Although Benjamin Netanyahu has served as prime minister of Israel longer than any of his predecessors, he’s not included in a timely new book that highlights how each of four legendary Israeli prime ministers made a critical and deeply challenging decision that shaped the state’s destiny.
The book, by Ambassador Dennis Ross and his colleague at the Washington Institute of Near East Studies, Mideast expert David Makovsky, is called “Be Strong and of Good Courage” — God’s message to Joshua. It describes how David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon made painful choices they knew would cost them dearly — politically and in many other ways. But they acted, the authors emphasize, by placing the welfare of the country above all else.
Ross told me that, right or wrong, and for all of their ideological differences, “they each had a profound sense of duty not to defer decisions but to act, understanding the cost of delay” in a region where the vacuum is filled by “bad actors.”
Netanyahu comes up for discussion in the last chapter of the book, which looks to Israel’s future. He is credited with effectiveness “in dealing with threats as well as opportunities with the Arabs,” but faulted for years of equivocation with the Palestinians, leading Israel on a path to a binational state, Ross and Makovsky fear. They view that prospect as a disaster since it would force Jerusalem to choose between being a Jewish or a democratic state.
Considering the book today, in light of the unprecedented crisis in Israeli politics — with the government in limbo and the prime minister having just been indicted on breach of trust and bribery charges — heightens the contrast between the selflessness of the prime ministers at the heart of the compelling narrative and the current leader’s decision to keep his country in limbo while clinging to authority.
As one reads of the courageous and controversial decisions these four historic leaders made, one can’t help but make comparisons to Netanyahu, with his many strengths and serious flaws — a brilliant, articulate, and dynamic leader who has expertly protected the nation from outside threats (think Iran, Russia, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza) but is widely accused of playing to his base of right-wing and religious supporters while weakening Israel’s democratic standards and values from within.
The book’s main purpose, though, Makovsky explained, was “an effort to inspire people, reminding them that Israel has had leaders who put the national interest first.”
Ben-Gurion and Begin: Founding a state, ceding land
Makovsky wrote the chapters on Ben-Gurion and Begin. He focused on Ben-Gurion’s motivation to declare statehood in May 1948, knowing war with the Arab states was imminent and against the advice of his top military and diplomatic aides; and on why Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt though he had long advocated a Greater Israel.
“I wanted to defend Begin against the curse of memoir literature,” Makovsky told me, noting that former President Jimmy Carter and several of his top advisers wrote books critical of Begin’s negotiating style during the marathon Camp David secret peace talks of 1978.
Begin generally was portrayed as a hardliner and legalistic stickler for details in contrast to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, seen as the grand visionary. But Makovsky credits Begin, a Revisionist committed to holding on to the land, with not only ceding the Sinai to Egypt for peace but paving the way for future Israeli leaders to acknowledge the Palestinians as having a national identity.
Though Carter and Sadat pushed for a broader breakthrough that would have included the West Bank, after 12 tense days of wrangling at Camp David, the Egyptian and Israeli leaders agreed to an accord that led to an historic peace treaty signed on the White House lawn in March 1979 — a treaty that has held for more than 40 years despite all of the subsequent chaos in the region, from the assassination of Sadat in 1981 to subsequent wars Israel fought with Hamas in Gaza. Today, the “cold peace” with Egypt hasn’t thawed, but the relationship between the Egyptian and Israeli military is solid and vital.
David Ben-Gurion was faced with an impossible dilemma when he gathered 10 leaders of the Zionist provisional government on May 12, 1948, to decide whether or not to declare statehood, knowing it would trigger a full-scale war with the Arab states as the British Mandate over Palestine was about to end.
The Jewish group’s military experts reported that their makeshift army was ill-prepared for war, lacking manpower and arms. That day of the meeting it was learned that the Arab League had attacked Kfar Etzion, an isolated village between Jerusalem and Hebron, killing 120 civilians, including 29 women. Adding to the bad news, Moshe Sharett reported on his meeting in Washington with Secretary of State George Marshall, who was calling for a truce in the fighting that would lead to a trusteeship. But there was no guarantee about if and when the U.S. would favor statehood after an interim period, Sharett said.
