Analysis

13 Years, 128 Days and Counting: Netanyahu Surpasses Ben-Gurion. But What’s His Legacy?

Although he claims all of the credit for the country’s economic and diplomatic achievements, Bibi is merely reaping the benefits of his predecessors’ efforts. His legacy is his longevity, and precious little else

Israel's longest serving prime ministers: David Ben Gurion (L) and Benjamin Netanyahu (R)
Yaakov Saar/ Cohen Fritz / GPO

That’s it. He’s done it. Benjamin Netanyahu can now put a big tick besides “BB>BG” on his bucket list. As of Saturday he is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister — a record that stood for 56 years. And now it’s broken, the new one will probably stand for the rest of our lifetimes. Thirteen years, 128 days and counting...

Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, on the balcony of his office in Tel Aviv in 1949
ELDAN DAVID / לע"מ

As the Netanyahus raise their glasses of Sara’s favorite pink champagne at their Shabbat meal in Caesarea, they are justified in celebrating a significant milestone. Few elected leaders anywhere in the world have lasted this long at the very top.

They may as well celebrate while they still can, because the polls for September’s do-over election and the impending indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust make it increasingly clear that these could be his last months in office.

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Yet Netanyahu can still allow himself a grim smile of satisfaction. Who predicted back in July 1999, when he had barely completed three years (and 17 days) in power before Ehud Barak kicked him out, that he would ever come back?

Not even 50, he already seemed burned-out. An aberration. A failed experiment never to be repeated. That was exactly 20 years ago, and Netanyahu would not only prove them all wrong by clawing his way back, but prove that it hadn’t been a mistake. As the first leader of the Zionist right wing, Ze’ev Jabotinsky once wrote in a poem: “God, you chose us to rule.”

Then-candidate for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sarah (L) wave to supporters in Jerusalem ahead of the election on 29 May, 1996
MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP/ מנחם �

Of all of Benjamin Netanyahu’s achievements, this is the biggest: Rebuilding Likud after the departure of Ariel Sharon to Kadima in 2005 and the party’s subsequent downfall (when it won only 12 seats in the 2006 election), and stringing together three consecutive victories and clinging onto power for more than a decade.

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Despite his claims, he failed to win the election in April and is now hanging on by his fingernails. But he’s still there. His legacy is his longevity, and precious little else.

Not that he hasn’t been a successful prime minister this past decade. Even his most bitter rivals would have to concede that he has delivered 10 years of uninterrupted economic growth and prosperity, with the possible exception of the years between the Suez war in 1956 and the Six-Day War in 1967, which was the calmest decade in security terms — though that of course is relative.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Bill Clinton walking in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 9, 1996.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

The last 10 years of Netanyahu have been ones of unprecedented low unemployment and casualty rates, record-breaking Israeli exports, and flourishing trade and diplomatic relations on every continent.

Netanyahu deserves credit for this, but nowhere near as much as he demands in speeches and sycophantic interviews in the free Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom. He has been an effective steward of Israel’s economic fortunes, its security and foreign relations, but he has been reaping what his predecessors sowed and laid very few foundations of his own.

Strong inheritance

Israel owes its current prosperity to the Shimon Peres government of 1985, which stabilized the economy, ended the crippling hyperinflation and ushered in fiscal discipline. The high-tech boom was sparked by the original investments in Israel’s venture capital industry, decided upon by Yitzhak Rabin’s government in the early 1990s. And it was thanks to the prudent management of Ehud Olmert’s government that Israel emerged relatively unscathed from the 2008 global financial crisis.

Netanyahu will never credit his predecessors, but it is thanks to them that he inherited a strong economy when he returned to office in 2009. He claims it as his legacy, but he is the one enjoying the legacy of others.

Sure, he deserves credit for not squandering his inheritance, but it is largely due to good fortune and external circumstances far beyond his control that he has not had to face a recession. Meanwhile, he has made none of the necessary difficult decisions to stave off a future downturn or face other major looming challenges. Netanyahu celebrates the success of the private tech companies in developing cutting-edge software for autonomous vehicles, but the country’s road infrastructure and public transport remain decades behind.

