What will define Benjamin Netanyahu's legacy?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: As he prepares to leave office next week, we look at Israel’s longest-standing prime minister and the indelible mark that he’s leaving on the country.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU is keenly aware of history and attuned to his place in it. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU is keenly aware of history and attuned to his place in it.
“History,” wrote Michael Oren in Ally, his 2015 account of his years as Israel’s ambassador to Washington, “has this humbling habit of diminishing the events we see as monumental and of reducing our roles in them to footnotes.”
Oren was writing of his own actions as ambassador, but his words are instructive as well in trying to gauge how historians will judge Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign as prime minister, an era that may well be coming to a close on Sunday with the expected swearing-in of a government with a new prime minister: Naftali Bennett.
What seems so pressing and immediate now is likely to look completely different and possibly even frivolous 50 years from now. What is the central narrative at the present may be only a footnote in retrospect.
Now, in the heat of the moment, when one thinks of Netanyahu, one thinks of indictments on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, of “shticks and tricks,” of dysfunctional governments and divisive rhetoric. But one also thinks of the coronavirus vaccine, the Abraham Accords, the determined fight to keep Iran away from nuclear weapons, the transformation of Israel’s economy, the breakthrough in relations with Russia, China, India, Africa and Latin America.
The question is what will win out in the end? What will Netanyahu be remembered for?
Dreaming or scheming? Strengthening Israel’s position in the world, or weakening its domestic solidarity? The peace deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, or the continued stalemate with the Palestinians? Courageous actions – both military and diplomatic – against Iran’s drive for nukes, or harming Israel’s ties with US Democrats in the process? An eloquent defense of Israel abroad, or undermining public trust in the judiciary at home.
All of that and more were Netanyahu. All of that and more were part of the Netanyahu years. Historians will be left to grapple with which aspect wins out in final judgment.
Much, said Oren – a historian himself who has written acclaimed books on the Six Day War and the history of America’s involvement in the Middle East – depends on how Netanyahu decides to depart from the Prime Minister’s Office and the official residence at Balfour Street in Jerusalem. Does he leave angrily but without making a dramatic scene, or does he leave like Donald Trump – amid an assault by supporters on the Capitol, something that will forever tarnish Trump’s legacy?
“A lot will depend on how he exits,” Oren said.
Much will also depend on the fate of Netanyahu’s trial, and whether he is convicted and sent to jail.
If Netanyahu is ultimately convicted and given jail time, then Cases 1000, 2000, and 4000 would not just become an asterisk or a footnote to the Netanyahu story, but would overwhelm and forever cloud it. This would be similar to the way former prime minister Ehud Olmert is widely remembered less for giving the green light to the daring attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, and more for corruption and being the first Israeli prime minister to write his memoirs from a jail cell.
THE SON of a historian, and a man who knows history and is exceptionally well-read in it, Netanyahu is keenly aware of history and attuned to his place in it. He is mindful of the ripples his actions and his speeches may have on history.
One of the justifications he and his former ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer have given for his controversial decision to speak out in Congress in 2015 against the Iranian nuclear deal, despite harsh opposition from president Barack Obama and many Democrats, is the historical significance of such a speech.
Netanyahu wanted history to recall that when the storm clouds were gathering, when the threats were mounting against the Jewish state, the prime minister of that state was able to speak out and do so forcefully, in stark contrast to the situation that faced the Jewish people before the Holocaust.
That speech had many audiences: Obama, the senators and congresspeople in the room, the rulers of Persian Gulf countries watching from the side, who were impressed by the speech and stepped up their overtures to Israel as a result, and history: Netanyahu wanted history to note that in facing the Jewish people’s most recent existential enemy, he chose not to be silent.
For Netanyahu, a student of history, his place in history is important. And since he has been in power for so long, 12 years during his current run and another three years from 1996 to 1999, he has been asked repeatedly the question about how he views his legacy.
In a 2015 interview with The Jerusalem Post, he said of the way he wanted to be remembered: “For making the Jewish state and the Jewish people more secure, and this in a time when the region is in the greatest turmoil. For mobilizing international opposition to Iran’s nuclear program and doing everything in my power to prevent a regime that calls for Israel’s destruction from developing the weapons to achieve that goal.
“For advancing a durable peace with our Palestinian and other Arab neighbors. For liberalizing Israel’s economy to unleash the limitless potential of our people.
“For growing Israel’s economy, expanding the workforce, and providing the means to help the most vulnerable in our society. For ensuring that Israel has a national infrastructure fit for the 21st century. For strengthening the bonds between Israel and Jews around the world. For helping make Israel a place of which its citizens and Jews around the world can be truly proud. Above all, for fulfilling my sacred responsibility to secure the future of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.”
Did he do that?
The answer, at least at this point, is still very much in the eye of the beholders and dependent on their political leanings: those who admire Netanyahu will likely have a much different take on his legacy than those who detest him.
A Madad poll this week carried out among 958 respondents found that when asked “What kind of prime minister was Netanyahu?” 58% said either great or good (33%-25%) while 32% said bad or awful (15%-17%). Another 10% said “average.”
