Obama Must Understand Jabotinsky to Understand Netanyahu
There they go again. Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren writes a book – and a Wall Street Journal opinion piece – offering a devastating critique of Barack Obama’s treatment of Israel. And when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly asked by the U.S. Ambassador (according to an anonymous source in Haaretz) to publicly repudiate Oren, Bibi refuses.
Why is it that after 60 years of fairly connubial bliss, the U.S. and Israel now seem to be estranged lovers? Some put it down to personal antagonism between Obama and Netanyahu; or to public insults (an Obama advisor saying “Bibi is a chickens**t); or to Bibi’s un-White House sanctioned Congressional speech about Iran.
In my view, while these things have certainly not helped the relationship, it seems to me that the root of the dysfunction is neither personal nor episodic; rather, it stems from President Obama’s lack of understanding of the powerful philosophical influence of the great Zionist pioneer and thinker Ze’ev Jabotinsky on the Israeli Prime Minister.
Bibi’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, served as Jabotinsky’s personal secretary and was a devout soldier of Beitar, the Zionist youth movement Jabotinsky founded. Jabotinsky created the group based on the view that European Jewry was fated to be annihilated, that the only life preserver available to it was a Jewish state, and that only a strong, confident, and militarily powerful community could successfully build that state.
Yet, while Jabotinsky demanded strength, his philosophy was never racist jingoism. In fact, he was against forced population transfers, was the first Zionist leader to acknowledge that the Palestinians were a nation, and believed that Palestinians should not renounce their right to the land. His Zionist ethos made room for equal rights for what would become the Israeli Arab community. “From the wealth of our land,” he wrote, “there shall prosper the Arab, the Christian and the Jew.”
Bibi absorbed, and believes in, these lessons.
To understand the Israeli Prime Minister, President Obama should read “The Iron Wall,” Jabotinsky’s seminal essay on the future of the Jewish-Arab relationship. In it he writes that peace between Arab and Jew can occur only when, “there is no hope in getting rid of us, because they can make no breach in the iron wall. Not till then will they drop their extremist leaders whose watchword is ‘Never.’”
The Beitar Weltanschauung is not racist, nor is it militant; rather, it is a pragmatism that the realistic school of international relations would be proud of. Until there is acceptance of the reality of the State of Israel, insisted Jabotinsky, peace between Arab and Jew would be impossible.
For those who cynically claim that Jabotinsky’s spiritual disciples use this as a convenient excuse for not making peace, history demonstrates otherwise. It was Menachem Begin, not David Ben Gurion or Golda Meir, who made peace with Egypt, despite the painful concession of returning the Sinai. Begin was not just Jabotinsky’s disciple and spiritual heir, but also his actual successor as leader of the Revisionist Zionist movement. So why did Begin make peace with Sadat? Because he was convinced over time that Sadat accepted the existence and legitimacy of a Jewish State, and to a Beitarnik, only acceptance gives birth to peace.
This is at the core of the Beitar/Likud DNA, and its cautious approach to a Palestinian State is rooted in this realism, not racism. The Palestinians do not have a Sadat, and while they may say the right things in public, their incendiary Friday sermons in the mosque, the anti-Semitic textbooks and the official glorification of terrorists belie their diplomatic talking points. President Obama will never understand Bibi, nor will he ever truly understand the dynamics of the Middle East, until he internalizes this reality.
Keith Zakheim is the CEO of Beckerman, an East Coast public affairs and real estate public relations agency, and Antenna Group, an energy technology, life sciences and high technology PR firm.