Bibi vs. Ben-Gurion: The Good, the Bad and the Remarkable
by Martin Sherman
“When you compare his [Netanyahu’s] lack of actual achievements compared to Ben-Gurion, whose record he’s eclipsed, it’s embarrassing.”
— Jeff Barak, “Reality Check: An empty record,” The Jerusalem Post, November 20, 2016.
Small-minded and spiteful
Last Tuesday, Benjamin Netanyahu chalked up an unbroken stint of 2,793 days (seven years and 236 days) as prime minister of Israel, thereby surpassing David Ben-Gurion’s record for the longest consecutive term in office.
By any criterion, this would be a remarkable feat for anyone, under any circumstances. But for Netanyahu, it is even more remarkable, given the truly formidable obstacles and almost pathological animosity he had to overcome to achieve it.
This could, perhaps should, have been an auspicious occasion, in which his political rivals, his ideological adversaries and his detractors in the media might have — ever so briefly — put away their animosity and expressed some congratulatory sentiment, however reluctant and insincere, even if only as a formal appearance of feigned courtesy.
However, in the merciless and mean-spirited milieu of Israeli politics, any hint of such largesse was not forthcoming.
Quite the opposite.
Flummoxed and infuriated by their inability to dislodge him from power, his political opponents and their media cronies seized on any pretext, however flimsy and far-fetched, to besmirch and berate him.
A typical illustration of the mindless drivel and spiteful sniping that passes for journalism when it comes to excoriating Netanyahu was provided this week by former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, Jeff Barak, in his regular column, perversely dubbed “Reality Check.” Indeed, after only a few lines, it became apparent just how wildly inappropriate the column’s tagline is and just how tenuous the connection between the article and reality.
Barbs backfire badly
In this week’s alleged “Reality Check,” Barak compares Netanyahu’s incumbency unfavorably with that of another Barak — Ehud — the former PM and arguably the worst prime minster ever to take office in Israel, and (inarguably) the shortest-serving ever to hold that office.
Jeff Barak attempts to trivialize Netanyahu’s years of incumbency with evident imbecility, and barbs that backfire badly. He asserts: “Heavens, he’s even achieved less in his years in office than Ehud Barak during his ridiculously short term. Barak, at least, made good on his campaign promise to bring the IDF out of Lebanon.”
True, E. Barak did get the “IDF out of Lebanon” — by ordering a hasty, unbecoming retreat (a.k.a. an ignominious flight) in 2000, abandoning that territory to the Hezbollah terror group, and Israel’s allies in the South Lebanese Army to their fate. Today, the territory E. Barak ordered to be abandoned houses a veritable arsenal of rockets and missiles, in numbers estimated at up to 150,000, trained on Israel’s major urban centers. Of course, the deployment of the IDF in South Lebanon did involve a tactical threat for the military, whose function, it should be remembered, is to protect the nation’s civilians. However, by hurriedly evacuating South Lebanon, to eliminate that tactical threat to the military, E. Barak perversely created a strategic threat to the country’s civilian population.
Amnesia or ignorance?
Indeed, one can only wonder whether it was amnesia or ignorance on the part of J. Barak to invoke the debacle of the evacuation of South Lebanon as an accomplishment that somehow can be exploited to reflect badly on Netanyahu. After all, it not only precipitated the 2006 Second Lebanon War, in which millions of Israelis were forced to huddle in shelters for weeks, but also — according to several pundits — it provided the impetus for the bloody 2000-2005 second intifada, in which thousands of Israelis lost life or limb.
Indeed, the unilateral retreat ordered by E. Barak was widely perceived by Arabs as an Israeli defeat, “sending a message…which was to have a profound effect on Palestinian tactics during the al Aqsa Intifada.” (See Encyclopedia of the Palestinians, 2000, p. 40). Similar sentiments were expressed in Beirut two years later, by Farouk Kaddoumi, often dubbed the PLO foreign minister. Kadoumi declared that Hezbollah’s successful guerrilla war in Southern Lebanon was a model for other Arabs seeking to end Israeli “occupation.” He said: “We are optimistic. Hezbollah’s resistance can be used as an example for other Arabs seeking to regain their rights.”
This, then, is the “achievement” that J. Barak attempts to invoke in his venomous endeavor to demean Netanyahu, and compare him negatively with others. But, of course, holding up dismal failure as strategic success is fine, so long as it is employed (read “exploited”) in the “gainful” pursuit of belittling Bibi.
Not uncritical pro-Bibi apologetics
As readers who follow my column will know, I have never been an uncritical apologist for Netanyahu. On the contrary, I have criticized a number of his policy decisions, regularly and severely. Thus, for example, I strongly condemned his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech in which he accepted the idea of Palestinian statehood — and pointed out that he had, in a stroke, transformed the strategic structure of the discourse from whether there should be a Palestinian state to what the characteristics of such a state should be (see here and here). Likewise, I was severely critical of the decision to release over 1000 convicted terrorists (2011) to secure the release of Gilad Schalit, and was even more opposed to a subsequent 2013 release of prisoners as a futile gesture to assuage US secretary of state John Kerry, in the vain hope of coaxing the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas into renewing negotiations (see here and here).
More recently, I vehemently disapproved of the policy of rapprochement with Turkey, particularly the compensation paid for the casualties incurred when Israeli commandos had to defend themselves against an attempted lynch by those on the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara, which was trying to breach the maritime quarantine of the terror enclave in the Gaza Strip. But, above all, I warned that the presence granted to the Erdogan regime in Hamas-controlled Gaza considerably increased the chances of armed conflict between Israel and Turkey in the event of future IDF operations there.
