Why Bibi Endures: Netanyahu’s Legacy of Success
Seeking his fifth national election victory amidst continuing legal investigations, Benjamin Netanyahu — now almost 70 and in his 13th year in office — may soon surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Levi Eshkol, Ariel Sharon, and Golda Meir held office roughly half as long, with Ehud Olmert, Shimon Peres, Moshe Sharett, and Ehud Barak all serving terms of two years or less.
In his remarkable run, Mr. Netanyahu has faced raucous Israeli domestic politics, confronted a dangerous regional map, challenged an often-hostile international arena, and maneuvered through various American administrations.
Born in 1949 in Tel Aviv, the middle son of a prominent Israeli historian, Bibi was educated in the United States. He then served as a captain in the same elite IDF commando unit as his admired elder brother Yoni, who was tragically killed in the famous 1976 Entebbe raid that heroically rescued Israeli victims of an airplane hijacking.
This personal and national drama shaped Bibi’s early scholarship and longtime focus on counter-terrorism, including his well-received media appearances in the US during the first Palestinian Intifada, as well as the 1991 Gulf War, when he famously wore a gas mask during Iraqi scud missile attacks on Israel.
His political patron and beloved ideological mentor, Moshe Arens, who recently passed away, was widely admired as a dignified patriot and follower of the prominent nationalist Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
In 1940, Jabotinsky, who had been urgently speaking in Washington, DC and New York about the deepening threat to Jewry in Europe, met young Arens, then 15, at a Betar summer youth camp. Jabotinsky passed away later that evening.
Arens became an admired Israeli statesman, and he brought Bibi to Washington, DC as a young diplomat, which included serving as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, setting up his ascent to the leadership of the Likud Party.
Repeatedly overcoming Labor Party electoral challengers, Bibi is credited with promoting Israel’s economic rise based on free market principles, which along with Russian immigration and the military’s cyber-training initiatives have all accelerated Israeli high-tech achievements, its growing global trade relationships, including with China and India, and its humanitarian assistance programs.
While he grudgingly but formally accepted the concept of a two-state solution, Netanyahu has long seen the Palestinian leadership as unaccountable, corrupt, and unwilling and unable to reciprocate Israeli concessions. While some on the left have slammed him for being too hard on the Palestinians, he also has detractors to his right, who are critical of missed opportunities to “defeat” Hamas in Gaza, which continues to threaten Israel with rocket launches, riots, and underground tunnels.
In fact, Hamas is today led by Yahya Sinwar, a convicted murderer who was among the 1,027 prisoners released in the controversial 2011 prisoner exchange swap for Gilad Shalit, which Netanyahu approved and justified.
While Bibi has been battling Palestinian terror campaigns for a generation — leveraging the IDF’s air superiority — he has often proved cautious about ground invasions, fearing Israeli casualties and seeking to avoid miscalculations or costly quagmires with enemies seeking to exploit Israeli sensitivities to any loss of life.
Internationally, Bibi has been labeled by some as Churchillian for his moral clarity in speeches at the United Nations, relentlessly advocating for Israel’s legitimate standing on the global stage and forcefully revealing the Iranian nuclear threat.
His focus appears to have worked, as moderate Arab states have rapidly moved towards relationships with Israel as a counter to Shiite hegemony.
In the US, Bibi was not liked by President Bill Clinton, who favored his “chaver” Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Netanyahu was detested by President Barack Obama, and especially confronted by Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry.
But in Donald Trump, Bibi has found a warm partner whose rejection of Palestinian irredentism, decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights have all been significant achievements.
Facing scandal at home, Netanyahu is leveraging his political alliance with President Trump and his experienced national security leadership to argue he is best positioned to defend Israel at a time of growing anti-Israelism and antisemitism, as well as significant rocket and missile threats from both Palestinians in Gaza and Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Ever confident, Bibi’s legacy is one of extraordinary communication skills, successful domestic economic growth, moderate caution on the Palestinian conflict, and strong global leadership against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Bibi has remained consistently loyal to the revisionist Zionism of Jabotinsky and Arens, promoting strength, realism, stability, and passionate defense of the Jewish state.
Larry Greenfield is a fellow at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.