Gershon Baskin
Arab News (Opinion)
December 8, 2011 - 1:00am

Leading is not easy. Leading Israel is certainly not a simple task. It is not surprising that many leaders of Israel, maybe even most of them, have made decisions in office that go against what they preached and believed in before they sat in the prime minister’s seat. As the saying goes, “what you see from here is not what you see from there.” Real leadership is measured when one is faced with real-life situations that place diametrically opposed values and principles on the scales of decision making. Benjamin Netanyahu faced that in the Gilad Shalit case. His positions on negotiating with Hamas leaders and releasing the Palestinians from prison in hostage situations were well known. He had written about this issue, spoken about his opposition to prisoner releases and even advised foreign governments on the issue. But when facing the issue himself and facing the reality that on the other side of the scale was a living soldier whose chances of surviving much longer in captivity were seriously questioned, he was forced to make a decision that challenged his positions. He recognized the social solidarity that emerged from all corners of Israeli society because of the “unwritten covenant” between the people and their army. Eventually, Netanyahu abandoned his steadfastness, paid the unbearable price and brought the soldier home. This was proof of real leadership and no one can take that away from him.

I am not a “Bibi expert.” I don’t claim to know how he thinks and I would never try to second-guess him. Common wisdom and many Bibi experts tell us that our prime minister views himself in historical terms. They say the prime minister believes he is destined to do great things for Israel and to bring Israel to new heights of achievement. Netanyahu claims that his primary mission as prime minister is to ensure the long-term security of the state and its people. He believes he is a democrat, that he must protect Israel’s democracy and that he must also ensure that the pluralism that exists in Israel society also finds its voice in politics. But Netanyahu also seems conflicted. He is conflicted because he also believes that left-wing political views are dangerous to Israel and weaken its position, both domestically and in the eyes of the world.

He also seems to believe that those citizens who criticize Israel at home, and even more so abroad, are not loyal to the state and even that they serve its enemies. Netanyahu has granted a free hand to his deputies in the Knesset to advance a legislative agenda that is a direct challenge to the basic values of democracy which Netanyahu says he supports. The Knesset members who are acting for Netanyahu do not have the same ideological basis that Likud “princes” like Reuven Rivlin, Benny Begin and Dan Meridor share. Menachem Begin, the legendary Likud leader who spent decades in the opposition, understood that in democracy majorities rule, but the rules of game are engraved in stone – they cannot be changed by an arbitrary majority.

Israel’s democracy is being challenged as never before. The attack is on all fronts – against the independence of the judiciary and against the basic human rights of minorities. Those who disagree with the government are on the defensive to preserve their basic right to free speech and political organization. The media are under attack and threatened. Nongovernmental organizations that work for human rights, defend the weak, create alternative media, provide a voice for unorganized workers, empower the powerless and fight the powerful and work for peace with our neighbors are directly threatened.

With the right-wing majority in the Knesset, the proposed legislation will automatically pass and will become the new law of the land. Every so often it seems that Netanyahu hears Begin’s voice and realizes that he must apply some brakes against the gluttonous greed for power of his coalition. So the process is that new anti-democratic laws are presented, either in the Knesset, or in the government. They are advanced by the rising stars of various coalition partners in the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and the like. The laws are debated in the media, blogged about, Facebooked and Twittered. Next, foreign diplomats weigh in. The foreign media send reporters to Jerusalem to report about new trends in Israeli legislation. The new laws pass their first readings in the Knesset with large majorities and are sent to the committees. Then Netanyahu has a change of heart.

Suddenly, the prime minister decides the laws must be reviewed, perhaps changed, perhaps frozen, perhaps reconsidered at a later time. Sometimes the brakes are not applied and the new laws pass. Netanyahu’s leadership is being challenged and so far, unlike in the Schalit case, he has not yet emerged as the historic leader.

The prime minister will also have to decide whether or not to engage the current Palestinian leadership and avert possible disaster there inspired by growing despair. Time is running out on the possibility of changing the course of events. This is definitely a challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership, placing alternative values and principles on the scales. His behavior so far on this issue has been consistent with his known attitudes, writings and speeches. There have been no surprises. His decision making so far in this term of office – or, more correctly, his lack of decision making (which is also a decision) is leading Israel to the next round of violence.

Of this there is almost no doubt in my mind. When that happens, I have no doubt that Israel will once again pay the price. The only real question will be how painful a price will be paid. How many Israelis and how many more Palestinians will pay with their lives? How many families will be destroyed? How much pain will be inflicted?

There is no military solution for this conflict. This conflict is resolvable – even though most Israelis and most Palestinians seem to be duped into believing that it is not. There is much Netanyahu can do to change the course of events. Even with his current coalition, he is a skillful enough politician to know what to do and how to do it. If he uses his coalition as an excuse for not taking action, for not making the hard decisions, then he will have proved himself to be a small leader, a small politician, and not the historic leader he sees in the mirror every morning.

We need the historic leader in the mirror to stand tall and to lead – taking the challenge and demonstrating that he really has the rare quality of deciding for the future and not the moment – making history rather than being history.


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