Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Assessing Netanyahu’s Long Reign as Prime Minister (June 21, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Assessing Netanyahu’s long reign as prime minister


Q: The Bennett-Lapid government has been in office scarcely a week. Meanwhile, Netanyahu continues to behave as if he’s still prime minister. And here you are already assessing his long premiership with an eye on history?

A: Let’s put it this way: it’s too early to assess Bennett’s performance, but not too early to assess Netanyahu’s. Of course, the passage of time may change the way we look upon the Netanyahu years. But now is our opportunity to establish a base line.


Q: Well, at least start at the end: why are Likudniks still calling him “Prime Minister Netanyahu” and why has he refused to leave the official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street?

A: The obvious explanation, which Netanyahu would presumably not even deny, is that he has adopted a tactic of negating the legitimacy of the Lapid-Bennett coalition and has recruited the outgoing coalition to deliver that message. Here he is taking his cue from the Trump approach to Biden in the United States. If the new coalition is illegitimate and temporary, Netanyahu remains the real force for governmental stability. And the Balfour residence, with Netanyahu still occupying it, remains the real seat of power. Ergo, he’ll be prime minister again soon.

Witness the ‘official’ visits Netanyahu received at Balfour from figures like former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Evangelical leader John Hagee in the days following the transfer of power. Recall the speculation in Washington prior to January 20 this year that Trump would refuse to leave the White House.

True, in Israel a January 6 style insurrection has not happened; Netanyahu has sufficed with orchestrating rowdy Knesset heckling campaigns. But his outrageous refusal to stage a proper transfer-of-authority ceremony with Bennett, the insulting 30-minute non-briefing he offered Bennett instead, and the apparent illegal shredding of government documents that preceded Bennett’s arrival at the PM’s Office sent a dangerous message of delegitimization and disregard for law and tradition.

A secondary explanation, mentioned here and there in the media, is that Sara Netanyahu is, to put it mildly, having emotional difficulty adjusting to her husband’s removal from power. Benjamin’s wife, never considered a particularly stable personality, needs time to adjust. This, if true, must be considered a painful personal issue.

A third explanation is that PM Naftali Bennett initially expressed a desire to continue to live with his family in Raanana near Tel Aviv so his children would not have to switch schools. He has since changed his mind. But that Bennett could even for a moment ignore the symbolic and iconic importance of the official residence on Balfour Street for the stability and longevity of the new coalition testifies to a degree of naïveté that is dangerous in Israeli politics.

One way or another, the Israeli public and the media got the message and demanded that Netanyahu leave Balfour. He has agreed to do so by July 10.


Q: Let’s move from here to the positive. From our current vantage point, where can Netanyahu’s 15 years in power be deemed to have contributed to Israel’s overall security and well-being?

A: Netanyahu undeniably made solid contributions to Israel’s security by reading the regional and even global strategic map adroitly, even if he usually contrived to undo or neutralize some of the benefits through poor leadership and decision-making. Thus, for example, he led the way in sounding the alarm globally regarding Iran’s military nuclear project, then spoiled the achievement by undermining the Obama administration’s effort to partially resolve the issue diplomatically and by encouraging Trump to savage the 2015 JCPOA. Bennett and Lapid, hopefully, can undo some of the damage by cultivating a more constructive relationship with President Biden.

Another example: Netanyahu understood the strategic ramifications of the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ from the outset and maneuvered to align concerned Arab regimes--from Morocco via Cairo to Abu Dhabi--with Israeli interests concerning Iran, Sunni Islamism and the Palestinians. But he did so at the cost of buying into the Trump administration’s problematic transactional approach to Arab-Israel relations. By-the-by, he (and Trump) abandoned the Palestinian issue and forsook any hope of productive coexistence with both the West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu grasped the significance of a quick and comprehensive Covid vaccination campaign before nearly all other global leaders. He paid a 50 percent premium to Pfizer and Moderna to speed their vaccines to Israel, judging correctly that this would pay for itself in a quick economic recovery. He may have made a lot of bad covid-related decisions along the way (as did many other global leaders), but this achievement stands out.

