In today’s world, national leaders seem always to speak from a prepared text. Most everything they say appears pre-planned. They seem rarely speak at length extemporaneously.
For this reason, extemporaneous remarks from a national leader can be instructive. Such comment can reveal much about a leader’s inner thoughts.
On November 9, 2015, we had the opportunity to see into the mind of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On that day, Mr Netanyahu received an award at a Washington, DC dinner-event-- from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Then he sat down, on stage, with a senior leader of AEI, Danielle Pletka. They faced each other. Ms Pletka interviewed him at length. Mr Netanyahu’s answers were impromptu.
At one point, Ms Pletka introduced a discussion of Syria with a question about secular Arab dictators vs Jihad (“ What Benjamin Netanyahu Said About Syria Might Surprise You”, The Federalist, November 10, 2015). She said:
“There are plenty of voices, I would say growing in volume both in the U.S. and I think even in Israel, who would suggest that we are better off with the Gaddafis and the Saddams and the Assads in place to tamp down on the Islamists who rise up, and that secular dictatorship is really the solution we should look for the in the rest of the Middle East”. She asked Mr Netanyahu how he felt about that.
Here, now, is Benjamin Netanyahu in his own words: “Well,” he began to answer, “when I went to serve in the United Nations ‘100 years ago’ as Israel’s ambassador, there was a woman there. Her name was Jeanne Kirkpatrick. I had read an article that she had written called ‘Dictatorships and Double Standards’. Basically, she said in this article, ‘We are committed to the larger battle against Soviet totalitarianism and on occasion we decide, for that larger goal, to make arrangements with secular dictatorships’.
“Now mind you”, he continued, “Saddam was a horrible, horrible, brutal killer. So was Gaddafi. There’s no question about that…They were, in many ways, neighbourhood bullies. That is, they tormented their immediate environment. But they were not wedded to a larger goal [emphasis mine].
“The militant Islamists, either Iran leading the militant Shiites with their proxies…or the militant Sunnis led by Daesh (ISIS): they have a larger goal in mind. Their goal is not merely the conquest of the Middle East. It’s the conquest of the world.
“It’s unbelievable. People don’t believe that. They don’t believe it’s possible to have this quest for an Imamate or a Caliphate in the 21st century. But that is exactly what is guiding them. And against this larger threat that would present two Islamic states (sic). One, the Islamic state of Daesh, and the other the Islamic Republic of Iran, each one of them is seeking to arm themselves with weapons of mass death--chemical weapons in the case of ISIS, nuclear weapons in the case of Iran. That poses a formidable threat to our world.
“Therefore, if I have to categorize the threats, I would say these are the larger threats. Doesn’t mean you have to form alliances with secular dictatorships. It means you have to categorize ‘what is the larger threat?’
“That is something I think is required from all of us. Political leadership involves always choosing between bad and worse. I seldom have had a choice between bad and good. I welcome it when it happens…these are by far the easiest choices. It’s choosing between bad and worse that defines a good part of leadership, and I think I know how to [do that].”
With that, Ms Pletka turned to Syria, and Netanyahu offered these comments: “If I see a problem, a situation where I don’t have a clear concept, I don’t charge in. In Syria, I do not see a simple concept. Because you choose here between a horrible secular dictatorship, or the two other prospects, that would be buttressed by Iran, that would have Iran run Syria – a horrible prospect for us – or Daesh, which is also there touching on our borders in Golan. When two of your enemies are fighting each other, I don’t say strengthen one or the other. I say weaken both, or at least don’t intervene – which is what I’ve done. I have not intervened...
“…here’s what I do define in Syria: I don’t want Syria to be used as a launching ground for attacks against us... We will not allow Iran to set up a second front in the Golan. We will act forcefully, and have acted forcefully, to prevent that. We will not allow the use of Syrian territory, from which we would be attacked by the Syrian army or anyone else, and we have acted forcefully against that. And third, we will not allow the use of Syrian territory for the transfer of game-changing weapons into Lebanon, into Hezbollah’s hands--and we have acted forcefully on that…
“We have very clear policy demands in Syria. We keep them and we’ll continue to keep them. The defense of Israel is what concerns me in Syria, first and foremost, and on that we will continue to act forcefully.”
If you’re looking for modern examples of values-based decision-making on a national level, I’d suggest you’ve just seen it. For Netanyahu, protecting Israel is his core value.
This doesn’t mean to suggest that he’s right about Syria—or wrong. It means only to suggest that Netanyahu has a clear vision of what his job is.
The larger question is, is that the right vision for an Israeli leader?