Into the Fray: Bibi vs BG.

Benjamin Netanyahu – A synopsis: The good the bad…and the remarkable

When you compare his [Netanyahu’s] lack of actual achievements compared to Ben-Gurion, whose record he’s eclipsed, it’s embarrassing

– Jeff Barak, An empty record, Jerusalem Post, November 20, 2016

Last Tuesday Benjamin Netanyahu chalked up an unbroken stint of 2793 days (seven years and 236 days) as prime minister of Israel, thereby surpassing David Ben-Gurion’s record for the longest consecutive term in office.

credit: 972mag.
credit: 972mag.

Small-minded and spiteful

By any criterion, this would be a remarkable feat for anyone—under any circumstances. But for Netanyahu, it is even more remarkable—given the truly formidable obstacles and almost pathological animosity he had to overcome to achieve it.

This could—indeed, perhaps should—have been an auspicious occasion, in which his political rivals, his ideological adversaries and his detractors  in the media might have—ever so briefly—put away their animosity and expressed some congratulatory sentiment—however reluctant and insincere—even if only as a formal appearance of feigned courtesy.

However, in the merciless and mean-spirited milieu of Israeli politics, any hint of such largesse was not forthcoming.

Quite the opposite!

Flummoxed and infuriated by their inability to dislodge him from power, his political opponents and their media cronies seized on any pretext, however flimsy and far-fetched, to besmirch and berate him.

A typical illustration of the mindless drivel and spiteful sniping that passes for journalism when it comes to excoriating Netanyahu, was provided this week by former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, Jeff Barak, in his column, perversely dubbed “Reality Check”.  Indeed, after only a few lines, it became apparent just how wildly inappropriate the column’s tagline is and just how tenuous the connection between what appears in it and reality, really is.

Barbs backfire badly

In this week’s alleged “Reality Check”, Barak (Jeff, the former editor) compares Netanyahu’s incumbency unfavorably with that of another Barak (Ehud, the former PM), arguably the worst prime minster ever to take office in Israel, and—inarguably—the shortest serving prime minister ever to hold that office in Israel.

Barak, J. attempts to trivialize Netanyahu’s years of incumbency with evident imbecility, and barbs that backfire badly.  He asserts:

Heavens, he’s even achieved less in his years in office than Ehud Barak during his ridiculously short term. Barak, at least, made good on his campaign promise to bring the IDF out of Lebanon.”

True, Barak, E. did get the “IDF out of Lebanon”…by ordering a hasty, unbecoming retreat (a.k.a an ignominious flight) in 2000, abandoning that territory to the Hezbollah, and Israel’s allies in the South Lebanese Army to their fate.

Today, the territory Barak, E. ordered abandoned has become a veritable arsenal, bristling with rockets and missiles, in numbers estimated at up to 150,000, trained on Israel’s major urban centers.  Of course the deployment of the IDF in South Lebanon did involve a tactical threat for the military, whose function, it should be remembered, is to protect the nation’s civilians. However, by hurriedly evacuating South Lebanon, to eliminate that tactical threat to the military, Barak, E., perversely created a strategic threat to the country’s civilian population.

 Amnesia or ignorance?

Indeed, one can only wonder whether it was amnesia or ignorance on the part of Barak, J. to invoke the debacle of the evacuation of South Lebanon as an accomplishment that somehow can be exploited to reflect badly on Netanyahu. After all, it not only precipitated the 2006 Second Lebanon War, in which millions of Israelis were forced to huddle in shelters for weeks, but also according to several pundits, it provided the impetus for the bloody 2000-2005 Second Intifada, in which thousands of Israelis lost life or limb.

Indeed, the unilateral retreat ordered by Barak was widely perceived by Arabs as an Israeli defeat

sending a message…which was to have a profound effect on Palestinian tactics during the AL AQSA INTIFADA” (Encyclopedia of the Palestinians 2000, p. 40).

