Any debate over who was Israel’s best prime minister—David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin or Benjamin Netanyahu—would most certainly provoke heated conversation. Was it the first prime minister; the first prime minister to sign a peace treaty with an Arab state (Egypt); or the longest-serving prime minister?
Disagreement over the best—or, these days, whether Netanyahu should or should not be included among them—prompts initial scrutiny of who was the worst. It would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that this prize-winner would be Ehud Olmert, who served between 2006 and 2009.
Meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert offered a nearly total Israeli withdrawal from what had been, until the Six-Day War, Jordan’s “West Bank.” Millennia earlier, this Jewish holy land was divided between biblical Judea, where the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people were entombed, and King David ruled from Hebron before relocating his throne to Jerusalem; and Samaria, the second capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel. For Olmert, however, the historic attachment of Jews to their biblical homeland was irrelevant.
Olmert’s generosity or, more precisely, folly would have resulted in no more than a handful of Jewish settlements, confined to 6.3 percent of that land. If that was insufficient to satisfy Palestinian demands, Olmert was willing to divide Jerusalem into separate Israeli and Palestinian cities. It got worse: He also would have relinquished Israeli control over the entire Old City, including the Temple Mount where the First and Second Temples had stood, and the Western Wall, the holiest Jewish site ever since. His offer surely ranks as the most stunning surrender in Jewish history. Fortunately for Israel, Abbas rejected Olmert’s absurd fantasy.
Undeterred, Olmert agreed to accept a “symbolic” number of Palestinian refugees from the 1947-48 Arab war against the existence of a Jewish state. According to Palestinian and UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) false arithmetic, there were millions of “refugees” when, in reality, there had been no more than 700,000. At least Olmert, who described Abbas as “a very qualified gentleman,” rejected his preposterous notion that descendants of Palestinian refugees yet to be born in 1947-48 should also be permitted to “return.” If so, it would destroy Israel as a Jewish state.
By comparison, what defines the best Israeli prime ministers? Surely, Ben-Gurion, a founding father who had the honor of proclaiming the birth of the State of Israel and presided over its war of independence, tops the list. “Operation Magic Carpet” in 1949 airlifted Jews from Yemen. Making his home in Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev Desert, he also encouraged the settlement and development of that barren land.
After briefly leaving the government, Ben-Gurion was re-elected. Authorizing the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula to end its Egyptian blockade, he also ordered Mossad to capture Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for trial in Israel. Although Ben-Gurion led the left-wing Labor Party, his tolerance of political diversity—provoking sharp criticism from both the left and right—testified to his determination to do whatever would assure the survival of the world’s only Jewish state.
Begin’s paring with Ben-Gurion might offend Israelis on the political left. But there can be little doubt that Israel’s first right-wing prime minister qualifies for inclusion. His signing of a peace treaty with Anwar Sadat of Egypt, the first Arab country to do so, was a momentous achievement that assured peace on Israel’s southern border and rewarded him with the Nobel Peace Prize. Begin authorized the bombing of the 1981 Osirak nuclear plant in Iraq, eliminating a major threat to Israel’s security. His appeal to Sephardi, Mizrahi and religious Jews brought these outsiders into the Israeli political mainstream.
The final, and assuredly contested, inclusion in the top three is Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu. His first term as prime minister in the mid-1990s was hardly promising. With Israel under intense pressure to make amends for the horrific murder by Kiryat Arba doctor Baruch Goldstein of 29 Muslims at prayer at the Machpelah burial shrine in Hebron, Netanyahu signed the Hebron Protocol that drastically limited Jewish housing in the ancient Jewish Quarter. It also sharply restricted prayer in the magnificent Isaac Hall, site of the Goldstein massacre. His capitulation contributed to his re-election defeat in 1999.
Subsequently appointed Minister of Finance by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu presided over soaring economic growth and became the leader of the right-wing Likud Party. Re-elected as prime minister in 2009, he would become Israel’s longest-serving leader. Under pressure from former President Barack Obama, he agreed to a long-term settlement freeze that infuriated right-wing Israelis. But with the conspicuous exception of Hebron, Netanyahu resisted White House pressure to limit where Jews chose to live, whether in Jerusalem or settlements.
In foreign relations, Netanyahu’s close alignment with former President Donald Trump brought striking diplomatic victories for Israel. Recognizing its sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Trump also embraced the Abraham Accords, which agreed to full normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco—the first time that an Arab country had done so since Jordan in 1994. The U.S. embassy was relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the decades-long American opposition to Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria—the biblical homeland of the Jewish people—was abandoned.
The successes of Israel’s three Bs, regardless of their political identities, tower over their predecessors and followers. The current “B”—Prime Minister Naftali Bennett—shows little inclination to follow in their footsteps.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel” and “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.