Netanyahu becomes Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister

Diplomatic Affairs: Assessing Mr. Longevity

July 20, 2019 00:08
Netanyahu becomes Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Imagine Donald Trump serving as president of the United States for 45½ years.

If Trump, or any US president, had ever served for that long, it would mean one man at the country’s helm for nearly 19% of America’s 243-year-old history.

That’s a huge percentage of time, a massive piece of any country’s history.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will overtake founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, having held that role for 13 years and 127 days, or 4,873 of Israel’s 25,981 days of existence.

That represents nearly 19% of Israel’s entire history. And that, too, is a huge chunk of time.

Put the lengths of Ben-Gurion’s and Netanyahu’s tenures side by side, and this country has been guided by two leaders for more than a third of its history (37.5%).

And just as Ben-Gurion – his personality, ideology and leadership style – placed an unmistakable stamp on the country’s first two decades, Netanyahu has left his indelible imprint on the last two.

As Israel of the 1950s and 1960s reflected its leader – tough, pragmatic, socialist, content with a frugal lifestyle – so, too, Israel of the last two decades has reflected Netanyahu: tough, pragmatic, fiercely capitalistic, and someone who very much enjoys the good life.

Ben-Gurion retired to a sparse, book-lined hut in Sde Boker. Netanyahu, when/if he retires, will retreat to a luxurious, book-lined home in Caesarea. That says much about the difference between the two men, and also about the different ideals of the country at the time.

LONGEVITY, OF COURSE, isn’t everything. Historians will look back at the Netanyahu era and judge it not by how long the prime minister managed to remain in power, but by what he did with that power and with his time in office.

And on that, of course, there will surely be a lively debate.

Netanyahu detractors will say he wasted the time; squandered opportunities to reach an agreement with the Palestinians; was reactive rather than proactive; dented the country’s all-important solidarity with divisive rhetoric; and shook the nation’s democratic foundations with actions that skated close to – and perhaps over – the boundaries of criminality.

Netanyahu’s supporters will say that he used the time to lift the country to new economic heights; that he had the wisdom to leverage Israel’s strengths to unprecedented relations with the world, including the Arab world; that he brought – and articulated eloquently – a dose of realism into the debate about how to solve the conflict with the Palestinians; and that he was key in keeping Iran from getting the Bomb.

While longevity may not be everything, it is something, and that Netanyahu has managed to stay atop this country’s political pyramid – a decidedly treacherous pyramid – for so long is a testament to his tremendous political skill. That he was unable to form a coalition following April’s elections shows that there are definitely limitations to his political magic, but Houdini remained Houdini even if once he almost died carrying off a buried-alive stunt.

What makes Netanyahu’s longevity as prime minister even more remarkable – he has emerged on top in five of the six national elections he contested – is that he is by no means a beloved figure in this country. In fact, a good part of the country – including much of the chattering class and influential figures in about half of the significant media outlets – loathes him.

Netanyahu’s political rival Ehud Barak used poisonous rhetoric against him on Wednesday night, once again insinuating that he was somehow responsible for Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. While Netanyahu will now claim the record as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Barak has the dubious title as the shortest-serving elected prime minister, having served starting in 1999 for just over one year and eight months. (Yigal Alon served as an interim prime minister for 19 days following Levi Eshkol’s death in 1969, until Gold Meir came into office.)

That Barak chose to bring up the Rabin assassination to hit Netanyahu, that he opted to use precisely that language and imagery, indicates that he thinks this will resonate with the public and fall on fertile ears. And he has reason for that assumption.

When Netanyahu walks down the street – something, by the way, he very rarely does – people do not chant “Bibi, melech Yisrael” (Bibi, king of Israel), as they once did for Menachem Begin.

The country does not connect with Netanyahu at a gut level. Because of his perfect English, his lifestyle, the amount of time he spent living in the United States, Netanyahu is oddly still seen by many as an “outsider.”

Yet despite that, and even though much of the country seems not to care much for his wife, or for his son Yair, Netanyahu continues to win. Moreover, he continues to win even with the cloud of an indictment on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in three different cases hanging heavy above his head.

NETANYAHU’S VICTORY in the April elections after the attorney-general recommended indictments, and the polls that show that, by a wide margin, he is still seen as the man deemed most qualified to serve as prime minister, demand an explanation.

As a foreign visitor quipped, Netanyahu winning an election after an indictment recommendation would have been like the US voting for Richard Nixon in 1972 after the full scope of the Watergate scandal was understood, not – as was the case – beforehand.

There are two main reasons why the indictment recommendations themselves did not derail Netanyahu’s trajectory to overtake Ben-Gurion.

The first is that much of the public simply shrugged and seemed to say that with all Netanyahu has done for the country – represent it articulately around the world, promote and enhance strategic ties with the US, Russia, China, India and others, and provide security – it is not worth bringing him down simply because he allegedly took some free champagne and cigars, or tried to get positive news reviews.

And the second reason is that a significant part of the country seems to believe that the Left and the “elites” are out to get Netanyahu – as he claims – and that he has simply done what many of his predecessors did as well. According to this argument, if you spend hundreds of millions of shekels and tens of thousands of man hours conducting an investigation, you will turn up something.

No, indictment recommendations were not enough to unseat Netanyahu. In this country, which is justifiably concerned with security, both collective and personal, Netanyahu wins because he is deemed as ironclad on that issue. Indeed, in speech after speech over the last 10 years, he has always placed security – protecting Israel – as his raison d’etre.

Some prime ministers may have said their reason for being elevated to that lofty position was to pursue peace. Not Netanyahu; for him it is making the country secure: secure from Iran, secure from Iran in Syria, secure from terrorists.

As far as terrorism is concerned, the statistics support this security perception. There have been significantly fewer Israeli terrorist fatalities from 2009 to 2019 (an average of 16 a year) under Netanyahu than there were in the nine years previous (118 a year); and there were significantly fewer terrorist-related deaths during his first term in office from 1996 to 1999 (20) than in the three years previous under Shimon Peres and Rabin (58).

That Netanyahu holds the security card is also well known by those aiming to dethrone him, which is why the Blue and White Party – whose disparate parts are held together by the common glue of just wanting to beat Netanyahu – put on its list not only one former IDF chief of staff, not only two, but three: Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi. The recipe is clear: to beat Mr. Security, you simply have to out-security Mr. Security.

But Netanyahu still beat them, meaning that it may not be possible to remove the security or diplomatic trump cards that Netanyahu holds by stacking a political party with former generals. Something else is needed, and at this point in the current campaign that seems to be trying to shift the conversation from security/diplomatic issues to domestic ones.

Do not be surprised if in the two months that remain before the September 17 elections, the country’s highways and public squares are filled and blocked by more protesters, similar to the protests over the last few weeks by Ethiopian-Israelis or parents protesting abuse at daycare centers.

These protests help change the conversation, move it from Netanyahu’s security and diplomatic strengths to what is perceived as his weakness: the alleged fraying fabric inside the country.

And Netanyahu’s response? Plan trips to Japan, Ukraine and India in the remaining weeks before the vote to highlight his diplomatic/security credentials.

On Saturday Netanyahu will secure his place as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. That much we know. For how long will he continue to serve, however, is the newest imponderable.

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