Netanyahu’s Legacy: A Reflection
With the curtains closing on the Netanyahu era, we look back at the remarkable career of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister
For many Israelis, it is difficult to imagine the political scene without the hovering presence of Benjamin Netanyahu. He entered the public arena in the mid-1980s as Israel’s representative to the United Nations and has since remained in the public eye. His last stretch as prime minister since 2009 has made him the country’s longest-serving premier.
A political maverick and a strong-willed nationalist, he is poised to leave office in the coming days in what can be seen as a grating end to a remarkable term. His last years at the official residence at Balfour Street in Jerusalem have been marred by scandal. On trial for charges of corruption, Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing. His staunch supporters follow him faithfully, while his opponents see the allegations as clouding his judgment, making him unfit for office.
Being a political mastermind was not enough this time. After four unprecedented consecutive elections, a group of political parties managed to agree on forming a coalition that will see Netanyahu vacate his seat.
But even before his judicial woes, he became one of Israel’s most divisive political figures.
“Netanyahu is an exceptionally talented man,” said political analyst Avraham Diskin, “But when leaders lead for so long, the public gets tired. He managed to acquire many enemies throughout the years.”
“The fact that he has been in power for 12 years and leads a right-wing party makes the left and center-left try to oust him by delegitimizing him,” said Arieh Eldad, a former right-wing Israeli politician. “During the years, he also lost the support of the ideological right … and this enables replacing him, regardless of the criminal proceedings.”
“The ideological right cannot forgive him for the very moves that kept him in office,” said Eldad.
“Netanyahu believes in being strong, not necessarily being right, and this was cultivated by him as a critical mindset in the Middle East,” said Dr. Alon Liel, a former senior diplomat who worked under Netanyahu for many years. “This benefited him personally, but also Israel became strong – and its military, technological, economic strength, strengthened Israel in the international arena as well.”
On the issue of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, Netanyahu has a record of inconsistency. He voted several times for Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 until finally resigning in opposition to it. In 2009, after years of opposing the two-state solution, he reversed his position in a pivotal speech at Bar-Ilan University, endorsing the idea of a Palestinian state. During the years of tension with the Obama administration, he avoided massive settlement construction, keeping him from direct conflict with the White House and helping maintain a rocky coalition with former prime minister and senior partner Ehud Barak. All his moves guaranteed his political survival at the expense of a clear-cut ideology.
“His success in surviving by being a pragmatist and not an ideologist, in the end brought anger from both the right and the left,” said Eldad.
Many on the right have held the Bar-Ilan speech against Netanyahu.
“The speech showed his pragmatism,” said Diskin, “He never really retracted it. This shows his recognition for the need and for the option of a two-state solution.”
As the years in office progressed, Netanyahu and the Israeli public gradually shifted further right.
“When he felt enough political power, he renounced any notion of the Bar-Ilan speech and abandoned the two-state solution,” said Liel.
During the Netanyahu years, the peace process with the Palestinians was deserted. But this was not his work alone. Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas both proved to be reluctant to sit at the negotiating table and the split between Fatah and Hamas made peace-talking almost impossible.
“He leaves office with the Palestinian problem unsolved but in a controlled equilibrium,” said Diskin.
Throughout his term, Netanyahu singled out the Iranian nuclear program as his legacy issue. Sidelining the Palestinian matter, he focused on undermining Iranian nuclear aspirations both by campaigning on the international stage and by ordering operations, most of them covert, against Iran. While not the first to recognize the threat, Netanyahu’s long term in office has enabled him to persist, often at the cost of tiring his many audiences. Highlighting what some may say is his obsession, in 2015 Netanyahu addressed the American Congress, blindsiding then US President Obama. Internationally, Netanyahu’s stubborn approach was sometimes frowned upon.
“It was harmful to the relations with many world leaders,” said Diskin, “Even though it was detrimental to the relationship with Obama, Israel still received massive military aid from the administration.”
During the honeymoon years of Netanyahu and President Donald Trump, the Americans withdrew from the deal. But this was not necessarily enough to block Iran. It became increasingly evident that tackling the Iranian issue is not only up to the Israeli leader. When Russia, China and the European Union supported a softer approach towards Tehran, Netanyahu faced the limitations of his clout.
“He meant well, he acted correctly, he managed to strike the Iranians,” said Eldad, “But as he leaves office, Iran is no less dangerous than it was before and we are approaching a nuclear Iran in the near future.”
Regardless of whether Iran attains nuclear capabilities, he leaves his successor with Israel as a regional superpower. Years of Israeli operations throughout the Middle East have consolidated that position.
“He reached a position in which Israel can strike anywhere in the region without raising any objection in the world,” said Dr. Liel. “He achieved Israeli control of the skies and this undoubtedly harmed Iran and its aspirations to surround Israel with hostile borders. He leaves a strong, independent Israel, by operating very wisely in the international arena.”
In the coming days, a new Israeli government is slated to be sworn in. Netanyahu will leave the official residence despite wanting to stay there.
“Netanyahu cultivated an image in the public that there is only one Netanyahu and that is as prime minister,” said Eldad, “Therefore, he leaves office as a loser, against his will.”
“He leaves because of personal flaws, not because he failed to run the country,” said Liel.
The manner of his departure and the outcome of his court case will likely have an impact on his legacy.
“With so many extreme emotions about him on all sides, it is too soon to tell how the history books will judge him,” Diskin summarized.