He Persisted

Column: Benjamin Netanyahu becomes Israel's longest-serving prime minister

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu / Getty Images
July 19, 2019

On July 20, Benjamin Netanyahu becomes Israel's longest-serving prime minister. His first tenure lasted from 1996 to 1999. This second stint began in 2009. Bibi has won five elections since. The most recent victory, in April, was Pyrrhic. He failed to form a government. An unprecedented rematch is set for September.

Whatever the result, Netanyahu's historical legacy is assured. He has proven to be not only a skilled and charismatic political operator, but also a remarkably effective steward of Israel's prosperity and safety.

"A successful democratic statesman," Irving Kristol wrote in 2001, "is one whose tenure in office is seen by his countrymen as representing a permanent contribution to the shaping of our democratic destiny. He is viewed as having expanded democratic horizons while nourishing the democratic spirit and reinforcing the popular commitment to self-government." Kristol was describing Ronald Reagan. When interpreted through the fractal lens of Israeli politics, his words also apply to Netanyahu's achievements in economics, diplomacy, and security.

Beginning with his first premiership, and continuing through his tenure as finance minister in Ariel Sharon's government, Netanyahu has encouraged the modernization and reform of a once sclerotic economy. What Dan Senor and Saul Singer called Start-up Nation has to a great extent replaced the Israel of labor, cartel, and kibbutz. Today Israel is an entrepreneurial, high-tech economy with a highly educated workforce.

"There is nary an economic indicator that doesn't look good," Melrav Arlosoroff wrote in Haaretz last December. "Gross domestic product has risen an average of 3 percent or more annually, unemployment is at a record low, employment is at a record high, more ultra-Orthodox and Arabs are joining the labor force, and the national debt has fallen to 60 percent of GDP." (We should be so lucky: America's debt is 105 percent of GDP.)

Netanyahu loves to discuss this economic record. I once heard him rhapsodize over the wonders of desalinization. If water reclamation moves you, you must be a wonk. Netanyahu wasn't simply boasting, however. He understands the relationship between economic growth and national power. It's not just that increased revenues can be spent to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge over her adversaries. Innovation has diplomatic applications as well. Other countries want to share in it. Foreign direct investment in Israel has surged since 2012. Tourism increased by about 50 percent during the past 10 years.

There is a widespread assumption, especially in media, that Israel is isolated. This is a myth. Netanyahu has strengthened and expanded Israel's alliances and relationships with world powers. Even in the midst of diplomatic daylight between his government and the Obama administration, Netanyahu could count on the support of leaders in the U.S. Congress and among the American people more broadly. His relationship with the current president, of course, has paid dividends. Finally, the U.S. embassy is located in Israel's capital. And none of the candidates seeking to replace President Trump have said they would move it back to Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu has not limited himself to the U.S.-Israel relationship. He's become close with the leaders of all the great powers, including Japan, India, Russia, and (most worrisomely) China. He has broadened the Israeli presence in Africa. And he has made remarkable diplomatic gains in the Arab world. "Israel is forging new diplomatic and economic ties with many countries, improving old ties with others, and expanding its trade and financial partnerships," Elliott Abrams wrote in January 2018. Later that year, Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister since 1996 to visit Oman and meet with Sultan Qaboos.

No mystery why. This diplomatic campaign has taken place against the backdrop of a changing Middle East. The Palestinian issue has receded in importance. Iran has come to the fore. The Islamic Republic's nuclear program, missile technology, proxy forces, terrorism, and malign behavior in the region concern not only Israel but also Sunni governments. Israel's regional partnerships have strengthened as transnational nongovernmental organizations wage political and economic warfare against her. Global anti-Semitism threatens Jewish lives while serving as a reminder of Israel's necessity. The Syrian civil war has made this picture worse by drawing Russia into a region from which she had been excluded for decades.

Netanyahu has endured because the Israeli public entrusts him with its security. The left discredited itself. It has collapsed as an effective political force. Its embrace of Oslo was a disaster that ended in bloodshed, separation, and stalemate. One of the secrets of Netanyahu's success is that the alternatives to him are unpalatable. The Labor Party of Ehud Barak withdrew from Lebanon, and the Kadima Party under Ehud Olmert launched an unpopular war against Hezbollah whose outcome was ambiguous.

Though he likes showmanship, addressing the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, and most recently the world on the subject of Iran's secret nuclear archive, caution defines Netanyahu's defense policy. He has set red lines on Iranian technology transfer to Hezbollah and on nuclear enrichment. Violations of the former have led to Israeli strikes in Syria, while the Iranians have yet to cross the nuclear threshold of 90 percent enrichment.

Netanyahu is an immigration hawk and has fenced Israel's borders. At the possible risk of Israel's deterrent, he has struck Hamas in Gaza only when rocket launches on civilian populations become politically unbearable. He has considerable room for maneuver, however, because of his strength on security and his solid relationship with the American president.

Israel faces threats not only from Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas, but also from campaigns of vilification, delegitimization, incitement, boycott and divestment, and anti-Semitism. These threats are the reason Netanyahu has remained in power. And his handling of them guarantees him a place in the pantheon of Jewish leaders.