Who Is the Real Benjamin Netanyahu?

Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Netanyahu (Photo: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock.com)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be the most misunderstood and misjudged politician in Israel. He has been the subject of endless debate and analysis, much of it tainted by political or personal bias. 

Now that he faces a trial on corruption charges, the debate will become even more partisan and emotional. But who is the real Netanyahu? And what will his potential departure mean for Israel? Below are some answers.  

Many leftists view Netanyahu as an ultra-nationalist warmonger, and increasingly as a threat to Israel’s democracy. Most rightists see him as an unrivaled leader who single-handedly turned Israel into an economic and diplomatic power. However, Netanyahu is none of those things.

Tough Talk, Moderate Policies

On the security front, Netanyahu tends to combine fiery rhetoric with moderate policies. Based on actions alone, he would likely be considered one of the most left-leaning prime ministers in Israel’s history.

For more than a year now, Netanyahu has taken a soft approach to Hamas in seeking to secure a long-term truce. He has shown remarkable restraint even in the face of massive rocket attacks. Instead of launching big wars, he allowed Qatar to transfer big money to Gaza’s rulers in an effort to keep the peace.

Israelis would normally characterize such policies as “leftist” and even defeatist. Yet many on the left continue to insist that Netanyahu constantly seeks war.

Indeed, critics regularly warn that Netanyahu may start a war to improve his electoral prospects. This bizarre ritual repeats ahead of every election, even though Netanyahu has never launched a pre-election war.

Even in facing a growing threat from Iran, Netanyahu did not rush to launch an all-out war. Instead, he opted for gradual escalation in an effort to avoid one. He still hopes to avert a major conflict at this highly volatile junction.

Out to Destroy Democracy?

Then there is the claim that Netanyahu is committed to destroying Israel’s democracy. He has allegedly done this in order to evade corruption charges, but also as part of a grand scheme to shake up the ruling establishment that he so loathes. Yet here, too, much is exaggerated.

Netanyahu is indeed fighting desperately to avoid jail time, while resorting to some questionable tactics. He often lashes out at law enforcement officials and at journalists as part of this campaign.

These maneuvers may be distasteful, and at times problematic, but they do not spell the actual suppression of democracy.

One should keep in mind that Netanyahu’s motivation is indeed personal, not ideological. His main focus is clinging to power and staying out of prison, not shattering Israel’s democratic institutions and traditions.

And so, while he regularly attacks the Supreme Court, for example, Netanyahu mostly does it to score political points. Just like his tough rhetoric on security, his angry words rarely translate into radical action.

Regardless of any criticism, Netanyahu has always protected Israel’s courts from efforts to limit their power. His usual tactic is to allow others to advance potential moves, which he then waters down or stalls.

Populist But No Tyrant

The last elections highlighted the tendency to exaggerate the “Netanyahu threat.” As part of his campaign, Netanyahu played up vote tampering charges in Israel’s Arab communities. Critics were quick to declare that he was preparing to challenge the election results if he lost.

This dramatic warning was widely circulated by the press and on social media prior to the elections. Other reports claimed that Netanyahu would be sending “thugs” to polling stations to further disrupt the vote. Israelis were told to expect mayhem as a reckless Netanyahu urges his followers to flood the streets in mass protest.

Predictably, none of the doomsday scenarios materialized. There were no election day thugs, and no calls for mass demonstrations despite Likud’s near-defeat. Netanyahu fully accepted the results and did not question their integrity. The issue of Arab voter fraud was not mentioned again.

At the end of the day, Netanyahu is a populist committed to winning national elections, not a tyrant who wishes to call them off. His critics often fail to make this distinction.

Netanyahu’s Perfect Timing

On the right, too, there is a “Netanyahu myth.” The prime minister is often hailed as a financial and diplomatic wizard who boosted the economy at home and improved Israel’s relations abroad.

Netanyahu deserves some credit for Israel’s achievements during his long tenure, but more than anything, he should thank lady luck. His timing in coming to power, and possibly in stepping off, has been impeccable.

Netanyahu’s years in power coincided with a key demographic development. The 35-45 age group, which drives economic activity with major purchases such as homes and cars, was particularly large during the past decade.

Based on this and related figures, Israeli professor and futurologist David Passig predicted an economic boom throughout the decade regardless of who was in power. Just as he expected, home prices skyrocketed and the economy shot forward. Netanyahu was simply there at the right time.

Similarly, the prime minister was fortunate to see the rise of right-wing governments and leaders during his tenure. His close ties with US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among others, are often hailed as proof of his diplomatic genius.

However, it is safe to assume that any other right-wing PM would find common cause with like-minded foreign leaders. Observers also warn that Netanyahu’s reliance on personal ties, and neglect of a more institutional approach to diplomacy, will harm Israel in the future.

Will Netanyahu Be Missed?

If Netanyahu steps down or is forced to quit, he would leave an initial vacuum at the heart of Israel’s political establishment. His vast military and diplomatic experience is unmatched, and many Israelis — including leftists — may come to miss his moderation and caution.

However, as history has shown, no leader is irreplaceable. Netanyahu’s successors may not possess all of his many gifts, but they will bring fresh insights and new attitudes to the Prime Minister’s Office. By now, Israel could use some renewed energies, especially after a turbulent election year.

The next prime minister will be facing enormous challenges when he enters the official residence in Jerusalem. In Israel, this is always the case. With some wisdom and a measure of luck, he or she will be able to steer the country toward a promising future. But if they are unlucky, we may end up missing Netanyahu even more.