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Netanyahu makes Israeli history as longest-serving premier

Friday July 19 2019

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu

In this file photo taken on March 3, 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. PHOTO | RONEN ZVULUN | POOL | AFP 

AFP
By AFP
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JERUSALEM,

Benjamin Netanyahu is set to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel's longest-serving prime minister on Saturday, having notched up a list of diplomatic and economic successes but with right-wing leadership many see as deeply divisive.

The 69-year-old Netanyahu on Saturday will have been Israel's prime minister for a total of 4,876 days, over 13 years, according to a calculation by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

He was first at the helm between 1996-1999, and then again since 2009.

His latest apparent victory in April elections turned sour after he failed to form a coalition government and opted to move towards new elections instead.

He faces the new general election on September 17 while under threat of possible corruption charges in the months ahead, including for allegedly receiving pricey cigars and champagne in return for favours.

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BREAKTHROUGHS

Netanyahu's legion of supporters in Israel point to what they see as his effective management of a small country in a volatile region, a series of diplomatic breakthroughs and the country's growing economy.

His many critics say he has demonised political opponents and Israel's Arab minority by embracing populism and has too often put his personal ambitions above the long-term good of the country.

He has sought to sideline Israel's continuing occupation of Palestinian territory and has been backed in that strategy by US President Donald Trump's administration, which has swung American policy firmly in Israel's favour.

In tandem, Netanyahu has tried to leverage the common concerns of Israel and Gulf Arab states about Iran into improved ties in the region -- and has had some success.

He has never been at a loss for words in describing what he sees as his achievements.

"We've proven that Israel can be turned from a small country that is situated in the corner of the Middle East into a major power in the world," he told the strongly pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper in an interview this week.

CONTRAST

The popular image of the man he is now surpassing in some ways stands in sharp contrast to that of "Bibi", Netanyahu's nickname since childhood.

Ben-Gurion, who led the socialist Mapai party that declared Israel's independence in 1948, lived a spartan lifestyle that reflected his generation's sense of mission, said Peter Medding of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and whose books include "The Founding of Israeli Democracy 1948-1967".

"They saw themselves as committed to the communal good," said Medding.

War with Israel's Arab neighbours surrounded the founding of the state, and the political establishment realised that "unless the collective interest gets looked after, promoted and strengthened, there'll be no individual interests", he added.

Netanyahu, the son of a historian clearly mindful of his legacy, has in the past compared himself to Ben-Gurion, though the two emerged from two different strains of Israeli ideology.

Comparing the two is tough both due to their very different eras and Ben-Gurion's heroic stature, said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor emeritus from Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

"A founding father is always beyond reproach," he said.

HISTORY

But one trait that Netanyahu does share with Ben-Gurion is a sense of history, said Sandler.

"They both have a historic point of view," he said, noting Ben-Gurion's self-documentation in diaries and Netanyahu's allusions to history and historic events in his speeches.

One of Netanyahu's main agendas has been preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

That in some ways also links the two leaders, Sandler said.

Only several years after the Holocaust, Ben-Gurion did what he could to pursue a nuclear option for Israel to prevent another genocide of the Jewish people.

In the current era, "Bibi is trying to ensure that the option remains in Israel's hands only" in the Middle East, he said.

NUCLEAR POWER

Israel is widely perceived as the Middle East's sole nuclear-armed power, though it has never acknowledged the capability.

Few believe Netanyahu will decide on his own to end his premiership anytime soon, even with a possible indictment looming.

He will not be required to step down if indicted, only if convicted with all appeals exhausted, though he would likely face heavy political pressure.

Sandler predicted "he won't exit in a dignified way".

"People don't know how to quit when they're at their peak," he said, speaking not only of Netanyahu but of past Israeli prime ministers as well.