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World & Nation

Netanyahu just passed Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest serving leader

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
(Gali Tibbon / Associated Press)

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu became the country’s longest-serving prime minister on Saturday, as the clock ticked midnight on his 4,876th (non-consecutive) day in office.

Netanyahu beat the record previously held by the nation’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion.

The milestone came at a turbulent time for Netanyahu, who has ruled Israel for a full decade of economic and diplomatic achievements. In April, he appeared to have won elections despite a cloud of corruption charges hanging over him. Then, in May, he was forced to acknowledge that he was unable to form a coalition cabinet, and has continued to preside over a caretaker government since then.

As a result, the prime ministerial record was broken while Israelis prepare themselves for another unprecedented political event: a second consecutive election, which will take place in mid-September.

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On Oct. 7, three weeks after the vote, as parties that make up Israel’s political mosaic jockey to form alliances, Netanyahu is expected to be indicted on three corruption charges, turning him into Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be formally charged with crimes.

As a result, Netanyahu’s opponents have tirelessly diminished the longevity record — he has served two stints as prime minister, from 1996-99 and 2009-present -- as no more than a technical feat for a caretaker head of government facing imminent trial.

Apart from the now-broken record, Netanyahu, a hard-line rightist and close ally of President Trump, and Ben-Gurion, who belonged to a socialist Zionist movement before becoming the visionary who founded Israel in 1948, have little in common.

David Ben-Gurion
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion
(Pridan Moshe / State of Israel / Courtesy of Simon Wiesenthal Center)

In a celebratory video posted to his social media platforms (link in Hebrew), Netanyahu did not explicitly mention the milestone, but left a clear message by positively comparing his achievements to those of Ben-Gurion, who is lionized in Israel.

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Donning an apron, Netanyahu said he wanted to tell “a story about proven leadership.”

“In the 1950s, Israel was under austerity,” Netanyahu says.

With no imports, no exports, and empty supermarket shelves, he asked, how could the young nation be fed?

The answer is rice, Netanayhu says, addressing an Israeli public that has grown accustomed to relative security, a plethora of international luxury products in its shopping carts and easy weekend getaways to nearby European resorts. “But there was no rice,” he declares.

In Netanyahu’s telling, the lifesaving solution was found through Israeli ingenuity, or “rice made of wheat,” the popular export now known as Israeli couscous, an “Israeli startup,” Netanyahu says in the fluent English that has burnished his reputation as an international statesman, alluding both to the economic tech boom over which he has presided and the worldwide popularity of Israeli restaurants.

Critics were little moved by the folksy video.

“Despite his claims, he failed to win the election in April and is now hanging on by his fingernails,” said Anshel Pfeffer, Netanyahu’s biographer and frequent critic. “His legacy is his longevity, and precious little else.”

Other observers praise the mark Netanyahu has made.

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Mary Liling, the International Council of Jewish Women’s representative to the UN in Geneva, who for years has attended United Nations sessions at which Israel is invariably the subject of rebuke, said in an interview: “You simply can’t compare. Even 15 years ago, Israel was a small country no one counted.”

Recalling Jewish or Israeli events at which attendance was painfully sparse, she said, “Today, Israel is a country that has impact.”

“Say what you want, but Netanyahu has completely changed Israel’s diplomatic standing,” Liling said. “Today, countries that used to invariably vote against Israel abstain. A few stand by Israel. It’s a different atmosphere.”


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