Netanyahu, ‘King of Israel,’ exits a stage he dominated
By David M. Halbfinger
JERUSALEM — He came to power like some conqueror from a distant land called Philadelphia.
Educated in the United States, speaking flawless East Coast English, warning in pungent sound bites about the threats posed by Islamic terrorism and a nuclear Iran, the Benjamin Netanyahu who stormed into Israeli politics in the 1990s was like no other politician the country had seen.
Before long, he would capture the prime minister’s office, lose it, then seize it again a decade later, becoming Israel’s longest-serving leader and inspiring such admiration that supporters likened him to the biblical King David. His political agility got him out of so many tight spots that even his detractors called him a magician.
He presided over an extraordinary economic turnaround, kept the perennially embattled country out of major wars and kept casualty tolls to historic lows. He feuded with Democratic US presidents, then capitalized on a symbiosis with the Trump administration to cement historic gains, including the opening of a US Embassy in Jerusalem.
He compartmentalized the Palestinian conflict, snubbing the endless peace talks that had stymied his predecessors, unilaterally expanding the Jewish presence in the occupied West Bank and treating Palestinians largely as a security threat to be contained.
While the chance for a lasting peace with the Palestinians — the singular achievement that could give Israelis long-term stability and worldwide acceptance — receded on his watch, he struck watershed accords with four Arab countries that had long shunned Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians. Those agreements overturned decades of conventional wisdom that peace with the Palestinians had to come first, and constitute perhaps his most far-reaching achievement.
Still, Netanyahu — who was ousted as prime minister Sunday (13) — has been a deeply polarizing figure, governing from the right, branding adversaries as traitors, anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, obsessed with power and comfortable deploying street-fighter tactics to retain it.
The intuitive media savvy that sped his rise to power curdled in time into an almost narcissistic obsession. His efforts to control his image, including allegations that he bribed media executives for favourable news coverage, led to criminal charges that haunted his final years in office.
Even as he surpassed the tenure of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding leader, in 2019, he drove Israelis to exhaustion with four elections in two years in which the main issue was him, and the electorate split down the middle each time.
His insistence that only he was capable of leading the tiny but fractious country was called into doubt by his initial mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, in which deaths and infections soared and disparities in the enforcement of lockdowns highlighted his indebtedness to ultra-Orthodox allies.
Still, he managed to turn that embarrassment into triumph by negotiating a deal for a vaccine supply that made Israel a global vaccination leader and brought a traumatized society back to life.
As he relinquishes power for the first time in a dozen years and nearly a quarter-century to the day after he first became prime minister in 1996 — and defiantly vowing to return for a third act — Netanyahu, 71, leaves Israel in many ways far stronger than he found it. The country has a globally envied tech industry, fearsome military, cutting-edge intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities, diplomatic and trade relationships across Asia, Africa and Latin America that seemed unattainable a decade ago, and fast-knitting ties to Arab lands that were unfathomable even a year ago.
Netanyahu’s critics envied his political genius but felt embittered by his failure to apply those gifts more courageously.
“He’s so capable, he could have done almost anything,” said Ben Caspit, an Israeli columnist and two-time Netanyahu biographer. “If he had brought the Israeli public a peace treaty, he’d have gotten it approved by 80%. He could have been the king of the centre. But he’s not brave enough.”
That failure, however, was considered a wild success by his admirers on the right, who credited him with having blocked a Palestinian state and, as his former education and interior minister, Gideon Saar, put it, “rescued us” from the mid-1990s peace process.
Palestinians could only look on in awe at Netanyahu’s ability to cast Israel as ever the victim, despite its violent and repressive occupation, and at what they saw as his cynical gaming of the peace process to expand West Bank settlements rather than give up territory.
“He lied to everybody,” said Hanan Ashrawi, the former Palestinian negotiator. “He wanted to be part of an international club that had a certain consensus, although he was outside that in his own policies, ideology and thinking. But he wanted to be part of it, so he played the game. And it was very clear that it was a game.”
Through it all, Netanyahu still won his legacy.
In hopes of galvanizing right-wing voters, he promised to realize the generations-old dream of annexing much of the occupied West Bank that had been captured from Jordan in 1967. His own Likud party had long held back from annexation, believing that absorbing millions of Palestinians could spell the end of Israel either as a Jewish state or as a democracy.
He never made good on that promise, but in a feat of alchemy, he parlayed the threat of annexation into a long-sought normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates, quickly followed by pacts with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. None was as meaningful as Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt or Jordan, former antagonists, but together they amounted to a stunning breakthrough.
