Shir Hever compares the world of founding Prime Minister Ben Gurion, who pushed a collective spirit and built an Israeli security elite, to that of populist Benjamin Netanyahu, who has profited from the spoils of colonialism while building a cult of personality.
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner.
On Sunday morning, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, celebrated 4,876 days in office as the Israeli Prime Minister. That breaks the record of David Ben-Gurion, who was Israel’s first and founding prime minister. Donald Trump tweeted his congratulations immediately on his breaking Ben-Gurion’s record. How does Netanyahu compare with Ben-Gurion? More importantly, what does it mean politically and for the future that Netanyahu has been in office for so long? What does it mean for Israel’s future, the future of the Palestinians, for the future of the land they both dwell in? What impact did he have on Israeli politics and will he have now in the future? Here’s a very famous video of Ben-Gurion declaring the independence of the State of Israel.
ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER DAVID BEN-GURION By our natural and historical right, and based on the decision of the United Nations’ General Assembly, we hereby declare on the establishment of the Jewish State in the land of Israel, the State of Israel.
MARC STEINER As for Netanyahu, there are hundreds of videos to choose from— many of them in English— but we chose one that gives you an idea of how Netanyahu speaks to the Israeli public on a regular basis.
ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU The Likud, under my leadership, or under Tzipi or Bougie– I just want to ask you, are they the ones who will protect the security of the citizens of Israel? Will they stand against Hamas, against Hezbollah, against Iran?
MARC STEINER So to look at the historical connections and more importantly the future with the right-wing firmly in charge, not only how these two leaders compare, but what Netanyahu’s politics means for the future of Israel and Palestine, we are joined once again by Shir Hever. A Correspondent for The Real News based in Heidelberg, Germany, his most recent book is The Privatization of Israeli Security. And good to have you with us, Shir, once again, as always.
SHIR HEVER Thanks for having me, Marc.
MARC STEINER So I guess especially in Israel this is a momentous moment because he passed Ben-Gurion who is this legendary figure. Whether you agree or disagree with Ben-Gurion, this is an amazing moment. So the question is, let’s just get a very quick historical perspective from you. How do these two people compare because I personally see a vast difference, some similarities, but a vast difference between the two?
SHIR HEVER Well the question is, what do you want to compare? I think a lot of people compare their political parties. Ben-Gurion founded the labor movement and the Labor Party, and Netanyahu took over the Likud Party, which is considered more right-wing. I don’t think that’s the difference between them. When you look at their ideologies, there is not a big gap between the two. And I also don’t think it’s really a matter of individual personality that sets these two people so much apart. I think what really is the difference between them is who were their supporters. What kind of public did they represent?
Ben-Gurion was a leader of a collectivist nationalist nation, which he shaped to create social classes and a very strict hierarchy. He decided that Jews originating from Arab countries, the Mizrahi, would be second-class citizens and will not have full rights. He decided that the people who will dominate this society and will be the major decision makers are the generals. So in many ways, it was his legacy to create the Israeli security elite, the officers who are working in the military, in the secret police, in the police, and the intelligence services who have become the ministers, the Prime Ministers of the Israeli government throughout the years. And I also think that Ben-Gurion had a message that he constantly repeated to the Israeli public. He said, you have to sacrifice. If you want a Jewish state according to Zionist values and so on, you don’t get anything for yourself. You get something for the collective. So that means that he called for austerity. He called for people who are not from the Ashkenazi elite, the Jews of European descent, to accept their lot in life that they will never be able to attain higher education and good jobs, but they are sacrificing for the greater good.
Now, Netanyahu broke all of this just to pieces. Netanyahu came as an anti-elitist but as a populist, saying what is the purpose of having this colonial process, this massive project that Ben-Gurion started, if we don’t get to enjoy it? We are the Jewish Israelis who inherited, the younger generation who inherited this country from our parents who made all this sacrifice. Now it’s our turn to reap the benefits. So Netanyahu always appealed to the underdogs, to the Mizrahi Jews that I mentioned before, to religious Jews, to people living in the illegal colonies. All these groups that said oh we were being marginalized by the labor movement, Netanyahu is saying well now it’s your time to shine; we’re going to unite forces and crash the old elites. What he’s not saying is that he is creating a new elite. Not the security elite, but a kind of populist-right elite, which is taking over the courts and the media and reshaping the state.
MARC STEINER So I mean, we could spend a long time on the history and the comparisons, which we don’t want to do in this short second we have together. I mean, but 48′ was a very different time than 2018, 2019. I mean, you know, we’re talking about post-World War II, the Holocaust. The only thing people cared about in the Arab world was, do we have their oil? Other than that, nobody cared. And so, it was a very different moment. It was Ben-Gurion, but it was also the historical moment he was in. But that’s, kind of, even though it was a collectivist movement, it was still a settler movement, which in many ways opened the door.
