When I was younger, I had lived for five years in Tel Aviv and came to know the city pretty well. But as I wandered through a massive shopping mall that had sprung up in the intervening years and then out into a street dominated by high-rise office blocks, nothing seemed familiar. I crossed a bridge over an eight-lane highway and eventually found my destination, named after the commander of the Palmach fighting force who later served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.
As a young journalist, I had interviewed Allon near the end of his life (he died in February 1980). I was able to pinpoint the exact date of the interview to April 23, 1979 because a slightly scary earthquake rattled the building during our conversation.
It struck me that several of the Israeli politicians I interviewed and covered in my early years as a reporter in Israel have had streets and neighborhoods named after them, most notable among them Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin.
Though very different personalities with very different views, Begin, Rabin and Allon all had one thing in common: they all sought peace with the Arabs and put forward plans to try to make it happen. Begin made peace with Egypt and Rabin with Jordan as well as signing the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians which still provides the framework for peace efforts.
Allon was the author of a plan named after him which he proposed just after the 1967 war and which dominated Israeli strategic and diplomatic thinking for decades. According to the Allon Plan, Israel would withdraw from the majority of the West Bank and protect itself from invasion from the east by a strip of military installations along the Jordan Valley.
As I made my way to my meeting on Allon Street, I started thinking about today’s Israeli leaders and which of them would merit having streets and squares named after them. For example, Benjamin Netanyahu, currently in his third term as prime minister. What would it take for him to cement his place in history and deserve immortality in street signs around the country?
It turns out that there is a complete subgenre of political science devoted to the naming of streets. In 2007, a guide was published to all the street names in Israel. The most popular names were those of fruits and trees mentioned in the Bible – the grapevine, the fig, the pomegranate, the date. When it came to politicians, obviously members of the founding generation of Israel had the most streets named for them – people like Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, Chaim Weizmann, the first president, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of “revisionist Zionism” and David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister.
Begin has 42 streets named for him while Rabin has 30.
King David and King Solomon, going a bit further back in history, have 28 streets each.
Netanyahu’s father, historian Benzion Netanyahu, who died last year, already has at least one street named for him in Jerusalem. And the Prime Minister’s brother, Yoni, who was killed leading the 1976 Entebbe Raid, has a few scattered around the country. But Bibi Netanyahu still has much work to do before we see the creation of “Bibi Boulevards” in the towns and cities of Israel.
By far the most important thing Netanyahu could do is to engage seriously in the peace initiative that Secretary of State John Kerry is working so hard to launch. Over the years, in major speeches, Netanyahu has said all the right things about peace. He has said he supports a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state. He has also clearly stated that failure to reach peace would endanger the Jewish and democratic character of Israel. But he has done practically nothing in concrete terms to bring peace closer, and by continuing to back settlements has done much to make it more difficult.
Now Netanyahu has another opportunity to build a real political legacy of lasting value. He faces a choice between paying lip service to the ideas he claims to espouse or showing real leadership and making some of the tough choices that will be necessary to achieve peace.
Netanyahu’s name will no doubt one day join those of his predecessors on street signs. The question is, will the streets named for him be dead-end culde sacs and blind alleys or will they be major thoroughfares leading to a better future?
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters correspondent in Jerusalem and Washington, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel advocacy group that works for a two- state solution.
The inclusion of this message from JStreet in The Jewish Times has been made possible through a grant from Alan Kligerman.