Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially surpassed founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister on Saturday, having notched up a list of diplomatic and economic successes but with right-wing leadership many see as deeply divisive.
The 69-year-old Netanyahu has been Israel’s prime minister for a total of 4,876 days, over 13 years, according to a calculation by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.
He was first at the helm between 1996-1999, and then again since 2009.
His latest apparent victory in April elections turned sour after he failed to form a coalition government and opted to move towards new elections instead.
He faces the new general election on September 17 while under threat of possible corruption charges in the months ahead, including for allegedly receiving pricey cigars and champagne in return for favors.
Netanyahu’s legion of supporters in Israel point to what they see as his effective management of a small country in a volatile region, a series of diplomatic breakthroughs and the country’s growing economy.
His many critics say he has demonized political opponents and Israel’s Arab minority by embracing populism and has too often put his personal ambitions above the long-term good of the country.
He has sought to sideline Israel’s continuing control over Palestinian territory and has been backed in that strategy by US President Donald Trump’s administration, which has swung American policy firmly in Israel’s favor.
In tandem, Netanyahu has tried to leverage the common concerns of Israel and Gulf Arab states about Iran into improved ties in the region — and has had some success.
He has never been at a loss for words in describing what he sees as his achievements.
“We’ve proven that Israel can be turned from a small country that is situated in the corner of the Middle East into a major power in the world,” he told the strongly pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper in an interview this week.
The popular image of the man he is now surpassing in some ways stands in sharp contrast to that of “Bibi,” Netanyahu’s nickname since childhood.
‘Always beyond reproach’
Ben-Gurion, who led the socialist Mapai party that declared Israel’s independence in 1948, lived a spartan lifestyle that reflected his generation’s sense of mission, said Peter Medding of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and whose books include “The Founding of Israeli Democracy 1948-1967.”
“They saw themselves as committed to the communal good,” said Medding.
War with Israel’s Arab neighbors surrounded the founding of the state, and the political establishment realized that “unless the collective interest gets looked after, promoted and strengthened, there’ll be no individual interests,” he added.
Netanyahu, the son of a historian clearly mindful of his legacy, has in the past compared himself to Ben-Gurion, though the two emerged from two different strains of Israeli ideology.
Comparing the two is tough both due to their very different eras and Ben-Gurion’s heroic stature, said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor emeritus from Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
“A founding father is always beyond reproach,” he said.
But one trait that Netanyahu does share with Ben-Gurion is a sense of history, said Sandler.
“They both have a historic point of view,” he said, noting Ben-Gurion’s self-documentation in diaries and Netanyahu’s allusions to history and historic events in his speeches.
One of Netanyahu’s main agendas has been preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
That in some ways also links the two leaders, Sandler said.
Only several years after the Holocaust, Ben-Gurion did what he could to pursue a nuclear option for Israel to prevent another genocide of the Jewish people.
In the current era, “Bibi is trying to ensure that the option remains in Israel’s hands only” in the Middle East, he said.
Israel is widely perceived as the Middle East’s sole nuclear-armed power, though it has never acknowledged the capability.
Tough talk, less tough action
A gifted orator in both English and Hebrew, he was elected for a single term in the late 1990s on a platform of opposing the Oslo accords with the Palestinians. But once in office, he continued implementing them and even met with arch-enemy Yasser Arafat.
As finance minister in the early 2000s, he cut taxes and rolled back entitlements to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community — only to reverse course once he returned to power to secure their political backing. He wrote counter-terrorism books in which he preached that one must never negotiate under threat, but as prime minister he released more than 1,000 Palestinian terror convicts in exchange for a single captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in 2011.
Despite his tough talk, Netanyahu has shown relative moderation when it comes to using military force. Over the past year, he has resisted calls by hardline constituents to strike harder against jihadist groups in Gaza.
Few believe Netanyahu will decide on his own to end his premiership anytime soon, even with a possible indictment looming.
He will not be required to step down if indicted, only if convicted with all appeals exhausted, though he would likely face heavy political pressure.
Sandler predicted “he won’t exit in a dignified way.”
“People don’t know how to quit when they’re at their peak,” he said, speaking not only of Netanyahu but of past Israeli prime ministers as well.
So far he has persevered through scandals, crises and conflicts, winning election after election even as the country grows more bitterly polarized.
But with the failure to form a government putting a dent in his aura of invincibility, a new election around the corner that does not appear poised to leave him in a better political position, and the prospects of criminal proceedings on the near horizon, he may very well be facing his steepest challenge yet.