How has Benjamin Netanyahu managed to serve as Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister? With a total of 15 years in office, he has surpassed the 12-year mandate of Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion. The answer to this question will become particularly critical for future Israeli leaders who hope to emulate Netanyahu’s legacy, now that his historic leadership is likely to be coming to an end.Netanyahu’s “achievements” for Israel cannot be judged according to the same criteria as that of Ben Gurion. True, both were staunch Zionist ideologues and savvy politicians. Unlike Ben Gurion, though, Netanyahu did not lead a so-called “war of independence”, merging militias into an army and carefully constructing a “national narrative” that helped Israel to justify its numerous crimes against the indigenous Palestinians, at least in the eyes of the Zionist state and its supporters.
The clichéd explanation for Netanyahu’s success in politics is that he is a “survivor”, a hustler and a wily old fox; or, at best, a political genius. However, there is more to Netanyahu than mere soundbites. Unlike other right-wing politicians around the world, he did not simply exploit or ride the wave of an existing populist movement. Instead, he was the main architect of the current version of Israel’s right-wing politics. If Ben Gurion was the founding father of Israel in 1948, Netanyahu was the founding father of the new Israel in 1996. While Ben Gurion and his disciples used ethnic cleansing, colonisation, and illegal settlement construction for strategic and military reasons, Netanyahu, while carrying on with the same practices, changed the narrative altogether.
For Netanyahu, the Biblical version of Israel was far more convincing than the secular Zionist ideology of yesteryear. By changing the narrative, Netanyahu managed to redefine the support for Israel around the world, bringing together right-wing religious zealots and chauvinistic, Islamophobic, far-right, and ultra-nationalist parties in the US and elsewhere.
His success in rebranding the centrality of the idea of Israel in the minds of its traditional supporters was not a mere political strategy. He also shifted the balance of power in Israel by making Jewish extremists and illegal settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories his core constituency. Subsequently, he reinvented Israeli conservative politics altogether.
He also trained an entire generation of right-wing, far-right, and ultra-nationalist Israeli politicians, giving rise to such unruly characters as former Defence Minister and the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, former Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, and former Defence Minister, and Netanyahu’s likely replacement, Naftali Bennett.
Indeed, a whole new generation of Israelis grew up watching Netanyahu take the right-wing camp from one success to another. For them, he is the saviour. His hate-filled rallies and anti-peace rhetoric in the mid-1990s galvanised Jewish extremists, one of whom killed former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who engaged the Palestinian leadership through the “peace process” and, ultimately, signed the Oslo Accords.
On Rabin’s death in November 1995, Israel’s political “left” was devastated by right-wing populism championed by its new charismatic leader, Netanyahu, who, just a few months later, had become Israel’s youngest Prime Minister.
Despite the fact that, historically, Israeli politics is defined by its ever-changing dynamics, Netanyahu has helped the right prolong its dominance, completely eclipsing the once-hegemonic Labor Party. This is why the right loves him. Under his rule, illegal Jewish colonies have expanded at an exponential rate, and the meager possibility of a two-state solution has been buried forever.
Moreover, Netanyahu changed the relationship between the US and Israel, with the latter no longer a “client regime” — not that it ever was in the strict definition of the term — but one that holds a great deal of sway over the US Congress and the White House.
Every attempt by Israel’s political elites to dislodge Netanyahu has failed. No coalition was powerful enough; no election outcome was decisive enough; nobody was successful enough to convince Israeli society that they could do more for them than Netanyahu. Even when Gideon Sa’ar from Netanyahu’s own Likud party tried to stage a coup against him, he lost the vote and the support of the Likudists, later to be ostracised altogether.Sa’ar then founded his own party, New Hope, continuing with the desperate attempt to oust the seemingly unconquerable Netanyahu. Four general elections within only two years still failed to push him out. All possible mathematical equations to unify various coalitions, all united by the single aim of defeating Netanyahu, have failed. Each time, he came back, with greater resolve to hang on to his position, challenging contenders within his own party as well as his enemies from outside. Even Israel’s legal system, which is currently trying Netanyahu for corruption, has not been powerful enough to compel the disgraced prime minister to resign.
Until last month, Palestinians seemed to be marginal, if at all relevant to this conversation. Those living under Israeli military occupation looked as if they were mollified, thanks to Israeli violence and Palestinian Authority acquiescence. The Palestinians in Gaza, despite occasional displays of defiance, were battling a 15-year Israeli siege. Palestinian communities inside Israel seemed alien to any political conversation pertaining to the struggle and aspirations of the Palestinian people as a whole.
All of these illusions were dispelled when Gaza rose in solidarity with a small Palestinian community in Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem. The resistance ignited a torrent of events that, within days, united all Palestinians, everywhere. Consequently, the popular Palestinian revolt has shifted the discourse in favour of Palestinians and against the Israeli occupation.
Expressing the significance of that moment perfectly, the Financial Times wrote, “The ferocity of the Palestinian anger caught Israel by surprise.” Netanyahu, whose extremist goons were unleashed against Palestinians everywhere, just as his army was unleashed against besieged Gaza, found himself at an unprecedented disadvantage. It took only 11 days of its military offensive to shatter Israel’s sense of “security”, expose its sham democracy and tarnish its image around the world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.