Last week, Israeli and foreign dignitaries, intellectuals, politicians, businesspeople and military and security experts gathered at the annual Herzliya Conference to meet, greet and gab about Israel’s future. As in most years, a great deal of the conversation concerned Israel’s security and threats to the stability of the region.
After four intense days that included an unprecedented appearance by the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was supposed to close the show with a bang. Expectations were high, especially since Herzliya was the platform former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon chose to announce his disengagement plan from Gaza in 2004.
So did Netanyahu deliver? Not so much, said many who attended the speech or watched it on TV.
“Bibi picked this moment to tell us that we should reconnect with our heritage and take our sons on hikes?” said one angry Israeli conference participant according to former New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s report of the conference.
Miller called Netanyahu’s performance “limp” and described the content as a “sophomoric lecture on the need for Jewish patriotism.” The Jerusalem Post’s Jeff Barak, meanwhile, decried Netanyahu’s priorities. He attacked the prime minister for ignoring the glaringly obvious failures in peace negotiations with the Palestinians and attacked his premiership as “hollow.” Miller reported one reaction: “We were expecting Churchill,” said one veteran commentator, Miller observed. “And Bibi was no Churchill.”
I beg to differ. What Netanyahu delivered was indeed a Churchillian speech because what he demonstrated was true leadership. The point of the speech was to say that if Israelis do not understand, appreciate and take pride in the greatness of their country — the necessity of the Jewish homeland — then all the security, all the peace negotiations and all the economic power don’t matter. Israelis have to learn, taught and encouraged to recognize that they are the Zionist enterprise. That means, in part, knowing their history, their heritage and their land.
“Our existence,” he said, “depends not only on a weapons system, our military strength, the strength of our economy, our innovation, our exports, or on all these forces that are indeed essential. … It depends on our ability to explain the justness of our path and demonstrate our affinity for our land — first to ourselves and then to others.”
Did Netanyahu suggest that Israelis “Take a Hike” as the newspaper Yedioth Ahoronot suggested in their headline reporting the speech? Yes, he did. He recommended that fathers take their sons; parents take their kids and grandkids to learn about the country by walking through it.
“I want you to think about a family outing with your children or grandchildren at one of these [historic] sites.” And how many Israelis would indeed recognize the importance of the sites he mentioned? Netanyahu spoke of having visited Tel Lachish, “one of the most dramatic places in the history of the Jewish people.”
The evidence of the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s destruction of Lachish 1,300 years ago can be read in Kings 2, 18:14 and Isaiah 36:2 and the actual remains of a massive siege ramp are viewable at the site itself.
Netanyahu also spoke of a modern example of a neglected historical site. He spoke of coming upon the house on the beach where Aaron Aaronson and the NILI underground signaled the British.
“I always thought they signaled from the Carmel, but clearly they couldn’t because the Turks would have seen the signals from the shore,” he explained. From the shore they could signal without detection. Netanyahu conveyed his surprise at discovering the place. “This is a part of our magnificent history, without which we would never have freed our country. It helped the British take control and free the Land of Israel. It opened up the way to Zionism,” he declared.
This sort of education — encouraging Israelis to learn about their land — Netanyahu said “is the melting pot for national resilience.” He did not underestimate the importance of the peace negotiations nor did he give too small attention to the economy. Indeed, he announced a plan for greater tax cuts, which can only be welcome news since that is the most effective way for a government to ensure future economic growth.
But at the bottom, he had a simple message for all Israelis and all Jews: “A strong army and a strong economy are not enough of a guarantee for our existence here if we are not committed to being here from the outset.”
He was arguing for a renewed, proud, informed and vital Zionism. Isn’t that what a leader does? A true leader encourages his citizens to join a common enterprise and extol the virtues and responsibilities of bringing this brilliant common vision to life.
(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, can be reached online at email@example.com.)