But when broken down along political lines, 78% of Likud voters said he was great or good, while 78% of Labor voters said he was bad or awful. What that shows is that the judgment of his tenure at this point in time depends very much on one’s political position.
With time, however, that is likely to change. For example, when Menachem Begin left office in 1983, he was very much disliked by the Left. With time, however, those views have mellowed, and he is viewed much more favorably now than when he left office.
“I think Netanyahu will be remembered very differently in the future than he is remembered now,” Oren said. “This often happens. [US President Harry] Truman was detested during his presidency; Begin was despised. But today we look back with great longing on Truman and Begin.”
Even those who left office under a dark cloud, such as Richard Nixon, are viewed differently from the perspective of history, he said.
“History treats historic figures much differently than contemporary commentators. My feeling is that Netanyahu will be viewed as a transformative prime minister. He presided over Israel’s transformation from a largely agrarian working-class backwater to a hi-tech international powerhouse.”
One of ways he was able to do this, one of the reasons he was able to catapult Israel to a completely different level economically and in its relations with the region and the world, was that he had a system, a doctrine. The doctrine was relatively simple, but one he followed.
To survive – he explained this doctrine informally to journalists traveling with him, in a Buenos Aires hotel ballroom in 2017, during a visit to Argentina – Israel needs to be able to defend itself.
For that, it needs impeccable intelligence, state-of-the-art weaponry, and cutting-edge technology. All of that costs an enormous amount of money and demands a strong economy.
To have a strong economy there is a need to unleash the talents and skills of the people, and to do that you need to deregulate the economy and reduce the bureaucracy. You also need to open markets, and the way to do that is to provide other countries with things they need, among them impeccable intelligence, state-of-the-art weaponry, and cutting-edge technology.
Everything is interconnected in this “Bibi doctrine.” And Netanyahu followed it. He leveraged Israel’s strengths – agricultural expertise, technology, innovation, intel, security expertise – into things that it could provide the world.
Just days after that briefing in Buenos Aires, he stood at the podium at the UN and declared, “We’re in the midst of a great revolution, a revolution in Israel’s standing among the nations. This is happening because so many countries around the world have finally woken up to what Israel can do for them.”
This was not hyperbole. Netanyahu is not responsible for Israeli innovation or hi-tech prowess, but he was instrumental in creating the economic conditions to unleash it, and then leveraging it to fundamentally improve Israel’s relations around the world, culminating in the signing last year of the Abraham Accords – not because any movement had been registered on the Palestinian track, not because these countries finally saw the Zionist light, but because Israel has what those countries need.
Netanyahu did not create everything that Israel has to offer the world – security, intel, hi-tech – but he has leveraged it brilliantly to the country’s advantage.
Natan Sharansky, who served as a minister in Netanyahu’s first government in 1996 and then as Jewish Agency chairman for two terms, said it is all part of Netanyahu‘s gift for long-term strategic thinking.
“Bibi was an outstanding strategic leader, someone who thought strategically and saw things 10 years before others did,” Sharansky said.
The former Prisoner of Zion said he noticed this already in the 1980s, during the height of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, when Netanyahu, then a lower-level diplomat at the Israel Embassy in Washington, “thought out of the box” and worked with US Soviet Jewry activists to link the negotiations at the time taking place between the US and the Soviet Union over Ronald Regan’s “Star Wars program” to the plight of Soviet Jewry.
“That is an example of how he was able to be interested in something very specific, but connect it to a deeper strategic process,” Sharansky said.
This is something Netanyahu would do repeatedly throughout the years – for instance, focusing on Israel’s hi-tech prowess and using that to substantially improve Israel’s diplomatic standing around the world.
Sharansky said it was “very sad that such an outstanding leader in the history of Israel is leaving in such a mess.” That mess, he added, is largely a product of Israel’s lack of term limits.
“Inevitably, he said, “when a person is in power for such a long time, he starts to believe that the country needs him, and that his being in power is the most important thing. So that in itself becomes what is all-important – saving the coalition.”
This is how Sharansky explained Netanyahu’s turning his back on a plan that Sharansky himself hammered out to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall in 2017. “In the end he folded to pressure from the haredim that they would bring down his government. This is simply what happens when you decide that keeping the coalition is the most important thing.”
And that, too, is part of Netanyahu’s legacy.
Sharansky said that when people look back at Netanyahu’s tenure in some 50 years, the current “mess” will be drowned out by the realization that “the real beginning of the peace process was the Abraham Accords – not the Oslo accords – which will in time also bring solutions to the Palestinians. I hope it will be remembered that it was his strategic vision about the challenges facing the Middle East, about the importance of confronting Iran, about building relations with our Arab neighbors based on mutual interests, that started a real peace process.
“The fact that he did not know how to finish, and was not ready to prepare someone to replace him, will be remembered in the short term because it is such a big political thing, and we have had two years of this [political] mess. But I do hope that in the historical perspective, all that will become less important.”•