However, my most serious and ongoing criticism of Netanyahu is his enduring failure to adequately address the problem of international delegitimization of Israel and of the Zionist endeavor, by refusing to allot adequate resources to initiate and sustain a strategic diplomatic offensive to confront, curtail and counter the animosity of the Obama regime and the global assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish state (see, most recently, here).
Decades of distinction
As I have written elsewhere, these, and other, episodes indicate that a cogent case for concern can be made regarding the soundness of Netanyahu’s decision-making processes and the steadfastness of his resolve.
However, whatever his faults, there is little to justify the wholesale campaign of denigration, demonization and delegitimization, waged not only against him (both as a person and a politician) but on his spouse as well, ever since he first took over leadership of the Likud in the early 1990s.
After all, Netanyahu has served his country with distinction and dedication for decades.
Prior to entering the political arena, he served as a soldier and a diplomat; as an officer in an elite commando unit, participating in numerous daring combat operations; and, later, as a highly articulate and effective ambassador at the United Nations.
His impressive performance at the UN paved his way into politics in 1988. In 1992, he was elected to lead the Likud and head the opposition to Yitzhak Rabin’s government and the Oslo process it had instigated. His efforts were largely successful, and by the fateful night of November 4, 1995, on which Rabin was assassinated, Netanyahu was pulling steadily ahead of him in the opinion polls.
In his detailed study of the events leading up to the 1996 election, Professor Gerald Steinberg reminds us of frequently forgotten – or, perhaps, purposely obscured – facts:
In January 1995… polls showed Rabin trailing Netanyahu by a narrow margin. Continued terrorism… reinforced this trend. However, in the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin…Netanyahu’s standing plunged. In February , when Peres decided to hold early elections, the Prime Minister [Peres] maintained a substantial lead over Netanyahu.
Mean-spirited, mendacious malice
Yet, despite all the odds, Netanyahu managed to edge Peres out in the final ballot by a fraction of one percent. It was, perhaps, this totally unexpected – and for some, an inexplicable, even inconceivable – victory that unleashed the torrent of enduring enmity toward him from much of the “Rabinesque” civil society elite.
Thus, despite his documented public disapproval of incendiary accusations against Rabin and his government (see for example here and here) Netanyahu was condemned for igniting the hostile ambiance that allegedly culminated in the assassination. This precipitated the mood of mean-spirited and largely mendacious malice hurled at him from all quarters.
Open-season was declared on Netanyahu. His success, against all odds, had, for all intents and purposes, made him fair game to blame for every conceivable malaise, real or imagined, afflicting Israel, the Middle East and humanity as a whole.
Consequently, Netanyahu has been given little credit for the numerous impressive feats he, and the governments he headed, have achieved. Indeed, few seem even to remember that, on entering office after his stunning victory, the relatively inexperienced prime minister inherited a myriad of daunting problems, both economic and security, handed down to him by the previous Rabin-Peres government.
Accordingly a brief reminder seems appropriate.
The Oslo process, initiated by his predecessors, had precipitated then-unprecedented levels of terror attacks against Israel. Netanyahu’s government managed to suppress the violence to the lowest levels for almost two decades. If the figures are “lagged” to account for the fact that an incumbent’s policy takes time to have an effect, and at the start of his term, events are affected by that of his predecessor, Netanyahu’s performance figures improve, while those of others deteriorate.
Indeed, it was under his successors, Barak and Sharon, that terror once again soared, resulting in Operation Defensive Shield and construction of the much-maligned security barrier.
On the economic front, the much-vaunted growth commonly, but fallaciously, ascribed to the Oslo-ian peace process, had ground almost to a halt, in no small measure due to the deteriorating security situation.
Indeed, much of the post-Oslo growth was fueled largely by a gigantic budget deficit that almost brought Israel to the brink of financial catastrophe, as befell several Asian countries at the time. It was only the fiscal prudence of the Netanyahu government which steered the nation clear of the looming economic disaster that the cavalier fiscal promiscuity of Avraham Shochat, finance minister during the Rabin-Peres term, almost brought upon it.
Many, myself included (“Netanyahu’s Pitfalls,” The Jerusalem Post, Apr. 24, 2003), were critical of the perceived “social insensitivity” of the economic policies Netanyahu undertook as finance minister under Ariel Sharon. However, it can hardly be disputed that they were in large measure responsible for the subsequent resilience of the Israeli economy and its ability to weather the global crisis better than most other industrial countries. Moreover, while Netanyahu can hardly be portrayed as a champion of egalitarian “social justice,” it was on his watch that unemployment rates, perhaps the most pernicious of social ills, were kept at among the lowest in the developed world.
Bibi vs. BG
As Netanyahu neared Ben-Gurion’s record incumbency, comparisons between the two were inevitable. Unsurprisingly, an almost universally unsympathetic press judged Netanyahu unfavorably relative to Israel’s iconic founding father.
But any such comparisons are inherently unfair. For, while both men faced daunting challenges and enormous difficulties, Netanyahu has had to contend with one problem that Ben-Gurion was not called upon to face: the venomous ad hominem attacks on Netanyahu, and his family, by both his political opponents and most of the mainstream media (both domestic and foreign) have long exceeded the limits of rational criticism or reasoned dissent, and have become a poisonous pathology. The fact that he has found the spiritual resources to survive and endure this, is, in its own right, a testimony to his remarkable strength.
Netanyahu is a man of tremendous talent and serious shortcomings. He should be judged on a judicious assessment of the balance between the two – not on some distorted, demonized image created by his obsessive opponents. Until this can be factored into the equation, no really meaningful comparison can be drawn between these two towering figures, who dominated the politics of Israel for decades.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (www.strategic-israel.org).