Netanyahu in Israeli History

5 MINS READJan 23, 2013 | 02:39 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

It appears Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has likely won re-election after his joint Likud-Beiteinu list won the most seats in the Knesset in Israeli parliamentary elections Tuesday. He has now served almost seven years at that post, and if he has won he will obviously serve more. The only prime minister who has served longer is David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and one of Israel's founders. Length of service matters. At a certain point, a political leader serves so long that he comes to define an era. He is transformed from an ordinary politician to an icon for an age. This does not mean that he is praiseworthy. It does mean that he attains historical significance beyond that of normal politicians.  

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It is a tricky business to divide a country's history into eras, particularly a country that has existed for a mere 65 years. Still, divisions are important in order to understand Netanyahu's place in Israeli history. It would seem that there were three phases in Israeli history. In the first phase, 1948 to 1967, Israel defined itself within the borders it achieved in its first war. The second phase began in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank, Golan Heights and Sinai. This phase concluded in 1978 with the signing of the Camp David accords, in which Israel agreed to withdraw from Sinai. Later, Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel and established diplomatic relations. This period was marked by intense conventional warfare, including the most dangerous episode for Israel, the 1973 war with Egypt and Syria, also known as the Yom Kippur War. It concluded with Egypt ending its state of war, thereby making Israel secure from existential conventional war for the first time since its founding. Without the threat of Egypt, no country bordering Israel had the military power to undertake a conventional war.  

During the longest phase of Israeli history, from 1978 to now, Israel has not been under threat of conventional war. The dominant issue for Israel during this time has been determining how to manage the territories it occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War that it retained after the peace agreement with Egypt. Put differently, the primary question for Israel ceased to be the existential threat of conventional war but rather the threat posed by Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories and in Israel proper.  

This is the period Netanyahu has come to symbolize. Menachem Begin, the founder of the Likud Party, signed the 1978 Camp David accords, although he was not necessarily enthusiastic about it. His fear was that Sinai would be returned, Egypt would repudiate the treaty and Israel would have to fight again. That didn't happen. But for Begin, Sinai had no historical significance to the Jews while the West Bank did. As reluctant as he was to sign the treaty with Egypt, he would not tolerate any abandonment of the West Bank and especially of Jerusalem. This was not the case with his Socialist predecessors for whom the idea of land for peace was attractive. Like Ben-Gurion, they feared conventional war but also feared occupying a hostile population. Begin saw the question of land as fundamental to the idea of Israel.

It is the perpetual argument over whether the Palestinian hostility was the result of Israeli actions or the permanent occupation was the result of Palestinian hostility. What seems clear is that Begin's treaty with Egypt committed Israel to retain at least some of the West Bank even in the face of Palestinian hostility. This was due partly to ideology and partly to the fact that without an Egyptian threat the danger of facing conventional war and internal insurrection didn't exist. The constant threat of just insurrection became tolerable to Israel.

Netanyahu's policies have come to symbolize the idea that Israel can neither achieve peace with the Palestinians on any permanent basis nor abandon the West Bank for historical and strategic reasons. Begin created the reality that Netanyahu now presides over and symbolizes.

The question now is whether Israel is transitioning into a fourth phase, with Netanyahu presiding over its opening. The emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt obviously raises the question of the future of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. If that treaty collapses, then Israel enters a period in which Egypt is again an enemy and the Palestinians remain hostile. It will be a while before Egypt becomes a military threat, but it should not be forgotten that Egypt mounted an invasion of Sinai in 1973 after being crushed in 1967. While it is far more difficult now, military power can sometimes be recovered quickly and unexpectedly. If that were to happen, Israel would face the worst-case scenario that Ben-Gurion did everything he could to avoid: the existential threat of simultaneous conventional war and internal insurgency.  

Reviving Egypt is difficult and the treaty has not been repealed, and may not be. The point is that Israel can no longer be certain of these things, nor of other matters on its periphery, such as the future of Syria or even of Jordan. Conventional war is far from imminent, but it is less unthinkable now than it was last year, which raises the question of what the second-longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history will be known for. Did he preside over the third phase of Israeli history in the spirit of its founder and his mentor, Menachem Begin? Or will he have led Israel into a new stage in which the external and internal threats compound each other?

Netanyahu seems confident that he can manage the third phase and avoid the fourth. All politicians, especially long-lived, successful ones, are confident. But the issue is that Israel's ability to manage the Palestinian problem amid the threat of external conflict is a test that no Israeli leader wants to experience. In 1973, the internal dangers had not yet materialized and the war was over before it could be arranged. The Palestinians are now permanently organized and Israel's control over what happens has eroded. Therefore, Netanyahu's place in Israel's history, which might normally be clear, is profoundly uncertain.

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