The Netanyahu era is probably approaching its end, begging the question of “Bibi’s legacy”: Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, but has he left an indelible stamp on the country and led it in new directions, or simply floated from crisis to crisis and hoped for the best?
The answer is most likely the latter. Since taking office in 2009 after a decade in the political wilderness, Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a radical but has skirted any decisions that would change the existing order. His main order of business has been staying in power.
Netanyahu depicts himself as someone from the margins, the representative of the neglected segments of Jewish society – the Mizrahim and religious Jews. He’s the clear opponent of institutions associated with the mainstream, above all the military.
His conflict with the army played out in full in the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier who was convicted of manslaughter for killing a Palestinian assailant who was already lying wounded on the ground. But there was also his conflict with television’s Channel 2 (now Channel 12) and the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. It’s no wonder that Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, which is striving to replace Netanyahu, is led by three former military chiefs and a civilian who was a Channel 2 host and an important columnist at Yedioth.
Kahol Lavan is the clear representative of the “old elites,” a term that came into use during Netanyahu’s first tenure as prime minister in the late ‘90s. The old elites are the majority in communities historically identified with Ashkenazi Jews and the Labor movement, including Tel Aviv and its well-heeled suburbs Ramat Hasharon and Givatayim, Kiryat Tivon near Haifa, the coastal plain in general and the kibbutzim.
In places where real estate is expensive and in high demand, voters prefer Gantz, who declared when he entered politics that he intended to take over from Netanyahu. Sure enough, he did surprisingly well in last year’s two elections despite his lack of political experience and image as a staid general.
Gantz represents the upper deciles, but one on one he comes across as a simple man. His language is simple, he doesn’t condescend and he doesn’t suffer from elite intellectualism. He never comes across as the smartest guy in the room, the way former Prime Minister Ehud Barak might.
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Still, Netanyahu, who purports to represent the lowest deciles of Jewish society, the places where real estate is cheap, acts like an elite, has top-flight rhetorical skills, and in one-on-one conversations cites numbers and examples from history. Netanyahu, who claims to be persecuted by the powerful, grew up in the well-heeled Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia and later the United States, and served in an elite army unit when this was a much more exclusive club.
Gantz, a child of Holocaust survivors, comes from the south and earned his social mobility thanks to his military career. He comes off as a character in a song by the iconic Arik Einstein or Naomi Shemer.
The image Netanyahu painted for himself, as a champion of the poor, has taken him from election victory to election victory. His party’s most stinging loss, to Ehud Olmert’s Kadima in 2006, was punishment for his actions as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government. That was the only time Netanyahu pleased his traditional enemies, who appreciated his tax cuts, privatizations and weakening of the banks and unions – all policies that benefit the wealthy.
As finance minister, Netanyahu learned that reforms and changes can provoke opposition and draw a heavy political price. But making noise has no price, only advantages, because it keeps both opponents and supporters busy and scarcely changes the existing order. This has been Netanyahu’s modus operandi since returning to power a decade ago – controlling the agenda and continuing the fight against his enemies, both internal and external, without leading any major changes. For him it’s enough to spark an argument and make the headlines, over and over.
Netanyahu has made no moves that his successors will struggle to undo. Leaders who left their mark made controversial decisions but their opponents never tried to turn back the clock. You’d be hard-pressed to find a decision by Netanyahu over the last 10 years that changed Israel in a way future governments couldn’t reverse.
Stifling the peace process and reducing international pressure on Israel to halt the occupation and settlement construction – moves that served the right – stemmed mainly from the considerations of global powers and less from any initiative by Netanyahu.
Netanyahu will be remembered mainly due to his criminal trial if he doesn’t get out of it somehow or opt for a plea deal. His fatal flaw is his obsession with the media, but maybe this is where he has achieved his biggest success – breaking the media monopoly headed by Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes. Ultimately Netanyahu’s most daring move was recording his conversations with Mozes, his co-defendent in one of the three corruption cases.