The question of Netanyahu's legacy

He is sometimes viewed as a manoeuverer with no goal other than personal power

Leader of Israeli Opposition Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting with his Likud party in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 14, 2021. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
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Benjamin Netanyahu's 15 years as prime minister have come to an end, but his legacy lives on. If there were questions about what exactly that legacy might be, the never-shy Bibi was quick to answer them by listing his accomplishments in a "valedictory speech" before the Knesset.

He boasted that he, and he alone, made Israel a "global power" able to stand up to enemies; resisted pressure from allies to stop building settlements; ended Israel's "socialist economy", transforming the country into a free-market haven; challenged the old doctrine of “land for peace" and replaced it with "peace for peace" without surrendering an inch of land or "uprooting a single Jew from his home"; gave Israel uncontested military might able to operate anywhere in the region; "transformed Israel into a cyber power"; and paved the way for former US President Donald Trump to end the "Iran deal" and recognise Israeli control over all of Jerusalem.

What interested me most about Mr Netanyahu's presentation was the way it revealed the extent to which he has operated according to the same playbook throughout his entire career and how, although he will never acknowledge it, he has had accomplices both in writing the playbook and implementing it.
Mr Netanyahu is sometimes viewed as a manoeuverer with no goal other than personal power. That is simply not true. He is, and has always been, an ideologue – a neoconservative ideologue.

The Netanyahu family ties with American neoconservatives go back to Benjamin Netanyahu's father, Benzion Netanyahu, and his role in helping to launch the movement in the late 1970s. In Bibi's writings and public speaking, he has always adhered to the neocon's Manichaean, apocalyptic world view: that there is absolute good (Israel and the West) and absolute evil (the rest); that good must fight evil with unrelenting, overwhelming force; that weakness or compromise is unacceptable; and that victory is assured.

Netanyahu is sometimes viewed as a manoeuvrer with no goal other than personal power. That is simply not true

Shortly after the 1993 White House signing of the Oslo Accords, Benjamin Netanyahu and a few Israeli colleagues launched an initiative to sabotage the agreements, which they identified as a sign of weakness and compromise with evil. They lobbied members of Congress by sending regular faxes making the case that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was not to be trusted and that steps must be taken to abort the agreement because of the dangers it posed to Israel and America.

One of Mr Netanyahu's main allies in Congress was Newt Gingrich. When Republicans gained control of Congress and Mr Gingrich became speaker of the House in 1995, the matchup in Washington became then US president Bill Clinton and then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin supporting the Oslo Accords versus Mr Gingrich and Mr Netanyahu opposing them. Never before had an Israeli opposition party challenged its own government in Washington.

Rabin was incensed, and angrily condemned this effort.
Back in Israel, Rabin was so demonised by opponents of Oslo that he was eventually assassinated in 1995 for what some of them called "his act of treason".

When Mr Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996 on a platform committed to ending the peace process, Mr Gingrich invited him to address a joint session of Congress. In preparation for his speech, Mr Netanyahu's American neo-con advisers wrote a position paper for him devoted to "making a clean break" from the weaknesses that characterised the former Israeli government. It emphasised the need to project power to affirm the moral superiority of Israel and the West and the resolve to resist pressure from those who sought compromise.

They stressed undoing the peace process with the Palestinians, weakening the PLO, creating alternatives to its leadership and blocking any official Palestinian presence in Jerusalem. They also called for building regional alliances based on strength to confront enemies, singling out Syria and supporting the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Additionally, they called for eliminating US economic aid to reduce any possible future source of pressure, while maintaining military aid.

That was 1996. Over 15 of the next 25 years, Mr Netanyahu did what he set out to do, at enormous cost. But he did not do it alone. He had enablers – first and foremost his neoconservative allies. Playing a supporting role were Democrats who refused to see the game that was afoot and hesitated to block it.

Here's what they did to enable Mr Netanyahu's self-proclaimed accomplishments – making it ludicrous for him to claim that he and he alone is responsible for what he deems to be Israel's successes.

epa09277513 Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend a memorial service for Netanyahu's brother fallen Israeli soldier Yoni Netanyahu in mount Herzel in Jerusalem, Israel, 16 June 2021.  EPA/ABIR SULTAN

It is hard to make the case that Israel became economically and militarily powerful on its own when the US annually gives an unrestricted $3.8 billion in military aid, some of which goes to Israel's own weapons industry, allowing it to become a major arms exporter.

For years the US has contributed additional billions to jump-start Israel's high-tech sector and underwrites billions of dollars in unrestricted loan guarantees. And it allows tax-exempt donations from US groups to provide everything from support for social services to illegal land purchases and development in occupied Palestinian territory.

It is also hard for Mr Netanyahu to claim that he stands up to the US when he is only able to do so because Israel has the support of Republicans who have thrice invited him to address joint sessions of Congress to "stand up" against Democratic presidents. If it were not for the US turning a blind eye, providing protective cover and sanctions against international bodies, Israel would likely be penalised for the occupation. Claiming, therefore, that it was his leadership that made Israel strong and able to resist pressure takes chutzpah to say the least.

Mr Netanyahu is wrong to claim that Israel and the West are more secure and the "forces of good" have prevailed thanks to his leadership. As we have recently witnessed, the reality is far more complicated. Despite the boasts and bravado, Israel is militarily strong but internally fractured, and most definitely not at peace because Palestinians, despite decades of oppression, continue to rise in fierce opposition to the denial of their rights.

This is also Benjamin Netanyahu's legacy. Not just his boasts of success, but a hole so deep that it could be a long time before Israel can see truly sustainable peace and stability.

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National