It's not easy to summarize the career and current standing of Benyamin Netanyahu. His seven years in two separate periods as Prime Minister make him the longest serving head of government except for the founding Prime Minister David ben Gurion, whose own two periods as prime minister amounted to 13 years.
Political longevity breeds opposition, and the maneuvering of younger players to take one's place.
Bibi may not be done. Even while replacing him is the most prominent theme of contenders in the run-up to the March election, expressed by a number of politicians who have worked closely with him, it's too early to count him out. A movement to oust him from the leadership of Likud may not get off the ground, and the betting is that Likud will return as the largest party in the Knesset, even though with a loss of seats.
It is popular to calculate that Bibi can form the next government, along with rightist partner Jewish Home (likely to add to its representation in the Knesset) and his frequent but not current partners the ultra-Orthodox parties. Those, along with what is shaping up to be a right of center secular movement led by Avigdor Lieberman along with Moshe Kahlon, may be more than enough to provide Netanyahu with a Knesset majority. Lieberman, Kahlon, and Naftali Bennett are closer to tense and perhaps temporary partners rather than close buddies with Netanyahu. Yet we have long known that politics is a matter of mutual interests, which may be transient, more than anything like a forum of colleagues.
One of Harry Truman's contributions to the literature of political science is, "If you want a friend in this town, get a dog."
Bibi's personal style is not endearing. Hyperbole is his tone, in fluent Hebrew or English, and bombast likely to be the substance. Or empty bombast, insofar as the proclamations are likely to be far greater than the follow through or accomplishments. He is widely described as a liar and unreliable, including in remarks attributed to ranking members of other governments.
The most recent demonstration of his style is his campaign promise to eliminate the value added tax (currently 18 percent) on food and perhaps other basic commodities.
The ridicule focused on this describes Netanyahu's opposition to the very same proposal when it was made recently by a minister in his government, and his combination of luke warm support and behind the scenes opposition to an item close to the heart of his dismissed Finance Minister, Yair Lapid, i.e., the elimination of value added tax on first home purchases of young couples.
Netanyahu has long claimed expertise in economics and to be personally responsible for the health of the national economy, but he is also a populist unable to skip over an opportunity to firm up support from low-income Jews, mostly of Middle Eastern backgrounds, who comprise an important element of Likud voters.
Bibi also suffers from a condition that has plagued American presidents with problematic family members. The brothers of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter were not major players in American politics, but occasionally cast a shadow over their sibling. Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy had better luck with their brothers, provided we overlook the incident at Chappaquiddick.
Netanyahu's problem is with his wife, a frequent target of complaints and legal action by former members of the household staff. With the exception of Israel Hayom (described as Bibipress by its detractors), Israel's media has titillated our lower emotions with juicy stories of bizarre demands, fits of screaming and insults. Several actions have been settled out of court, with Netanyahu family attorneys claiming fabrications for the sake of money, publicity, and political embarrassment, together with a financial settlement and a commitment by the complainant to further silence.
The face and body shape of Mrs Netanyahu have not served her well, except for political cartoonists. A recent headline in Ha'aretz was, "Sara Netanyahu, Israel’s Marie Antoinette."
"Just when we thought Israel’s first lady’s image problem couldn’t get any worse - a newly filed lawsuit describes racist remarks, spendthrift ways, and serious anger management issues."
In several respects Netanyahu is the Israeli version of his nemesis Barack Obama. Obama also has no shortage of embarrassing relatives associated with his polygamous Kenyan father who have surfaced briefly in American media. Obama's wearing thin charms as a speaker and standing with the voters and political colleagues are somewhere close to Netanyahu's, but will not be tested further on account of the Constitutional amendment that limits a President to two terms.
There are some things to be put on the positive side of Netanyahu's record.
Most recent and most important is his capacity to withstand what has been called the naive, ignorant, or misplaced enthusiasm of the Obama administration for pushing Palestinians and Israelis to try once again what neither of them wanted. The Obama-Kerry team made things worse by provoking Palestinian aspirations, and detracting them from what had been gradual accommodations that had improved the lives of Palestinians and Israelis. Hamas' aspirations may have been one manifestation of what Obama-Kerry provoked, leading to the recent Gaza operation that caused more than two thousand Palestinian deaths and at least one winter of cold and rain in the rubble without reconstruction.
Coming up may be Palestinian approaches to the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court, trying their best to parley American and European political advantages to their claim of having a monopoly of justice in the long history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu did well in leading the Gaza operation. Critics wanting final and complete victory accuse him of being timid, but timidity is an appropriate posture along with a massive advantage of military might and Israel's delicate standing in international politics. Netanyahu has also presided over several IDF actions against Syria, Sudan, and ships in transit, with the targets being arms meant for Israel's enemies. Who knows exactly the origins of various assassinations, cyber attacks, and mysterious explosions said to have caused problems for Iran's nuclear aspirations?
Leading Israel's government, or evaluating its actions is not the work of simpletons who want total victory over the enemies of the Jews, or a politically correct accommodation to those who have demonstrated time and again that they cannot be accommodated.
Benyamin Netanyahu is not entering into an easy or slam dunk political campaign. His test will come not only on March 17. Assuming his victory, if it is one, is not of the massive or even impressive variety, there will likely be several weeks or months of negotiations toward a coalition, and then more months of running a government that may not be any less problematic than the one just declared to be ended.