Netanyahu argued that he had been right all along: Failure to reach a deal with the Palestinians or to curb West Bank settlement had not and would not lead to a devastating “diplomatic tsunami”, as left-wing critics had warned. Israel could perpetuate the occupation without paying a price in international legitimacy.
“What tsunami? What isolation?” he crowed in 2017. “What foolishness.”
Yet as he towered over Israel’s public life and commanded world attention like no countryman had before, Netanyahu’s shortcomings also took on outsize proportions.
He came in like a Kennedy, with brilliance and charisma, running rings around the much older Shimon Peres in a televised 1996 debate and introducing a slick, poll-tested American style.
He went out more like Nixon, his accomplishments tainted by allegations of criminality, his circle of trust constricted by banishments, betrayals and arrests until it included few besides his temperamental wife and calumniating eldest son.
Netanyahu, known to all as Bibi, was practically a newcomer to Israel when he made his first run for office in 1988. The son of a right-wing Zionist scholar, he attended high school in Philadelphia, college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 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’ and ‘Larry King Live’.
With such star power, he blew past veteran Israeli politicians on his way up the ranks. He won more acclaim during the 1991 Gulf War, being interviewed live on CNN in a gas mask as missile-warning sirens howled, and holding court as Israel’s spokesman at the Madrid peace conference. In 1993, at age 43, he won the leadership of the conservative Likud party.
Though the Oslo peace talks left Israelis breathless as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands before President Bill Clinton’s outstretched arms, Netanyahu railed against territorial giveaways and assailed Arafat as an inveterate terrorist.
Only after a Jewish extremist massacred 29 Palestinians and Palestinians responded with a wave of suicide bombings did public opinion turn his way. But his appearances at rallies where crowds chanted “Death to Rabin” stained him, fairly or not, as having fuelled and fed on the incitement that led to Rabin’s assassination in 1995.
Undeterred, he took on Rabin’s successor, Peres, and showed a willingness to hit below the belt. “Peres will divide Jerusalem,” he warned, without evidence. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis, their adherents becoming more hawkish in response to deadly terrorist attacks, chimed in that “Netanyahu is good for the Jews,” leaving unsaid the implication about Peres. After a masterly performance in their only debate, Netanyahu scored a narrow upset.
Governing was harder.
The opening of a tunnel under the Western Wall, over the objections of Muslim clerics, set off deadly gun-battles between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. Chastened, Netanyahu agreed to pull troops back from the West Bank city of Hebron, prompting the right-wing to desert him. When the poisoning of a Hamas leader was botched in Jordan and the would-be assassins caught, a humiliated Israel was forced to supply the antidote and release Hamas’ spiritual leader and dozens of other Palestinian prisoners.
By the time he stood for re-election in 1999, his opponents’ slogan was “Just not Bibi”.
His defeat was not the end of his troubles. The police accused him of using State money to fix up his private homes, and his wife, Sara, was forced to return hundreds of gifts she had taken from the prime minister’s residence.
But Netanyahu retained his cachet in Washington, where he testified before Congress in the run-up to the Iraq War. “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime,” he argued, “I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.”
Netanyahu was on surer ground when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon named him finance minister in 2003.
It seemed a thankless task; the Second Intifada had ground Israel’s economy nearly to a halt. “When you have buses and cafes blowing up, people don’t go shopping,” said economist Dan Ben-David. “Businesses were failing and we hit one of the worst recessions that we’ve had in decades. Money was flowing out of the country.”
Netanyahu attacked Israel’s financial bloat with zeal, slashing taxes and costly benefits like the child allowances that subsidized large religious families. He privatized the State telecom, airline and shipping companies, deregulated financial services, freed up huge sums for investment and brought inflation, unemployment and the budget deficit under control.
“He basically saved the economy,” Ben-David said.
When Sharon quit Likud to form a centrist party, Netanyahu reclaimed the Likud leadership. But the working-class and ultra-Orthodox voters whose benefits he had gutted exacted payback. Likud won just 12 seats in Parliament in 2006, its worst showing in half a century.
Netanyahu’s critics say he drew a simple lesson. Forced to choose between accomplishing great things and retaining power, he would choose power every time.
Netanyahu blamed others, primarily the news media, for his defeat. Badgering wealthy benefactors to create a media company akin to Fox News in the United States, he got his wish in 2007 when American billionaire Sheldon Adelson launched Israel Hayom, a free nationwide daily paper that was derided as an amen corner for Netanyahu.
