The Dueling Histories That Will Decide Israel’s Next Election
The two men battling to be Israel’s next prime minister represent the two histories of the Jewish State.
Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, the two frontrunners in Israel’s election this Tuesday, are dueling Zionist aristocrats representing conflicting traditions. Netanyahu, Israel’s Prince of Darkness, plays a politics of fear with no illusions, while Herzog is auditioning to be Israel’s Prince of Light, peddling a politics of hope without delusions. More than most politicians, their opposing worldviews stem from their contrasting family histories.
Born after the state’s establishment in 1948, both represent a new breed of Israeli politicians. Technocrats suited to lead Israel’s Start-Up Nation, they are neither David Ben-Gurion/Menachem Begin founders nor Yitzhak Rabin/Ariel Sharon career soldiers. Both are American-educated intellectuals (MIT and Harvard for Netanyahu, Cornell and NYU for Herzog). Unlike their mostly gruff, self-made, predecessors, they are as close as Israel gets to blue-blood pols.
The embattled incumbent, Netanyahu, born in 1949, is the son of the late historian and Revisionist ideologue Benzion Netanyahu. The elder Netanyahu was a scholar specializing in the medieval Spanish inquisition that destroyed centuries of rich Jewish life. Benzion assumed Bibi’s older brother Yoni Netanyahu would be the statesman, until Yoni died freeing Jewish hostages during the daring Entebbe hijack-rescue in 1976. Word is that, subsequently, as Bibi served as Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, foreign minister, finance minister, and now nine years in total as prime minister, Benzion never felt Bibi was sufficiently conservative. Enough said.
Given his brother’s death, his father’s disapproval, being shot himself during his own military service, and years defending Israel against its enemies, Netanyahu comes by his bunker mentality honestly. It is too simplistic to dismiss him as paranoid, imagining adversaries everywhere. He, like most Jews, is “narapoid,” as the novelist Cynthia Ozick once wrote: when you think most people are out to get you, and too many actually are. Explaining this central Zionist theme, the Canadian human rights activist Irwin Cotler says Jewish history demonstrates that crimes considered inconceivable can nevertheless be possible. Current adversaries include hundreds of millions worldwide who champion Israel’s destruction, emboldening Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah and other entities actively seeking it.
Netanyahu has been warning about terrorism’s dangers since his brother’s murder. Had others seen what he saw in the 1990s, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and the American people might have taken Osama bin Laden’s threat more seriously. As Prime Minister, Netanyahu has been singularly, some say obsessively, devoted to preventing Iran from going nuclear. His toxic relationship with President Barack Obama worsens steadily.
While these questions fascinate outsiders, the Israeli election hinges on other issues too. Exit polls on Tuesday will probably show security-oriented voters choosing Netanyahu’s Likud, while quality-of-life-concerned voters abandon him.
Two campaign commercials illustrate Bibi’s campaign—and outlook. “The Bibi-sitter” compares Netanyahu’s rivals to quibbling kindergarteners, presenting him as the only responsible adult. “Group Therapy” shows victims of Bibi’s leadership bemoaning his effectiveness: union members complain he demanded they work more; phone company monopolists complain he demanded they charge less, then a Hamas terrorist complains Bibi stymied him too. Somehow, being compared to Israel’s mortal enemies offended unionists, who usually vote Likud. The backlash triggered concerns about Netanyahu’s arrogance, intolerance for dissent, and his political judgment. Still, it confirmed that Netanyahu’s campaign, rooted in his family history, is exploiting Israeli anxieties, relying on voters to vote security, security, security.
By contrast, the kinder, gentler Isaac Herzog, born 1960, is trying to revive Israelis’ can-do optimism. Herzog’s grandfather and namesake was chief rabbi of Ireland, then Israel. Herzog’s father, Chaim Herzog, after serving in the British army and liberating concentration camps, eventually became a Major-General in Israeli Military Intelligence.
In 1975, Chaim Herzog, representing Israel in the UN, fought eloquently against the resolution branding Zionism as racism. When I interviewed him for my book on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s fight against that “infamous act,” Isaac Herzog proudly told the story of how his mother Aura—whose sister married the legendary Israeli diplomat Abba Eban—asked her husband that morning if he was going to do what his father had done when protesting England’s White Paper limiting immigration to Palestine, just as Hitler launched his war against the Jews. Chaim reported that he indeed remembered: Rabbi Herzog had ripped up the White Paper at a public rally in 1936; nearly four decades later, Ambassador Herzog ripped up Resolution 3379 in the General Assembly. The fragments remain encased in glass in a frame in Aura Herzog’s home.
Chaim Herzog first came to public attention thanks to his soothing radio broadcasts during the tense days in May, 1967, when the Egyptian strongman Gamel Abdul Nasser threatened Israel with annihilation. “If I had to choose tonight,” Herzog said, “between being an Egyptian pilot attacking Tel Aviv and being a citizen in the city of Tel Aviv, I would in the interests of self-preservation prefer to be in the city of Tel Aviv.” These words, which instantly became iconic and very shortly proved prophetic during the Six Day War, explain the dual message shaping Herzog’s appeal. Like his father, who became Israel’s sixth President, and like the left-leaning Labor Zionists who founded the State and his Party, Isaac Herzog is a Don Qui-ssandra, one part Don Quixote romantic dreamer, one part sober Cassandra, aware of daunting realities but desperately trying to change them. This was the signature Zionist opti-pessimism that founded the Jewish State against all odds, and has sustained it for decades.
Herzog’s Labor Party ally Erel Margalit says Israel must be a “hub not a fort,” an apt metaphor describing the vision of the Zionist Union, now linking Labor with Tzippi Livni’s HaTnua. A hub’s very defense comes from its openness and fluidity. Herzog—who ran one campaign commercial with a deep-voiced narrator dubbing his own voice to mock claims that he sounds too wimpy—is trying to convince Israelis that his agility represents a new kind of strength, confident enough to take risks rather than cowering in the bunker.
Headline writers beware, of course. No matter who wins, it will neither be a hearty endorsement of Netanyahu’s fort or Herzog’s hub. Polls indicate that no party will even muster a quarter of the seats in the 120-person Knesset, guaranteeing rounds of coalition talks and an ongoing tug of war between Israel’s necessary hopes and genuine fears.