Assessing Benjamin Netanyahu's 12 Uninterrupted Years In Power
Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel's longest-serving prime minister, in office uninterrupted for 12 years before parliament ousted him on Sunday.
NPR's Daniel Estrin has covered Netanyahu's prime ministership, traveled with him and chronicled how Israel changed under his leadership. From Jerusalem, he spoke with All Things Considered co-host Ari Shapiro ahead of the vote that removed Netanyahu from office. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Netanyahu sees himself as having achieved prosperity and security
He really fashioned himself as an American-style politician. He has flawless English, a kind of modern, business-forward leader who helped this tiny country punch above its weight in the global economy. I remember seeing him give a talk a couple of years ago at the Economic Club in Washington, D.C. It's a forum for business leaders. And he was asked how he would describe his legacy and he said, "Defender of Israel, liberator of its economy."
And yes, Netanyahu helped turn Israel into more of a free-market economy. That was when he was finance minister, actually, in the early 2000s. In recent years, under his leadership, Israel largely avoided the global financial crisis.
It was one of the first economies to reopen after the pandemic. Netanyahu was widely praised here for securing Pfizer vaccines early and vaccinating Israel more quickly than any other country.
And on security, he is known as "Mr. Security." He did oversee three wars with Hamas and Gaza. He did accelerate tensions with Iran. But actually, he was not as adventuresome as some may think when it came to open warfare. There still were many casualties among Palestinians during his leadership. But compared to other periods, during his tenure, relatively few Israelis were actually killed in violence.
How Israel's democratic government came to court authoritarians
What stood out for Netanyahu internationally, I think, was his relations with right-wing populist leaders around the world.
Israel is a country that for a long time saw itself as isolated and singled out by the rest of the world for its policies toward the Palestinians. But under his leadership, Israel really expanded its relations with China, with India, with Africa. Israel leveraged its prowess in water technology, in intelligence and cybersecurity and made deals with other countries, even forged a historic diplomatic agreement with the United Arab Emirates and with other Gulf Arab countries.
He aligned himself with right-wing populist leaders around the world. Netanyahu is a right-wing conservative. He is generally suspicious of the left. So, for instance, he's seen liberal Europe as siding with the Palestinians over Israel. And so he cultivated friendships with other leaders, with a rising right-wing in Europe. He became close to leaders like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, even Viktor Orbán of Hungary, a leader who's downplayed his nation's role in the Holocaust.
Many Israelis, especially progressive Israelis, saw Netanyahu as eroding their country's democracy and aligning with leaders who themselves eroded their democracies.
Under Netanyahu, the U.S.-Israel relationship has become associated with partisan politics
Israel traditionally had bipartisan support in the U.S. and that's going back all the way to Israel's founding in 1948. But one of Netanyahu's legacies is that under his administration, Israel did become a partisan issue in the U.S. He aligned Israel and his government with the Christian evangelical community and also with the Republican Party.
I think it became apparent during the Obama years. In 2012, Netanyahu embraced Republican Mitt Romney, his old friend, when Romney was running against former President Barack Obama. And then when Obama was negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran, there was a very public rupture in Netanyahu's relations with Democrats. Republicans had invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress, essentially going behind Obama's back to do so. And Netanyahu made a speech that was critical of the Iran nuclear deal that Obama was trying to negotiate.
The partisanship, though, really peaked with former President Donald Trump. Trump and Netanyahu would get directly involved in each other's politics. Trump was blamed for a wave of antisemitism in the U.S. and Netanyahu came to Trump's defense, saying that he was a great supporter of the Jewish people. And Netanyahu even had campaign billboards when he was running for reelection, posing with Trump.
And now I think we're seeing the echoes of that in how some Democrats have spoken out against Netanyahu's policy, especially during the recent conflict with Hamas and Gaza, a kind of position that we would not have heard in the past.
Netanyahu stymied Palestinian statehood and strengthened divisions within Palestinian society
Netanyahu's strategy was to try to prove that Israel could flourish on the world stage without needing to give into Palestinian demands, like the demand to establish a Palestinian state in land that Israel occupies. And for many years, Netanyahu kind of proved that that could be true.
He forged diplomatic relations with Gulf Arab countries. And as for the two-state solution — ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, allowing a Palestinian state next to Israel — at the start of Netanyahu's tenure, when Obama was in the White House, Netanyahu endorsed a Palestinian state.
But by the time Trump was in the White House, Netanyahu was talking about a "state minus," is what he called it, even questioning the concept of what is a state, really.
I think Netanyahu strengthened a divide between Palestinians. He bolstered the rule of Hamas in Gaza, undermined the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank continued and grew under his tenure, taking up land the Palestinians hoped would be reserved for their own country. And now today, many here will say the two-state solution is dead.
On Election Day [in 2015], he had warned his supporters that Arab voters were going to the polls in droves, and that was credited with helping him win. But it antagonized his relationship with Palestinian citizens of Israel, and it was kind of seen as a turning point.
A political brawler to the end
Netanyahu had this divisive leadership style. It helped him win elections, but it made many Israelis sick of him. And in the last two years, election after election, he couldn't win. His former political allies became enemies. And by the end, he had very few political allies left who are willing to partner with him as he is facing corruption charges.
And there is a sense that Netanyahu, by the end, was paralyzing a country while trying to hold onto power. And people, even those who appreciated so many aspects of his leadership, felt like it was time for a change.
He vows that this is not the last chapter. The expectation is that he will not be retiring from public life. He hopes to return to leadership.
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