus Board of Education in 1954 nor the Civil Rights Act in 1964, passed due to violence. But Richard Nixon did get elected in 1968 thanks partially to the urban riots – and the Democratic party’s lurch leftward. The Left happily saluted the violence from afar, as it “marched on the English Department” — in the immortal words of Professor Todd Gitlin; meanwhile the Right exploited the riots to take “the White House.”
Ideologues looking to make noise – or defendants looking to distract – pollute democracy. True leaders, like Abraham Lincoln seeking to eradicate the evil of slavery, understood that democratic reform – or any dramatic change — works best as a consensus-building process, pushing the people to evolve. “If he does not drive as fast as I would,” one abolitionist observed in 1862, “he is on the right road, and it is only a question of time.” “The conservative Republicans think him too much in the hands of the radicals;” one columnist wrote admiringly in 1863, “while the radical Republicans think him too slow, yielding, and half-hearted.”
In our age of polarized politics, all these laptop warriors and twitter bullies, Left and Right, mock such balancing, such consensus-building. We the silent and often silenced majority, have to calm the radicals and the impatient leaders – understanding that lasting constructive reform must percolate, it can’t be imposed violently, destructively, from above or below.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .