This will be Netanyahu's legacy in Jewish history.
The only question is: What’s driving him?
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The social media post was published on his official X (formerly Twitter) account around 1 in the morning this past Sunday, as most Israelis were either sleeping or getting ready for bed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was crystal-clear: His military and security chiefs, he said, failed to give him any warning about the shocking Hamas attacks on October 7th.
As Israeli forces were expanding the incredibly dangerous ground war in Gaza, Netanyahu explicitly blamed the heads of two of Israel’s top security agencies for the colossal lapses that led the country to this point.
On Sunday, Israelis awoke with a furious response, especially because Netanyahu has, since October 7th, continued to dodge any sort of responsibility — refusing opportunity after another to even say something as simple as, “This happened on my watch, and it’s my responsibility to correct these wrongs.”
“The prime minister must stop addressing this matter,” Minister Benny Gantz, who is a member of the war cabinet, tweeted in response on Sunday.
Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, considered one of Netanyahu’s close allies, said Sunday morning to Israel’s public radio: “Responsibility is something you take at the start of your job, not midway.” Cohen noted that, when he led the Mossad, “Everything that happened in the agency, from top to bottom, was my responsibility.”
For many Israelis and those who care about Israel across the world, the episode confirmed speculations of tensions between Israel’s top brass during one of the worst crises in the country’s 75-year history — and heightened anxieties about Netanyahu’s leadership.
To understand how we got here, though, we have to go back to the very beginning.
Benjamin Netanyahu (also known as “Bibi”) was born in 1949 in Tel Aviv. His father was a historian specializing in the Jewish Golden age of Spain, and Bibi’s paternal grandfather, Nathan Mileikowsky, was a rabbi and Zionist writer. When Bibi’s father emigrated to Israel, he hebraized his surname from “Mileikowsky” to “Netanyahu,” meaning “God has given.”
Bibi was initially raised in Jerusalem, and when he was 7 years old, the family moved to the United States because his father received a teaching opportunity at Dropsie College in Pennsylvania.
After graduating from high school there in 1967, Bibi returned to Israel to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. He trained as a combat soldier and served for five years in the elite special forces unit, Sayeret Matkal.
Bibi returned to the United States in late 1972 to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After briefly returning to Israel to fight in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he returned to the United States and completed a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from MIT. Concurrently, Bibi was studying for a doctorate in political science.
Professor Leon B. Groisser at MIT recalled: “He did superbly. He was very bright. Organized. Strong. Powerful. He knew what he wanted to do and how to get it done.”
But Bibi’s studies were cut short in 1976 by the death of his brother, Yonatan, in the counter-terrorism hostage-rescue mission, Operation Thunderbolt, during which Yonatan’s unit rescued more than 100 mostly Israeli hostages hijacked by terrorists and flown to the Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
Between 1976 and 1978, Bibi worked as an economic consultant for the Boston Consulting Group, where he was a colleague and eventual friend of Mitt Romney, who went on to become the Governor of Massachusetts. Romney described Netanyahu at the time as “a strong personality with a distinct point of view.”
In 1978, Netanyahu appeared on Boston local television, where he argued: “The real core of the conflict is the unfortunate Arab refusal to accept the State of Israel ... For 20 years, the Arabs had both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and if self-determination, as they now say, is the core of the conflict, they could have easily established a Palestinian state.”
In the late 1970s, Bibi returned to Israel and started to make political connections. In 1982, he was appointed Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. Prior to the 1988 Israeli legislative election, Bibi returned to Israel and joined the Likud party, ultimately being elected as a Knesset (Israeli parliament) member, and was appointed as a deputy of the foreign minister.
During the Gulf War in early 1991, the English-fluent Netanyahu emerged as the principal spokesperson for Israel in media interviews on CNN and other news outlets.
Following the defeat of the Likud party in the 1992 Israeli legislative elections, the Likud party held a party leadership election in 1993, and Bibi was victorious, defeating Benny Begin, son of the late prime minister Menachem Begin.
Following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his temporary successor Shimon Peres decided to call early elections in order to give the government a mandate to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Bibi was Likud’s candidate for prime minister in the 1996 Israeli legislative election, which was the first Israeli election in which voters elected their prime minister directly.
Netanyahu hired American Republican political operative Arthur Finkelstein to run his campaign, and although the American style of sound bites and sharp attacks elicited harsh criticism, Bibi won the 1996 election, becoming the youngest person in the history of the position, and the first Israeli prime minister to be born in the State of Israel.
Bibi’s victory over the pre-election favorite Shimon Peres surprised many. The main catalyst in the downfall of the latter was a wave of terrorism shortly before the elections, when Palestinians carried out two suicide bombings, killing 32 Israelis, with Peres seemingly unable to stop the attacks.
During the campaign, Bibi stressed that progress in the peace process would be based on the Palestinian National Authority fulfilling its obligations — mainly fighting terrorism — and the Likud campaign slogan was, “Netanyahu: Making a Safe Peace.”
Although Bibi won the election for prime minister, Peres’ Labor Party received more seats in the parliamentary elections, so Bibi had to rely on a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas, and United Torah Judaism in order to form a government.
As prime minister, Bibi raised many questions about many central premises of the Oslo Accords, a pair of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in 1993 and 1995. One of Bibi’s main points was disagreement with the Oslo premise that the negotiations should proceed in stages, meaning that concessions should be made to Palestinians before any resolution was reached on major issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, and the amending of the Palestinian National Charter.
Oslo supporters had claimed that the multi-stage approach would build goodwill among Palestinians, and would propel them to seek reconciliation when these major issues were raised in later stages. Bibi said that these concessions only gave encouragement to extremist elements, without receiving any tangible gestures in return. Despite his stated differences with the Oslo Accords, Bibi continued their implementation, but his premiership saw a marked slow-down in the peace process.
After being defeated by Ehud Barak in the 1999 Israeli prime ministerial election, Bibi temporarily retired from politics. When Barak government’s fell in late 2000, Bibi expressed his desire to return to politics. Bibi eventually decided to not run for the prime minister position, a move which facilitated the surprising rise to power of Ariel Sharon, who at the time was considered less popular than Netanyahu.
In 2002, after the Israeli Labor Party left the coalition and vacated the position of foreign minister, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed Bibi as Foreign Minister. But after the 2003 Israeli legislative election, Sharon offered the Foreign Ministry to Silvan Shalom, and the Finance Ministry to Netanyahu, in what many observers regarded as a surprise move.
Some pundits speculated that Sharon made the move because, given Bibi’s demonstrated effectiveness as Foreign Minister, Sharon deemed him a political threat; by placing him in the Finance Ministry during a time of economic uncertainty, Sharon could theoretically diminish Netanyahu’s popularity.
Netanyahu accepted the new appointment, and Sharon and Netanyahu came to an agreement that Netanyahu would have complete freedom as Finance Minister, and have Sharon back all of his reforms, in exchange for Netanyahu’s silence over Sharon’s management of Israel’s military and foreign affairs.
As Finance Minister, Bibi undertook an economic plan in order to restore Israel’s economy from its low point during the Second Intifada (many individual and uncoordinated attacks by Palestinian terrorists).
Netanyahu claimed that a bloated public sector and excessive regulations were largely responsible for stifling economic growth. His plan involved a move toward more liberalized markets, and he instituted a program to end welfare dependency by requiring people to apply for jobs or training, reduced the size of the public sector, froze government spending for three years, and capped the budget deficit at one-percent.
The taxation system was streamlined and taxes were cut, with the top individual tax rate reduced from 64-percent to 44-percent, and the corporate tax rate from 36-percent to 18-percent. A host of state assets worth billions of dollars were privatized, including banks, oil refineries, the EL AL national airline, and Zim Integrated Shipping Services. The retirement ages for both men and women were raised, and commercial banks were forced to spin off their long-term savings.
In addition, Netanyahu attacked monopolies and cartels to increase competition. As the Israeli economy started booming and unemployment fell significantly, Netanyahu was widely credited by commentators as having performed an “economic miracle” by the end of his tenure.
Ultimately, unemployment declined while economic growth soared, the debt-to-GDP ratio dropped to one of the lowest in the world, and foreign investment reached record highs.
In 2004, Bibi threatened to resign from office unless the Gaza pullout — a plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlements, settlers, and army infrastructure in the Gaza Strip — was put to a referendum. He later modified the ultimatum and voted in the Israeli parliament, indicating immediately thereafter that he would resign unless a referendum was held within 14 days.
Following through on his words, Bibi submitted his resignation letter in 2005, shortly before the Israeli cabinet voted 17-to-5 to approve the initial phase of withdrawal from Gaza.
In 2007, Bibi was reelected as chairman of Likud and its candidate for the post of prime minister. Two years later, he was again elected the prime minister of Israel, a position he held (following additional re-elections) since 2021. (Term limits on prime ministers do not exist in Israel.)
In January 2017, Bibi was investigated and questioned by Israeli police in two interconnected cases. In one case, he was suspected of having obtained inappropriate favors from businessmen. And in the other one, Bibi was alleged to try to strike a deal with the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronot newspaper group, Arnon Mozes, to promote legislation to weaken Yedioth’s main competitor, Israel Hayom, in exchange for more favorable coverage of Netanyahu.
In August 2017, Israeli police confirmed for the first time that Netanyahu was suspected of crimes involving fraud, breach of trust, and bribes in these cases. The next day, it was reported that the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, had signed a deal with prosecutors to testify against Netanyahu in these cases.
In February 2018, Israeli police recommended that Netanyahu be charged with corruption. According to a police statement, sufficient evidence exists to indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in the two cases. Netanyahu responded that the allegations were baseless and that he would continue as prime minister. In November 2018, it was reported that Economic Crimes Division Director Liat Ben-Ari recommended indictment for both cases.
In February 2019, the Israeli attorney general announced his intent to file indictments against Netanyahu on bribe and fraud charges in three different cases. Bibi was formally indicted in November 2019 and, if convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison for bribery and a maximum of three years for fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu is the first sitting prime minister in Israel’s history to be charged with a crime.
In November 2019, it was announced that Netanyahu, in compliance with legal precedent set by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993, would relinquish his agriculture, health, social affairs, and diaspora affairs portfolios. The matter of forcing a prime minister to resign due to an indictment has yet to be tested in court. He was officially charged in January 2020, and the criminal trial was set to begin in May 2020 after being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of today, the criminal trial is still ongoing.
In May 2021, tensions escalated in Jerusalem, and Hamas fired rockets on Israel from Gaza, which prompted Netanyahu to initiate Operation Guardian of the Walls for the next eleven days. After the operation, Israeli politician and leader of the Yamina alliance, Naftali Bennett, announced that he had agreed to a deal with Leader of the Opposition, Yair Lapid, to form a rotation government that would oust Netanyahu from his position as prime minister.
The next month, Bennett and Lapid formed a coalition government, and Netanyahu was ousted as prime minister, ending a 12-year consecutive tenure. However, Bibi’s ousting didn’t last for long, as the rotation government sputtered, and in 2022, Netanyahu was reelected as prime minister, forming Israel’s most hardline, far-right coalition in its history.
The first months of Netanyahu’s sixth term were centered around reforms in the judicial branch, which drew widespread criticism and created immense strains in the country’s social fabric, including among its vaunted security and military establishments.
Critics highlighted the negative effects it would have on the separation of powers, the office of the Attorney General, the economy, public health, women and minorities, workers’ rights, scientific research, the overall strength of Israel’s democracy, and its foreign relations.
Many Israelis believe that Bibi felt personally betrayed by his country trying to accuse him of incarceration-level crimes, which prompted him to form Israel’s most hardline, far-right coalition. In addition to advancing their own extremist agendas, this coalition would surely pass legislation to protect Bibi from “sitting in jail,” among other measures that would best serve Bibi’s personal and political interests.
Then, Hamas’ war on Israel broke out on October 7th, putting Bibi in a precarious position. Many Israelis waited for him to demonstrate impeccable leadership skills during this unprecedented time in Israel’s history — and, after more than three weeks of this war, they’re still waiting.
Netanyahu said this past Saturday that his judicial overhaul plan was no longer on the agenda, but his refusal to accept any responsibility publicly for the Hamas debacle has further eroded confidence in his leadership. Opinion surveys since October 7th have indicated overwhelming public trust in the military, and plummeting faith in government officials.
For years, the various governments led by Bibi tried to divide power between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — crippling Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, while purposely propping up the Hamas terrorist group. The strategy was to diminish the likelihood that Abbas, or anyone else in the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank government, could work toward establishing a Palestinian state.
Amid this strategy to restrict Abbas, Hamas was elevated from just a terrorist group to a social-political organization with which Israel held indirect negotiations via Egypt, and one that was allowed to receive infusions of cash from abroad.
Hamas was also included in discussions about increasing the number of work permits Israel granted to Gazan laborers, which kept money flowing into Gaza, meaning food for families and the ability to purchase basic products. Israeli officials said these permits, which allow Gazan laborers to earn higher salaries than they would in the enclave, were a powerful tool to help preserve calm.
Most of the time, Israeli policy was to treat the Palestinian Authority as a burden and Hamas as an asset. Far-right Minister Bezalel Smotrich, now the finance minister in the hardline government and leader of the Religious Zionism party, said so himself in 2015.
According to various reports, Netanyahu made a similar point at a Likud faction meeting in early 2019, when he was quoted as saying that those who oppose a Palestinian state should support the transfer of funds to Gaza, because maintaining the separation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Bolstered by this policy, Hamas grew increasingly stronger until October 7th, 2023 — the bloodiest day in its history — when terrorists crossed the border, slaughtered hundreds of Israelis, and took with them back to Gaza more than 200 hostages, while thousands of rockets were fired at Israel’s south and center.
“One thing is clear,” according to Tal Schneider, a political correspondent for The Times of Israel. “The concept of indirectly strengthening Hamas, while tolerating sporadic attacks and minor military operations every few years, went up in smoke.”
Major wars and security failures have brought down Israeli prime ministers in the past, among them Golda Meir, who resigned months after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Ehud Olmert, whose fate was sealed by a devastating monthlong 2006 conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
What makes Bibi different than this predecessors is that, according to many Israelis, Bibi essentially believes that he’s a wannabe “King of Israel” — that, without him, there is no Israel as we know it today. While it’s true that Bibi has made immeasurable contributions to the State and, by extension, to the Jewish People, it’s also true that his recent actions, behaviors, and attitudes could very well destroy his exceptional decades-long legacy (and even the Jewish state).
After all, Bibi has served as Israel’s prime minister for something like 17 years. That is nearly 23-percent of the country’s existence. Throughout much of his tenure, he has delivered remarkable success, progress, and prosperity to the only democracy in the Middle East, and one of the most impressive countries in the world. But when you’ve reigned over a country for almost a quarter of its existence, it starts to feel more like a monarchy than a premiership.
Going back deep into Jewish history, virtually every King of Israel ended up on the wrong side of Jewish history. To think that Bibi’s fate will be different than theirs is both foolish and frightening.
Still, Bibi has an extraordinary opportunity in front of him: to eradicate Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations that threaten Israel and the region’s stability, to restore the significantly depleted confidence and security among both Israelis and Palestinians, and to potentially end the overwhelmingly tiresome saga between Jews and Palestinians.
To resoundingly accomplish all of these goals could very well change how Bibi is perceived by the majority of Israelis and the Jewish world in the immediate aftermath of this war. Heck, it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t also be forgiven for his past mistakes, missteps, and even alleged crimes.
The only question is, what’s driving Bibi? Is it a burning desire to write the next great chapter in Jewish history, or his hollowed impulse to remain in power?