Some Israeli Prime Ministers Retire With Dignity, Others Leave Scorched Earth Behind

Yechiam Weitz
Yechiam Weitz
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Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yechiam Weitz
Yechiam Weitz

Most of Israel’s prime ministers have been forced to step down against their will, but most of them left the Prime Minister’s Office in a proper and dignified way.

Golda Meir, for instance, was forced to resign in 1974 following noisy public protests in the wake of the Agranat Commission’s interim findings on the Yom Kippur War and sharp criticism inside her party. In June that year she resigned as prime minister and Labor Party leader and passed control on to her successor, Yitzhak Rabin, in an orderly fashion. She also resigned from the Knesset in order to send a clear message that she was leaving the world of politics. Shortly after she announced her resignation, she moved from the Prime Minister’s Residence to her private home in Ramat Aviv.

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Yizthak Shamir is another example. After the Likud party’s failure in the election for the 13th Knesset in 1992, he handed power over to Rabin (with whom he had good relations) in a dignified fashion and announced he planned to step down as party chairman. He didn’t want to be opposition leader even for one day.

In contrast to Meir and Shamir, there were two Israeli prime ministers who quit in an outrageous and disrespectful manner. The first was David Ben-Gurion and the second was Benjamin Netanyahu. Their resignations followed a similar pattern.

Both left after being in office for an unusually long period of time, indeed longer than any other Israeli leader. Ben-Gurion served 13 years in two different terms and Netanyahu no less than 15 years in two terms. Both were also forced to resign after a long twilight period of their respective rule.

In Ben-Gurion’s case, it was in January 1961, at the peak of the Lavon affair. He resigned in the hope that he would be able to form a new government. When that failed, he called an early election for the Fifth Knesset the following August. Again, Ben-Gurion failed to form a government, so the task was given to Finance Minister Levi Eshkol to complete in Ben-Gurion’s name – something never done before or since.

In June 1963, Ben-Gurion finally resigned when he came to the conclusion that his allies, mainly Meir and Isser Harel, had abandoned him, leaving him feeling betrayed, isolated and angry.

Netanyahu also failed to form a government during two years, from 2019 and 2021, over the course of four elections that he himself initiated and despite the fact the President Reuven Rivlin awarded him the mandate over and over again. Instead, it was his biggest enemies that in the end formed a government in June. They succeeded for one main reason: The desire of his political opponents and the tens of thousands of protestors to see Netanyahu and his family leave the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street.

Both Netanyahu and Ben-Gurion were ready to do a lot in order to hold on to power.

Ben-Gurion was prepared to take any step, including ones that hurt his party and his public image, to regain the helm. In 1965, ahead of the election for the Sixth Knesset, he unsuccessfully sought to unseat Eshkol as prime minister. Instead of respecting the results of his failed bid, he broke away from the Mapai party and formed the Rafi party in the hope of returning to power that way.

But the election to the Sixth Knesset went badly for him, leaving Rafi with just 10 seats. From the opposition, the heads of Rafi watched helplessly as Eshkol proceeded to form a new government. Ben-Gurion’s obsession with returning to power cost him heavily, turning him into something of a political corpse.

Netanyahu was ready to pay an exorbitant price to return to power, but he failed and damaged his image along the way. His negotiations with the head of the United Arab List, Mansour Abbas, gave the latter the imprimatur of legitimacy to later join the “change” coalition, while his assistance to Itamar Ben-Gvir turned the former premier into a patron of Kahanism.

There’s another similarity: Both went to war against their prospective heirs. Ben-Gurion anointed Eshkol as his successor, but shortly afterward waged a war against him: He declared that Eshkol was unfit to lead the country, even claiming that he was responsible for some unnamed security failure without ever explaining what it was. Ben-Gurion stopped talking to Eshkol and when the latter died in February 1969, he did him the final dishonor of not attending his funeral.

One of the reasons for Ben-Gurion’s burning hatred was jealousy: In June 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson invited Eshkol for a state visit. Ben-Gurion, throughout his long term as prime minister, had never received an official invitation from an American president. The jealousy burned brightly in him.

Netanyahu similarly waged war against his heir, Naftali Bennett, because he wasn’t able to accept the fact that a man who had once been his aide would eventually occupy his chair in the Prime Minister’s Office. Worse still: The official Balfour residence now belongs to Bennett. After all, only a short while ago, it was Netanyahu who had generously invited Bennett to visit the fortress for an entire weekend…

There are other similarities between Netanyahu and Ben-Gurion, but a small yet critical difference between them should be noted: Ben-Gurion made difficult, risky and even harsh decisions that changed the face of Israeli society for generations, for better or for worse. Netanyahu, by comparison, avoided making fundamental decisions for fear they might jeopardize his continued rule. Netanyahu was the only prime minister who didn’t see his rule as a way of bettering the country but as an end to itself.

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