On Israeli Independence Day 2013, shortly after securing his third term as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprise guest appearance on the high-rated satire show “Eretz Nehederet” (A Wonderful Country), in what would be his last interview for over a year.
In a good-natured 18-minute spot, the prime minister had to contend with his impersonator on the show, played by Mariano Idelman, interrupting his answers as a pretend Netanyahu making light of the real deal sitting next to him.
After opening with lighthearted banter about the the prime minister’s ostensible foibles, host Eyal Kitzis turned sharply to one of the weightiest questions a politician can be asked: He asked Netanyahu about his place in the annals of Israeli history.
“Let’s talk about David Ben-Gurion, the person you will soon overtake as the longest-serving prime minister. You know, he is remembered as the person who founded the state, [former prime minister Menachem]Begin as the person who made peace with Egypt.” Kitzis said as Netanyahu leaned forward in his chair. “How do you think people will remember your premiership?” the buzz-cut host asked with a smile.
Before the real Netanyahu could provide an answer, Idelman, in character, jumped in with his own.
“What do you mean, How will they remember my premiership? Guys, flat pretzels came out under my premiership,” he quipped, referencing the now-ubiquitous Israeli snack that happened to emerge during Netanyahu’s tenure.
“What do you say, Mr. Prime Minister?” Kitzis pressed the chuckling real Netanyahu. “How do you think people will remember your premiership?”
“As the protector of Israel’s security,” Netanyahu said resolutely after a well-placed dramatic pause.
Protector or threat?
The son of a Jewish historian, and scarred by the loss of his brother in a 1976 Israeli commando raid on a hijacked airline in Uganda, Netanyahu often portrays himself — and his country — in historical terms. He laces his speeches with references to Jewish history, tales of Jewish heroism and warnings that sinister enemies lurk around every corner. The main target of his diatribes, Iran, is often compared to biblical enemies and even the Nazis.
But six years on from that “Eretz Nehederet” appearance, and making history this weekend by overtaking David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, the question of his legacy remains as divided as the two answers given by the two Netanyahus on the show. For some he is not only the protector of Israel but its very savior and deliverer, and the only person who could possibly fulfill that role. For others, flat pretzels may indeed be the best thing they can pinpoint about his 4,876 days at the helm — from 1996 to 1999 and again since 2009.
And with his latest apparent victory in April elections having turned sour after he failed to form a coalition government and opted to move to new elections instead, all while under threat of possible corruption charges in three criminal cases against him, some have suggested that Netanyahu is further endangering a more positive legacy by hanging on to power at all costs.
Even as his tenure overtakes that of the Father of the Nation, the chasm between the two sides of the debate grows deeper. After all these years, there is less consensus than ever on whether Netanyahu is good for the country, in most every field of Israeli realpolitik and international geopolitics.
The prime minister’s legion of supporters point to what they see as his effective management of a small, embattled country in a volatile region, a series of diplomatic breakthroughs and Israel’s growing, innovative economy. His many critics say he has demonized political opponents and Israel’s Arab minority by embracing populism, has squandered opportunities to reach peace with the Palestinians, has too often put his personal ambitions above the long-term good of the country, now even being poised to rewrite the rules of democracy to save himself from prosecution.
Netanyahu himself has often complained about this split public image, blaming a cabal of left-wing dark forces for spreading any discontent.
“I’ll tell you what I see in the media,” Netanyahu said candidly at the traditional pre-Passover toast at the Prime Minister’s Residence two years ago. “It does not reflect what the public feels. It is an industry of despair. Where they see unemployment, I see full employment. Where they see an economy in ruin, I see a flourishing economy. Where they see traffic jams, I see junctions, trains and bridges. Where they see a crumbling state nearing collapse, I see Israel as a rising global power.”
This may well be the inevitable fate of all long-serving leaders: As they consolidate their power after years at the top, growing discontent among large sections of the public prevents them from attaining unchallenged legendary status.
Ironically, the “Eretz Nehederet” interview was broadcast just as Netanyahu headed to Britain to attend the funeral of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The UK’s longest-serving 20th century prime minister, Thatcher famously declared in an interview after her third election win in 1987 that she hoped “to go on and on” as Britain’s leader. But she lost the leadership of the Conservative Party in late 1990, and was therefore unable to seek a fourth term as prime minister.
But under Netanyahu, both the consolidation of power and the division of sentiment regarding his leadership feels particularly sharp, and more intense nowadays than before — even given the context of Netanyahu’s first election win, in 1996, mere months after prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s death at the hands of a Jewish assassin.
The center of authority
Unlike in 1996, the Prime Minister’s Office now handles all major issues of diplomatic and security policy, including the peace talks with the Palestinians, the Iranian nuclear crisis and the most important of Israel’s diplomatic relationships, such as those with the United States, Britain, France and Germany.
Netanyahu also more or less openly acts as the nation’s top economic planner, taking a decisive role, for example, in appointing the new Bank of Israel governor and setting macroeconomic targets.
Under him, key questions of domestic policy, too, including extending free public schooling down to the age of three, Bedouin resettlement plans and Arab sector economic development, have been brought under the umbrella of the PMO’s Planning Directorate.
Politically, perhaps due to the fear of creating a potential challenger within his own party, Netanyahu has prevented the emergence of any heir apparent by constantly rotating the position of temporary prime minister and avoiding the appearance of choosing a favorite, even among his closest allies. Since coming to power in 2009, he has never named a permanent designated deputy who would automatically take over if he were unexpectedly indisposed, or removed from office by impeachment.
Conversely, Netanyahu is seen by some to thrive on the resentment he stirs up by pitting sections of the electorate against each other. Before elections he cries “Gevalt” — woe to Israel if anyone other than he were to lead it. Dissent is seen as tantamount to treachery — you are either with him or against him. His critics and opponents are branded “leftists” — even the likes of hawkish settlement resident Avigdor Liberman.
As a result, after 13 years in power, Netanyahu is either King Bibi, a benevolent and even biblical monarch who protects the people of Israel, or, King Bibi, a despotic and evil ruler tearing Israel apart from within.
And, that itself may be how Netanyahu is ultimately remembered: As the divisive leader of a divided Israel.