By the time the next election came, in 2009, Netanyahu had forged a new compact with ultra-Orthodox leaders. In return for their support, he acquiesced to their demands on welfare and exemption from the military draft, and let them largely dictate state policy on religious conversions, Sabbath closings, marriage, divorce and dietary laws.
He was narrowly edged by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, but the right-wing and religious parties denied her a coalition and fell in behind him, restoring him to the premiership.
Only once did Netanyahu later turn his back on the ultra-Orthodox; in 2013, he entered a coalition with Livni and Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party. 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.
More characteristic was what happened in 2017, when Netanyahu brokered a delicate arrangement to let non-Orthodox Jews pray at the Western Wall, with men and women side by side.
It was the sort of unifying move that gave credence to his claims to be a leader of the entire Jewish people. But when ultra-Orthodox news outlets denounced it, Netanyahu crumpled and reneged. American Jewish leaders could do nothing but fume.
Not a Peacemaker
Netanyahu’s lack of progress with the Palestinians drew accusations that he had no interest in ending the conflict.
In fairness, Israelis had generally soured on peacemaking after the Second Intifada’s devastating suicide attacks and the takeover of Gaza by Hamas. The Israeli left was a shambles. The electorate, enlarged by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, was drifting to the right. When President Barack Obama pressed Netanyahu for a settlement freeze in 2009 to lure the Palestinians to the table, Netanyahu could stonewall him without paying a domestic political price.
Under White House pressure, Netanyahu for the first time endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state, though with so many caveats the Palestinians called it a nonstarter. And when he agreed to a 10-month moratorium on settlements, he carved out huge loopholes and oversaw a surge in housing approvals once the moratorium lapsed.
For several years, Netanyahu went along with a series of back-channel negotiations with Palestinian representatives. In one of the most promising, Peres, by then an elder statesman, was nearing an agreement with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, in 2011, when Netanyahu pulled the plug.
“Throughout the entire process, he knew he’d stop me at the last moment,” Peres once said, according to Caspit, the biographer. Peres added, “He moves toward peace, but also he doesn’t.”
Even those who worked most closely with Netanyahu struggled to understand his motivation.
“Was he ever serious?” asked Aaron David Miller, a long-time American negotiator and Middle East analyst. “That’s the real question.”
Doubters had plenty of evidence: a 2001 videotape in which Netanyahu boasted that he had effectively “put an end to the Oslo accords” even as he publicly promised to honour them; a 2015 election-eve vow to prevent a Palestinian state from being created. He spoke of allowing the Palestinians only a “state-minus”, with “all the power to govern themselves but none of the powers to threaten us”. Later, he promised never to “uproot a single settler”.
When Secretary of State John Kerry tried to revive peace talks in 2013, he later recalled, Netanyahu repeatedly told him, “I can’t die on a small cross,” encouraging Kerry to attempt a comprehensive, final agreement.
To jump-start talks, Netanyahu agreed to release Palestinian prisoners, but he also approved the construction of thousands of new homes in the West Bank, “a profound humiliation to Abbas,” who began to abandon hope in the talks, Kerry wrote. And when Israel dragged its feet on releasing the last of the prisoners, the Palestinians ran out of patience and talks broke down for good.
Kerry concluded that Netanyahu was “a willing victim of his politics at home,” more interested in breaking Ben-Gurion’s record for the duration in office than in “risking it all, as Rabin had and as Peres had, trying to be the one who finally made peace.”
Harsher critics saw a deliberate strategy “to destroy Oslo by treating it not as a partnership with the PLO, but as a very hard-bargaining contract, in which he didn’t really want the other side to fulfil the terms,” in the words of Ian Lustick, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist. If he didn’t provoke the Palestinians to quit talks, Lustick argued, his demands would starve them of the political support they needed to retain legitimacy.
A more forgiving view is that Netanyahu saw no chance of success. “For him to make the ‘great leap forward’ and risk his own political position, he would require a level of confidence that his counterpart,” Abbas, “would be willing and capable of doing the same,” Michael Herzog, an Israeli negotiator, wrote. “That confidence is not there.”
There was a time when Netanyahu was so popular in the United States that some said he could be elected president. A 2015 poll found 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. Styling himself a latter-day Churchill, Netanyahu had been sounding the alarm about Iran’s nuclear program for 20 years. He kept the world guessing about whether Israel would mount a pre-emptive strike, as it had done in Iraq and Syria.
