The numbers are staggering, no matter how you count them. Whether you say 13 years and 128 days or just call it 4,876 days, on July 20, Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel’s long-serving prime minister. That’s an extraordinary achievement, yet the milestone date on which he surpassed David Ben-Gurion’s record tenure as Israel’s leader served more as an excuse for an orgy of Bibi-bashing from domestic and foreign pundits than any real appreciation of Netanyahu’s legacy or his place in Israel’s history.
Part of the problem is that the obsession about the length of his tenure has set up a comparison with Israel’s first prime minister that is an implicit rebuke of Netanyahu. While the idea that there is any competition between the two is ridiculous, understanding the evolution from the poor and struggling country that Ben-Gurion led to independence and survival to the regional economic and military superpower that Netanyahu governs is helpful to understanding the latter’s achievements.
That most of the chattering classes in Israel and in most Western nations, both Jewish and non-Jewish voices, despise Netanyahu is not a secret. So it is little surprise that most of the commentary about his becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history has largely consisted of a litany of his sins.
The substance of these charges is that he is an arrogant, corrupt megalomaniac concerned only with maintaining his personal hold on power. He is blamed for obstructing peace, ending bipartisan support for Israel in the United States, alienating American Jews and conducting an assault on Israeli democracy.
Of those charges, he is probably only really guilty of an obsessive drive to hold onto power.
The notion that he is anti-democratic is utter nonsense and largely due to resentment on the part of his critics about his democratic victories. His unwillingness to be ousted from office by what appears to many Israelis to be unsubstantiated corruption charges is no more an indication of authoritarianism than his efforts to rein in an out-of-control judiciary.
Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics since he returned to the prime minister’s office in 2009 after his first term from 1996 to 1999 resulted in a defeat that seemed to end his political career. His comeback was partly due to luck because the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of peace offers, including an independent state, ensured that the Israeli left was discredited. Netanyahu’s more realistic approach to the conflict was the only credible choice offered to Israelis.
But though his path back to power was paved by the bad choices of his rivals and Israel’s foes, Netanyahu’s comeback was a tribute to his political skills. The same can be said of his ability to hang on to office and win election after election.
That said, Netanyahu’s long reign is also something of an argument for term limits. The prime minister has driven any potential successor out of his party in order to maintain his supremacy. And though the corruption charges he is facing are not as serious as his enemies claim and mostly political in nature, they are still the inevitable product of any administration that goes on for too long.
But if a plurality of Israelis still thinks Netanyahu is Israel’s indispensable man, it’s because he has been an excellent prime minister.
On his watch, Israel’s economy has prospered, and his brilliant diplomacy has helped break down the isolation it previously suffered throughout the Third World and in much of Europe. By every normal measure of leadership, Netanyahu has succeeded brilliantly. None of his opponents would have done as well since they lack his economic and diplomatic expertise as well as his cautious and pragmatic approach to security issues.
Why, then, is he still so despised by so many?
Much of that animus stems from the fact that many liberals have never forgiven the Israeli people for embracing the Israeli right-wing coalition that Netanyahu now heads in recent decades as the Labor Zionist movement that Ben-Gurion once led became marginalized.
Many people will also not forgive Netanyahu for his steadfast refusal to play along with the popular notion that peace with the Palestinians is within Israel’s reach. It is this — and not the catalogue of his faults for which he stands accused — that is the real substance of the criticisms aimed at him.
Though many commentators decry Netanyahu’s upscale lifestyle in contrast to the asceticism of Ben-Gurion, his attitude towards the peace process is rooted in the same sober pessimism that characterized the policies of Israel’s first prime minister.
To the immense frustration of the international foreign-policy establishment, Netanyahu understands that the political culture of the Palestinians makes peace impossible for the foreseeable future. His goal, like that of Ben-Gurion, is to manage the conflict, rather than to engage in futile and dangerous efforts to solve it.
He deserves enormous credit for having the courage to say “no” to President Barack Obama’s efforts to force him to make concessions that would have weakened Israel. The same goes for his willingness to declare the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to be an example of reckless appeasement that abandoned the security interests of both Israel and the West.
If American Jews and partisan Democrats resent him for these stands or for his inability to magically make peace while the Palestinians continue to refuse to end their war on Zionism, that’s because of their shortcomings, not his.
Netanyahu may have stayed on too long, and his time in office may soon be coming to an end, even if the potential replacements are not of his stature. But fair-minded historians whose views are not tainted by political bias will have to acknowledge that his stewardship of Israel has been largely exemplary.
He deserves to be remembered not so much for the length of his tenure as prime minister, but for the able way he has carried out his duties.