Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, breaking the record of Israel’s first leader, the legendary David Ben Gurion.
Netanyahu launched his career mastering television soundbites, explaining Israel to US audiences. Thirty years later, he is still far ahead of the game, firing out Facebook videos. But Netanyahu’s narrative is now a bizarre contradiction. When he talks about Israeli tech and innovation, he exudes hope and optimism about its power to build bridges across the world. By contrast, his analysis of security threats is full of fear and pessimism. His lesson from Jewish history is its inherent fragility and the constant need to avert the next disaster.
The tragedy of Netanyahu’s career is that fear and pessimism has come to dominate his rhetoric, and is ruthlessly deployed to target and tarnish his domestic rivals. Bibi had hoped to mark his political milestone riding high at the helm of his fourth consecutive government. Instead, he is back on the campaign trail, fighting his second election in six months.
His last election campaign was infested with gutter politics, the culmination of years of violating democratic norms. Netanyahu derided his political opponents as leftists, attacked the media and impugned the motives of police and prosecutors for pursuing corruption cases against him.
The April election was a tie between Bibi’s Likud and the Blue and White party, led by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz. But Netanyahu was still confident he could form a majority coalition with his traditional allies from right-wing and religious parties.
But Bibi the master tactician had miscalculated.
Israel’s attorney general indicted Netanyahu, pending a hearing, for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in February. In coalition talks Bibi had one request – that his allies agree to grant him immunity from prosecution. Each party drove a hard bargain due to his weak negotiating position. The leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, insisted upon enforcing a deal to conscript increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox students. The ultra-Orthodox parties wanted the deal diluted. Neither party backed down and Netanyahu was forced to dissolve the newly elected parliament. As a result, his claims of strong and decisive leadership looked hollow.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu has led his Likud party into government three times in a row in the last 10 years. His followers hail him as a magician.
But has the magic fizzled out? If he fails again, will it be curtains for Bibi?
Even a chastened Netanyahu can outpace his rivals and he has a strong record. He claims credit for vital reforms that laid the foundations for Israel’s booming economy. Unemployment is low and, for many Israelis, life is good. He has forged new alliances in Africa, Asia, Latin America, eastern Europe and across the Middle East. He meets regularly with Vladimir Putin but has a unique personal bond with Donald Trump.
Netanyahu long ago identified Iran as an existential threat and demanded international action to deal with its nuclear programme. He opposed the 2015 nuclear deal as a weak agreement that failed to remove Iran’s nuclear capability, tackle Iran’s missiles or reduce its support for dangerous terrorist groups. When President Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions it was a win for Netanyahu’s campaign to contain Iran.
As the Assad regime teetered on the brink, Netanyahu saw the danger of the substantial Iranian and Hezbollah military build-up to rescue it. He authorised hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria to prevent a wider deployment but has kept casualties low to avoid escalation whilst destroying Iranian facilities and advanced weapons.
But Netanyahu has been otherwise very reluctant to use military force. Hamas has fired hundreds of missiles into Israel, but Netanyahu authorised only limited Israeli airstrikes in response, ignoring calls to launch a wider ground operation into Gaza. He has even agreed a truce to ease the blockade in return for an end to border violence.
Netanyahu’s plan for the West Bank hasn’t changed in decades. Despite a nod to the two-state solution in 2009, Netanyahu will only consider granting the Palestinians autonomy and no sovereignty, far short of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu claims he doesn’t want to control the West Bank in perpetuity but has done nothing to prevent that outcome. Despite presiding over years of close cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces, he believes he has no Palestinian partner and now is not the time for risky concessions. The reality is that the Palestinian leadership in Gaza and Ramallah have done little to challenge that view.
Netanyahu is a gifted orator and media master. He could have used his immense talents to unite his diverse but fractious country and break the stalemate with the Palestinians. Instead he has exacerbated divisions, undermined the pillars of Israeli democracy and become more fearful and more pessimistic – obsessed with staying in power as an end in itself.
That sadly could be his most enduring legacy.