Similar sentiments were expressed in Beirut two years later, by  Farouk Kaddoumi, often  dubbed the PLO foreign minister. Kadoumi declared that Hezbollah’s successful guerrilla war in Southern Lebanon was a model for other Arabs seeking to end Israeli “occupation”:

We are optimistic. Hezbollah’s resistance can be used as an example for other Arabs seeking to regain their rights…

This, then, is the “achievement” that Barak, J., attempts to invoke in his venomous endeavor to demean Netanyahu, and compare him negatively with others. But, of course, holding up dismal failure as strategic success is fine, so long as it is employed (read “exploited”) in the “gainful” pursuit of belittling Bibi.

Not uncritical pro-Bibi apologetics

As readers who follow my column will know, I have never been an uncritical apologist for Netanyahu.  On the contrary, I have criticized a number of his policy decisions, regularly and severely. Thus, for example, I strongly condemned his 2009 Bar Ilan speech in which he accepted the idea of Palestinian statehood—and pointed out that he had, in a stroke,  transformed the strategic structure of the discourse from whether there should be a Palestinian state to what the characteristics of such a state should be– see here and here.

Likewise, I was severely critical of the decision to release over 1000 convicted terrorists (2011) to secure the release of  Gilad Shalit—and was even more opposed to a subsequent (2013)  release of prisoners as a  futile gesture to assuage Secretary of State, John Kerry, in the vain hope of coaxing Mahmoud Abbas into renewing negotiations—see here and here.

More recently, I vehemently disapproved of the policy of rapprochement with Turkey—particularly the compensation paid for the casualties incurred when Israeli commandoes had to defend themselves against attempts to lynch them on the Turkish vessel, Mavi Marmara, trying to breach the maritime quarantine of the terror enclave in the Gaza Strip.

But above all, I warned that the presence granted the Erdogan regime in Hamas-controlled Gaza, considerably increased the chances of armed conflict between Israel and Turkey in the event of future IDF operations there.

However, my most serious and ongoing criticism of Netanyahu is his enduring failure to adequately address the  problem of international de-legitimization of Israel and of the Zionist endeavor, by refusing to allot adequate resources to initiate and sustain a strategic diplomatic offensive to confront, curtail and counter the animosity of the Obama regime and the global assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish state—see most recently here.

Decades of distinction

As I have written elsewhere, these – and other – episodes indicate that a cogent case for concern can be made regarding the soundness of Netanyahu’s decision-making processes and the steadfastness of his resolve.

However, whatever his faults, there is little to justify the wholesale campaign of denigration, demonization and de-legitimization, waged not only against him (both as a person and a politician) but his spouse as well, ever since he first took over the leadership of the Likud in the early 1990s.

After all, Netanyahu has served his country with distinction and dedication for decades.

Prior to entering the political arena he served as a soldier and a diplomat; as an officer in an elite commando unit, participating in numerous daring combat operations; and later as a highly articulate and effective ambassador at the UN.

His impressive performance at the UN paved his way into politics in 1988. In 1992 he was elected to lead the Likud and head the opposition to Yitzhak Rabin’s government and the Oslo process it had instigated. His efforts were largely successful, and by the fateful night of November 4, 1995, on which Rabin was assassinated, Netanyahu was pulling steadily ahead of him in the opinion polls.

In his detailed study of the events leading up to the 1996 election, Prof. Gerald Steinberg reminds us of frequently forgotten – or perhaps, purposely obscured – facts:

In January 1995… polls showed Rabin trailing Netanyahu by a narrow margin. Continued terrorism… reinforced this trend. However, in the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin…Netanyahu’s standing plunged. In February [1996], when Peres decided to hold early elections, the Prime Minister [Peres] maintained a substantial lead over Netanyahu.

Mean-spirited, mendacious malice

Yet, despite all the odds, Netanyahu managed to edge Peres out in the final ballot by a fraction of one percent. It was, perhaps, this totally unexpected – and for some, inexplicable, even inconceivable– victory that unleashed the torrent of enduring enmity toward him from much of the “Rabinesque” civil society elite.

