Benjamin Netanyahu is currently the State of Israel’s second longest serving Prime Minister, trailing only David Ben-Gurion who was in office twice between May 1948 and January 1954 then November 1955 to June 1963.
First elected in June 1996, and lasting three years in office until July 1999, the right-wing Likud party leader entered office again in March 2009 and, despite mounting accusations of corruption, remains in office today and will, political disaster excepting, complete his term in July 2019 as the longest serving Prime Minister in the young State’s history. Statistical records aside, Netanyahu’s leadership can be understood as an unbridled and publicly unashamed extension of Ben-Gurion’s modus operandi, in two important ways: a not so hidden policy of expanding Israel’s borders for a continuous sovereign Israeli territory of Zionist lebensraum from the valley to the sea, and, in service of this, sabotaging peace processes which might delay new facts he is creating on the ground as part of his de facto annexation of the West Bank.
In his seminal work The Birth of Israel, Myths And Realities (Pantheon, 1984), Simha Flapan notes the numerous occasions Ben-Gurion used his representative to the United Nations, Moshe Sharett, to derail and delay discussions of a truce, and implementation of the UN Partition plan. Furthermore, Sharett used the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank “only as a political tool, without intending to use it as a basis of action” since he “regarded the West Bank merely as a geographical area and not as the basis for an independent state especially since the Palestinians’ territory … was constantly being reduced” [p.46~47]. In November 1948, as moves towards a truce were being considered Yakov Shimoni reported his impression that “Ben-Gurion prefers to solve all these problems by force of arms”.
Ben-Gurion in fact had made his position clear regarding the UN partition plan, the Bernadotte proposals, and agreeing peace with the Arab states - none of them were acceptable since they all impeded the goal of achieving maximum territorial expansion. Indeed on September 26th, 1948, Ben-Gurion proposed to the Provisional Government that Israel all-out attack the West Bank and in his diary noted how he would take all of Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jerusalem (assuming as well that the Palestinian residents would flee), to seize the Negev, Dead Sea, all of Central and Western Galilee and “expand the borders of the State in all directions” [p.48]. Finally, Flapan argues that Ben-Gurion’s plan to colonize and ethnically cleanse Palestine made specific use of Zionist terrorist groups such as Irgun and LEHI without ever officially sanctioning or being tied directly to them [p.42]:
There is sufficient evidence that Benjamin Netanyahu has wholesale adopted Ben-Gurion’s approach to providing ‘security’ for Israel by ethnically cleansing Palestinians and piecemeal annexing the West Bank. He has also seen great utility, like Sharett for Ben Gurion, in undermining and derailing the various peace processes and agreements suggested and mediated by the international community. In 2001, Netanyahu was caught on tape boasting that “I, de facto, put an end to the Oslo Accords” and that “I'm going to interpret the accords in such a way that would allow me to put an end to this galloping forward to the 1967 borders. How did we do it? Nobody said what defined military zones were. Defined military zones are security zones – as far as I'm concerned the entire Jordan Valley is a defined military zone”. This was part of what Netanyahu planned as a “broad attack on the Palestinian Authority ... [one which would] bring them to the point of being afraid that everything is collapsing".
Not content with undermining peace processes and a viability of a Palestinian State, Netanyahu has wielded Ariel Sharon’s Tokhnit HaHitnatkut; in the Disengagement Plan Implementation Law (the full withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and from four settlements in the West Bank) as a tool to whip up far-right wing and militant extremist Zionism to help his re-election, a strategy that paid off for him when he return to power in 2009. The now approximately 600,000 illegal settlers in the West Bank constitute not only a huge and consistent voting base for Netanyahu with whom he can communicate via ethno-theo-nationalist dog whistles but also, as seen in the rising number of ‘price-tag’ attacks committed by them, a useful tool for provoking and harming Palestinians, whose subsequent resistance Netanyahu feeds to international media as evidence of their irrational and unrelenting hatred, and ipso facto, the need for more security in an area he now refers to as ‘Judea and Samaria’.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets the crowd at a ceremony celebrating 50 years of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. (Prime Minister's Office) Via Jerusalem Post.
Speaking in late 2017 August at a ceremony celebrating fifty years of settlement in ‘Judea and Samaria’, Netanyahu proclaimed that “Samaria is a strategic asset for the State of Israel. It is the cradle of our people and the key to its future. This is our land. We have returned here to remain for eternity. There will not be any more uprooting of settlements in the Land of Israel. It has been proved that uprooting settlements does not foster peace.” He went on to promise more construction in the West Bank (in addition to that which had already been declared in East Jerusalem), again justifying it through the prism of security whilst reinforcing his loyalty to settler voters: “We have gone through a difficult period. It was not a simple one. [Now] there is a momentum for development and construction in Judea and Samaria. There is no government that has done more for the settlements than this government under my leadership.”
Finally, Netanyahu is not afraid to harass, frustrate, or diplomatically confront any world leader or country which he feels questions or undermines his Zionist project, nor indeed challenge the foundations of democracy in Israel in service of his image, power, and agenda. Although Ben-Gurion stated that “It doesn't matter what the world says about Israel; it doesn't matter what they say about us anywhere else. The only thing that matters is that we can exist here on the land of our forefathers”, Netanyahu has taken this further, seemingly oblique to criticism at home as well. Yitzhak Shamir has slammed him for having no principles at all, and Yoel Esteron called him the “Messiah King Netanyahu” whose Government is passing laws that “ridicule the very foundations of democracy”. Abroad, Angela Merkel accused him of not taking a single step to advance peace, Nicholas Sarkozy outright called him a liar, and Bill Clinton noted that his continual calls for negotiations were stalling tactics to buy time whilst he annexed the West Bank.
There will be those who argue that Ben-Gurion will always be twice the Statesman than Netanyahu could hope to be, a founding father who forged a nation from dust and bullets. Such mythologizing though hampers a clear-eyed understanding of how and why Netanyahu takes the positions and implements the policies that he does. If he has not publicly declared his intent to fashion his leadership in a more exaggerated form of Ben-Gurion’s image, his actions and words certainly speak of this. He has been pivotal in polarizing Israeli politics and the electorate, making it vastly more bitter and confrontational, and, in terms of the occupation of Palestine, he has done everything possible to move away from a respectable and sustainable peace with its original and dispossessed peoples, most of whom live either under direct military occupation or under the constant harassment and threat of an all-out assault. Netanyahu must be regarded as an unleashed and rabid self-serving nationalist whose condoning of extra-judicial murder in service of the State is hyper-militarizing an already aggressive and discontent youth. His legacy will be as a contributor to, and as part of, a resurgence of fascism from America to Europe. I sense even Ben-Gurion would have balked at that.