Israel and Zionism Through the Prisms of Rabin and Netanyahu

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Yitzhak Rabin made his most important pleading in 1992 to the Israeli parliament: “Israel is no longer a people that dwells alone,” he said in his inaugural speech to the Knesset in his second term as prime minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu says his most important pleading will be to the American parliament, and when he addresses Congress on March 3, his message will be as clear as Rabin’s was, if also its polar opposite in tone: Israel faces extinction.

“I’m going to Washington because as Prime Minister of Israel, it’s my obligation to do everything in my power to prevent the conclusion of a bad deal that could threaten the survival of the State of Israel,” he said February 16, addressing American Jewish leaders and referring to the Iran nuclear talks backed by the Obama administration.

The differences in style, in outlook, indeed, in Zionisms, are well known: Rabin was the cautious optimist who embraced Yasser Arafat, reviled for decades in Israel as a terrorist. Netanyahu is the pessimist who abides by a certainty that the neighborhood he lives in is not ready for peace.

Equally as telling, however, is the venue each man chose for what they hoped would be pronouncements that would shift the gears of history: Rabin, his beloved home turf, the cradle of Zionism; Netanyahu, the Washington whose language and customs he has embraced with preternatural fluency.

Understanding Netanyahu and his determination to give a speech that has roiled relations with Israel’s most important ally means understanding a deep cultural divide between leftwing and rightwing Zionism: The statist Zionists on the left who were determined to replace the Diaspora with the state, and the identity Zionists on the right who believe that the Diaspora and Israel are part of a continuum in which the state embraces many of the trappings and customs of Jews in exile.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin speaks before the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 1992.

For students of Jewish history, the trajectory from Rabin to Netanyahu may best be understood in the figure of the shtadlan, the traditional Jewish intercessor between the Jewish community and the ruler, be he Tsar or Sultan. Rabin hated the institution of the shtadlan, and believed it was forever superseded by the state; Netanyahu, in his writings, casts Israel’s role as a latter-day shtadlan among the nations, an intercessor on behalf of the Jews.

Telling is how Rabin and Netanyahu in each instance sidelined the most influential Diaspora Jewish community, but in starkly different ways.

Rabin, after his 1992 speech, traveled to Washington and told American Jewish leaders to butt out of Israel’s affairs. But whereas Rabin gave American Jews a heads up about how the rules had changed, Netanyahu didn’t tell American Jewish leaders a thing about the March 3 speech until John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, announced it on January 21. Rabin was corralling a noisy Diaspora, or attempting to; Netanyahu is subsuming it.

Rabin in August 1992, barely a month after assuming office, met with national Jewish leaders in New York and outlined his government’s priorities. When he said he planned to roll back settlement in the occupied territories, the assembled leaders applauded—from their perspective, a gesture of goodwill to erase the impression that the organized Jewish community preferred the settlement policies of Rabin’s Likud Party predecessors.

Rabin cut short the applause, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported at the time. “‘I’m not interested in what you think,” he said, to what must have been a shocked room.

Or not entirely shocked. Abraham Foxman, then as now the Anti-Defamation League’s national director and with a sharply honed intuition about Israel-Diaspora relationships immediately got it.

“I think Israel will be taking back much of the bilateral relationship from elements of the American Jewish community and the shtadlanim, or intermediaries,” he told JTA.

Rabin’s widow, Leah, in her account of their lives and marriage, said her husband “didn’t mince words” in criticizing the pro-Israel lobby’s “aggressive” tactics. “It helped clarify the ground rules for the future,” she wrote in Rabin: Our Life, His Legacy.

For Rabin, a Diaspora mentality was a betrayal of the new Jew which statehood had created—at the cost of young lives he had sent into battle.

“Following a deeply ingrained pattern of Diaspora living, some of the leaders of the American Jewish community exercised their influence by means of a shtadlan, the traditional intermediary who sought the favor of the ruling powers in Europe,” Rabin wrote in his memoirs, describing his ambassadorship. “I believed that the Israeli embassy should assume the principal role of handling Israel’s affairs.”

Rabin liked American Jews and often sought their counsel—but in terms traditional to homelands and their Diasporas. “Israel—her triumph and setbacks, her achievements and failures—serves as a kind of ‘index of self-respect’ for American Jewry,” he wrote in memoirs that were quoted in Soldier of Peace, a book that The Jerusalem Report published in the months after his assassination by a Jewish extremist in 1995.

Netanyahu in his writings imagines a different role for Israel. In A Durable Peace, the campaign biography which he published in 1993, he cites Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionism which is the predecessor to the Likud. Jabotinsky, Netanyahu argues, understood that in addition to military might and territory, there is a third pillar necessary to Jewish survival: persuasion.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the AIPAC meeting at the Washington Convention Center, Tuesday, March 4, 2014, in Washington.

