(July 22, 2019 / JNS) Currently at the head of a caretaker government between two elections in the same year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, breaking the record set by founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion.
Netanyahu has never been friendly to the media, and in return, the media has never taken to the man they often call by his less-than-flattering childhood nickname of “Bibi.”
So many of the articles about Netanyahu’s 13-plus years tenure (10 of them consecutive) in one of the world’s most difficult jobs focus on the coalition impasse he encountered after winning an impressive fifth democratic election, on the upcoming hearings that will determine whether or not he will be formally indicted in three separate breach of trust cases, or on the global issue of political polarization, to which Israel has not been immune.
Yet the challenges Netanyahu currently faces, as well as the numerous socio-economic and religious challenges faced by the country as a whole, say little about Netanyahu’s terms in office.
Israel is stronger today than at any point in its history. The once-floundering Jewish state is exponentially better-equipped to face nearly any challenge than it was when Netanyahu took office for his second stint as premiere in 2009.
First, Israel is wealthier. While critics suggest that Netanyahu is popular because he has led during a period of economic prosperity, a cursory examination shows that Israel’s constant economic growth trajectory is due to Netanyahu’s policies.
As CEO of the startup nation, Netanyahu has opened up export channels across the world for Israel’s high-tech innovators, and has encouraged the world’s technology giants to invest hundreds of billions in R&D centers in what has quickly become the world’s largest technological sector outside of Silicon Valley.
The significant GDP growth that has resulted has made both Israelis and the country richer—and Netanyahu has invested tax revenues wisely, turning the Israel Defense Forces into one of the world’s largest, most battle-ready militaries with state-of-the-art weaponry and defense systems.
Netanyahu has also invested heavily in infrastructure. He has signed commercial deals, which he was heavily criticized for, to explore and exploit natural gas off the coast that turned Israel from a resource-poor enclave into an energy exporter. His governments have developed seaports, airports and trains, and have turned dangerous and insufficient two-lane roads into smooth four-, six- and eight-lane highways.
While infrastructure across America and Europe crumbles, the infrastructure projects built on Netanyahu’s watch will support Israel for decades after he has left office.
Yet his masterstroke has been the once unthinkable diplomatic gains he has secured at the international level.
Early into his first term, President Barack Obama called for “daylight” between the United States and Israel and pledged to isolate Israel diplomatically. Those calls continue to echo in the Democratic Party. Netanyahu wisely recognized that Israel could no longer rely on the U.S.-Israel alliance as the sole guarantor of Israel’s security.
He embarked on a worldwide campaign to strengthen near non-existent relationships with world powers including China, India, Japan and Russia. In China, India and Japan, Netanyahu has brought Israel closer to a third of the world’s population. The relationship with Russia has proven essential in managing the Iranian threat in Syria.
Yet the relationships have not stopped with world powers. As a result of Netanyahu’s diplomacy, Israel has made significant gains in once-anti-Semitic countries in Eastern Europe. Israel has successfully engaged nations in South America, Africa and South Asia.
But perhaps most noteworthy have been the gains made across the Arab world. Israel has strengthened its formal relationships with Egypt and Jordan, helping those nations fend off severe security threats, most notably from Islamic State. Other Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, look to Israel as an island of stability in a chaotic region and a protector against Iranian ambitions across the Middle East.
The stability and growth that Israel has maintained during the past 10 years is particularly impressive, as the “Arab Spring” and developments both before and after have collapsed the governments of Egypt, Libya and Syria. Iraq remains mired in chaos following the deposing of Saddam Hussein, while Jordan and the Palestinian Authority hang on to their rule in no small part due to Israeli assistance.
And when Obama finally left office after a contentious eight-year relationship with Israel, leaving a record of incompetent leadership in the Middle East, Netanyahu worked to ensure that Obama’s Republican successor would undo much of Obama’s Mideast policy, while extracting significant gains for Israel, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.
Critics of the prime minister note his numerous successes yet fault him for remaining in power too long. Many of those same critics have been opposing him from the moment that he stepped into office.
They are both in awe of and simultaneously disgusted by his uncanny ability to maintain political power.
Yet it is precisely his political acumen that has been necessary for the stability and growth of a state that constantly faces complex security threats and diplomatic double standards. And it is that stability and growth that keep Netanyahu winning at the polls, even as critics bash him and the judicial system attempts to force him out of office.
Netanyahu, now seeking to renew his mandate just six months after voters chose him to lead the country yet again, may very well win September’s elections and govern on until the nation is ready for a new leader.
And when the nation finally does select a new prime minister—in September or years from now—Netanyahu’s accomplishments will put him down in the history books as not only one of Israel’s longest-serving prime ministers, but also as one of the greatest.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.