Even when he surpassed the tenure of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding leader, in 2019, he led Israelis to exhaustion with four elections in two years in which the main problem was him, and the electorate was divided in half each time.
His insistence that only he was capable of leading the small but troubled country was called into question by his initial mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, in which deaths and infections soared and disparities in the application of the closures highlighted his debt to the ultra-Orthodox allies.
Still, he managed to turn that embarrassment into triumph by negotiating a deal for a vaccine supply that made Israel a world leader in vaccination and brought a traumatized society back to life.
As he resigned from power for the first time in a dozen years and nearly a quarter of a century after he first became prime minister in 1996, and defiantly vowed to return for a third act, Netanyahu, 71, leaves Israel from many ways away. stronger than he found it. The country has a globally envied tech industry, fearsome military, cutting-edge intelligence and counter-terrorism capabilities, diplomatic and trade relations in Asia, Africa and Latin America that seemed unattainable a decade ago, and fast-growing ties with Arab lands that were unfathomable even a year ago.
Netanyahu’s critics envied his political genius, but were bitter about his inability to apply those gifts more courageously.
“He is so capable that he could have done almost anything,” said Ben Caspit, an Israeli columnist and Netanyahu biographer on two occasions. “If I had brought a peace treaty to the Israeli public, I would have approved it by 80 percent. He could have been the king of the center. But he’s not brave enough. “
That failure, however, was considered a great success by his right-wing admirers, who credited him with blocking a Palestinian state and, as his former Minister of Education and the Interior, Gideon Saar put it, “rescued us” half the time. . Peace process of the 1990s.
The Palestinians could only look in awe at Netanyahu’s ability to make Israel the victim forever, despite his violent and repressive occupation, and what they saw as his cynical game of the peace process to expand West Bank settlements instead of cede territory.
Netanyahu argued that he had been right the entire time: Failure to come to terms with the Palestinians or halt settlements in the West Bank had not and would not lead to a devastating “diplomatic tsunami,” as critics on the left had warned. Israel could perpetuate the occupation without paying a price in international legitimacy.
What tsunami? What isolation? “He sang in 2017.” What nonsense. “
Netanyahu, known to all as Bibi, was practically a newcomer to Israel when he first ran for office in 1988. The son of a right-wing Zionist scholar, he attended high school in Philadelphia, college at the Institute of Technology from Massachusetts and worked as a consultant in Boston before being recruited as an Israeli diplomat and sent to Washington. In 1984, he moved to New York as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, where he became a regular on shows like Nightline other Larry King Live.
With such star power, he surpassed veteran Israeli politicians on his way up. He won more accolades during the 1991 Gulf War, being interviewed live by CNN wearing a gas mask as missile warning sirens howled, and he appeared in court as Israel’s spokesperson at the Madrid peace conference. In 1993, at age 43, he won the leadership of the conservative Likud party.
Although the Oslo peace talks left Israelis breathless when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands before the outstretched arms of US President Bill Clinton, Netanyahu criticized the territorial concessions and attacked Arafat as a hardened terrorist. .
It was only after a Jewish extremist massacred 29 Palestinians and the Palestinians responded with a wave of suicide bombings that public opinion turned to him. But his appearances at rallies where crowds chanted “Death to Rabin” colored him, justly or not, as having fueled and fueled the incitement that led to Rabin’s assassination in 1995.
Undeterred, he faced Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres. After a masterful performance in his only debate, Netanyahu narrowly scored a surprise.
Governing was more difficult.
The opening of a tunnel under the Western Wall, despite the objections of Muslim clerics, triggered deadly shootings between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. Punished, Netanyahu agreed to withdraw troops from the West Bank city of Hebron, prompting the right wing to abandon him. When the poisoning of a Hamas leader failed in Jordan and the would-be assassins captured, a humiliated Israel was forced to supply the antidote and free the spiritual leader of Hamas and dozens of other Palestinian prisoners.
His defeat in 1999 was not the end of his troubles. Police accused him of using state money to fix up their private homes, and his wife, Sara, was forced to return hundreds of gifts she had taken from the prime minister’s residence.
But Netanyahu preserved his prestige in Washington, where he testified before Congress in the run-up to the Iraq war. “If you eliminate Saddam, Saddam’s regime,” he argued, “I guarantee you it will have huge positive repercussions in the region.”
Netanyahu was more confident when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed him Finance Minister in 2003.
When Sharon left the Likud to form a centrist party, Netanyahu regained the leadership of the Likud. But the working-class and ultra-Orthodox voters whose profits he had gutted demanded revenge. The Likud won just 12 seats in parliament in 2006, its worst performance in half a century.
Netanyahu’s critics say he learned a simple lesson. Forced to choose between achieving great things and retaining power, he would always choose power.
When the next elections rolled around in 2009, Netanyahu had forged a new pact with ultra-Orthodox leaders.
Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni narrowly edged him out, but right-wing and religious parties denied him a coalition and got behind him, returning him to the post of prime minister.
Only once did Netanyahu turn his back on the ultra-Orthodox; In 2013, he joined a coalition with the centrist Yesh Atid party of Livni and Yair Lapid. But when Livni and Lapid backed legislation that threatened Israel Hayom, Netanyahu called a new election. His next government would be the most right-wing and religious in Israel’s history.
There was a time when Netanyahu was so popular in America that some said he could be elected president. A 2015 poll found that Republicans admired him as much as Ronald Reagan and more than the Pope.
He put that popularity to the test in his crusade to block the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Designing himself as a Churchill of the last days, Netanyahu had been sounding the alarm about Iran’s nuclear program for 20 years. It kept the world guessing whether Israel would stage a preemptive strike, as it had done in Iraq and Syria.
It is unclear whether the unspoken threat was serious or an elaborate hoax. But while it helped pressure the United States and Europe to step up sanctions against Iran, critics said it also prompted then-President Barack Obama to seek a deal with Iran before the sanctions brought Iran to its knees.
For the Likud base, Netanyahu was still “Bibi, King of Israel”, having been serenaded for a long time.
But the devotees were not enough. Four times in the past two years, he fell short of a parliamentary majority, despite siding with a far-right anti-Arab party and then courting the very Arab voters he once demonized.
Netanyahu had long been viewed as a treacherous partner, having repeatedly humiliated those who posed potential threats. His final act smelled deserved, as several former protégés, including former allies on the right, rallied to depose him, with an Arab party providing crucial assistance.
What all his adversaries agreed on was that Netanyahu’s coups represented too great a threat to the internal cohesion of the country and, therefore, to its security, and that what was indispensable for both was that he should leave.
The New York Times