There will be a time, sooner or later, when Benjamin Netanyahu is no longer one of the top 50 influential Jews in the world. But despite ongoing predictions of his demise; a lengthy criminal trial that, if he is convicted, could see him serving jail time; and nine months at the helm of the government during one of the most contentious periods of Israel’s history, that time hasn’t come yet.
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Instead, Netanyahu, who only a year ago was sidelined as an uncharacteristically docile opposition leader during the prime ministerial terms of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, has roared back for his third stint as prime minister, adding to his record as the country’s longest-serving prime minister.
The protests over the judicial reform legislation that he’s enabled his coalition partners to unleash are directed toward Netanyahu as much as they are toward the overhaul, with the bulk of demonstrators convinced that Netanyahu is still the dog wagging the tail of the overhaul (unlike recent images from the Knesset of Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant talking through him might have indicated) and that the country cannot move forward until he’s out of the picture.
They drastically differ with the other half, whose chants of “Rak Bibi” portray him as the savior who alone can keep the country secure, the economy rolling, and detractors at bay.
For that stark contrast, and for his ability to remain the beacon of both adulation and scorn well into his 70s, when most of his contemporaries have faded from the political landscape, Netanyahu’s lofty position among the world’s most influential Jews is secure for another year.
Netanyahu has been called a lot of things in his decades in the public eye - from a political “wizard” to “Mr. Security,” “king” or “dictator” – but neither his detractors nor his supporters can deny that Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is influential.
When asked over the years what he wants to be called, Netanyahu has said he wants to be remembered as Israel’s protector and the transformer of Israel’s economy. The prime minister’s popularity on the Right is predicated in large part on those two elements, and for much of his over 14 years in office there were good arguments to support them: He presided over Israel’s quietest decade in terms of war and terrorism, and his economic policies helped lay the groundwork for turning Israel into the start-up nation and nurture the massive growth of the tech sector and Israel’s economy more broadly.
In November 2022, Netanyahu returned to the premiership after a year spent writing his memoirs and politically tormenting his rivals. But he came back a different Netanyahu. For the first time, he is in a coalition where there is no one to his left, no centrist figure on whom he can rely in order to rein in demands of Orthodox or far-Right parties, plus ministers in his own party have made outsized demands, and even when Netanyahu moves to moderate their policies somewhat, he does not have the stomach to say “no.”
The massive protest movement, ostensibly against judicial reform, but really against the government more broadly, has threatened Netanyahu’s legacy, with the shekel tumbling and investments dropping, along with a threat to the IDF’s combat readiness from reserve pilots and other officers refusing to report for duty. Whether Netanyahu the “wizard” will conjure up the right spell to quell those who call him “dictator” remains to be seen.