In at least one field, Benjamin Netanyahu was the best prime minister Israel has ever had
By: Gary Willig
Today marks the end of an era, the end of the 12-year reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister of Israel.
Even if he returns to office, as he did in 2009, 10 years after the end of his first term, much will still be written of how Netanyahu could not form a coalition despite his Likud party winning 30 seats and becoming the largest faction in the Knesset by far. Historians will document every detail of how it was not his ideological opponents, but rather former allies he had angered over the years, who brought him down.
But even if it is the end of Netanyahu’s career as prime minister, it would be a mistake to focus solely on the end. Benjamin Netanyahu deserves to be remembered as one of the historic and great prime ministers of Israel.
Netanyahu is no David Ben Gurion or Menachem Begin. He did not create build the state from nothing or defend it when it was newly born and weak from attackers on all sides. Nor did he end one-party rule, give voice to Israel’s marginalized communities for the first time, and sign the first peace deal with an Arab nation. The challenges he faced were different, but his accomplishments are no less revolutionary.
Benjamin Netanyahu is the best prime minister Israel has ever had when it comes to the field of foreign policy, and it isn’t even close.
Before Netanyahu, and especially following the Oslo Accords, it was taken for granted that Israel’s standing in the world depended on the state of the peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Many countries, including China and India, only started to normalize relations with Israel in the wake of the Oslo Accords.
This situation gave the Palestinian Authority and its leaders, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, effective veto power over Israel’s foreign policy. As long as they refused to make peace with Israel, there was a limit to how far the international community would be willing to embrace Israel. International bodies would reflexively condemn Israel, most of the world would give Israel the cold shoulder, and even Israel’s closest allies and trading partners in Europe and the US would often be hyper-critical of Israel’s policies and demand it give in to the PA.
This all began to change when Netanyahu took office in 2009. He had a different idea for how foreign policy should be conducted, one that seems obvious in hindsight, but was revolutionary in practice: decouple foreign policy from the state of Israel’s relations with the PA.
Netanyahu realized that Israel had what to offer the world. The Jewish State was no longer the fragile, poor country of the 1950s. Israel had weathered the global financial crisis of 2008 better than most other countries and had become a hub of innovation and technology. Netanyahu was the first prime minister to see the potential Israel’s newfound ‘Start-Up Nation’ status had for international relations.
Nations act first and foremost in their own interest. Netanyahu capitalized on this by reaching out to nations Israel had not reached to before or had not reached out to in decades. For the first time, Israel’s foreign policy was not centered on the US and western Europe, but included reaching out to eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and eastern Asia.
Netanyahu’s approach proved itself when many nations began to move closer to Israel. Their interests in Israeli know-how and technology trumped ideological commitment to the Palestinian Arabs. It no longer made sense to wait until the PA said yes to peace to enjoy the benefits of a closer relationship with Israel.
The list of nations with which Israel has better relations now than it ever has before is staggering. India, the nation with the second-largest population and formerly one of Israel’s harshest critics on the world stage, is now a friendly nation. The nations of the former Soviet bloc such as Hungary. Even Russia, where much of the anti-Israel propaganda which infects left-wing discourse in the left originated during the Soviet era, enjoys its warmest-ever relations with Israel today. The coordination between the Israeli and Russian militaries in Syria would have been unthinkable in earlier eras.
Israel has made inroads in Latin America, with close friendships with Brazil and Honduras. It has begun to return to Africa, where many nations severed relations with the Jewish State following the 6-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. Israel even enjoys a closer relationship with China, one of the last remaining communist nations.
This improvement to Israel’s standing extends not only to far-flung regions, but applies closer to home as well. During Netanyahu’s tenure, Israel developed an unprecedented partnership with the nations of the Arab Gulf, largely to counter the shared threat posed by Iran.
Initially, this partnership was kept behind closed doors, even if it was an open secret. But last year, it came out into the open with the signing of the Abraham Accords.
Netanyahu has the distinction of being the Israeli Prime Minister to sign the most peace agreements with Arab nations. Menachem Begin signed one with Egypt, Yitzchak Rabin signed one with Jordan. Netanyahu signed four, yes, four peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.
These agreements are different from the cold peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. These nations truly want to be Israel’s friends. They want economic cooperation, and have taken steps to signal a new era of tolerance and respect for Jews within their borders.
The normalization agreement with Sudan is especially significant, as Sudan’s capital of Khartoum is where the leaders of the Arab nations gathered in 1967 to issue their ‘Three No’s:’ ‘No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.’
Israel’s improved relations with the Arab world are not limited to these four nations. The Abraham Accords, the name given to the peace deals, were made possible thanks to the support of Saudi Arabia.
Netanyahu does not deserve sole credit for the Abraham Accords. Much of the credit must go o former US President Donald Trump and especially Trump’s Middle East negotiating team: Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and Avi Berkowitz. But Netanyahu deserves credit for creating the groundwork for the peace deals by pursuing closer relations despite the lack of progress with the PA and proving Israel can be a powerful ally against Iran. And he deserves credit for being able to finalize the agreements that brought these new friendships out into the open and upended the conventional wisdom that a peace agreement with the PA must come first.
Netanyahu’s accomplishments are hardly limited to the arena of foreign policy. Israel’s economy remained strong and continued to grow under his watch, partially thanks to reforms Netanyahu implemented as Finance Minister in the 2000s. Without this economic strength, many of his foreign policy successes would not have been possible.
Netanyahu also deserves the gratitude of each and every citizen of Israel for acting quickly to purchase millions of coronavirus vaccines from the Pfizer pharmaceutical company when they were developed late last year. Israel became the fastest country in the world to vaccinate its population against the deadly disease, saving hundreds of lives and allowing life to gradually return to normal. This was another success which was dependent on the economic strength Netanyahu delivered, as he paid top dollar to ensure Israel would be first in line to receive the vaccines.
Alas, no record is perfect, and even in foreign policy, there are a few blemishes on Netanyahu’s record.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry has been woefully underfunded and neglected for many years. In addition, Israel’s hasbara has been insufficient to put it mildly. The Jewish State has done little to counter the growth of ideological anti-Semitism on the western left. The spread of lies about Israel make it more difficult for the still-tiny state to defend itself when attacked by murderous adversaries such as Hamas and Hezbollah and has significantly contributed to the resurgence of anti-Semitism across western Europe and the US. These failures are on Netanyahu.
Despite these blemishes, Netanyahu leaves office with Israel’s standing in the world far better than it was in March 2009. Israel enjoys a level of respect and acceptance across the world it never has seen before. It has friendships which even the most optimistic observer could have conceived of 12 years ago.
These friendships and alliances will not disappear just because Netanyahu is leaving office. If they were, then they would be hollow achievements at best. Hopefully Prime Minister-delegate Naftali Bennett and future prime ministers will be able to build on them to further elevate Israel’s standing. Bennett has many of the same skills as Netanyahu, including an understanding of the US and the ability to speak eloquently in English. And he is clearly a skilled negotiator, having been able to maneuver himself into the premiership with a party of just seven seats. Time will tell how those skills will translate to the world stage.
So farewell, Prime Minister Netanyahu. In one area, at least, you truly were the best.