The Unbearable Smallness of Benjamin Netanyahu

With the death of Shimon Peres, Israel has lost its chief optimist. And the prime minister remains paralyzed by pessimism.

Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Shimon Peres in 2013.
Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Shimon Peres in 2013. (Reuters)

The Book of Proverbs teaches us that where there is no vision, the people perish. The people of Israel, now bereft of Shimon Peres, will not perish, because survival—or, at least, muddling through—is a Jewish specialty. But the death of Israel’s greatest visionary, a man who understood that it would never be morally or spiritually sufficient for the Jews to build for themselves the perfect ghetto and then wash their hands of the often-merciless world, means that Israel has lost its chief optimist.

Peres was, for so many years, a prophet without honor in his own country, but he was someone who, late in life, came to symbolize Israel’s big-hearted, free-thinking, inventive, and democratic promise. Peres came to this role in part because he had prescience, verbal acuity, a feel for poetry, and a restless curiosity, but also because, gradually but steadily, he became surrounded by small men. One of the distressing realities of Israel today is that, in so many fields—technology, medicine, agriculture, literature, music, cinema—the country is excelling. But to Israeli politics go the mediocrities.

The chief mediocrity is Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and the spiritual nemesis of Peres. It is Netanyahu who symbolizes the Israel of the blind, the Israel that ignores the crumbling status quo, the Israel that has convinced itself that its hundred-year war will go on for another thousand years, the Israel that lives a Judaism out of balance, tragically captive to the rock-worshippers of the settlement movement. Peres, though guilty, earlier in life, of encouraging the settlement of the West Bank, was always wedded to the progressive Zionist notion that possession by the Jews of the Land of Israel was not an end in itself. Peres understood that the Jewish people have a mission larger than themselves, and that Israel could, in fact, do two things at once—survive in an inhospitable environment, and serve as a light to the nations, rather than be the nation that forever dwells alone.

Peres, of course, was a man of large flaws, and Netanyahu does possess certain gifts. The flaws of Peres included a weakness for political machination, and a love of abstraction, even at moments that required specificity and hardheadedness. Once, in late 2000, I was sitting with him in the Knesset cafeteria when a fellow member of parliament informed us of a Palestinian terrorist attack on the West Bank. Three Jews, including a mother of five, had been murdered. I asked Peres, who was then expounding on his vision of a “new Middle East,” what he made of the attack. “Setbacks are an important part of crises,” he said. “I’m not terribly impressed by crises. Life is difficult, but compared to what?” I wrote at the time that this answer explained why he had lost so many races for prime minister. Actual Jews were actually dead on a West Bank road, and Peres had already moved past anger and sorrow to abstraction and aphorism.

Netanyahu’s gifts, by contrast, include a justifiable alertness to the danger of Jewish non-existence—many on Israel’s left have ceased to understand that much of the Middle East would like Israel to die, which explains in part the irrelevance of the far-left camp—but Netanyahu also has an exceptional ability to weaponize the pains and fears of his traumatized constituents. The fetishization of fear has caused Netanyahu to make a crucial mistake: He refuses to see that it is possible for Israel’s leader to defend the nation from those who seek its destruction, and at the same time defend the nation from those who would turn it away from its traditional commitment to democracy and equality. Shimon Peres, at his best, protected Israel, from without and from within. There is a reason that he midwifed the Israeli nuclear program into existence—he never, in all his years, stopped making his paramount goal the prevention of a second Holocaust. He understood that Jewish optimism and Jewish innovation and Jewish achievement were all predicated on Jewish survival. But he also dreamt of a better world, and told Israelis that the age of the ghetto was over.

The tragedy of Netanyahu is a provisional tragedy. I spoke to Peres often about this: Like many progressive Zionists, including his great friend Barack Obama, Peres knew that Netanyahu, by virtue of his biography, his ideological predispositions, and his reputation for recalcitrance, could, if he so chose, deliver 70 percent of Israelis to a painful compromise. Peres was not unaware that the Israeli left would be hard-pressed to convince the Israeli public to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure their country’s survival as a Jewish refuge and, simultaneously, as a democratic state. Only Netanyahu could do this. But Netanyahu, again and again, has shown himself to be too small for the job. He has done some useful things—he has kept Israel out of wars his compatriots have sometimes sought, and he has built new relationships for his country across Asia and Africa. But he has mismanaged the relationship with Israel’s Arab minority, and has, on occasion, made Arab citizens a scapegoat; he misplayed, badly, the Iranian nuclear controversy; he has alienated a growing number of young American Jews from Israel; and he turned the cause of Israel into a partisan issue in U.S. politics. Mainly, though, he has led many Israelis to believe that the status quo with the Palestinians is sustainable. It is not. The coarsening of Israeli society, its weakening commitment to the core values of democracy, continues apace, and Netanyahu alternately ignores this coarsening, and abets it.

More than a quarter century ago, I was, for a brief period, a soldier in Israel’s army. This was during the first Palestinian uprising, and I was, for a time, posted to Israel’s largest prison camp, a place called Ketziot. We held 6,000 Palestinians there, Hamas killers but also the rock-throwers and protestors of the intifada, and even one of its poets. I thought to myself then that this could not go on. This was not Herzl’s vision for Israel. It was morally and politically unsustainable, and it would corrode the foundations of Israeli democracy. I would never have imagined, in the first uprising, that the children of my fellow soldiers would still be performing the same tasks, in the same prisons and refugee camps and crowded cities of the West Bank. The failure of imagination here is startling.

The creation of a new Arab state at a moment when Arab states all around Israel are disintegrating might be foolhardy. But the debased reality of the Middle East today does not give Netanyahu a pass. He does not have to cede the West Bank to the Palestinians right now, but he must, as Peres often argued, create conditions on the West Bank that would allow for a viable Palestinian state to emerge.

Peres could not deliver Israel to the Promised Land. Netanyahu still can. In the Zionist pantheon, there are three seats. The first belongs to Herzl, who dreamt the dream of a reborn Jewish nation. The second belongs to David Ben-Gurion, Peres’s mentor, the first prime minister, who took Herzl’s dream and made it concrete. The third seat, however, is empty. It was meant for Yitzhak Rabin, who, with Peres, brought Israel close to a compromise with the Palestinians, but was assassinated before he could complete the work. It could have been filled by Peres himself, if he had managed to unlock the code of Israeli existential anxiety. It could have been filled by Ariel Sharon, the warrior who late in life realized that Israel could not occupy the Palestinians forever. But he was cut down by a stroke.

The seat is Netanyahu’s, if he wants it. But for him to want it, he must try to look at the world as Peres saw it, as a place not universally and immutably hostile to Jewish national existence. And he must shed himself of at least some of his paralyzing pessimism. As Peres famously said, optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. Despite it all, Peres chose to live as an optimist. It is not too late for Netanyahu to do the same.