With Israel’s next election less than two weeks away, do the records of past prime ministers offer insight into the challenges Israel’s next leader may face and the way he or she may respond?
Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, leading thinkers on the Middle East, believe so, and they lay out their argument in “Be Strong and of Good Courage: Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped its Destiny” (PublicAffairs), which is being published this week. (See excerpt here.)
Ross, who served as an adviser to three U.S. presidents (two Democrats and a Republican) on the Middle East peace process, and Makovsky, a veteran journalist and think-tank staffer with a specialty in Israeli affairs, analyze the crucial, sometimes existential dilemmas that confronted four Israeli prime ministers, and the leaders’ behavior, as a guide to the type of situations that are likely to occur on the next prime minister’s watch.
Their book, heavily researched and skillfully written (the title is from Deuteronomy), offers a comprehensive look at the context that influenced each prime minister’s decision-making process. It is primarily political and interpretive, whereas the late Yehuda Avner’s 2010 book “The Prime Ministers,” about four Israeli prime ministers under whom he served as an aide, was personal and anecdotal.
Much of the material that Ross and Makovsky cover about David Ben-Gurion, Yitzchak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon is largely known, but the authors offer helpful perspectives and suggest that those leaders’ examples may influence the decisions of their successors; they sometimes question, in hindsight, if the leaders’ decisions proved to be the correct ones — should Sharon have unilaterally pulled Israel out of Gaza? Should Begin have returned the Sinai to Egypt? And so on.
“Looking at the past, when Israeli prime ministers made big decisions, can be helpful in providing a guide to what Israel’s leadership in the coming years will need to do,” the authors write. “Real leadership is what will be needed if Israel’s government is going to be up to the task of acting to preserve the country’s character and identity.”
Ross and Makovsky concede that their book concentrates on the Israeli perspective in the Middle East peace process.
“Given Palestinian succession,” the chances of Palestinian leadership taking decisive steps that might be opposed by significant portions of their population “is becoming less and less likely,” they write.
The only certainty, the authors write, is that whomever is elected on Sept. 17 and forms Israel’s next government coalition, will face challenges equal to those faced by his or her predecessors — challenges having to do with questions about whether Israel will be able to retain both its Jewish and democratic identity.
The profiled leaders “faced up to moments of truth,” Ross and Makovsky write. “There is a looming moment of truth in Israel, and the actions of these former prime ministers and their examples of leadership offer a guide for dealing with it.”
A lightning rod for controversy during most of his high-profile career as an attorney and law professor, Alan Dershowitz has remained a controversial figure during his years of ostensible retirement. (He was part of the legal team defending Jeffrey Epstein, and he vigorously denies allegations that he had sex with young women in the disgraced billionaire’s circle.)
Now 80, Dershowitz has emerged as perhaps Israel’s fiercest defender in the public square. He followed his “The Case for Israel” (2003) with “The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved” (2005), and he took on former President Jimmy Carter in “The Case Against Israel’s Enemies” (2008). Then came “The Trials of Zion” (2010). Now comes a slightly more personal take on the subject in the just-released “Defending Israel: The Story of My Relationship with My Most Challenging Client” (All Points Books).
For Dershowitz, an unabashed and unapologetic Zionist since his childhood in an Orthodox family in Borough Park, the description “most challenging client” in the book’s title is double-edged. As a lifelong liberal, he takes issue with many Israeli policies, especially those of the country’s conservative Likud-led governments that he considers at odds with civil liberties; on the other hand, as an eloquent defender of the Jewish state against its many enemies, he presents a convincing case in the face of the double standard consistently applied against the land he repeatedly calls “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
It’s not an original argument in Israel’s favor, but one that Dershowitz apparently feels needs repeating for a readership largely unfamiliar with Middle Eastern geopolitics and Israeli history. His well-earned and well-displayed self-esteem notwithstanding, Dershowitz offers a valuable behind-the-scenes look at international politics and a guide to the shifting sands of Israel’s standing among citizens of the U.S.
“Israel’s future is at great risk because of diminishing support from young people — soon to be our leaders — especially on the left,” he writes.
As in his career, in which he has taken on unpopular and unfashionable causes and clients — O.J. Simpson, porn star Harry Reems, boxer Mike Tyson among them — Dershowitz’s ego is present throughout his book (there are even two uses of “My” in the subtitle). He writes about his role in countless headline-making issues and his close relations with political leaders in this country and Israel who seek his wise counsel.
“To say that defending Israel in the court of public opinion has become increasingly challenging is to understate the reality,” Dershowitz writes. “I now devote a majority of my professional priorities to defending Israel and its supporters.”