Earlier, and still in the economic sphere, Netanyahu built a natural gas-fueled alliance with Greece and Cyprus and eventually even Egypt, thereby isolating increasingly Islamist Turkey, a nemesis. And he dramatically expanded economic links with China and India. At the regional strategic level, he presided over a relatively successful ‘campaign-between-wars’ against Iranian encroachment in Syria and Lebanon. And he developed a thus-far successful model of coexistence with Russia’s military presence to Israel’s north.


Q: And the negative?

A: Here the list is longer. And it is toxic. It begins with the ethnic and religious divisiveness that Netanyahu introduced into Israeli political life. He never tried to be a healer or conciliator (Bennett’s current aspiration). Rather, he took pride in castigating and isolating anyone he perceived as a political opponent, e.g., Arabs ‘racing to the polls’, ‘liberal elites’, ‘leftists’ and Jews ‘who no longer believe’. It is a credit to the resilience of Israeli society that Netanyahu did not destroy it.

In parallel, at the international level Netanyahu cultivated friendships almost exclusively with authoritarians who disdain democracy: Trump, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Orban of Hungary, China’s Xi and India’s Modi. Like them, he polished the art of the big lie, to the extent that decent leaders in democratic countries like France, Canada and the United States under Obama and Biden simply ceased to credit anything Netanyahu said or promised.

It gets worse. Netanyahu disrupted and decimated Israel’s most important alliance, with the American Jewish mainstream, in favor of Trump, his minority Orthodox Jewish backers and his weighty Evangelical backers. The latter, we tend to forget, are Christians whose theology preaches the ultimate demise of the Jewish people.

Infusing these dramatic failures of policy and morality was Netanyahu’s consistent alliance with political and societal elements in Israel who covet the land of the West Bank and would deny Palestinian rights there: the settlers and the messianic nationalist right. This approach in itself was enough to alienate much of the democratic world and plunge Israel into trouble with international institutions of justice.

But Netanyahu went further. He cultivated a secondary alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, who agreed to support the secular, cynical Netanyahu in return for a financial and legal blank check. All of these parties of the religious right have, for decades with Netanyahu’s connivance, been diverting badly needed funds from the economic, social and educational needs of the Israeli mainstream. As a consequence of this and Netanyahu’s Thatcherite policies, Israel is among the OECD’s most unequal countries, with 21 percent of its population below the poverty line.

We have already noted the collateral damage that transpired even when Netanyahu did something right regarding Iran, the Arab world and the pandemic. The totality of damage, in sum, is Jewish, democratic, international and domestic.

Netanyahu compounded it during the past two years. Indicted on sweeping corruption charges, he systematically neglected the very basics of governance: budgets, civil service appointments, collaborative decision-making. He left his successor, Bennett, a PM’s office stripped of assets: scorched earth.


Q: Your bottom line on Netanyahu’s legacy?

A: Between successfully waging the campaign-between-wars and the covid vaccination campaign on the one hand and allying Israel with ultra-nationalists, Evangelicals and fake news proliferators on the other, this is a mixed legacy. Looking at the sorry state of Israeli society today--economically and socially divisive, at ‘peace’ with distant Dubai but gearing for yet another mini-war with Hamas and Gaza--the unequivocal verdict must be that on balance this is a negative legacy.

Here is perhaps the ultimate paradox. Netanyahu consciously moved Israel (and Palestine) down a slippery slope toward a binational one-state reality that is no longer Jewish or, alternatively, no longer democratic. The real quantum leap down that slope came in recent weeks. On the one hand, the Israel-Gaza conflict ceased, under Netanyahu, to be confined to Gaza and Hamas rockets: the latest violence transpired between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, in Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities, and in the West Bank. It gave us a taste of the binational future of the conflict.

On the other hand, the Bennett-Lapid coalition comprises, for the first time, an Arab political party. And not just any Arab party, but an Islamist party, Raam. Note that it was Netanyahu, hell bent on political survival whatever the cost to Israelis, who paved the way by cultivating Raam politically. Regardless of Netanyahu’s actual intentions, that too is a quantum leap.