Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has surpassed David Ben-Gurion as his country’s longest-serving leader. This, despite that he has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust from three separate corruption investigations and faces trial, regardless of his right-wing Likud party winning more votes than the left-wing party in the most recent Israeli election (the third in one year). In Israel and beyond (particularly in the US), Bibi – as he is nicknamed – is beloved by most of the right (even despite the charges) and scorned by those on the left. Whether he remains in power or is forced to step down prematurely, what will Netanyahu’s legacy be?
We look at three arguments for Israel’s premier and three against.
A Strong Leader
He is a cautious pragmatist
Opponents of Netanyahu often paint him as a reactionary or even a warmonger. Nothing could be further from the truth. On issues of war and peace in particular, Netanyahu has consistently shown notable restraint. Under his rule, Israel has been involved in two major military conflicts, both against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In December 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, Netanyahu resisted calls from within his government to launch a ground invasion. In the summer of 2014, Netanyahu did invade Gaza but stopped short of overthrowing Hamas and reoccupying the enclave, as some right-wing Israelis hoped.
While Netanyahu showed similar restraint in 2012 when he decided against a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, he has since (and sporadically) engaged in targeted military strikes of Iranian-backed terror bases in Syria, aimed at preventing Hezbollah from attacking Israel. While his rhetoric is often bellicose and even controversial, like when he addressed US Congress in 2015 to try to dissuade them from engaging with Iran, Netanyahu has built his career avoiding rash decisions over life and death matters.
He is a brilliant statesman
Netanyahu’s term has not seen many breakthroughs in peace talks with the Palestinians, but he has opened new doors throughout the Middle East and beyond. Most exceptional has been the shift in attitude of the Gulf states toward Israel, led by Saudi Arabia. Sparked by Netanyahu’s leadership in confronting Iran, Sunni leaders started quietly coordinating with Israel on security issues, as the Iranian threat began to carry more resonance than Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. While official diplomatic relations are still some ways off, Saudi officials now speak of accepting Israel as does Bahrain and the U.A.E.– unthinkable a generation ago. Half a century after fighting two devastating wars, Israel and Egypt have also seen their relations hit a high-water mark. While there won’t be a hint of peace between Israel and Syria any time soon, under Netanyahu, Israel has taken in and treated Syrian refugees from their civil war. He has further strengthened ties with India, Japan, and Africa. And he is one of few world leaders who has been able to influence US President Donald Trump.
He stewarded Israel though the global financial crisis
A former finance minister, Netanyahu took office in 2009 as the global financial crisis continued to send ripples across the globe. While Europe and the US suffered through a recession and lackluster recovering, Israel’s economy barely faltered.
Despite stresses from many directions, Israel’s economy has continued to thrive. The country has earned its reputation as the Star-Up Nation, with more companies listed on the NASDAQ than any countries outside the US and China. It spends more money than any other OECD country as a percentage of GDP, and is among the heavyweights in total venture capital. Netanyahu deserves much of the credit for Israel’s economic prosperity.
An Ineffectual Leader
He is indecisive
Netanyahu’s alleged pragmatism does not come from a bold commitment to progress without ideological attachment. On the contrary, he is excessively risk-adverse and ideologically inconsistent, and therefore unable to accomplish anything consequential. On Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Netanyahu recognized the need for a two-state solution early in his term, stating in 2009: “We do not want to rule over [the Palestinians]. We do not want to run their lives. We do not want to force our flag and our culture on them.”
In the more than ten years since, Bibi has done nothing to effect this vision, nor to articulate an alternative approach to the conflict. One of the most embarrassing examples of this incoherence came in 2013, when Netanyahu released dozens of Palestinian prisoners to launch peace talks, then derailed negotiations (and managed to win Israel blame for their failure) with a wave of Jewish settlement announcements. His approach to Iran was similarly disjointed. After years of threats, Netanyahu failed to act against Iran’s nuclear program. But his approach has managed to turn Israel into a partisan issue in the US, as well as a divisive issue among the Democratic presidential candidates.
He has no principles
Netanyahu built his career promising not to negotiate with terrorists; a book authored before his first term arguing against appeasement was said to be a favorite of President Reagan. Since taking office for his second term in 2009, however, Netanyahu has made more concessions to Hamas than to the moderate Palestinian Authority, empowering the terrorist group while ignoring his own advice. The case in point was the release of prisoner of war Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners – the exact kind of deal he warned against.
This is just one example of Netanyahu’s cynicism. After promising for six years that he was working towards the creation of a Palestinian state, he reversed course the day before the 2015 election – only to backtrack once again a day later. More recently, the prime minister announced he would allow 16,000 African migrants to remain in the country, then reversed course the very same day. Though he may be politically savvy and well-spoken, Netanyahu lacks the backbone and resolve to be considered a true leader. This can especially be seen after the preliminary election deal he made in the spring of 2019 with an extremist right-wing nationalist party to shore up support among his base.
He has allowed rampant corruption
One issue that has brought Israelis to the streets against the government has not been war, settlements or peace talks, but corruption. The country’s Attorney-General announced in November 2019 that Netanyahu has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust coming from three separate cases. Bibi has been indicted for taking bribes and of passing legislation favorable to a daily newspaper in exchange for positive coverage. His public corruption trial is scheduled for March 17, and the public is waiting to see if he will convince the judges of his innocence, or if he will be dethroned or even imprisoned. His wife, meanwhile, has also been indicted over the couple’s use of government resources for personal gain. The first lady has allegedly gone as far as forcing government employees to return empty bottles, then pocketing the refund money.
The Bottom Line: If there is one thing both supporters and opponents of Netanyahu can acknowledge, it is that he has left his mark on the country. At the same time, his resume is absent of any landmark achievement along the lines of Menachem Begin’s peace deal with Egypt or Levi Eshkol’s victory in the Six-Day War. Will history see him as a far-sighted leader, who cared more about protecting his country than winning military glory or a Nobel Peace Prize? Or will his preference toward stability be seen as fiddling with Israel’s opportunities to vanquish enemies or make peace? Or, will he go down in history as someone who’s ego was larger than his love of country? How do you view Netanyahu?