Bibi, King of Israel
Beginning in the early 1990’s, when I began hosting Israel’s then-Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Oxford, I was blown away by his passion for his Jewishness and his unyielding pride in Israel. He launched defenses of the Jewish state before thousands of Oxford students with unsurpassed eloquence. Even as anti-Israel students chanted, “Netanyahu you should know, we support the PLO,” Bibi stood proud and tall and earned standing ovations from even hostile students who were mesmerized by the force with which he championed his embattled country and persecuted people.
There is little doubt that Benjamin Netanyahu has earned his place among modern history’s most significant Jewish leaders. Lovers and haters alike have to admit how difficult it would be to chronicle the annals of the Jewish state without devoting considerable space to “King Bibi,” as Time magazine crowned him in 2012. Having maintained formidable political influence for an astonishing 25 years, Bibi has occupied the top seat longer than any other prime minister, with his latest stint nearing a decade.
And if that fact tells us anything, it’s that his political competitors are having a hard time convincing the electorate that they can replace him.
It’s not for lack of trying.
In just the last few weeks Israel was rocked with political upheaval. Unlike previous attempts, which came from the left-wing opposition, this time the shot at dethroning the prime minister came from right-wing members of Netanyahu’s own coalition. Following the quickly-negotiated and highly controversial ceasefire that ended the last round of fighting between Israel and Hamas terrorists, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned from his post in protest of Netanyahu having “capitulated to terror.” The departure of his Yisrael Beiteinu party from Netanyahu’s coalition left the ruling body with just 61 seats, a razor-thin margin that few expected to hold. Those fears were solidified the next day, when Naftali Bennett threatened to tear the coalition apart unless he was named minister of defense. Moshe Kahlon, leader of the Kulanu party, warned his constituents to expect snap elections far before those scheduled for November 2019.
With his back against the ropes, Netanyahu — by now acting defense minister — managed to deliver a scathing reprimand to those former political allies leaving, or threatening to leave, his coalition. Speaking from the headquarters of the Defense Ministry, Netanyahu struck an uncharacteristically cryptic and foreboding tone, warning that Israel was in one of its “most complex security situations” yet. “You only see a partial picture of a wide-scale campaign that we are in the middle of,” he declared, later insisting that “in such a moment you don’t topple a government … and you don’t desert.”
Apparently aware of how impulsive it might seem, Bennett walked back his demands and promised to help keep the government in place. Lieberman continued to lambast the prime minister but was already out of the coalition.
As the dust began to settle a simple truth was reaffirmed: Netanyahu is a political force of nature.
Still, with his coalition brought to its lowest possible number, Netanyahu remains especially vulnerable. His opponents on the left certainly seem to think so, considering the recent reports of hushed meetings between the center-left’s political power-players — Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, and Moshe Ya’alon — who are likely planning a union of their own.
As Netanyahu finds himself beset on all sides by increasingly determined competition, it’s fair for Israelis to conduct an appraisal of his performance. In the realm of security and especially in opposing Iran, Netanyahu has been unmovable. And in the field of international diplomacy, Netanyahu is at the top of his game.
Just yesterday, Israelis woke to the shocking and welcome news that the president of Chad was arriving for a visit. Though the majority-Muslim, Arabic-speaking nation does not have any diplomatic relations with Israel, President Idriss Déby paid the first ever presidential visit to Israel since its founding.
This came on the heels of a string of diplomatic victories for Israel on the African continent. With three Africa trips in just two years, the prime minister has himself visited Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Liberia. As for the higher-hanging fruit, Israel has, under Bibi’s leadership, ramped up its connections with Muslim states in Africa, including Mali, Somalia, and the Republic of Guinea, which recently renewed diplomatic relations with Israel for the first time in nearly 50 years.
Far more impressive are the inroads Netanyahu has made in the Gulf.
In the past few months, the world has witnessed a rapport between Israel and many of the Gulf states that just months ago would have been unthinkable.
Since late October alone, Israel witnessed its outspoken Minister for Culture and Sport Miri Regev touring the grand mosque of Abu Dhabi before attending an international Judo tournament where the Israeli national anthem “Hatikva” rang out in the Emirati arena. Days later, Israel’s Minister of Communications Ayoub Kara formally addressed a conference in Dubai.
Now add to that the retired Saudi officials who recently shared a stage with retired Israeli peers, the unofficial yet very real Israeli diplomatic outpost in Abu Dhabi, and the reliable rumors of deep cooperation between Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian, and Gulf intelligence directorates, and you have a true diplomatic revolution.
Farther south, Netanyahu again made modern Israeli history during his visit to Oman, where he sat for a remarkably amiable meeting with Sultan Qaboos. Though Yitzhak Rabin visited the city in 1994, that was due only to the involvement of both leaders in the Oslo Accords. This time, the meeting took place despite the cast-iron wrench lodged in the peace process. Furthermore, the Sultan implied an openness to normalizing relations with the Jewish state. Tellingly, though the Rabin meeting was kept secret until after it had ended, this one was reported by Oman’s state-run news service.
And according to the prime minister’s Arabic spokesman Honi Marzouk, the Kingdom of Bahrain is “the next destination for Netanyahu.”
Of course, all of these effects can be attributed to a host of other geopolitical forces, from the rise of President Trump and his stalwart support of Israel to the Gulf States’ growing concern about Iran. Still, the buck has to stop somewhere. If Netanyahu is to be held accountable for failure, regardless of how far down the ladder it occurs, it’s only fair that we credit him with these successes.
On the security front there is the constant threat of Iran and its proxy army Hezbollah. Bibi has kept the terror group from getting their blood-soaked hands on sophisticated weaponry making its way across Syria from Tehran. Here, he has been aggressive in his willingness to strike high-risk targets throughout Syria, but also deployed the interpersonal skills that have allowed him to keep the Russians generally aware of and agreeable to Israel’s security needs.
As for Iran, Netanyahu has fought like a lion to stop their nuclear ambitions. From his warnings of a nuclear Iran at the UN to the magnifico speech he delivered to a joint session of Congress, Bibi has made this his single most important issue. Which, one might argue, explains why he seems to have tentatively succeeded. True, it was President Trump who left the catastrophic Iran deal and our president deserves enormous credit. However, it is simply both wrong and impossible to discount Netanyahu’s herculean efforts in proving to Americans in general, and President Trump in particular, just how dangerous to the Middle East this deal was.
All in all, Israel has found in Benjamin Netanyahu a bold and able leader whose rare communication gifts have lent Israel a sorely-needed global voice. And it behooves the Jewish people, who find endless reasons to criticize Netanyahu, to give some credit where it is justly earned.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books, including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.