The Third Founder of Israel

While I have written occasionally on American electoral politics in the context of BDS and the US-Israel relationship, I don’t think I’ve ever made any statements – besides the occasional aside – about an Israeli election. 

This is not just because I don’t subscribe to the fantasy that a lone US blogger can have an impact on international affairs.  Rather, this omission is likely the result of being part of the overwhelming consensus within the pro-Israel community that appreciates Israelis – and Israelis alone – carry the burden of citizenship and thus should not be hectored (especially by those who bear no responsibility for electoral outcomes) over whom they should vote for.

But this year’s election tumult(s) in the Jewish state does cry out for analysis, albeit one that hopefully sheds light versus casts aspersions.

Especially since the person at the center of the tumult, long-time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has not just helmed the Jewish state for so long, but that his tenure in many political roles makes him an historic figure, one worthy of being considered Israel’s third founder.

The first founder was Theodor Herzl, the Austro-Hungarian writer and journalist who initially created an imaginary Jewish state in his fiction, then worked tirelessly to turn that dream into reality.  While Herzl’s political organization and advocacy made him a controversial figure in his day, the fact that he never became the leader of an actual state meant he did not face the awesome challenge of rule which requires hard choices and trade-offs, some of them with life-and-death consequences.

Israel’s second founder was Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister who set in motion nearly all of the policies that define the Jewish state to this day: ingathering of exiles, standing firm against enemies while also holding out hope for peace, and creating and building institutions of statehood.  Like all of the Prime Ministers who succeeded him, Ben Gurion made his share of mistakes and his ruthless approach to political enemies helped cement political fault lines that have yet to heal.  But like Herzl, Ben-Gurion had a vision of a strong and independent Israel that served as his North Star, a vision that helps explain both his good and bad choices.

The list of leaders who succeeded Ben-Gurion includes impressive figures like Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, each of whom shaped Israeli history in their own way.  But, ignoring their successes and blunders (some of them – like the Oslo fiasco – monumental) each of these leaders played cards they were dealt, rather than inventing an entirely new game.

Netanyahu’s long-term vision, and his success at achieving it, pushes him past this pantheon into the tiny category of “founders,” i.e., leaders who transformed a nation, rather than just managing its affairs or navigating it through crises. 

While no single person can be credited with turning the Jewish state into an economic powerhouse whose brain-based industries put it on par with the oil wealth of Israel’s enemies, Netanyahu’s decades-long commitment to liberalizing the Israeli economy – freeing it from the shackles of Ben-Gurion’s state socialism – was one of the prime factors leading to Startup Nation.

Other Israeli leaders have caved in to pressures (internal and external) or hubris to “do something” vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict, leading to fiascos like the Gaza withdrawal and the aforementioned Oslo disaster.  But Netanyahu’s vision of a Jewish state with enough economic, military and diplomatic strength to stand on its own – despite its diminutive size and limited resources – served as his North Star, which helps explain Netanyahu’s ability to shape domestic politics and withstand foreign pressures (especially during an era when a hostile US administration required extraordinarily deft navigation) leading to the strong, wealthy, diplomatically successful Israel we know today.

Yes, Bibi has made his share of blunders, as have all his predecessors (and everyone else who has ever taken on the responsibility to lead a nation).  But I suspect that the pathological hatred of him outside of Israel is the result not of his prickly personality but of his success.  For if you look at what the Israel haters despise most (including Netanyahu, AIPAC and Israel itself) you see a list of those entities most effective at keeping the Jewish people safe, free and secure.

With that having been said, the title of this piece will ring a warning bell to those who know their Roman history.  For the “Third Founder of Rome” was an informal title given to Gaius Marius, the general who saved the Republic from destruction by foreign enemies that had threatened the nation for years, in the process reforming Rome’s military in ways that turned it into the most powerful in the ancient world. 

Having saved the state and serving five times in the top executive position of Consul, Marius’ star faded as a new generation of military and political leaders rose to power. Bitter at being left out to pasture, Marius threw in his lot with political radicals, giving him a sixth and seventh Consulship but leading directly to the first of many civil wars that would eventually destroy the Republic.

In bringing up Marius’ story, I am in no way suggesting that any politician hanging in there past their sell date must lead to catastrophe.  But if Marius ended up being the historic poster child for what happens when a political hero fails to know when to step back, another Roman – Cincinnatus – continues to serve as archetype for the democratic leader who knows when to call it a day. 

Legend has it that after Cincinnatus was given supreme power to defeat Rome’s enemies, and after succeeding in doing so, he voluntarily gave up the heights of leadership to return to his farm.  One need only visit our nation’s capital where a marble statue of George Washington in toga, handing the sword he was given back to the people, demonstrates the impact Cincinnatus’ story has had on democracy ever since.

Given his incomparable skill in outwitting political enemies, Netanyahu might emerge from this year’s election mess leading or co-leading the nation.  But despite that spot of bother the Jewish people had with the Roman Empire way back when, Roman history provides powerful archetypes that can – or should – inform the choices of even the most powerful men and women today.

Unfortunately, many have forgotten lessons we should have learned from Roman folly – such as the consequences of trying to prosecute our political enemies, rather than defeat them democratically (one of the motivations for Julius Caesar to finally draw down the curtain on the Republic).  But if we want more Cincinnatuses and fewer Mariuses in our political lives, we must find ways to give those who dedicate themselves to the nation a way to retire with the honor they (including their egos) deserve.

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