Trump congratulates Netanyahu for becoming Israel’s longest-serving PM

US president praises Jewish state’s democracy, technological prowess, economy; Netanyahu thanks him for his ‘incredible friendship’

US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after giving final remarks at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem before Trump's departure, May 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after giving final remarks at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem before Trump's departure, May 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

US President Donald Trump on Sunday congratulated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for officially surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion a day earlier as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

“Under your leadership, Israel has become a technology powerhouse and a world class economy,” Trump tweeted. “Most importantly you have led Israel with a commitment to the values of democracy, freedom, and equal opportunity that both our nations cherish and share!”

In response, Netanyahu thanked the US leader for his “warm words” and “incredible friendship.”

“Thank you, President Trump, for your warm words, outstanding support & incredible friendship. I’m honored to have the opportunity to work with you. Under your leadership, we’ve made the alliance between our two remarkable countries stronger than ever. I know there’s more to come,” the prime minister tweeted.

As of Saturday, 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits under a portrait of the first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion as he speaks during a special cabinet meeting at the Sde Boker academy to mark 40 years since Ben-Gurion’s death, November 10, 2013. (Photo credit: Edi Israel/POOL/Flash90)

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset on May 27, 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

He has sought to sideline Israel’s continuing control over Palestinian territory and has been backed in that strategy by 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.=

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.

David Ben-Gurion at home (GPO)

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.

In this file photo taken on June 5, 1996, then prime minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu reacts during a Likud party meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the new coalition government (Menahem KAHANA / AFP FILES)

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.

Challenges ahead

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.

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.

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