Hazem Saghieh

Netanyahu: The Antithesis of Ben-Gurion

In 1956, the stance of the US turned Israel’s military victory into a political defeat. Indeed, at the insistence of President Eisenhower and his administration, the countries that had launched the "Tripartite Aggression" against Egypt (Britain, France, and Israel) were made to suffer a humiliating setback that led to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s resignation.

As for David Ben-Gurion, he drew a crucial lesson that would later become a foundation pillar of Israeli state policy. He understood that the US ultimately called the shots in the Middle East - after Britain and France once played this role, the important decisions now were made by the United States alone.

Following the Second World War, the latter, alongside with the Soviet Union, had become the world’s two ascending powers. Because of this lesson, Ben-Gurion led the shift that made Washington, instead of the declining powers in London and Paris, the political reference point of Tel Aviv. This path was not without its fair share of supplication and grovelling, requirements imposed by the fact that, at the time, Washington had been more concerned with shoring up alliances with the Arab and Muslim worlds than Israel.

In doing so, Ben-Gurion showed himself to be adept at adapting to changes in the balance of power and fine-tuning the diplomatic adjustments they demanded. Israel reaped the benefits of his capacity for adaptation, which was never more evident than in the 1967 War.

Indeed, military and technological superiority combined with reliance on the United States - two factors that are ultimately intertwined - to allow the Jewish state consistent success, which was also helped by parliamentary democracy that governed and organized the country.

However, one wouldn’t find a trace of Ben-Gurionism in the approach of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was raised in the Revisionist tradition of Jabotinsky. Political nihilism has accompanied the humanitarian horrors of the conflict since that war began, as reflected by the objectives of annihilating Hamas and getting the hostages back without negotiations.

Although subsequent developments have demonstrated that it will be difficult to continue to cling to both objectives absolutely, the potential campaign on Rafah would reinvigorate the notion of total war and bring us back to a political void.

Benny Gantz has announced that unless all the hostages are released before Ramadan, the war cabinet will launch its campaign on Rafah, in which a massive number of Gazan civilian victims are now crammed. However, Netanyahu reiterated his unequivocal rejection of a Palestinian state in conjunction with this announcement, calling it a reward for terrorism, and his finance minister, Smotrich, urged him to withdraw from the Oslo Accords if a Palestinian state is unilaterally recognized.

While this hubris ignores the United States’ publicly stated position, as well as that of countless countries, governments, and peoples around the world, another minister, Ben-Gvir, voiced reservations about allowing Muslim worshippers into the Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, which the Haaretz columnist Amos Harel warned would risk igniting a religious conflict.

And all this comes as the government pursues an approach that ranges from encouraging the actions of settlers to turning a blind eye to them. In turn, domestic headlines suggest contradiction and volatility far more than they do cohesion: this is evident in the reporting on the West Bank, which is being violated on a regular basis, while getting the hostages back seems increasingly at odds with the war Israel is waging.

Netanyahu and his coalition government have now become a burden on politics and political process as such. They are undermining the foundational pillars upon which the Israeli state was built, foremost among them its special relationship with the United States and its excellent relations with Western European countries.

However, their actions are raising serious questions at the regional level as well, putting the future of its peace with Egypt and Jordan in jeopardy, and perhaps the agreements concluded with the countries that normalized relations later on too, to say nothing about weakening the prospects for peace and normalization with countries that, under different circumstances and if different stances had been taken, might have been inclined to make peace and normalize relations.

By slamming the doors to politics shut and choosing total war, the Jewish state is making the world more tolerant of the actions of Iran's proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, and granting the narratives of these parties, including their misrepresentations and lies, more acceptance. This Netanyahu-led Israel would seem like brainless tongueless muscle, especially if the Palestinians manage to get their affairs in order and agree to a framework that brings Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organization following its adoption of the latter’s program.

Thus, even if Israel were to emerge victorious after another extremely bloody and brutal campaign in Rafah, many actors could reconsider their calculations in ways that harm the country: we see this in the wobbling of the foundations that have underpinned its policy since the era that began 1956, especially its relationship with the US, and in new considerations linked to the region and Israel's place within it.

Set their stance on Palestinian rights aside, Israelis who care about their country and want to protect it inevitably fear that there will come a day when sacrificing Netanyahu and his coalition is no longer enough to save what Israel stands for, or to salvage what remains of its meaning from the clutches of total war and its repercussions.

What we are seeing, in essence, is the accelerating demolition of what the country’s founders had built, or the antithesis of Ben-Gurionism. Israel’s founding father, after having retired from politics, called for a withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, with the exception of segments of Jerusalem, demanding nothing more than practical and viable armistice arrangements in return. He certainly did not do so out of concern for the Palestinians or the Arabs. It was his keenness on Israel's interests that drove him, and it took him in the opposite direction of that which Netanyahu’s primitive view of these interests is leading the country.