I mean, if you look at the election results of 1949, the left-wing parties— Mapam, which was a Marxist Party, and Mapai, which was the Labor Party— you know, really were in charge. And Herut, which was the right-wing party then, only had a few seats. But something has changed drastically that lets Netanyahu stay in power despite the fact that Netanyahu keeps losing governments, has to reform governments. He’s losing all these no-confidence votes and there’s another election coming up September, but he’s maintained power. I think you kind of briefly described how, but let’s talk a bit about that, about his ability to maintain power and what that means.
SHIR HEVER Yeah. Well, one must never underestimate the brilliance of Netanyahu—
MARC STEINER True, true.
SHIR HEVER Because he is a populist, but he’s not an idiot. And he has been very effective in eliminating all political challengers, specifically not from the opposing parties, from the Labor Party. That doesn’t interest him so much like we just saw in the video, but rather eliminating his challengers from within his own party. And he created a party of yes-men and yes-women who are completely at his mercy and absolutely loyal to him, and at the same time that he has this cult of personality that he cultivated around himself as this irreplaceable leader of the of the nation. He calls himself the leader of the Jewish people around the world, even though he barely has a majority within Israel even. That’s on the one side.
But on the other side, he’s very flawed and he always uses these flaws to his own advantage. There are all these scandals with him wasting public money, indulging in extreme luxury that is just, you know, eye-popping luxury, spending obscene amounts of money on cigars and on ice cream and champagne. But whenever this happens and there is a scandal in the news, Netanyahu amplifies the scandal. He refers to it. He talks about it. He records humorous videos. And I think in many ways this is something that he learned how to do, how to spin those scandals to his own advantage, and so many world leaders today have learned from him. And we see this with Trump all the time. Whenever there is some kind of scandal, Trump then tweets about it and pushes it further instead of trying to bury it. That’s a whole different attitude than in the days of Ben-Gurion. It’s a very media-savvy attitude and Netanyahu knows that it’s much easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.
MARC STEINER So what does it mean? I mean, Ben-Gurion’s legacy in 48′ was one thing, what it meant for the establishment of the State of Israel and what happened to the Palestinians and the Nakba and the rest. But what does this mean now that Netanyahu seems to be firmly in power? He seems, even though the majority of Israelis do not vote for him, he’s firmly in power. His election is in September, which he most likely will win or his party coalition will win. So what does this mean? I mean, because before you could say on some levels Israel was a left-wing nation, on some levels. Now, it’s firmly in the right and in the religious party side. And so, what does this mean for what we’re about to see because he’s really, kind of, solidified his power.
SHIR HEVER Yeah. Well, you know, I watched an interview with Ben-Gurion just before today to prepare for our discussion and I think the whole way to talk about this in terms of right and left is just very misleading because on many levels, Ben-Gurion was much more further to the right than Netanyahu. And I don’t—So that’s not really the issue. The issue is that because Netanyahu is such a populist, he has demolished the collective power of the Israeli society very effectively.
MARC STEINER That’s an important—That’s right. Yeah
SHIR HEVER And that’s what it really means because Ben-Gurion was able to mobilize a small group of people compared relative to today. You know, there were about half a million Jews in Palestine when the state was declared. And a small group of people who were willing to risk their lives and do everything for the nation, and they were willing—The most important thing that he made them do for him is to keep silent, to close their mouths. So when they were demolishing Palestinian villages and raping and pillaging and destroying a nation, in Palestine the records were successfully hidden and suppressed for decades because Ben-Gurion gave an example that everybody should just close their mouth and not report what they’ve seen and what they’ve done.
Now, Netanyahu’s is a whole different story. And what Netanyahu is doing, he tells the Israeli soldiers, you should only obey orders if you think that it’s a good idea to obey these orders because this is how populism works. He says, I’m not asking, I’m not demanding that you respect my authority, but actually, I’m recruiting you to enthusiastically join my political project. And what if they don’t agree with that project? Then, they’re not necessarily going to obey orders. And the result is that the Israeli military has lost its form and that a lot of the officers and soldiers just decide on their own missions and they want to do whatever they want. And a lot of the very dark secrets that Ben-Gurion was trying to suppress over the Nakba, over the crimes that were committed in the first decade of the state, are now coming out into the light.
And I think that’s one of the reasons that also Netanyahu is not able to defeat, for example, the Hamas Party. Even though the Hamas party is much weaker and has fewer armed combatants than any of the Arab armies that fought against Israel in 1948, the Israeli Army suddenly seems very weak and indecisive because Netanyahu doesn’t want a strategy. If he has a strategy, he will have to deal with those who oppose the strategy. And his goals are always very short-term. He just wants to accumulate political power, and that means to have no political direction.
MARC STEINER Well, Shir Hever, I could go on for hours here. You raised some of the issues that I want to kind of push and talk about, but we have no time left. But this was really interesting. You’ve outlined a really interesting historical analysis here. I appreciate your time and maybe we can pick up another time to kind of explore some of the things that you posited. It was great. Thank you so much.
SHIR HEVER Thank you, Marc.
MARC STEINER And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining. Let us know what you think. Take care.