July 18, 2019 / 11:04 AM / 2 months ago

Bruised but driven, Netanyahu becomes Israel's longest-serving PM

(This July 18 story corrects figure in paragraph two)

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in front of new construction in the Jewish settlement known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim in an area of the West Bank that Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed to the city of Jerusalem, March 16, 2015. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Benjamin Netanyahu makes history this weekend by becoming the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, surpassing a record held by the country’s founding father David Ben-Gurion.

Yet the conservative leader, who will match Ben-Gurion’s 4,875 days in office on Friday, is limping across that line, facing an election in September after an inconclusive April ballot, and a possible corruption trial.

“Who’s counting?” he said airily when asked about the career milestone during a conference hosted by the sympathetic Israel Hayom newspaper and attended by U.S. envoys.

To judge from his solid approval ratings, Netanyahu, 69, has delivered what Israelis wants: a purring economy and relative security despite the collapse of peacemaking with the Palestinians and combustible fronts with Syria and Lebanon.

He has also rallied a rising Israeli right-wing with rhetoric against the country’s Arab minority, and cut down potential political challengers with divide-and-conquer tactics.

Netanyahu became Israel’s youngest-ever premier in 1996, serving until his defeat in a 1999 election. Re-elected in 2009, he extended his tenure through the ballot box in 2013 and 2015.

But in a surprise turn, he failed to form a new coalition government after claiming victory in an election three months ago, and now serves as a caretaker prime minister.

That means a do-over in September, just weeks before prosecutors are expected to decide whether to indict Netanyahu in three graft cases, which he has castigated as a witch-hunt.

STATECRAFT

Netanyahu has scored a string of statecraft goals with the help of President Donald Trump: U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, as well as Washington’s withdrawal from world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Israel’s arch regional foe Iran.

He may be one of the few world leaders who can boast a rapport with both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And to the delight of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, he has sidestepped the Palestinians with outreach to Arab Sunni Muslim rulers who share his concerns over Iran.

Israel’s center-left opposition, and many of its foreign friends, worry, however, that Netanyahu has missed a chance to find a two-state deal with the Palestinians to safeguard the Jewish majority and democratic credentials of his country.

Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, said that while Netanyahu’s political longevity might be seen as a success story, “it may also be that...we will remember him more for leading Israel down the road to more oppression of the Palestinians”.

Dore Gold, a veteran Netanyahu envoy who now heads the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs think-tank, described the U.S.-educated premier as influenced by his late father, Benzion Netanyahu, a scholar of Jewish persecution during the Spanish Inquisition.

“I think he sees himself as someone who will do whatever is possible, anything in his power, to protect his people from any future disaster,” Gold said in summarizing Netanyahu’s legacy.

Netanyahu’s political strategy has included emulating Trump in blunt social media attacks on his rivals that have underlined deep divisions within Israel society.

Slideshow (18 Images)

Much like Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu has doubled as defense minister and bolstered the military as part of an uncompromising distrust of Israel’s neighbors and a doctrine of self-reliance.

But the two leaders cut two very different figures.

Plain-spoken and diminutive, the Polish-born Ben-Gurion stepped down as collectivist prime minister in 1963, aged 76, and retired to a spartan desert hut. The telegenic, English-fluent Netanyahu is a free-market champion who favors cigars and American sports tropes, and keeps a beachfront villa.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich

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