Interview with Shlomo Avineri

In 1999, Ehud Barak defeated Benjamin Netanyahu with the slogan, “Too many lies for too long!”. While a similar disdain exists today, do you think that it was inevitable that Benny Gantz would go into government with Netanyahu even after the stalemate of three elections?

Netanyahu is a highly intelligent and crafty politician. Over the years, he has successfully neutralised or marginalised all alternative contenders for leadership in his own movement — Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and, more recently, Gideon Saar. He has also defeated at least two leaders of the Israeli Labour Party — Ehud Barak and Isaac Herzog — in elections. Skilfully using the fears generated by the coronavirus, he has pushed Benny Gantz into a coalition, despite the latter’s insistence that he would never serve in a government headed by a person (Netanyahu) indicted on charges of corruption — bribery, fraud and breach of trust. All this limited the options after the third inconclusive parliamentary election in a year.

Part of the nationalist right has gone into opposition, part has joined Netanyahu’s government. Does this mean that the coalition has moved towards a consensus in the centre and that this government has a long-term future?

The rotation agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz will cast its shadow on this unwieldy coalition, so its longevity will depend as much on its internal politics as on policy issues.

Although there are differences between Netanyahu and Gantz, between US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Jared Kushner, do you think that Israel will annex part of the West Bank in July?

I am not sure. Despite his annexationist rhetoric, Netanyahu knows only too well that annexation may put the peace treaty with Jordan in jeopardy, and the Trump administration support for unilateral steps is ambiguous. Part of the relative quiet on the West Bank is due to below the radar cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and I doubt that Netanyahu would risk this, as it might collapse in the case of annexation.

In Britain and in the diaspora, there has been a concerted grassroots opposition to annexation which has been met by a refusal to offer an opinion by mainstream representative organisations. Should diaspora Jews remain silent? What would be the consequences if organisations did take a stand?

I understand the reluctance but, while I agree with much of this criticism, at the end of the day the decision rests with the Israeli citizenry and that is how it should be. Nor will diaspora opinion sway Netanyahu — his considerations will hinge on regional and international consequences.

Twenty years ago, the Sephardi leader, David Levy — his one-time foreign minister — accused Netanyahu of pursuing ‘Thatcherite policies’ in that he authorised privatisation of public utilities. In this country in the wake of the pandemic, Boris Johnson has promoted state intervention to a level that even Jeremy Corbyn never dreamed about. Do you think that state intervention will make a comeback in Israel?

Netanyahu is a market fundamentalist and his American background makes him close to the right wing of the Republican Party. The coronavirus pandemic has already proved that state intervention is crucial in times of crisis and markets do not stabilize by themselves.

In his public statements, Netanyahu has, for the first time, been using terms like “solidarity” and “social responsibility” and his policies have begun to reflect his realisation that Thatcherite ideology does not have the right answers. Welcome back to reality!

You recently published a biography of Karl Marx in Yale’s Jewish Lives series. What do you think Marx would have made of this ideological volte-face regarding state intervention?

I have no idea what Marx would have said, but the recent crisis does prove that his main contention — that state interference is necessary to avoid major economic collapse — is borne out by reality. Does this mean state socialism? No. But it does mean an economy that combines individual initiative and freedom with social responsibility.

As a historian of Zionism and the author of a biography of Herzl, is Zionism dead today? How do you define and explain Zionism in 2020?

Zionism is based on the universal legitimacy of national self-determination and that is why the Zionist movement accepted the idea of partition in 1947-8, maintaining that both Jews and Arabs have a right to a place in the sun and that both nations have a right to a state of their own. This is as relevant today as it was more than 70 years ago. In plain language, Zionism means that the Jews, like all nations, have a right to self-determination, sovereignty and statehood.

You were a boy when Israel was established in 1948. What did you feel at that time on learning that a Hebrew republic had arisen?

I was 15 and in high school in 1948 so I am not sure I can adequately reconstruct my teenage feelings. But at the time I was a member of the Young Brigades of the Haganah and the path to independence after 29 November 1947 appeared natural despite British obstruction and Arab enmity.

Has Israel’s odyssey through the decades realised your dreams of 1948? Or was it always inevitable that a hard reality would intervene?

The wisdom of Israel was to combine its democratic and liberal values with the harsh realities facing the Jewish state from its inception. That is, not to give up the hope, Hatikva, while not becoming a Sparta. Israel is a resounding success story despite its many flaws and one can only hope that the wisdom of ages will continue to help it navigate its way into the future as well. A country that could develop from a small, beleaguered Yishuv of 650,000 inhabitants into a strong, flourishing democratic nation of more than eight million may not be a perfect ideal state, but it is faring far better than many older and stronger democracies and its security today is much better entrenched than ever before. In the real world, this is a phenomenal achievement, with few parallels in world history.

You have had the privilege of observing many figures who have bestrode Israel’s political stage. Is there anyone who stands out and whom you particularly respect and admire?’

David Ben Gurion appears to me to epitomise the qualities best suited to the complex challenges facing Israel. He was responsible for building up the country’s defence force and policies, but he was also always aware of the limits of power. This became clear in his nuanced approach to the military victories in 1948 and then again in 1956. While he is identified with defence and security, he also oversaw the building up of Israel’s social and welfare policies. His long-time minister of labour, Golda Meir, introduced in the early 1950s the country’s universal social security system (Bituach leumi), inspired in part by the British Beveridge Report. It was this combination of external and internal security to which Israel owes much of its resilience in trying times.

Jewish Chronicle 28 May 2020

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