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The Hebrew Word Bibi Must Learn to Resolve Israel’s Political Crisis

A lesson in ‘mamlachtiyut’

Asaf Romirowsky
September 26, 2019
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiles as he delivers a statement following a meeting of the Likud Party in Jerusalem on Sept. 23, 2019 Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiles as he delivers a statement following a meeting of the Likud Party in Jerusalem on Sept. 23, 2019 Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

The Israeli notion of mamlachtiyut does not translate well into English. Coming from the word mamlacha, or kingdom, the word suggests the quality of acting in sovereign-like fashion. It was the term David Ben-Gurion invoked when he spoke of Jews’ ability to have military power while at the same time exercising caution with their political power. Read Israeli history, and you’ll see this term conjured every time the nation faced a major juncture that required individuals and factions to transcend their partisan loyalties. Israelis are a cynical bunch, yet the fact that we have a specific term for putting one’s own interests aside for the greater good speaks volumes and makes clear precisely what it is that we truly value.

If this sounds like so much platitude to you, consider Israel’s rocky political history. When Menachem Begin was elected in 1977, for example, his victory was known as the mahpach, or turnover, having ended 29 years of Labor rule over the nation. You’d expect the victor, long maligned by Labor’s lords, to take a moment and enjoy the spoils, maybe even exact political revenge here and there. Begin did no such thing: He embraced mamlachtiyut in his governance and decorum.

It was one of his guiding principles. In his book The Revolt, Begin wrote that he was confident that, despite opposing political beliefs during the British Mandate, the Jews would never reach a point of civil war.

“Two factors saved the people from the catastrophe of civil war,” he wrote. “In the first place we did not teach Irgun fighters to hate our political opponents. One-sided hatred is obviously a threat to national unity. Mutual hatred brings almost certain civil war. Whenever we saw manifestations of hatred against us we grieved and were astonished. Was such brother-hatred possible, we asked ourselves.”

Begin also displayed mamlachtiyut when, enraging many of his right-wing supporters, he proceeded to hold peace talks with Egypt and eventually agreed to give back the Sinai Peninsula in return for peace. This historical opportunity, he realized, was greater than any one party’s narrow political agenda, and it was up to a leader to rise to the moment.

How things have changed.

For starters, whereas mamlachtiyut has traditionally been discussed in the context of balancing the delicate equilibrium between Israel’s left and right, the country’s political system has been thoroughly transformed during the last 25 years. Today, the left and right in Israel don’t really exist: At best there is a right and a center right. As Yossi Klein Halevi astutely observed, Israelis are “centrist [as] regards a Palestinian state as an existential necessity for Israel—saving us from the impossible choice between Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state, or the moral burden of occupying another people, from growing pariah status. But a centrist also regards a Palestinian state as an existential threat to Israel—risking rocket attacks from the Samarian highlands on the coastal plain, where most Israelis live, transforming greater Tel Aviv into Sderot, the besieged Israeli town bordering Gaza that has been on the receiving end of thousands of rockets over the last decade. A centrist has two nightmares about Israel’s future. The first is that there won’t be a Palestinian state. The second is that there will be.”

Under such murky circumstances, it’s not easy defining precisely what mamlachtiyut still means these days. Is it about balancing Jewish tradition with the dictates of democracy? Is it about resolving the simmering arguments between Israeli and American Jews? Opinions differ, which is one condition that mamlachtiyut was not designed to address.

But while Israel lacks a clear directive of the sort that guided Begin or Ben-Gurion, it still needs to revert to the idea of mamlachtiyut writ small to overcome its current gridlock.

Take a look at the latest round of elections, and you’ll see that the contest wasn’t between opposing ideas or even political parties but rather between Bibi Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, two men who seem to agree on almost everything except for which one of them ought to be prime minister. This small-mindedness and obsession with power at the expense of everything else is already having an adverse affect. Very tellingly, Menachem Begin’s son, Benny Begin, revealed in a radio interview just days before the Sept. 17 general elections that he will not vote for Likud, his historic political home. “It seems the leadership of the party is doing everything to ensure I will not vote for them,” he said. The same was true for nearly any Israeli supporting any party.

It is true that Netanyahu, whatever else you may think of him, has many accomplishments to his name and can retire peacefully, now or at some point in the future, and rest on his laurels. It is also true that he may believe himself, as several pundits familiar with his circle suggested this week, to be indispensable, a singular leader who alone can save his nation from collapse. But Bibi is neither greater nor more indispensable than Begin and Ben-Gurion, and it is now time that he adopt the principle, mamlachtiyut, that characterized these two divergent Jewish leaders.


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Asaf Romirowsky is Executive Director of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).