BENJAMIN NETANYAHU has now been prime minister of Israel for a cumulative period of exactly 10 years – three from 1996 to 1999 and seven from 2009 to the present.
In other words, over the past two decades, he has been the top decision maker shaping the country’s future for fully half the time.
Obviously it is far too early for a definitive historic assessment of his still ongoing premiership.
But it is time for interim stocktaking on what he has achieved in his decade in office and where his protracted leadership is taking Israel.
Netanyahu came to power with three main goals: Making Israel safe in a tough neighborhood; creating a more modern market-oriented economy; and ousting the old left-leaning elites – partly in revenge for his historian father, who claimed to have been denied a post at the Hebrew University because of his right-wing politics, and partly to load the dice for his own continued reelection.
On assuming office in 1996, he saw his prime goal of making Israel safe challenged by the Oslo peace deal he had opposed tooth and nail while in opposition. It was in his view a “Trojan horse,” allowing the return of thousands of Palestinian fighters to the West Bank and Gaza, and the establishment on Israel’s borders of an independent Palestinian state that could threaten its security.
He was determined to derail or at least significantly modify the process.
His trump card was the introduction of the “principle of reciprocity.” He could always make demands difficult for the Palestinians to meet and then argue that he was not moving forward because the other side was not keeping its side of the bargain. With the Americans playing honest broker, Netanyahu found himself under international pressure to move forward and under pressure from his right-wing coalition to stay put.
He tried to navigate between the two, moving first one way and then the other, but ultimately losing credibility with both. After concessions he made to the Palestinians in Hebron in 1997 and at the Wye Plantation in Maryland in talks mediated by then US president Bill Clinton in 1998, he lost right-wing support and was forced into an election the following year, which he lost.
Speaking to settlers in early 2001, apparently unaware that he was being taped, Netanyahu affirmed that he intended to sink Oslo, inter alia, by having the term “defined military zones” (which according to the Oslo text Israel would retain) apply to large swathes of West Bank land. “Nobody said what defined military zones were. Defined military zones are security zones; as far as I am concerned the whole Jordan Valley is a defined military zone. Go argue,” he confided.
When Netanyahu came to power the second time eight years later, Israel had withdrawn from Gaza and outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert had come close to negotiating a deal on the West Bank with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert had presented a map for a territorial agreement based on the 1967 borders and land swaps of around six percent; the Palestinians proposed a 1.9 percent land swap. The difference seemed bridgeable.
The parties had also made progress in negotiations over Jerusalem and refugees.
Rather than making a final push to tie up the loose ends, Netanyahu dumped all this and insisted on starting again from scratch.
Nevertheless, in a key speech at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, he seemed to accept the two-state model. “In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side by side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government.
Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other,” he declared.
But where Olmert and the Israeli peace camp saw the two-state model as essential for Israel’s survival as a democratic Jewishmajority state, Netanyahu regarded it more as a prize for the Palestinians to be awarded if and only if they made reciprocal concessions – like recognizing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and allowing a continued IDF presence in the West Bank.
In the seven years since 2009, Israel under Netanyahu and the Palestinians have not even been able to agree on terms of reference for reengagement in peace talks, despite strenuous American efforts to bring the parties together. Netanyahu rejected an American security blueprint for the West Bank and also continued to build in far-flung settlements unlikely to be part of Israel in any two-state peace deal, raising doubts about Israel’s good faith.
In a major speech at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies in June 2014, just two months after a robust American mediation effort led by US Secretary of State John Kerry had broken down, Netanyahu announced strategic modifications of Israel’s defense doctrine which seemed finally to rule out any chance of a two-state solution. Given the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other militant Islamist groups, he argued that Israel “must have the capacity to stop the waves of terror and fanaticism that could come from the east along the Jordan River rather than on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.”
That meant two things no Palestinian leadership would be likely to accept: an unlimited IDF presence along the Jordan River to fend off any attempted Islamist incursions from the east and a similar presence in the rest of the West Bank to oversee Palestinian demilitarization. And in the runup to the March 2015 election, Netanyahu spelled it out. “There will be no Palestinian state on my watch,” he insisted.