It remains unclear whether the tacit threat was serious or an elaborate bluff. But while it helped pressure the United States and Europe to step up sanctions against Iran, critics said it also spurred Obama to seek a deal with Iran before the sanctions brought Iran to its knees.
The agreement that emerged set up one of Netanyahu’s most audacious moves: his speech to Congress opposing the deal, which offended Obama, outraged Democrats and prompted many Israelis to accuse him of a grave miscalculation.
Critics said that the speech was pointless, that Netanyahu had no chance of changing any minds and that he was weakening American support for Israel by turning it into a divisive partisan issue.
But it occurred two weeks before an Israeli election. Netanyahu was campaigning on his ability to defy Obama.
‘Protector of Israel’
Netanyahu styled himself the “protector of Israel,” and Israelis generally trusted him to keep them safe — in part because he was reluctant to go to war. A former commando, he preferred covert operations to open combat. Israel endured a bloody uprising and a misbegotten Lebanon war in the decade he was out of power, but the biggest conflict on his watch was a 50-day fight with Gaza in 2014. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, but Israel lost only a few dozen soldiers.
He otherwise more or less tolerated Hamas’ rule in Gaza, keeping it under blockade while relying on the Iron Dome missile-defence system to protect Israelis from the occasional rocket barrage, and allowing Qatar to send cash into Gaza to avert a humanitarian crisis there.
He was more assertive in Syria, where he launched hundreds of airstrikes aimed at preventing Iran and its proxies from entrenching within striking distance of Israel.
Yet to a degree, Netanyahu became a victim of his own success. The relative quiet allowed Israelis to concern themselves with domestic issues like soaring prices, unaffordable housing, overcrowded roads and hospitals, and a social contract in dire need of renegotiation.
Rather than unifying Israel’s feuding constituencies, however, Netanyahu was seen as setting them against one another.
He had always played on Israelis’ fear of Palestinian violence, but fearing defeat in 2015, he rallied voters by falsely warning that Arab citizens were flocking to the polls “in droves.” He broke with army chiefs to support pardoning a soldier who had been videotaped executing a wounded Palestinian assailant. He portrayed the Israeli left as traitors, journalists as leftists, and lumped in with them anyone who challenged him: the police, prosecutors, judges and even rivals on the right.
Detractors suggested Netanyahu had become taken with the power-grabbing tactics of the autocrats he had befriended. He floated bills that would allow him to avoid prosecution and allow parliament to override the Supreme Court, should it intervene against him. When he was ultimately indicted, he portrayed himself as the victim of an “attempted coup.”
Triumph, and Loss
Few predicted that the arrival of President Donald Trump, the staunchest supporter of the Israeli right ever to occupy the White House, would foreshadow the end of the Netanyahu era.
Cheered on by evangelicals, Trump gave Netanyahu nearly everything he could ask for, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv, endorsing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and issuing a lopsided peace proposal generous to Israel and with no chance of winning Palestinian support. He pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and brokered Israel’s normalization deals.
Netanyahu, preoccupied with his own political survival, could savour none of these triumphs.
He had finally gotten the media he wanted. A popular online news site was rivalling Israel Hayom in its sycophancy. Loyalists were in charge of one TV channel and steadily overtaking the chatter on talk radio. But prosecutors said Netanyahu was secretly buying at least some of the fawning treatment with shekels from the Israeli treasury, bestowing lucrative official favours upon media executives.
To the Likud base, Netanyahu remained “Bibi, king of Israel”, as they had long serenaded him.
“His admirers find him emotionally irresistible, as the eternal victim, or as the carrier of their own eternal victimhood,” said historian Fania Oz-Salzberger. She called Netanyahu “the only born leader we’ve had since Rabin”.
But devotees were not enough. Four times in the past two years, he fell short of a parliamentary majority, despite aligning with an extreme-right anti-Arab party and then courting the very Arab voters he had once demonized.
Netanyahu had long been seen as a treacherous partner, having repeatedly humiliated those who posed potential threats. His final act smacked of comeuppance, as several former protégés, including erstwhile right-wing allies, united to depose him, with an Arab party providing a crucial assist.
“He no longer had anyone left to lie to,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of the 2018 biography ‘Bibi’.
What all his adversaries could agree on was that Netanyahu’s flailing posed too great a threat to Israel’s internal cohesion, and thus its security — and that what was indispensable to both was that he should go.
-New York Times