By Dov Lipman
History was made on July 20 as Benjamin Netanyahu, 69, became the longest-serving prime minister that the nation — only two years older than he — has seen.
Israel’s founding father and first premier, David Ben-Gurion, served in that role for 4,875 days—from May 14, 1948 to Jan. 26, 1954, and then again from Nov. 3, 1955 to June 26, 1963, for a total of 13-and-a-half years. Netanyahu’s 4,876 days will also have come via two separate stints in office—first from June 18, 1996 to July 6, 1999, and then from March 31, 2009 until the present.
Michael Freund, Netanyahu’s deputy communications director from 1996-99, told JNS that Netanyahu surpassing Ben-Gurion’s tenure is “a feat of remarkable political longevity.”
Freund said “when one considers the manifold security, diplomatic and international challenges facing the Jewish state, his achievement is all the more extraordinary. Regardless of whether one approves or disapproves of his policies or persona, no one can question his skills as a statesman or politician. To survive as long as he has in Israel’s raucous political system is no small feat. He has clearly left a deep imprint on the country and its future.”
Netanyahu’s opponents regularly criticize the length of his leadership, saying that such a long time serving as prime minister is unhealthy for a democracy. However, Israeli journalist and author Nadav Eyal noted on Israel Defense Forces’ radio that such political longevity has certainly impacted the seriousness with which world leaders, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, consider Netanyahu, and therefore has had a positive influence on Israel’s diplomatic standing in the international community.
Netanyahu himself told Time magazine, which did a cover story this week to mark the breaking of Ben-Gurion’s record, that as a result of his continued leadership, Israel has been able to make great strides nationally and abroad. “The way I’ve tried to contribute to the country—and I think it’s changed dramatically—is in the development of Israel as a global technological power. The rise of Israel among the community of nations is the rise of Israeli innovation and technology, both in the civilian field and the military and intelligence field. Israel has now become an important power in the world in these two leading respects,” he explained.
It should also be noted that according to the Israel Democracy Institute, other democracies have had presidents or prime ministers who have led their countries for longer than Netanyahu. He ranks 16th in length of time as premier among leaders of OECD nations since the end of World War II. (He will rise to 14th by the time the Sept. 17 generals elections, the second in the course of six months, roll around.)
Regarding his critics, Netanyahu told Time that journalists seem to be the ones most critical of his long stay in office, he said that they appeared to have had “Netanyahu fatigue from Day One.”
However, he continued, “they didn’t have to go through these 13 years of my service in the office. They have it after 13 days. After 13 minutes. But there’s a very large majority — a very large part of the Israeli public — that appreciates what we’ve been doing for the country. For its economy, for its security, for its diplomatic standing, for the state.”
There is no doubt that Netanyahu has defied the odds in lasting this long in the premiership. When he lost the position in the 1999 elections after his first three years in the role, journalist Amnon Rabinovich stated that “Netanyahu will be just a footnote in the history of Israel’s prime ministers, if that at all.”
And yet, he has succeeded to maintain the position for 10 years during his second run, despite clouds of controversies, investigations and even the attorney general recommending that he be indicted on corruption charges. (His pre-indictment hearing is scheduled for October. If he is indicted, Israeli law allows him to remain prime minister until he is found guilty by a court of law.)
The face of the nation, at home and abroad
With an impressive military background (he served in the Sayeret Matkal special-forces unit, as did his older brother, Yonatan, and his younger brother, Iddo) Netanyahu was first noticed as a rising political star by former Knesset member Collete Avital, who served as Consul General in Boston during the 1970s. Netanyahu was in the city at the same time, in tiny Cambridge studying architecture, business management and political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Avital told JNS that “Netanyahu, then known as Ben Nitay, was a very talented and eloquent student keen on doing Israel advocacy. We sent him to speak on various campuses and he was one of our most effective speakers. We did not think then and probably he did not consider either to become a politician. It was after the untimely death of his brother Yoni [who led and was killed in the Entebbe rescue operation in 1976 that he gained prominence and became a much sought-after personality.”
Indeed, the death of his brother had a profound effect upon him. Taking the mantel inherently construed by his father, longtime scholar, professor and intellectual Benzion Netanyahu, Benjamin—the middle of three sons—left the world of numbers for the world of nations.
He learned how to master public speaking and television interviews from the best of coaches in the United States, returning to Israel in the late 1970s as a known entity in the Israeli political sphere. His skills in Israel advocacy, perfect diction, stalwartness and poise led to his being named Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1984 to 1988. During his years in that post, Netanyahu spoke all across the United States and developed a strong following, especially among those who would be able to help him finance his future political campaigns.
Upon his return to Israel, Netanyahu ran in the Likud primaries and won fifth place, earning him entry into the 12th Knesset and appointment to be Israel’s deputy foreign minister. He held this position during the Gulf War in 1991, rising to become a star in the international media and emerged as the top global advocate for Israel. The combination of admiration this role brought Netanyahu among Israelis and the overseas financial supporters enabled Netanyahu to win the leadership of the Likud in 1993 and the premiership in 1996.
He succeeded in building a political base that returned to support him after his 1999 loss to Ehud Barak, eventually landing him again in the premiership in 2009. His supporters often compare him to King David, seeing no one else in the current Israeli political landscape who can be as effective in Israel’s top job, representing the face of the nation abroad and heading national security at home.
Netanyahu told Time that he has survived politically because “I don’t look at my survival. I look at the survival of the country—its durability, its future. And I have done things including dozens and dozens of economic reforms and a leveraging of the special capabilities that we’ve developed here through market reforms and innovation and technology and cybersecurity; and water and agriculture and transportation; and life sciences. We’ve taken these extraordinary abilities that Israel is now producing and have transferred it to security and political alliances around the world. I think the people of Israel see this.”
Netanyahu now finds himself in a heated political battle as he seeks to win the September election and successfully form his fifth government.