Analysis

What Netanyahu's Record-breaking Government Says About His New One

This may have been Israel’s longest-serving government by some distance, but its list of achievements was short. Indeed, its main purpose was to serve as the prime minister's own personal platform

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and his wife Sara attending the opening ceremony of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and his wife Sara attending the opening ceremony of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. Credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

As these words are being written, Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth government is still running Israel. Whether or not it comes to its end on Sunday with the swearing-in of the new Netanyahu-Gantz government, or it continues for a few more days until Likud gets its act together, it is already by far the longest-serving government in the country’s history, hitting its five-year mark last Thursday.

The only government that ever came close was Golda Meir’s second, which, due to the Yom Kippur War delaying the 1973 election, served for four years and three months.

Netanyahu’s fourth government, 2015-2020 – its life artificially lengthened by three inconclusive elections in its fifth year – will be remembered for what exactly? There were no wars, and no progress was made toward peace either. Economic growth was sustained, at least until the coronavirus hit, but no major social programs were enacted.

No signature policy of any minister in this government had an impact on Israelis’ lives. Even of those who actually tried.

Naftali Bennett as education minister managed to boost the number of high schoolers studying math at the top level, but didn’t have time to make the wider changes he planned in the school system. The most ambitious economic policy of this government – Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s plan to bring housing prices down – was a total failure.

But looking for successful social or economic policies, certainly those initiated by individual ministers, is not the right way to measure this government’s achievements.

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to the press prior to meetings at the White House in Washington, January 27, 2020.
President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to the press prior to meetings at the White House in Washington, January 27, 2020. Credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP

More than any of his previous cabinets, Netanyahu’s outgoing one had no real purpose other than to serve as his own personal power platform.

Constitutionally, the prime minister in Israel is first among equals – but not in Netanyahu’s Israel. The only achievements of his government are his own personal ones, and the only field of policy that has seriously been of any interest to Netanyahu in the last five years has been the geopolitical tussling with Iran.

Without a doubt, from Netanyahu’s perspective, his greatest achievement over the past five years has been to keep the regional agenda focused on Iran and firmly away from the Palestinian issue. The last time there was any movement on that front was way back in 2014 – the last time a diplomatic initiative was on the table, and the last time Israel fought a major campaign in Gaza.

On Iran, Netanyahu fought two campaigns during this government’s term: One openly, against the nuclear deal the Obama administration, along with other international partners, signed with Tehran; and the other mostly under the radar, against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.

If one week in the past five years deserves to be remembered as the high point of this government’s term, it is the seven days between May 8-14, 2018.

On May 8, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, in a White House speech that could have been written by Netanyahu himself, and was certainly inspired by him. It was a moment Netanyahu had been working for from the moment Trump won the election in November 2016. But it was only the beginning of a roller-coaster week.

The next day, Netanyahu flew to Moscow as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s guest of honor at the May 9 Victory Day in Red Square. It was a perfect illustration of how the prime minister of little Israel had achieved the closest relationship with the leaders of the two world superpowers.

Hours after Netanyahu returned to Israel, Iran tried to launch a salvo of rockets against Israeli targets on the Golan Heights – these were intercepted and Israel swiftly embarked on a series of airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian bases, ostensibly protected by the Russian contingent in Syria, including the destruction of air defense batteries supplied by Russia. None of this could have been done without coordination with Putin.

President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, January 30, 2020.
President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, January 30, 2020.Credit: Maxim Shemetov/ Pool Reuters / A

Four days later, on May 14, a high-level U.S. delegation arrived in Israel for the opening ceremony of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. At the same time, some 60 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire during protests on the Gaza border. The pictures made headlines around the world but didn’t lead to any serious escalation on the ground or diplomatic repercussions – not even from Arab states – and within a few days it was forgotten by the media as well. There could not have been more poignant proof of how the Palestinian issue no longer interested the world.

That was the week that encapsulated Netanyahu’s fourth term as prime minister. Geopolitically, it was a huge success for him. On every other front, this government did very little aside from maintaining financial stability and social disunity.

Israel’s increasing economic prosperity could have become an opportunity for better integration of its two largest minorities – the ultra-Orthodox and Arab-Israeli communities – into the Israeli mainstream. Instead, the money that went to the ultra-Orthodox community was allocated according to the narrow interests of the rabbis and Haredi politicians, ensuring that hundreds of thousands of young ultra-Orthodox men and women continue to languish in the yeshiva benefit trap.

The increased resources to the Arab-Israeli community have improved education and employment there. But at the same time, coupled with Netanyahu’s unprecedented incitement against Arab Israelis, alienation has increased.

“It’s true that the last government increased funding to unprecedented levels,” says former Meretz lawmaker Esawi Freige. “But their attitude is unprecedented as well. It’s like eating in a fine restaurant where the waiter says to you: ‘I hope you choke on your food.’”

The outgoing Netanyahu government’s achievements, and lack thereof, can serve as an indication of how his next government will function.

It will continue to focus on geopolitics, on countering Iran, on making the ultra-Orthodox leadership happy, frustrating Arab Israelis and ignoring the Palestinians.

And yes, that means at least Netanyahu will find a way to avoid annexation.

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