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A Message from Israel

"The ultimate quandary of statecraft centers on Iran."

9:10 AM, Sep 21, 2010 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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As such, the Book of Jonah can be read as more than morality play, but also a cautionary tale about the hazards of decision-making.  It is a type of political primer, if you will, what the medieval thinkers called a Mirror for Princes. The Talmud teaches us that, in the post-Biblical era, the gift of prophecy is reserved for children and fools. In modern times, we don’t have prophets—pundits, yes, but no prophets. Instead we have statesmen who, like Jonah, often have to make fateful decisions for which they will bear personal responsibility. If not a paradox of prophecy, these leaders face what we might call the quandary of statecraft.

Take, for example, the case of Winston Churchill.  During the 1930s, he warned the world of the dangers of the rapidly rearming German Reich.  The British people ignored Churchill– worse they scorned him, only to learn later that he was all along prescient and wise.  But what if Churchill had become Britain’s Prime Minister five years earlier and had ordered a pre-emptive strike against Germany?  Those same people might have concluded that the Nazis never posed a real threat and that their prime minister was merely a warmonger. 

Or consider Harry Truman who, shortly after assuming the presidency in the spring of 1945, had to decide whether to drop America’s terrible secret weapon on Imperial Japan. Today, many people, including some Americans, regard the dropping of the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities as an act of unrivaled brutality, but what if Truman had decided otherwise? What if the United States had invaded the Japanese mainland and lost, as the US Army estimated at the time, more than a million GIs? Truman, the decision-maker, was either the butcher of Japanese civilians or butcher of young Americans. Either way he lost.

The quandary of statecraft: every national leader knows it and few better than Israeli leaders. They, too, have had to make monumental—even existential—decisions.

On May 14th, 1948, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion had to determine whether to realize the two-thousand year-long dream of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. But, by doing so, he risked an onslaught by overwhelming Arab forces against a Jewish population half the size of Washington, DC today armed mainly with handguns.  

Another example: my personal hero, Levi Eshkol.  On June 5th, 1967, Eshkol had to decide whether to unleash Israel Defense Forces against the Arab armies surrounding the Jewish State and clamoring for its destruction or whether to alienate the international community and especially the United States and be branded an aggressor. 

Ben-Gurion’s decision resulted in the creation of the State of Israel and Eshkol’s in the immortal image of Israeli paratroopers dancing before the Kotel.  Nothing is inevitable in history and in both cases the outcome might have been tragically different. Like Churchill and Truman, Ben-Gurion and Eshkol confronted the quandary of statecraft.

They also have to answer to their citizens. Unlike the prophetic leaders of antiquity, presidents and prime ministers are not selected by God but rather elected by the majority of their peoples through a democratic process. In America, the system was modeled on the Roman Republic in which citizens empowered senators to represent them in the distant capital. In tiny Israel, with its multi-party consensual style of democracy, the model is not Rome but rather ancient Athens. The American president, it has been said, represents 300 million constituents; Israeli prime ministers represent 7 million prime ministers.

Israeli democracy is rambunctious and intensely personal, placing the premium on individual participation. In our family, I can attest, my wife and I have never voted for the same party.  Our son also went his own way politically. Together with his friends, he started a political party in our living room that now holds two seats on the Jerusalem municipality.

At 62 years old, Israel’s democracy is older than more than half of the democratic governments in the world, which, in turn, account for less than half of the world’s existing nations. Israel is one of the handful of democracies that has never succumbed to periods of undemocratic rule. And Israel has achieved this extraordinary record in spite of the fact that it is the only democracy never to know a nanosecond of peace and which has endured pressures that would have crushed most other democracies long ago. In a region inhospitable—even fatal—to government by and of the people, Israel’s democracy thrives.  

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