Clearly, Netanyahu has chosen a version of fortress Israel over chances for accommodation with the Palestinians and through them with the rest of the Arab world. This has consequences: Mounting international pressure on Israel as the occupation approaches its 50th year; endemic Palestinian violence and the possible collapse of the PA; international mistrust of Israeli motives; strengthening of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and other attempts to delegitimize Israel’s very existence; and worse, the inevitable slide into a single Palestinian majority state, undermining the Zionist vision of a democratic Jewish majority state.
Rather than a two-state solution now, Netanyahu has proposed moving with the Palestinians toward what he calls “economic peace” – helping to create a degree of Palestinian prosperity on which future peace moves can be based. But so far he has done very little to make it happen. On the contrary, Palestinian business people complain of difficulties in getting permits from Israel to expand.
After the vast destruction wrought by the IDF in Gaza during the 49-days of fighting with Hamas in July-August 2014, there was talk of a huge reconstruction project for Gaza in return for its demilitarization.
There seemed to be an opportunity for a major regional move including Abbas and the moderate Arab Sunni states, with wide international backing. But Netanyahu missed the moment.
In his second term, Netanyahu identified the Iranian nuclear program as the greatest threat facing Israel. According to foreign reports, Israel, under Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, had been instrumental in slowing down the Iranian program through a range of clandestine special operations. Netanyahu, however, contemplated a direct attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and by the summer of 2010 was ready to strike.
Firm opposition by Mossad chief Meir Dagan, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) boss Yuval Diskin and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi forced him to drop the plan.
Similarly in 2011, opposition from cabinet ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Yuval Steinitz and a lukewarm presentation by Chief of Staff Benny Gantz prevented an attack. In 2012 there were problems coordinating with the US. Dagan, by then out of office, publicly called attacking Iran “a stupid idea.” And by early 2013, with serious talks between Iran and the Western powers underway, any thought of an Israeli attack was out of the question.
Netanyahu focused his attention rather on warning the West against striking a “bad deal.” In March 2015, just two weeks before last year’s Israeli election, he addressed Congress warning that the emerging deal was full of holes. But he failed to stop it or to get Congress to vote it down and burned what was left of his bridges with US President Barack Obama, outraged at the gall of a foreign leader using the American legislature as a platform to advocate against an American president.
Netanyahu’s earlier warnings and his perceived readiness to attack Iran may have pushed Obama and the West into imposing stiff economic sanctions and then seeking a deal. But ultimately, the neutralization of the Iranian nuclear threat, for the next decade at least, was achieved despite Netanyahu, not because of him.
Indeed, one of Netanyahu’s greatest failures as a leader has been his inability to establish a positive rapport with both American presidents he worked with, Obama and Clinton. Both found him pompous and wrongheaded on Israel’s key foreign policy issues – the Palestinians and Iran. The personal animus in both cases, however, does not seem to have impinged on the strategic relationship between the two countries, with the US set to continue its large-scale military support for Israel.
Things could change with a new incumbent in the White House – especially with regard to the diplomatic umbrella the US has provided Israel at the UN and other international institutions. Netanyahu also bears much of the blame for losing support among young liberal Americans, which could factor into American policy in the not so distant future.
Netanyahu’s second major goal was to streamline and modernize the Israeli economy.
In this he has had mixed success. He accelerated privatization of government corporations, liberalized currency regulations, reduced taxation, invested in infrastructure, especially roads and railways, boosted hi-tech, helped develop economic ties with the Asian giants China, India and Japan and, assisted by work done by his predecessors, largely avoided the economic crises that have plagued Western countries and other advanced economies in the new millennium.
But this streamlining has come at a price – widening socioeconomic gaps, a struggling middle class and less state aid for the disadvantaged.
Top salaries in Israel under Netanyahu have spiraled to over 30 times the average and 70 times the minimum wage.
Salary capping legislation is being drafted by the Finance Ministry and it remains to be seen in what form or even whether Netanyahu will allow it to go through.
