As of this week, Benjamin Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister and legendary founding father, held the office for a total of 13 years and 127 days. Netanyahu surpassed that milestone on Saturday. If he wins the upcoming election in September — and if he survives several pending corruption investigations — he could theoretically remain prime minister until 2023.
Such longevity in office would be an extraordinary achievement in any parliamentary democracy, let alone one as contentious and competitive as Israel’s, where the stakes are always high and the elbows always sharp. It is all the more remarkable in the case of Netanyahu, whose enemies are legion — and sometimes quite powerful, as in the case of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom tried to bring about his political downfall. Throughout his political career, Netanyahu has been bitterly resented by the left, both at home and abroad, and especially in the media. As he remarked tartly in a recent Time magazine interview, journalists have had “Netanyahu fatigue from Day One.”
But Israeli voters haven’t.
Netanyahu may be controversial, arrogant, and infuriating, but he has also been successful. On his watch, Israel has grown stronger and more prosperous. Despite a rising tide of global anti-Semitism, the Jewish state is more secure than it has ever been. The “nation that dwells alone” has never been less isolated diplomatically. And while the Middle East remains a notoriously violent, unstable, and fanatical region, the decade since Netanyahu’s 2009 return to power has been the most peaceful in Israel’s history.
To be sure, there has been no resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. The “peace process” is moribund, and Netanyahu has shown no inclination to move heaven and earth to revive it. The prime minister has paid lip service to the eventual goal of a two-state solution, but he has also given voters his word that there will be no Palestinian state as long as he is prime minister.
The results speak for themselves.
For years, a large and vocal “peace camp” has insisted that Israel must reach a settlement with the Palestinians or be shunned as a pariah and targeted by global boycotts. Netanyahu has proved them wrong. His predecessors’ dramatic attempts to end the conflict — Yitzhak Rabin’s famous White House handshake, Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza, Ehud Olmert’s offer of Palestinian statehood — ended up worsening Israel’s standing in the world. The longer Israeli leaders clung to a policy of concessions and appeasement, the more respect Israel lost. Under Netanyahu, the appeasement has largely stopped — and Israel’s international profile has risen dramatically.
In recent years, Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Latin America. He has traveled four times to Africa and welcomed numerous African leaders to Israel. He has achieved “better relations with all the leaders of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council than at any time since [Israel] was created,” writes Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department adviser and Middle East negotiator.
Most important, he has expanded and strengthened Israel’s ties to Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which share Jerusalem’s view of Iran as a deadly enemy.
Complementing Israel’s improved fortunes beyond its borders is plenty of good news at home, from the country’s emergence as a world-class high-tech powerhouse to an ongoing decline in terrorist attacks. To the extent that such things can be measured, Israel is one of the happiest nations on the planet. The Netanyahu Era has been a good one, and Israelis have been in no hurry to end it.
When Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister ended in a 1999 election defeat, some made the mistake of writing him off as a political force. “He will be a footnote, if anything, in the history of Israeli prime ministers,” gloated one prominent Israeli journalist. Israelis return to the polls in September, and Netanyahu is running hard in hopes of winning a sixth election. There are no guarantees; voters may decide his time is up. But whatever happens, Netanyahu will never again be mistaken for a footnote. He is no beloved Ben Gurion, but his place in Israel’s pantheon is assured.