Thus, despite his documented public disapproval of incendiary accusations against Rabin and his government—see for example here and here—Netanyahu was condemned for igniting the hostile ambience that allegedly culminated in the assassination. This precipitated the mood of mean-spirited and largely mendacious malice hurled at him from all quarters.

Open-season was declared on Netanyahu. His success, against all odds, had for all intents and purposes made him fair game to blame for every conceivable malaise, real or imagined, afflicting Israel, the Middle East and humanity as a whole.

Consequently, Netanyahu has been given little credit for the numerous impressive feats he, and the governments he headed, have achieved. Indeed, few seem even to remember that, on entering office after his stunning victory, the relatively inexperienced prime minister inherited a myriad of daunting problems, both economic and security, handed down to him by the previous Rabin/Peres government.

Accordingly a brief reminder seems appropriate.

Forgotten feats

The Oslo process, initiated by his predecessors, had precipitated then-unprecedented levels of terror attacks against Israel. Netanyahu’s government managed to suppress the level of violence to the lowest for almost two decades. If the figures are “lagged” to account for the fact that an incumbent’s policy takes time to have an effect, and at the start of his term, events are affected by that of his predecessor, Netanyahu’s performance figures improve, while those of others deteriorate.

Indeed, it was under his successors, Barak and Sharon, that terror once again soared, resulting in Operation Defensive Shield, and construction of the much-maligned security barrier.

On the economic front, the much-vaunted growth commonly – but fallaciously – ascribed to the Oslowian peace process, had ground almost to a halt, in no small measure due to the deteriorating security situation.

Indeed, much of the post-Oslo growth was fueled largely by a gigantic budget deficit that almost brought Israel to the brink of financial catastrophe, as befell several Asian countries at the time. It was only the fiscal prudence of the Netanyahu government which steered the nation clear of the looming economic disaster that the cavalier fiscal promiscuity of Avraham Shochat, finance minister during the Rabin/Peres term, almost brought upon it.

Many, myself included (“Netanyahu’s Pitfalls”, The Jerusalem Post, Apr. 24, 2003), were critical of the perceived “social insensitivity” of the economic policies Netanyahu undertook as finance minister under Ariel Sharon. However, it can hardly be disputed that they were in large measure responsible for the subsequent resilience of the Israeli economy and its ability to weather the global crisis better than most other industrial countries. Moreover, while Netanyahu can hardly be portrayed as a champion of egalitarian “social justice,” it was on his watch that unemployment rates, perhaps the most pernicious of social ills, were kept at among the lowest in the developed world.

Bibi vs BG

As Netanyahu neared Ben Gurion’s record incumbency, comparisons between the two were inevitable. Unsurprisingly, an almost universally unsympathetic press judged Netanyahu unfavorably relative to Israel’s iconic founding father.

But any such comparisons are inherently unfair.  For, while both men faced daunting challenges and enormous difficulties, Netanyahu has had to contend with one problem that Ben Gurion was not called upon to face.

For the venomous ad hominem attacks on Netanyahu, and his family, by both his political opponents and most of the mainstream media (both domestic and foreign)  have long exceeded the limits of rational criticism or reasoned dissent, and have become a poisonous pathology. The fact that he has found the spiritual resources to survive and endure this, is, in its own right, a testimony to his remarkable strength.

Netanyahu is a man of tremendous talent and serious shortcomings. He should be judged on a judicious assessment of the balance between the two – not on some distorted, demonized image created by his obsessive opponents.  Until this can be factored into the equation, no really meaningful comparison can be drawn between these two towering figures, who dominated the politics of Israel for decades.

Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (www.strategic-israel.org)

 

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5 comments

  1. As fine wine – kosher included – improves with age, so to do you Mr. Sherman.

    Netanyahu is human…he is fallible…though at this time in Israel’s history – from an outsiders viewpoint – he is the greatest asset Israel has…bar none!