Despite the obvious and ominous perils, Ben-Gurion convinced the group — though no formal vote was taken — to declare statehood, asserting that diaspora Jewry would come to the aid of its brothers and sisters not only financially but in smuggling arms into Palestine. He believed this was a moment for action that may not come again.
“The meta-message from my research on Ben-Gurion was his deep belief in aliyah and that Israel’s prime assets are the Jews of the world who cared,” Makovsky said.
Rabin and Sharon: Military men gambling on peace
Dennis Ross had the advantage of writing about two Israeli leaders he knew well and interacted with in his many years as a chief negotiator for the U.S. on Mideast issues.
In researching Rabin’s decision to sign a peace accord with Yasir Arafat, the PLO leader, Ross said he came to appreciate how much the first intifada changed Rabin. “He was the most analytical leader I ever dealt with,” Ross said. “He was practical on issues, not emotional. He thought everything through and was intellectually honest. And once he made up his mind, he didn’t change it.”
Ross writes that the first intifada, which began in late 1987, made Rabin realize the Palestinians “were no longer weak … and would no longer let others speak for them.” Rabin’s initial belief that a strong military response would end the rioting quickly gave way to his realization that he was wrong. As a pragmatist, he came to understand that Israel must have a political policy as well as a military one, that force alone was not enough, and that Israel “could not rule another people indefinitely,” Ross writes.
This conclusion led Rabin to go forward with the Oslo agreement, believing Israel was strong enough and that the prospect of peace was worth the risk. He told President Bill Clinton at the time that if Israel did not share the land with the Palestinians, “then very soon we will either no longer be a democracy or we will no longer be a Jewish state. Either decision would violate our solemn obligations.”
Ross said he was most impressed with Rabin’s sense of responsibility, and the fact that he never wavered on his decision, despite being derided within Israel as a traitor — a decision that cost him his life.
Ross portrays Ariel Sharon as “a man of contrasts,” most notably in that he was “the driving force” behind building the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as well as “the Israeli leader who actually dismantled the settlements in the Sinai and Gaza.”
In focusing on what motivated that dramatic reversal, the diplomat notes that there were a number of factors, including Sharon’s belief as prime minister, after a long military career, that based on demographics and morality, a two-state solution with the Palestinians was in Israel’s best interest. Soon after the tragedy of 9/11, he sensed that the U.S. was looking to push for another peace plan, and he preferred to take the initiative rather than react — a trait he had as a general as well. In addition, he worried that the occupation was sapping Israeli soldiers of morale; he had faith that the U.S. would support him; he believed that only he among his contemporaries had the resolve to withstand the withering criticism certain to come from the settlers and their supporters who would see him as betraying their cause.
In the summer of 2005, Sharon ordered the IDF to carry out a unilateral disengagement, forcibly removing more than 9,000 Jews from their homes in 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank, and withdrawing Israel’s military presence in Gaza. Sharon planned to continue such actions in the West Bank, but in December 2005 he suffered a series of severe strokes and lay in a coma until his death in early 2014.
Shortly before he took ill, Sharon wrote: “In the near future, leaders of Israel will need to gather their inner strength, all their Zionist faith, in order to determine our destiny with … a fusion of vision and realism.”
Back to Bibi
“We discussed including Bibi in the book, but he didn’t measure up,” Ross told me of his and Makovsky’s decision. Citing Netanyahu’s skill and successes on the economic and security fronts, the ambassador noted that “he’s a master tactician, but he avoids big decisions, and this book is about leaders who made big decisions. And he’s put Israel on a path” where Israel’s identity as a Jewish state is in peril.
Ironically, as Israel remains in political paralysis, and with Netanyahu facing the extreme prospects of remaining prime minister or possibly going to jail, he still has the opportunity to propel himself into the category of Ben-Gurion, Begin, Rabin, and Sharon. Not by making peace with the Palestinians but by avoiding foreclosing that possibility in the future. That would necessitate stepping aside and allowing a unity government to be formed, saving his country — and himself — from the nightmare and embarrassment of a prime minister governing while under indictment.
Is Bibi Netanyahu finally prepared to put country before self?
Note: Based on this book, David Makovsky has launched a new Washington Institute podcast series, “Decision Points: The U.S.-Israel Relationship” (washingtoninstitute.org).
Gary Rosenblatt is editor at large at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org.