By Dr. Ilan Fuchs
Faculty Member, Legal Studies, American Military University
Benjamin Netanyahu has been a fixture in the regional and global political arena for many years. In fact, he recently became the longest serving prime minister in Israeli history. When combining all the terms he has served as prime minister, Netanyahu even surpasses David Ben-Gurion, the mythic founder of the State of Israel. But 2021 might be the year when Netanyahu’s career is likely to end.
Everybody has an opinion about Netanyahu. People love him, others hate him with a vengeance, but nobody can stay neutral when it comes to this man. Why is Netanyahu such a lightning rod? The mystery of his personality is not something we can uncover in a single blog post.
But I want to begin with the possible end of his political career, since he has promised to step down as prime minister in 2021 in favor of his coalition partner, Benny Gantz. The coming year will most likely also bring about the end of a criminal trial in which the attorney general is accusing Netanyahu of improperly using his influence to help several executives in exchange for mainly positive coverage in their media outlets.
The Possible End of a Career that Includes Many Accomplishments
This might be the end of a career that includes many accomplishments in a family that does big things. His father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, was an historian with an academic career as a professor at Cornel University. His brother, Yonatan, was a high-ranking officer in the Israeli elite unit Sayeret Matkal and was killed in the famous raid on Entebbe, Uganda, operation in 1976 to free a group of hostages. Netanyahu grew up in this environment and was influenced by these family members. He was a student at M.I.T. and an officer in the same legendary Sayeret Matkal unit as his brother.
Netanyahu will be a topic for many historians to write about in the future. Unlike the U.S., however, there is an exceedingly small market in Israel for political biographies, specifically those of contemporary politicians. Netanyahu has been the topic of a few books written by journalists who, to put it mildly, are not fans of his. Nevertheless, there is a real need for scholarly attention to his career, which will surely happen when more archival material is released and some objectivity about this very controversial man is finally realized.
Why Does Netanyahu Evoke Such Strong Emotions?
So why do so many people harbor such strong emotions about Netanyahu? Undoubtedly, this will be the topic of future research, but we can begin by pinpointing the precise place and time when his controversial political image was solidified: Israel in the months preceding the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After the 1991 Gulf War, Yitzhak Rabin was elected Israeli prime minister. Under his leadership the peace process with the Palestinians was revitalized and the PLO and its leader Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in the White House under the auspices of President Bill Clinton.
However, the Israeli rightwing parties did not like this deal. Among the religious right in particular the victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 was seen divine legitimization of the reestablishment of a Jewish state in its ancestral homeland. So the terms of the Oslo Accords – which were supposed to lead to the gradual creation of a Palestinian state and the removal of most of the settlements built by Israel in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — were viewed with horror. The massive onslaught of terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israeli civilians coupled with this deep ideological divide culminated in the assassination of Rabin by a young ultra-Orthodox man in 1995.
Netanyahu Was Saying Everywhere that Rabin Was Taking Israel Down a Disastrous Path
Where was Netanyahu when all this happened? As the leader of the Likud Party, he was saying everywhere that Rabin was taking Israel down a disastrous path. The language in the Israeli political scene was inflammatory and violent. The levels of incitement grew exponentially, and Netanyahu was the politician who was banking on his rise to power at the expense of Rabin’s loss.
To be clear, Netanyahu did not use violent speech vis-à-vis Rabin, but people around him did. In one infamous incident in a demonstration against the Oslo Accords, Netanyahu passed by a mock coffin with Rabin’s name on it while another person had a noose around his neck. The famous picture became a symbol of opposition, and ever since Netanyahu has been accused of not stopping the incitement. Even though he constantly rejects this accusation and states that he condemned the slogans calling Rabin a traitor, Netanyahu’s political opponents have not ceased to portray him as a participant in the incitement that brought about Rabin’s assassination.
Many Hold Netanyahu Responsible for the Assassination and Collapse of the Peace Process
This is a crucial part of the story of Benjamin Netanyahu. Within Israeli society many hold him responsible for the assassination and, as such, see him as the person to blame for the collapse of the peace process. Is it safe to assume the peace process would have been successful if Rabin had lived? No, but that does not matter. In the Israeli political scene, the question is not about what was likely but how it is perceived. The opposition to Netanyahu in Israel sees him as the person who destroyed the peace process, the best hope for a safe and secure Israel. Imagination or reality, it does not matter, they blame him.
This is all about the personality. Netanyahu is seen as the problem and the ideology is secondary. When dealing with the fascinating career of this man, with its failures and many successes, the personal animosity toward him as an individual needs to be taken into account. Future scholarly biographies of Benjamin Netanyahu will need to explain how this perception influenced his decision-making process and his self-perception.