    Undoubtedly, there would be a legion of leftward thinking Jews who would disagree with me.

    As usual Mr. Sherman….a brilliant piece.

  2. I too really appreciate Martin Sherman s balanced approach, which is an open statement of the PM’s strengths and weaknesses- excellent.

    With regards to strengths, Israel has made the change from largely agrarian to the highest of high tech in a dizzyingly short period. It has also had to move from a Socialist mindset to a capitalist one, in order to take its full place as a Western-style nation. The PM has been right in the middle of that extreme change and has contributed much through his strong hand on the economic tiller when Israel’s finances were very shaky.

    But there also lies Israel’s greatest weakness. She has become another Western-style nation, and is actually overtaking them, but this is NOT Israel’s destiny. In her new-found prosperity, she would do well to turn to the lessons of her history as HaShem first brought her into her own covenant land. At that time he sharply warned her about the perils of abundance, that it could lead her to forget the One who brought her home.

    Yes, Israel is back home, but there are many more yet to come. That one simple truth needs to be burned afresh on every Israeli heart. The Aliyah is far from complete, and Judea and Samaria will be vital in accommodating them. Even if only a fraction return, where will 3 million live?? The true Zionist vision is far greater than what has already been accomplished, amazing though that is. Having so many remaining in the Diaspora is NOT a vision fulfilled for any true Zionist, is it?

    Finally, there is the most important point of all. Why was Israel brought into being in the first place? And why did HaShem bring her home again? Was it merely to live in the land? Really??

    No! That is not why she was created, and it is not why she was brought home. She was created as the firstborn among the Nations of the world, and no matter how many of her people choose to deny this central truth, it remains the central reason for her creation and her preservation. She was brought into being in order to reflect the nature and character of her Creator. Israel, and her story, are impossible to understand in any other terms. Miracle is the only fitting word to describe her creation and her continuing existence.

    Understanding this is the only true way to define Israel’s future. Ezekiel had it right when he said that HaShem would first gather his people, then he would wash them. That is precisely where Israel is at this present time; gathered but unwashed. Washed of what, you may ask? Washed of the thinking of the Gentiles who largely deny HaShem’s existence and who certainly deny his right to rule his Creation.

    This is the core, the beating heart of all of Israel’s battles at this present time. Anyone can analyse her struggles until the cows come home, but unless and until their thinking embraces WHY Israel presently exists, then all analysis inevitably falls short.

    I get the strong feeling that you, dear Martin Sherman, deliberately choose to refrain from any religious aspect when framing your excellent commentaries on Israel. I read each one carefully, yet I am firmly of the persuasion that the time for strictly non-religious comment is drawing to a close.

    Each year, Jews worldwide gather to celebrate the Pesach Seder. Was this not an overtly supernatural occasion? Reflect on that please. The sea literally parted, the people crossed on DRY ground, and all of Israel’s enemies were dead in the morning. In a single night she was rescued! Do we seriously imagine that she won her wars any other way? Really? 6 days? Really?

    What dear PM Netanyahu is presiding over is a nation that has yet to reaffirm its core identity, its very being. That is the central reason why he is presently condemned to herd cats. We should be very grateful indeed that HaShem has provided such remarkable stability in the political life of the Nation, when it is surrounded by the most profound change at every level.

    I share very strongly Martin’s reservations about the PM’s leadership, especially the xamples quoted here but, at the same time, I cannot be anything but grateful for his incredible strength and endurance. Israel must discover her own true heart for herself, and the Yeshivas must learn how to participate in and bless the mainstream of the Nation, and stop remaining within their walls.

    No politician can accomplish these things. This is a job for the religious leadership to embrace. And there lies perhaps the greatest of all Israel’s challenges.

    Thank you. Chris.

    • For myself Chris, life is a learning course when it comes to Israel and Jewish politics/religious culture. Your forgoing essayed article is instructively informative towards that enlightenment. Thank you – (Psst, I to still like Martin’s weekly take though.)