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Israelis can't quit Bibi Netanyahu

Israelis can't quit Bibi Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at his Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. (Thomas Coex / AFP/Getty Images)

And so, the Netanyahu era continues.

Although the centrist Blue and White alliance of former army chief Benny Gantz won as many seats in the Knesset as his own Likud Party, it is almost certainly Benjamin Netanyahu who will be asked to form the next government, thanks to the strong showing of the right-wing factions that will most likely make up his next coalition. Barring unforeseen complications, Netanyahu will soon begin his fifth term as prime minister of Israel.

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And that’s dismal news for his country.

I first covered Netanyahu in 1995, when, as leader of the out-of-power Likud Party, he was positioning himself as his country’s chief opponent of the Oslo peace process. Smooth and articulate, a darling of the international media because of his perfect Americanized English, younger and thinner than today, Netanyahu stood even then for the proposition that peace was a pipe dream, that Israelis shouldn’t be suckered into dovish idealism and that it was suicidal to make concessions to implacable, untrustworthy enemies like Yasser Arafat.

Some still thought him callow, but in the traumatic aftermath of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a mini-war in Lebanon and a series of horrendous Hamas bombings, he became prime minister for the first time in 1996. He slow-walked the peace process, infuriated the left and hammered on the issue of security to voters who were already skittish about their futures. He served until 1999, and since then he has been the dominant figure in Israeli politics, serving as prime minister four times in all. Now, if all goes according to his plan, he will within a few months break the record of Israel’s first and longest-serving prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

Yet Netanyahu has been mostly bad for his country. Not because Israel’s security isn’t important. Of course it is. A country that lives nose-to-nose with millions of people who believe it has little or no right to be there, a country that has fought four wars against its neighbors and endured terror attacks for years must be deeply concerned about its safety. But Netanyahu has always played those fears like a maestro, emphasizing danger at every turn. Believe what you want about his motivations, he is surely as aware as the rest of us that his popularity surges when Israelis are especially worried about suicide bombers or Hamas rockets or about Iran's annihilationist threats.

And the irony of that incessant focus on security is that it has been wielded as an obstacle to negotiations, to concessions, to compromise, to withdrawal, and ultimately to peace itself — which is, in the end, the only thing that can bring true security.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s support of the Israeli settler movement and his willingness to make alliances with extremist parties (not to mention his warm relationship with President Trump) have all helped lower Israel’s standing in the eyes of the world.

At various points in his career (under intense international pressure), Netanyahu has paid lip service to peace and negotiations with Palestinian leaders. But in fact he came by his hawkish and uncompromising views honestly, as the son of an ultra-right-winger who had served as personal secretary to the militant nationalist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky and who believed that "[t]he Arabs' aspiration to destroy the Jewish state will never end. If they could, they would wipe us out."

A formative experience of Netanyahu’s young life was the death of his brother Yoni, a commander of the Sayeret Matkal, an elite special forces unit within the Israeli military (in which Bibi also served). Yoni was killed in 1976, at the age of 30, at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, while leading the raid to free more than 100 hostages from a plane that had been hijacked by militant supporters of the Palestinian cause.

Is it any surprise Bibi dismissed U.S.-backed peace talks as “a waste of time” and positioned himself as the unwavering defender of Israel’s security?

In the end, though, his great legacy will be the undermining of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which at the time he first took office seemed to be moving inexorably forward. Of course he is not singlehandedly responsible for its failure; there’s plenty of blame to go around. But he probably deserves more of it than any other Israeli.

In recent years, Netanyahu’s time has been spent railing against Iran and working to undermine the nuclear deal that the U.S. and many of its allies signed to slow or stop that regime’s nuclear program. And he faces indictment on charges of corruption and bribery.

Perhaps in the months ahead his hold on power will be cut short, if not by voters then by prosecutors. But don’t count on it. Netanyahu has survived many crises over many decades, and he shows no indication now that he is ready to slink away into obscurity.

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