Israel’s Not-Quite-Founder’s Syndrome

Silicon Valley has been an engine of global economic growth for decades. There, idea after idea has grown into multibillion-dollar companies, and more recently, multitrillion-dollar companies. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis estimated that Silicon Valley’s two million or so residents produced $404 billion in GDP last year, putting it on par with entire countries like South Africa (with almost 60 million people) or Malaysia (with 34 million). Perhaps even more impressive, the area’s market capitalization is estimated to exceed $14 trillion—about four times the size of all the companies trading on the London Stock Exchange. Many of the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley have become legendary, from Steve Jobs and Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg, Gordon Moore, and Sergey Brin.

But one of the well-known realities of Silicon Valley is that founders often run out of gas. For all of their brilliance and accomplishments, their success often breeds overconfidence, and power becomes too concentrated. They come to see difference as disloyalty. They hold paradigms and ideas for longer than they should, making change harder.

At a recent coffee with a college friend who lives in the Bay Area, she kept talking about founder’s syndrome. And she kept talking about the Middle East.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not Israel’s founder by a long stretch, but you could say he is the founder of the third era of Israeli governance. The first period was dominated by the Labor Party with personalities like David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir. The second was dominated by the Likud Party of Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Netanyahu has outserved them all in his 16 years as prime minister, and he has put an indelible stamp on Israel.

Netanyahu drove the Israeli economy to the right and helped grow the technology industries that have helped drive remarkable growth. He also pushed Israel’s exploration for Mediterranean gas, which has transformed the country from a large energy importer to a major gas exporter. He revolutionized Israel’s international ties, building closer relationships with countries such as China, Russia, and India, and heavily courting the evangelical Christians, who are the foundation of Republican support for Israel in the United States. And of course, he judged that Israel could have a different relationship with surrounding states without resolving the Palestinian issue, embracing the United Arab Emirates and other signatories to the Abraham Accords and actively pursuing closer ties with Saudi Arabia.

Netanyahu has done more, of course, including support for new Jewish neighborhoods and cities in—or in between—Arab population centers in Jerusalem and the West Bank. He also pursued a strategy of encouraging division between Gaza and the West Bank to keep the Palestinian polity divided.

His political coalition narrowed as allies defected and charges of dishonesty gathered, and so he incorporated right-wing parties whose inclusion had been unthinkable in earlier governments. Bringing them in gave him a new and clear majority, and that majority moved swiftly to hobble the Supreme Court’s ability to restrain Parliament, the only check in Israel’s unicameral parliamentary system that has no constitution. Massive weekly demonstrations broke out in January 2023. They continued until the atrocities of the Hamas attack on October 7.

The point of all this is not to blame Netanyahu for the attack. Israel will surely establish a commission of inquiry that will examine all of the evidence and render its verdict. The point, instead, is to note that Netanyahu played a major role leading Israel to its present moment, and he lacks both the tools and the ideas to lead it out. After his domination of Israel’s politics for many years, the country now faces a very different set of challenges and a very different set of options than ever before. Like many dynamic founders, he evidently has a hard time reinventing his toolkit, listening to a variety of views, forging agreement, and generating the creativity and vision that this moment demands.

In fact, what is striking about Israel’s position now is how little vision it has. Netanyahu has promised to eliminate Hamas, but after five months of war he has been unable to articulate either a path toward doing so or a vision of a post-Hamas environment. He has shown no interest in winning over Palestinians to a more palatable set of political aspirations, seeming opting instead to pound them into submission. He has talked loudly about the unacceptability of the Palestinian Authority assuming power in Gaza, but he has put forward no alternative. Israel’s international ties are strained, especially with a Biden White House that has bent over backwards to be supportive. Netanyahu increasingly seems trapped between political allies who talk openly about population transfer and robust assertions of Jewish supremacy over Arab citizens and non-citizens alike, and political adversaries who want to push him from office. If reporting on dissention in the war cabinet is accurate, many of his necessary allies are turning into enemies.

Some argue that the Israeli military merely needs more time to root out Hamas and its fighters. The idea seems to be that a comprehensive occupation of Gaza will force a surrender, with any who resist be killed or arrested. The idea is not without precedent. In Israel’s history, what started as Arab resistance has often softened to acceptance. Many Arabs who remained in Israel after 1948 became loyal citizens, and Israel reached some sort of accommodation with many others who fell under Israeli rule in 1967.

But the idea of submission has grown increasingly tarnished, starting with the First Intifada in 1987. That uprising kicked off a period of peacemaking that aimed at separation. That separation increased even further with the Second Intifada, which helped produce the Israeli strategies of fences and walls that failed so spectacularly on October 7.

Israel has no obvious path forward. Polls suggest that Netanyahu is deeply unpopular in Israel, and his party would badly lose an election. Israel’s international support is diminishing, and it seems destined to shrink further as the war continues. At the core of Israeli strategy today is a hope that things will grow better over time, but in fact, it is unclear how much time Israel will have, and all of the trendlines—both domestically and internationally—are downward.

Raphael Cohen at RAND has recently argued that that Israel’s war on Gaza “will encourage long-term radicalization of the Palestinian population, damage Israel's relationship with its Arab neighbors, and tarnish Israel's global reputation in a pretty serious way.” Even so, he suggests that Israelis have few other ideas, and “if the international community wants Israel to change strategies in Gaza, then it should offer a viable alternative strategy to Israel's announced goal of destroying Hamas in the strip. And right now, that alternate strategy simply does not exist.”

Ultimately, though, the responsibility to create a viable strategy does not lie with the international community—it lies with Israel. Israel has long portrayed itself as an improbable success story. The country forged a strong nation out of an ingathering of immigrants, many of them refugees traumatized by World War II. Israel grew a technology sector by dint of will and effort. The country held hostile armies at bay and persuaded neighboring states that Israel could be a valuable partner. Netanyahu himself helped drive many of these trends.

But Netanyahu is suffering from founder’s syndrome. What brought him success in the past is not fit for purpose in current conditions. He is correct in assessing Hamas’s strategy, but he has no better one for Israel. In particular, his profound lack of empathy for his adversaries—both within Israel and among Palestinians—leads to a dead end.

Some companies suffering from founder’s syndrome wither and die, which is not much of an option for a modern military power of 10 million people. Others are resurrected by a new leadership that is often less thrilling but more competent than the founders. Israel needs to find a pathway out of this war. Doing so requires a new paradigm. The current leadership does not see the need for one, and it is not capable of producing it.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program