Benjamin Netanyahu will be remembered as one of Israel’s most important prime ministers, second only to David Ben-Gurion not just in the length of his time in office but also in the mark he made. Ben-Gurion was the founding father of the first Israeli kingdom, of the dream. Netanyahu is the founding father of the second kingdom, of the dream’s shattering.
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Netanyahu is the shaper of contemporary Israel. It is a great injustice to compare him to one of his predecessors, Yitzhak Shamir — a featureless man whose creed was inaction. Netanyahu did a great deal; he influenced and he decided, he shaped and determined.
It is also unjust to view him as a cynical politician. He was one of Israel’s most ideological prime ministers ever, who could turn his extremist doctrine into the zeitgeist of the entire state.
Even when he hid his beliefs, he did so in order to advance them. Netanyahu never believed in peace with the Arabs — and he removed peace from Israel’s agenda. He never believed in the rights of the Palestinian people — and he destroyed the two-state solution. He genuinely believed that Jews are the chosen people — and he brought Israel closer to a future apartheid state modeled on his beliefs, including in its constitutional aspects.
Can one imagine a more sweeping success? Can one think of anyone who did more to advance his own worldview?
One of his predecessors made peace, another made war, but none of them was as influential as he. Pre-Netanyahu and post-Netanyahu Israel are two different states. The historian’s son made history, he can go out on top: He has guaranteed that he won’t be a mere footnote. History will remember everything about him.
Once upon a time there was an Israel. An Israel that spoke about peace and believed in it, even if it did almost nothing to achieve it; an Israel that was democratic, at least for Jews; an Israel that respected the other countries of the world and took them into account; that knew its size, the limits of its power and the boundaries of its influence.
Once there was an Israel that subdued its racism and was ashamed of it; that did not alternate only between rivers of hate and waves of intimidation. Where Arabs were not only suspicious objects and where war refugees were not only “infiltrators.” Where Judaism was not only for ultranationalists and the flag was not waved only by the settlers. Once there was hope, but it disappeared; someone severed it.
Netanyahu shaped a different Israel, in his own image. He was the prime minister of fear and hate.
Try to think of one positive mark he left, one significant way in which Israel is better after him than it was before him. Now think what a long road the state has traveled from Menachem Begin’s first resolution as premier, to take in a handful of Vietnamese “boat people,” to the last resolution of Netanyahu, Begin’s successor in Likud and in office, to enact a third version of the diabolical anti-infiltration bill. Think of the long road from banning Meir Kahane’s Kach party from the Knesset, including by Likud MKs, to the competition today among Likud MKs to introduce the most racist bills.
The darkness has emerged into the light, the margins have become the center and ultranationalism has become politically correct. Kahane lives: From his place in heaven, he can look with pride and satisfaction at the state Netanyahu has fashioned. From Kahane’s perspective, the state is surely on the right track, galloping toward the implementation of his doctrine.
This is not nostalgia for a past that never existed, nor is it an overly gloomy picture of the present and the future. Israel has changed. It’s a different place in which to live. It is more arrogant, more destructive, more aggressive and less democratic — toward minorities, both national and ideological; toward the neighborhood in which it lives and toward the world as a whole. It is more hated, and rightly so. It is a worse place.
Netanyahu is not prophesying Israel’s destruction, but he has done more than a little to bring that destruction closer.