Bibi regales foreign guests with sales figures of cybersecurity products, but ignores the chronic shortage of skilled engineers in the high-tech industry — a shortage that stems from an underfunded education system and Netanyahu’s reluctance to challenge the ultra-Orthodox leadership and engage with the Arab community in order to bring a third of Israel’s population into the workforce.

His lack of interest in an education policy is matched only by his disdain for such mundane matters as the housing shortage crisis, the lack of hospital beds and the social security deficit. There are no billion dollar exits or ribbons to be cut there. Israel never had a prime minister so singularly uninterested in its society, and Netanyahu doesn’t even claim to have a legacy in that regard. He simply can’t be bothered.

President Barack Obama speaking to members of the media as he meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House, Washington, November 9, 2015.
Andrew Harnik / AP

However, the ultimate duty of an Israeli prime minister is to keep the country safe. And Netanyahu certainly deserves credit for that, being the prime minister with the lowest casualty rate for soldiers (and civilians in terror attacks). This is testament to his risk aversion and reluctance to embark on large-scale military adventures, shielding the Israeli army from unnecessary risks. Here again, though, Netanyahu is the beneficiary of decisions made by his predecessors and external circumstances.

Withstanding pressure

Despite not making any progress with the Palestinians, Netanyahu has not faced a full-scale intifada — largely because the Palestinians are still traumatized by the crushing failure of the previous intifada, ruthlessly put down by Sharon, who launched Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, and are split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.

It was Sharon who extricated Israel from Gaza in 2005, a move Netanyahu never could have pulled off, and it was under Olmert that the security coordination with the Palestinian Authority was cemented. And with his decision to bomb the nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007, Olmert also established the doctrine of carrying out pinpoint strikes against strategic threats in Syria without taking direct responsibility.

An election campaign billboard showing Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, Israel, April 7, 2019.
Oded Balilty, AP

Netanyahu has successfully continued his predecessors’ security policies and skillfully navigated Israel through upheavals in the Arab world, but he has been largely reactive. His bombastic rhetoric toward Iran and its proxies was basically a cover for continuing the secret wars against them that began under Sharon.

We should be thankful for that, of course, and for the fact that he never ordered a strike on Iran’s nuclear installations. But at the same time, we should realize that he did not invent new doctrines, just new sound bites.

He also repeatedly takes credit for Israel’s flourishing ties with countries in the Far East and the discreet alliances with Sunni Arab nations. But yet again, the engagement began under previous premiers and the progress made during the Netanyahu years was largely a result of the changing regional and global diplomatic climate.

From the right-wing’s perspective, Netanyahu succeeded in withstanding pressure during former U.S. President Barack Obama’s tenure to make any meaningful concessions to the Palestinians. Netanyahu is now enjoying a pressure-free period with President Donald Trump, which can equally be seen as a do-nothing approach and a squandering of Israel’s best opportunity to reach a historic compromise with the Palestinians from a position of strength.

U.S. President Donald Trump meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, May 2017.
מארק ישראל סלם

Instead of using this unique time with a totally compliant U.S. administration and a disengaged Arab world to achieve a breakthrough — or to annex parts of the West Bank — Netanyahu has chosen stagnation and meaningless “recognition” gestures from Trump.

A legacy is what you leave to those who come after you. Netanyahu has made full use of the one he received, boosting favorable diplomatic conditions to the max in the interests of short-term goals and his political survival.

When he is finally forced to leave, his successor will receive a country in a relatively better condition — but it will not be fundamentally different to the one Netanyahu took over in 2009. From the overcrowded hospitals and jammed highways to the ticking time bombs in Gaza and Iran, he has solved nothing.

Kicking the hand grenade down the road without it exploding is an achievement of sorts in the Middle East. But it is not a legacy. Being Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is just a line on Netanyahu’s Wikipedia entry and testament to his mastery of political survival.