Analysis |

Netanyahu Lost Power Today, but He's Leaving as a Winner

For almost 40 years as a diplomat and politician, Benjamin Netanyahu’s ideology triumphed over the Palestinians, the Israeli left and the very concept of what makes a successful prime minister

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing health workers last week.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing health workers last week. Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The British politician Enoch Powell wrote that “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.” By this standard, it’s hard to describe the way Benjamin Netanyahu’s term in Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office is about to end as a defeat. He is incapable of leaving the stage voluntarily, and he is no different in this than the country’s previous 11 premiers. None of them chose the circumstances in which they left office. That’s the nature of the job. It doesn’t end well.

Like his predecessors, Netanyahu is leaving against his will. But, assuming the new government is sworn in on Sunday afternoon, he’s leaving as a winner.

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The man who was written off so many times as a passing and inconsequential politician, even after his first term as prime minister in the 1990s, became Israel’s longest-serving leader – even longer than the founder, David Ben-Gurion. Someone who managed to hold onto power for 15 years didn’t lose, even if he was forced out at the end.

Netanyahu, his critics will say, has not left a positive legacy. The foundations of the economic prosperity he takes credit for were laid by previous governments. He has no major social reform to his name. The years of relative calm under his leadership, even the diplomatic agreements he signed last year with four Arab regimes, are due mainly to regional developments that have little, if anything, to do with him. The towers and interchanges he loves talking about would have been built without him. The only physical remnant he leaves behind that can reliably be said to be his is the fearsome border fence with Egypt.

But Netanyahu has won in the fields that are most important to him: perception, image and consciousness.

Netanyahu has won in the battle of his life – the one he has been fighting since the early 1970s when as a student in Boston he volunteered as a hasbara activist. He started fighting then against the concept of time working against Israel. That Israelis’ material quality of life, the country’s economic prosperity and standing in the world, is dependent on solving the conflict with the Palestinians.

The struggle against the idea that fulfilling the Palestinians’ national aspirations is key to Israel’s breakthrough to the world has been the essence of Netanyahu’s public career for the past 39 years, since he was appointed deputy ambassador in Washington in 1982. This was the core subject of his 1993 book “A Place Among the Nations,” and remained his main mission throughout his years in politics. And he won.

Netanyahu’s Israel gave nothing to the Palestinians and, despite the foreboding forecast of Ehud Barak that a “diplomatic tsunami” would crash over Israel and Ariel Sharon’s fear that Israel would be led like a bull into the corral, it prospered and flourished. Netanyahu won because he proved that the world doesn’t really care.

He was the first to recognize the fatigue of world leaders, as well as that of Arab dictators, over the Palestinian issue. As a ruthless pragmatist, he correctly assessed that as time passed, his fellow statesmen would prefer economic and security ties with Israel, and that the Palestinians had nothing to offer.

Netanyahu won in the international arena by reversing the diplomatic paradigm of the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on the local scene when he proved that the price of the occupation is not only bearable but almost worth it.

Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Alex Levac

He proved that it wasn’t necessary to make peace with the Palestinians to enjoy the fruits of peace, and in doing so negated the narrative of the center-left opposition that had styled itself since the start of the Oslo Accords as “the peace camp.” And before the opposition could come up with something new (it still hasn’t), Netanyahu had already built a new narrative for them as the “weak left.” He won there as well.

Arthur Finkelstein, the American strategic consultant who formed Netanyahu’s early election campaigns, considered making the word “liberal” an electoral liability in U.S. politics the peak of his achievements. Netanyahu has achieved something very similar in Israel by tainting the word “left” with the irredeemable stench of defeatism and treachery. An entire political camp, including its voters, trying to escape itself. Because Netanyahu won.And it’s not just a political strategy to win elections. In the Netanyahu home, the leaders of Labor forerunner Mapai were routinely called “Bolsheviks,” since his father, Benzion, truly believed they were serving an alien, anti-Zionist ideology. Netanyahu has succeeded in infecting Israeli society with his father’s hallucinatory ideology.

Another aspect of the Revisionist ideology Netanyahu Sr. taught his son is that propaganda is a central tenet of the Zionist project, even more important than the building of a new Jewish society (which the Zionist left focused its efforts on). Netanyahu Jr. won when he convinced Israelis that hasbara is an aim, not a means.

Benjamin Netanyahu changed Israelis’ expectations of their prime minister. First and foremost, he has to be capable of jousting in fluent English with hostile interviewers on foreign media networks. The role of chief hasbarist used to be that of a relatively junior politician, like the deputy foreign minister (Netanyahu’s position in Yitzhak Shamir’s second government); the prime minister had more pressing matters to attend to and be measured by.

Netanyahu won when presentation and image became more important than substance. When Israelis were tricked into thinking that geopolitics and macroeconomics are more important than details. That it’s fine for a prime minister to have absolutely no social policies because those are minor issues anyway.

Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, the two men coming to replace Netanyahu, have modeled their leadership images largely on his. They are his creations.

The Bennett-Lapid government is about to bring Netanyahu’s career to an end. But this government, led by a right-wing politician, a government that officially has no agenda on the Palestinian conflict and is built on the imagery of “unity” and “change” rather than any substantive policy, is Netanyahu’s victory as well.

Benjamin Netanyahu hailing a Likud victory in the 2015 election. Credit: Amir Cohen/REUTERS

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