Netanyahu’s Gains Were Israel’s Losses

Benjamin Netanyahu excelled in two qualities: quick perception and focus on the goal. He didn’t offer a unified, sweeping vision or world-embracing ideas that would remain in the public awareness after his departure. Netanyahu was and is a task-oriented person who chooses what to deal with and neglects the rest, as was demonstrated just last year in the coronavirus crisis and the import of vaccines.

He entered politics with four goals: to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and the return of territories; to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; to turn Israel into a capitalist state where the rich are talented and successful; and to crush the old establishment, which he called “replacing elites.” Above all, the most important condition for meeting these goals was to remain in power for as long as possible.

From Netanyahu’s perspective, the outcome is clearly balanced in his favor. Since his return to power, in December 2005, Israel has not relinquished a millimeter of land to the Palestinians or to Syria, the Palestinian state is off the agenda and four Arab states have signed peace treaties with Israel.

Iran does not have an atomic bomb, while Israel has considerably improved its strategic capabilities (F-35 squadrons, submarines with second-strike capability, the upgrading of the nuclear reactor in Dimona and certainly other things that have not been made public). Capitalism is a star in mainstream Israel, and the list of local billionaires grows longer every year. The old elite was not defeated, but it was weakened, and Netanyahu branded Likud as the leading social welfare party, surrounding himself with Mizrahi and religious politicians and aides, who in the past were excluded from centers of power.

Incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) hugs the alternate prime minister, Yair Lapid, at the Knesset on Sunday.
Incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) hugs the alternate prime minister, Yair Lapid, at the Knesset on Sunday. Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/רויטרס

Netanyahu has therefore accomplished his goals, while remaining in power longer than any of his predecessors, and until his downfall he also controlled the public agenda and even the Hebrew language. Suffice it to hear how his slogans – “life itself,” “there will be nothing because there is nothing,” “the Arabs are streaming” (an imprecise quote but that’s what is remembered), “without tricks and without shticks,” “they’re af-r-a-i-d” – have become part of daily speech and even found their way into opinion pieces critical of him. In recent years he enjoyed special power and status, relying on the support of his friend Donald Trump, whose downfall was bad news for Netanyahu.

But were his achievements in his own eyes good for Israel as well? There is no doubt that Netanyahu managed the conflict with the Palestinians at a low cost to Israel, and with fewer soldiers’ funerals and terror victims than his predecessors. But he was afraid to upset the status quo and did not take advantage of his unique political power to moderate the conflict and seek an arrangement with the Palestinians. He merely passed the problem, on the verge of eruption, to his successors. This is a great missed opportunity, because there are no other Israeli leaders that could get the public to accept peace agreements that would involve relinquishing territory and settlements – and if the territories catch fire, the government will be headed by less experienced leaders.

Netanyahu also adhered to the status quo on the domestic front. In the past decade, the rise in the demographic and political power of the Arab and Haredi communities affected politics and the economy as nothing else did. Netanyahu understands the numbers and knows that without involving the minorities in the economy, Israel won’t be able to grow and might collapse in the next generation. But instead of exploiting his public standing to encourage change in these communities, he avoided conflict in favor of buying quiet through a political alliance with the Haredim and increased funding to Arab communities. If he had less interest in socioeconomic issues than in the thrills of security and foreign policy, he didn’t appoint an “economy czar” to relive him of the burden – similar to his own role as finance minister in the Sharon government. This too was a missed opportunity of historic proportions.

Netanyahu was and is the best brand ambassador in the history of Israeli politics, and certainly one of the best in the world today. But in the end he fell not because he was competing with a better promoter, but because of backroom intrigues. Yair Lapid, who began his career as a rousing speaker in the style of Netanyahu, beat him only because he left center stage in favor of quiet dealmaking. Throughout his career, Netanyahu always addressed his right-wing, religious base; he didn’t try to persuade voters on the left and the center to vote for Likud. This strategy worked in his favor for years, until a rebellion from the right emerged and knocked enough stones from the wall to bring down the building.

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