This column was created in order to promulgate civic republicanism, a political philosophy originating in ancient Athens and Rome. The philosophy calls for individuals to look out for the general interest of their community, or polity, beyond their own individual concerns. An alternative term for the philosophy is communitarianism, and its first major exponent was Aristotle, who viewed the city-state, or polis, of Athens as an extension of the family.
Political scientist Daniel Elazar thinks the basic values of civic republicanism have been embedded in Jewish political culture since ancient times. Elazar points to the Torah’s principal requirements for a viable Jewish polity: It must be just, and pursue justice as an end in itself; it must provide succor to the less fortunate members of society; and it must be based on the consent of the governed, requiring their active participation in the governing process. Elazar compares Jews to the Swiss, who, he says, also “have emphasized individual liberty within the community, not apart from it.” And in an article entitled “JEWISH REPUBLICANISM,” which explores the underlying political philosophy of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding leader, Israeli academic Nir Kedar offers a somewhat different take on the relation between individual liberty and communal solidarity. In early times, he notes, republicanism emphasized the absolute necessity for strong, cohesive communities if humans were to subsist and thrive; but after the emergence of philosophical liberalism in the seventeenth century, with its heavy focus on individual freedom, the role of the res publica needed to be reconceptualized. It was David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, he says, who proposed mamlakhtiyut, or “civic consciousness,” as the mechanism for integrating the two polarities. Ben-Gurion (himself a socialist) told the organizers of the socialist kibbutzim, “The kibbutz will succeed only if it … always thinks of the individual in the kibbutz … his uniqueness and individuality.”
I write all this preparatory to examining two key parts of the career of Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, raising the question of the degree of his commitment to the creed of republicanism that Elazar and Kedar believe so fundamental to a deeply rooted Jewish political culture. The Israeli police began an investigation of Netanyahu and his political associates in 2016, and he was officially indicted in 2019 for breach of trust, bribery, and fraud. His trial commenced in May 2020, with witness testimony starting in April 2021. The prosecutor listed 333 witnesses, and a number of the prime minister’s associates agreed to testify against him. The criminal trial is still in progress, with Bibi facing a total of three criminal cases alleging corruption. His plan for weakening the power of the judiciary is believed to stem in part from the possibility that the Israeli Supreme Court might rule on the charges against him, but also from the fact that his right-wing extremist followers and cabinet members find the court too liberal. His campaign to weaken the judiciary led to a series of street protests ever growing in size and frequency; many members of the military were especially incensed, and some reservists were threatening not to show up for duty if the judicial reforms passed, leaving the country more vulnerable to mayhem than it would otherwise have been when Hamas launched its October 7 attack.
Now let’s take a look at Bibi’s entry into the Israeli political sphere in the second half of the 1990s, keeping in mind that he entered as a member of the Likud Party, which descended from the Irgun, a quasi-terrorist organization that operated in Palestine prior to the creation of Israel. In 1991, at a conference in Madrid, a peace process had been set in motion and was proceeding apace, achieving along the way the properly renowned Oslo Accords. In 1995, serious efforts at economic cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs got underway, and Israelis began looking forward to gambling in Jericho when the casino under construction there opened for business. However, there were also people on both sides who fervently didn’t want this reconciliation, including Israel’s right-wing and religious zealots. The 1995 elections were impending, and Likud was running Netanyahu against Yitzhak Rabin, a distinguished Israeli general who had set the peace process in motion and pushed it this far, but who was now labeled a traitor by fundamentalist rabbis. Chilean writer Daniel Matamala has described Netanyahu as leading a march “staged as a funeral procession for the prime minister, complete with a hanging rope and a coffin.” As Rabin was leaving a Tel Aviv peace rally several months later, ultranationalist Yigal Amir shot him dead. The BBC called this “the most successful assassination in history.”
Shimon Peres succeeded Rabin as the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister, and seemed a cinch to win, until—you guessed it—Hamas attacked Israel in the months leading up to the election, terrifying the Israeli public into voting for Bibi. His margin of victory was thin, and Ehud Barak, another distinguished Israeli general, displaced him in the following election. In 2000, before he left office, President Bill Clinton worked feverishly to persuade Barak and Yasir Arafat to sign on to a peace agreement negotiated by envoy Dennis Ross. Barak quickly assented, but Arafat dithered and subsequently launched the second intifada. Bibi returned to the position of prime minister in 2009, and has been in power on and off ever since.
What conclusions should we draw from all this? First, those who say a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is impossible are likely wrong, since it has come close to happening twice before (thrice if you wish to count the rejected U.N. offer of a state to Palestinians in 1947). Second, Bibi Netanyahu is a scoundrel, whose actions in this sphere have been deleterious to his nation’s true interests. He is as far as a person can get from the republicanism Daniel Elazar says is immanent in Jewish political culture.