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Benjamin Netanyahu: The Rise and Fall of Israel’s Longest-Serving Prime Minister



Benjamin Netanyahu: The Rise And Fall Of Israel's Longest Serving Prime Minister

If Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted defeat in June 2021, finally yielding the stage to a coalition of his opponents, he could have retired at the age of 71 with a decent claim to having been one of Israel’s more successful prime ministers.

He had already surpassed the time in office of Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, becoming the country’s longest-serving prime minister in 2019. His second stretch in office, from 2009 to 2021, coincided with perhaps the best 12 years Israel had known since its founding in 1948.

The country enjoyed relative security, with no major wars or prolonged Intifadas. The period was one of uninterrupted economic growth and prosperity. Thanks to its early adoption of widespread vaccination, Israel was one of the first countries in the world to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. And toward the end of that span came three agreements establishing diplomatic relations with Arab countries; more were likely on the way.

Twelve years of Netanyahu’s leadership had seemingly made Israel more secure and prosperous, with deep trade and defense ties across the world. But this wasn’t enough to win him another term. A majority of Israelis had tired of him, and he had been tainted by charges of bribery and fraud in his dealings with billionaires and press barons.

In the space of 24 months, Israel held elections ending in stalemate, with neither Netanyahu nor his rivals winning a majority. Finally, an unlikely alliance of right-wing, centrist, left-wing, and Islamist parties managed to band together and replace him with his former aide Naftali Bennett in June 2021.

At that point, Netanyahu could have sealed his legacy. A plea deal on offer from the attorney general would have ended his corruption trial with a conviction on reduced charges and no jail time. He would have had to leave politics, probably for good. Over the course of four decades in public life, including 15 years as prime minister and 22 as the Likud party’s leader, he had already left an indelible mark on Israel, dominating the second half of its history. But he couldn’t bear the thought of giving up power.

Within 18 months, he was back as prime minister for the third time. The unwieldy coalition that replaced him had imploded, and this time around, Netanyahu’s camp of far-right and religious parties ran a disciplined campaign, exploiting the weaknesses of their divided rivals to emerge with a small parliamentary majority, despite still being virtually tied in the vote count.

Nine months later, Netanyahu, the man who promised, above everything else, to deliver security for Israel’s citizens, presided over the darkest day in his country’s existence. A total breakdown of the Israeli military and intelligence structure allowed Hamas to breach Israel’s border and embark on a rampage of murder, kidnapping, and rape, killing more than 1,100 Israelis and taking more than 250 hostage. The calamities of that day, the failures of leadership leading up to it, and the traumas it caused will haunt Israel for generations.

How does one measure a prime minister? There is no broadly accepted ranking of the 13 men and one woman who have led Israel, but most lists would feature David Ben-Gurion at the top.

Not only was he the George Washington of the Jewish state, proclaiming its independence just three years after a third of the Jewish people had been exterminated in the Holocaust, but his administration established many of the institutions and policies that define Israel to this day. Other favorites include Levi Eshkol, for his shrewd and prudent leadership in the tense weeks before the Six Day War, and Menachem Begin, for achieving the country’s first peace agreement with an Arab nation, Egypt.

What matters is that he appointed Levin as justice minister and permitted the crisis to happen. Ultimately, and despite his professed belief in liberal democracy, Netanyahu allowed Levin and his coalition partners to convince him that they were doing the right thing—because whatever kept him in office was right for Israel. Democracy would remain strong because he would remain in charge.

Trying to diminish the powers of the supreme court isn’t what makes Netanyahu Israel’s worst prime minister. The judicial reform failed anyway. Only one of its elements got through the Knesset before the war with Hamas began, and the court struck it down as unconstitutional six months later. The justices’ ruling to preserve their powers, despite the Knesset’s voting to limit them, could have caused a constitutional crisis if it had happened in peacetime.

The debate over judicial reform pitted two visions of Israel against each other. On one side was a liberal and secular Israel that relied on the supreme court to defend its democratic values; on the other, a religious and conservative Israel that feared that unelected judges would impose incompatible ideas on their Jewish values.

Netanyahu’s government made no attempt to reconcile these two visions. The prime minister had spent too many years, and all those toxic electoral campaigns, exploiting and deepening the rift between them.

Rachel Adams

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