Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled Israel for 10 years, second only to David Ben-Gurion, founder of the state of Israel, whose accumulative terms spanned over 13 years.
It is tempting to compare one leader to the other.
One feature common to both leaders is their pessimism regarding the chances of real and lasting peace between Israel and the Arabs. Ben-Gurion believed the conflict was not over land, but over the refusal of the Arabs to accept a Jewish state among them. Netanyahu couldn’t agree more.
In his book A Place Under the Sun, Netanyahu expressed his pessimism through the concept of the “Iron Wall” that should forever exist between Jews and Arabs — a term he borrowed from Zeev Jabotinsky, a Zionist activist and writer and a colleague of Netanyahu’s father.
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In November, at the State Memorial Ceremony at the grave of Ben-Gurion, he chose to declare that in light of the wave of terror Israel has been facing, “The Iron Wall principle is relevant now more than ever.”
But their pessimism aside, these two leaders have very little in common.
Ben-Gurion was a visionary who turned a dream into reality. His awesome challenge was to transform the Jews, who have been scattered all around the world and living for 2,000 years under the rule of others, into a sovereign people, proudly based in their ancient Jewish homeland. To accomplish that, he was willing to take great risks: Just before he announced the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948, he had learned that Gen. George Marshall, U.S. secretary of state and architect of victory in World War II, had warned that a Jewish state, if established, would be run over by the formidable Arab armies. Ben-Gurion took a chance and won.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, is a preserver. Some tend to think that his foot-dragging is designed merely to secure his own political survival. I believe he has deeper motives: He regards the state he inherited from his predecessors as a treasured deposit, not to be endangered by bold moves. Therefore, in spite of the speech he gave at Bar Ilan University in 2009, Netanyahu will not work for a two-state solution, because in his opinion — put in black and white in his book — a Palestinian state is a risk Israel must not take.
It was interesting to note that during the controversy over his speech before Congress a year ago, Netanyahu compared it to Ben-Gurion’s defiance of Marshall’s warning in 1948. That is hardly the case. In establishing Israel, Ben Gurion risked everything. In defying President Obama over the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu was in a totally different situation: Had he won, a deal that was dangerous to Israel would have been scuttled; had he lost (which he did), generous U.S. military aid was offered to Israel as compensation. What Netanyahu really risked was losing the good will of the leader of Israel’s best ally.
Which brings us to another difference. Ben-Gurion used harsh rhetoric regarding Israel’s right to make its own decisions: “It doesn’t matter what the goyim [Gentiles] say, it matters what the Jews do.” In practice, however, he did quite the opposite. Following the swift victory in the Sinai Campaign in 1956, the euphoric Ben-Gurion announced the creation of the “Third Kingdom of Israel.” It took one angry telegram from President Eisenhower to make the Israeli leader sheepishly order withdrawal from Sinai.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, spoke highly about the great relations between Israel and the United States, while practically, as Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic revealed, he wasn’t going out of his way to mend fences with President Obama.
It’s no secret that Netanyahu, whose formative years were in the Reagan decade, when he was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, is not fond of a Democrat in the White House: In July 2012 he gave the campaigning Mitt Romney a warm welcome at his home in Jerusalem. Today, I guess, he can’t wait to see a Republican in the White House.
The greatest difference, however, lies in the two leaders’ attitude to demographics.
Ben-Gurion was so anxious to maintain Israel as a predominantly Jewish state that immediately after the Six-Day War he said that Israel should return all the territories it had occupied, except East Jerusalem, in order not to jeopardize its Jewish majority.
But under Netanyahu’s watch, Israel is moving slowly but surely toward becoming one bi-national state, where Israel either loses its Jewish character or its democracy.
At the end of his political career, Ben-Gurion became a liability to his party, and eventually was kicked out. Netanyahu is far from being there, but a recent poll just published in Haaretz (March 23) shows that for the first time, 51 percent of the Israelis think that he should quit while only 36 percent believe that he should run again. With all the differences between the two leaders, only time will tell whether the end of their political careers will be the same.