Netanyahu: More a Jabotinsky than a Begin or a Ben-Gurion
Now that Benjamin Netanyahu has surpassed David Ben-Gurion in length of service as prime minister, the Israeli media has taken to comparing the two — after years of unfavorably comparing Netanyahu to Menachem Begin (whom they regularly savaged during his own premiership as a warmongering extremist).
Netanyahu, however, has never considered himself Begin’s successor. Quite the reverse, in fact. Begin was hardly an admired figure in the Jerusalem home where Netanyahu grew up.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, who was older than Begin, was Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s disciple and follower. Before Begin had even arrived in Mandatory Palestine, Benzion Netanyahu was Jabotinsky’s personal secretary and a member of the activist alliance of Abba Ahimeir, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and Yehoshua Yevin.
Like his mentor, Benzion Netanyahu espoused the political Zionism of forging an alliance with a world power — unlike Avraham Stern (“Yair”), David Raziel, and after them Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who chose military rebellion against Britain as the main route to independence.
Jabotinsky, like Netanyahu the father, believed in the political approach and saw it as superior to the military option. Hence he believed in and worked for an alliance with Britain in World War I. With Joseph Trumpeldor, he set up the Jewish Legion in hopes that it would form the basis for a Jewish army and a Jewish state, once it had been established as Britain’s tribute to the Jews’ contribution to the war effort.
By the end of the 1930s, Jabotinsky had despaired of Britain, but instead of choosing the military tack, shifted his efforts to establish a Jewish state to the US, which had emerged as a rising global power. Jabotinsky died before the Holocaust, and it is hard to know which path he would have chosen: that of his disciple and successor, Begin, who opted to rebel against Britain, which barred Jews from entering Mandatory Palestine as it was obligated to do under the League of Nations’ mandate and obstructed the rise of a Jewish state — or the political path he pursued prior to his death.
As I described in my book The Princes, Benjamin Netanyahu is the ideological son of Benzion Netanyahu, and the ideological grandson of Jabotinsky and Nathan Milikowsky (his biological grandfather and a quintessential Jabotinskyan).
In his views, speeches, and actions, Benjamin Netanyahu has neither followed Begin’s path of rebellion nor extolled his term as prime minister, which included the concessions of Camp David and the First Lebanon War. During his 13 years in office, Netanyahu has not striven for an Oslo-style utopian peace, and he has opposed unilateral withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon. He has opted for caution and responsibility, for conflict management instead of his predecessors’ hopes/illusions of peace.
Netanyahu has believed in and worked for the formation of quiet and deep relations with Arab states based on mutual interest, in the manner of Jabotinsky. He has not sought to make concessions in return for peace or to trade territories in return for signed agreements like most of his immediate predecessors (with the exception of Shamir).
In favoring the political over the military approach, Netanyahu is the direct successor of Jabotinsky; hence he opts for conflict management with the PLO, Hamas, and Hezbollah, while concentrating his efforts on containing Israel’s foremost current enemy, Iran. There too, Netanyahu has preferred the path of political struggle, in cooperation with the US and with the use of harsh sanctions over war. True, he prepared for and threatened an attack on the Iranian nuclear reactor; but he always knew, and let Washington know, that this was a second choice. Still he successfully used the military threat to goad the Obama administration, against its inclination, to impose sanctions on Iran.
All his life, Netanyahu, like Jabotinsky, has upheld the principle of an alliance with a great power. At the same time, when he found himself facing an appeasement-oriented and hostile US administration, he did not shrink from fighting with President Obama for a change of direction while recruiting Congress and American public opinion to his cause. He then succeeded in establishing excellent relations with the subsequent occupant of the White House at a level of closeness enjoyed by no other leader in the world. Hence Netanyahu has been able to gain US backing vis-à-vis Syria, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority, as well as American recognition of Jerusalem and the Golan.
Netanyahu has also formed close and unprecedented personal ties with the leaders of India, Russia, and (to a lesser extent) China, including many personal meetings with the leaders of these powers — which in the past not only avoided meeting Israeli leaders but were openly hostile to the Jewish state.
In the legal domain, there is no real difference among Jabotinsky, Begin, and Netanyahu. All three respected the courts and the legal system. All three were men of the law. Contrary to his adversaries’ allegations, Netanyahu has neither harmed the courts nor maligned the judges of Israel.
Over the past 20 years, however, the Israeli right has felt that the legal system has changed substantially. The Supreme Court has never been the same since the activist revolution of Chief Justice Aharon Barak. The political right has had the strong impression that the Supreme Court opposes the existence, let alone the expansion, of West Bank communities, and that the leftist Meretz party and later the leftist NGOs made the Court their dwelling. It seems to the political right that the Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry have become an opposing force to the government, one that seeks to impose the rule of the legal establishment on the legislative and executive branches at a time when parliamentary opposition is weak and incapable of coming to power.
Netanyahu himself was drawn onto this playing field against his will when he became, as he sees it, a target for persecution, libel, and false leaks. Nevertheless, he has practiced restraint and continues to do so.
What is common to Netanyahu, Begin, and Jabotinsky is that all three were admired leaders who led their movements for decades. All three were subjected to scathing criticism from the academy, the left, and the media. All three were portrayed as extremist, dangerous, warmongering fascists, inciters, and populists. Ben-Gurion and the newspapers of the labor camp pilloried Begin (“the man sitting beside Member of Knesset Bader” in Ben-Gurion’s contemptuous phrase) and before him Jabotinsky (“Vladimir Hitler,” as Ben-Gurion reviled him). The nadir came when Ben-Gurion ordered his commander Yitzhak Rabin to bombard with the “holy cannon” the Altalena, a ship bearing Holocaust survivors, in full knowledge that it did not pose a threat and that opposition leader Begin was on it.
The three leaders of the right were vilified by the elite and the establishment, and the more they were vilified the more their own camp esteemed them. Their supporters were portrayed as rabble, as a mindless mass dragged along by populist leaders.
But when it comes to comparing Netanyahu to Ben-Gurion and Begin, one should stick to the facts — not bend reality and history to suit self-serving political perspectives or one’s opposition to a current leader.
Dr. Gil Samsonov is a publicist and author of The Princes (Kinneret Zmora-Bitan, 2015, Hebrew).
A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.