The relatively high cost of living in Israel relative to earnings led to widespread social protest in the summer of 2011, but did not prevent Netanyahu’s reelection in 2013.
Nor did rising housing prices, up by over 50 percent on his watch – a major economic challenge which so far he has signally failed to address. It takes around 148 average salaries in Israel to buy an apartment as compared with 66 in the US and 64 in the UK. Former president Shimon Peres once dubbed Netanyahu’s brand of macroeconomic success coupled with widespread popular hardship “swinish capitalism.”
Israel’s economy under Netanyahu received a huge potential boost from vast offshore natural gas discoveries. Netanyahu pushed through a controversial framework with the gas companies for development of the fields, which critics argue would leave too much revenue in the hands of the developers and too little for social projects for the Israeli people. Netanyahu countered that it was either that or losing the fields altogether.
In late March, the Supreme Court dealt Netanyahu a major blow when it ruled the framework’s “stability clause” tying this and future government’s hands for 10 years on the terms granted the gas companies “undemocratic” and gave the government a year to amend the framework or pass new legislation. This, in turn, sparked renewed attacks on the Supreme Court, a central element of the Netanyahu-inspired right-wing campaign against the old elites.
Netanyahu’s battle against the old elites has been waged largely by a divisive populism promoting nationalist rather than universal values. Dealing in generalities, it discredits the media as driven by an inherent left-wing bias, accuses the left of having “forgotten what it means to be Jewish,” questions the loyalty of Israeli Arabs and left-wing activists, and denigrates the Palestinians as an implacable foe with whom peace is not possible. To mobilize support against Israel’s dominant Western tradition it has created the myth of the so-called “state of Tel Aviv,” secular, Ashkenazi and hedonist, while the rest of the country presumably grapples with Israel’s existential challenges.
It is a battle of ideas over what kind of Israel will emerge and has a major impact on voting patterns in national elections.
It has also led to a long string of illiberal bills, including one by which a 75 percent majority of 90 Knesset members can expel others, various “loyalty laws,” and the planned reform of public broadcasting.
Clearly the move to the right is not only a consequence of Netanyahu’s leadership style; it has been spurred by objective conditions like failure to make peace with the Palestinians, Palestinian violence and regional threats of violence. But Netanyahu has amplified and exploited these trends as an electoral strategy with serious implications for the health of Israeli democracy.
His contribution to the transformation of Israeli society, shifting the value center to the nationalist right, is, from his point of view, one of his greatest achievements.
It partly explains his continued reelection.
But there are other reasons. He is an astute politician, and although despised by many even in his own Likud, he has been able to keep a tight rein on party proceedings. He is also extremely resilient. Three times his political career seemed over – after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and after his resounding defeats by Ehud Barak in1999 and Ehud Olmert in 2006. But each time he was able to pick himself up and rise from the ashes.
He has also been helped by his innate conservatism and a profoundly pessimistic streak that has bred a deep aversion to sweeping moves. His reluctance to take risks is one of the reasons for the stymied peace process; but he has also been loath to risk making war. In the end, there was no attack on Iran; and in Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in 2014, he was reluctant to send in ground troops. He has also been careful to maintain security coordination with the Palestinians during the current violence despite his allegations of PA incitement. He has managed to isolate Israel from the civil war in Syria and to coordinate with Russia over its involvement there.
In other words, during his 10 years in office Israel has not been involved in any major wars and he has built a credible image of himself as a leader who will not rock the boat. This allied to his scaremongering tactics – that Israel faces a second Holocaust and needs a steady hand at the helm – has proved a potent reelection formula.
In his 10 years in office Netanyahu can point to few major achievements. But then again his critics cannot point to major disasters either. The argument is over future consequences.
Netanyahu will argue that he has kept Israel safe in the here and now, and that this has created a firm foundation for future projections of power and survivability. His critics will say he has set in motion dark forces that could undermine both Israel’s democracy and with it the entire Zionist project, and that it is essential to elect someone else in his stead to reverse the trend before it is too late.