“The majority of his followers grasped very well his military and territorial ideas, but only a few fully appreciated the third, political element of his conception of national power—the need for an unrelenting international effort of persuasion and pressure to protect Jewish interests,” Netanyahu writes.

“Unrelenting” and “persuasion” pretty much sum up the shtadlan’s job description. And he faults not just his predecessors, but those preceding him in leading the Likud for missing this point. “The need to win over public opinion was simply not perceived to be a priority (or even a possibility), and as a result no capability was developed to see it realized on the world scene.” Netanyahu’s ubiquity on cable news since the book was published and more recently in social media had advanced that capability.

Notably, in the books about Rabin I’ve gathered around me to write this essay, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee makes an appearance in every index; in Netanyahu’s book, it is absent.

The fact that Netanyahu and his ambassador, Ron Dermer, kept talks with Boehner secret from the White House and Democrats in Congress is what has driven this story, but equally unprecedented on my beat is how AIPAC has been sidelined.

The lobby, whatever one thinks of its agenda, earns most of its respect not for instilling fear, as the cliché would have it, but for staffing itself with bright political thinkers who can see what’s coming up in the U.S.-Israel relationship three steps ahead of everyone else. Netanyahu and Dermer have just done what every AIPAC hater never could do: made AIPAC look caught unawares.

It is behavior consistent with an Israeli leader who has said he speaks for the world’s Jews and who was once caught in video bragging about how he had manipulated the American political system. It’s also a bizarre turn that, from what I hear, has left AIPAC’s leadership grappling with how to go forward in its interactions with Netanyahu.

There’s much more that is telling about the differences between Rabin and Netanyahu: Rabin’s halting English and his disdain for Yiddishisms when addressing Americans; Netanyahu’s embrace of English, even using it as his preferred language in meetings with top staffers.

And as normative as Rabin’s insistence was on the state—and not a Diaspora—representing its interests, there is much that is also normative about the embrace of Jewish Diaspora identity that has driven Israel’s right wing. The rise of the Likud in the 1970s and 1980s, not coincidentally, occurred when many Israelis were shucking off the overweaning “Israeliness” of their parents’ generations, and exploring the languages, cultures and cuisines of their Diaspora ancestors—in some cases, even reverting to their pre-Hebraicized family names. Without that evolution, Tel Aviv would not be the multicultural world attraction it is today.

Assessing personality is always risky in assessing leadership, but here it’s inevitable.

Dov Goldstein, who helped ghostwrite Rabin’s memoirs, told The Jerusalem Report that whereas he appeared cold in public appearances, he was modest in personal interactions. “When we were writing his memoirs, I heard nothing more often than the question, ‘Dov, I’m saying “I, I, I,” all the time. Isn’t that too much?’ And I told him, ‘Yitzhak, it’s impossible to write an autobiography in the third person. It’s not done that way.’”

Consider Netanyahu’s use of “I,” recounted by Dennis Ross, the seasoned U.S. negotiator, in his book, The Missing Peace. Ross, in his chapter on the 1998 Wye River talks, describes how Netanyahu’s request to Arafat that he “take care of” a top Palestinian police official wanted in Israel—i.e., have him killed—broke up a meeting in rancor.

After President Bill Clinton, infuriated and calling the request “chickenshit,” led everyone out of the room, Netanyahu, Ross writes, was left alone, asking him, “Why is Israel treated this way, why am I treated this way? What have I done to deserve this?” Ross adds a parenthesis: “I was struck by his belief that he and Israel were one and the same, and that he was the innocent victim of mistreatment.”

President Clinton talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Wye River Conference Center near Queenstown, Md. Sunday, Oct.19,1998.

I’ve been in close quarters with Netanyahu countless times, and he is a formidable and persuasive speaker—who leaves little room for interaction. The joke among Israeli reporters is that when Bibi meets presidents and prime ministers, he will brief media afterwards and explain at length what Bibi said. When you ask him how his interlocutors responded, he says, “They mostly listened.”

My single close encounter with Rabin was in 1991, when I was between jobs and freelancing for Jewish groups. One such group asked me to act as a fixer for its country’s VIPs. I shlepped the small group up and down the land and to Rabin’s room at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv; he kept a small utilitarian office as a former defense minister. After I briefly explained to him who the VIPs were, speaking Hebrew, I expected to fade into the background, but he engaged me, clearly intrigued about the young immigrant with the North American accent. Where was I from? Had I done military service? Did I enjoy living in Israel? What were my plans?

And then he politely turned to the VIPs and politely fielded their questions in his awful English.

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