In the spring of 1988, toward the end of his tenure as Israel’s under-40, decidedly handsome, and constantly TV-interviewed ambassador to the United Nations, Benjamin Netanyahu dropped in for a visit, surprising me with a question that he no doubt asked of others far better qualified in such matters: How can I become Israel’s prime minister?
Having zero qualifications in the science of electioneering, I said the first thing that came to mind: Don’t go back to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to hobnob with the top politicians, as one more nonpolitical celebrity seeking a quick entry to political office. Instead, I said, go and visit every single branch office—most are just dingy backrooms—of your Likud Party “From Dan to Beersheba,” or less biblically, from Metula on the Lebanese border to Eilat on the Red Sea, to make yourself known to the handful of local politicos who will show up to meet Israel’s most famous diplomat face to face.
Once there, I said, ask them what is to be done locally and nationally—and then listen, because you do not have to talk: They will have heard you dozens of times on every TV channel from CNN down to Israel’s Russian-language news. Not talking will also avoid antagonizing anyone there, from the original hardline territorial ideologues to the free-market centrists who were in Likud only because it was Israel’s lone nonsocialist party—the religious parties being the most socialist of all, to secure welfare benefits for their members’ very large families.
I do not know whether Netanyahu actually visited every Likud branch in cities, towns, and villages, but his entry into politics went smoothly enough: In 1996, a mere eight years after our chat, he became the youngest prime minister in Israel’s history, though it was not until an electoral defeat, a brief exit from politics, and ministerial duties under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he again took power in 2009, and after multiple elections has remained there till now. Each time, he has laboriously assembled wobbly coalitions that stretched from the pragmatic center to hardcore expansionists, from explicitly secular ex-Russians to fully Orthodox rabbis. Along the way, he acquired a well-deserved reputation as an entirely opportunistic political operator, ultimately willing to ally himself with any party to retain office (including, this time around, some Arab nationalists!).
In Israel’s highly ideological politics, good old Anglo-Saxon pragmatism is not viewed as virtuous but as morally indefensible, and the resulting detestation of Netanyahu’s ways is very intense—as much on the right that ruefully ends up supporting him as on the left. Yet all this opposition is ineffectual because it does not actually weaken Netanyahu’s hand when recruiting the necessary 61 votes to form a government in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, which is done by handing out ministerial posts regardless of personal qualifications and by issuing promises of varying credibility. Nor is he fatally wounded by the corruption accusations that Israel’s police have assiduously investigated under the country’s zero-tolerance practices, which Israel’s courts might well adjudicate against him, but which are also undeniably rather thin: gifts of cigars and cognac from the Israeli-American Hollywood tycoon Arnon Milchan and Australia’s (non-Jewish) casino tycoon James Packer, as well as exchanges of political favors for favorable media coverage—offenses that are decidedly improper and actually illegal, yet very rarely if ever prosecuted elsewhere in the world.
All this allows Netanyahu’s more fervent supporters to keep the faith, but embitters a great many other Israelis—right-wingers included—for whom such accusations are very far from trivial. Knowing how the countries around them are ruined by habitual corruption, they view any amount of it in Israel as utterly intolerable. Hence they want to see Netanyahu in jail, joining a former prime minister and several former ministers who have served significant jail terms for having taken contemptibly small bribes.
Throughout it all, Netanyahu sails on, propelled by supreme confidence in his moral entitlement to govern the country—just as long as he can find his 61 Knesset members—because of what he’s done for the country from age 18. Back then, he left his comfortable home in Pennsylvania, where his university professor father had taken his family, to join the Israeli army. (Actually, his service started even earlier, at age 16, when Netanyahu skipped fun and games because he had to exercise very strenuously for two years in order to be accepted into the most demanding of Israel’s commando units, Sayeret Matkal, where his older brother Yonatan was already serving.) Once accepted, he had to sign on for five years of virtually unpaid service, instead of the three required of all Israeli males.
The year was 1967, when victory in the Six-Day War started six years of intermittent fighting, during which most Israeli soldiers were only in combat for several weeks. But not the Sayeret Matkal, which was constantly active in all manner of raids and assaults. Netanyahu was wounded by gunfire several times.
Discharged in 1972, he gained admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, only to rush back to Israel in October 1973 to serve in the Yom Kippur War, when his unit—by then under his brother’s command—operated on foot between Syrian and Israeli tank forces. They were forced to extract stranded crews that had lost their tanks, including a legendary battalion commander with whom I shared quite an adventure five years later, only to hear him dismiss it as a walk in the park compared with his own rescue by Netanyahu’s unit.
Back at MIT once the fighting ended, Netanyahu graduated with a first degree and then a second one, and with his close friend Mitt Romney proceeded to join that factory of future millionaires, the Boston Consulting Group. Romney duly became a multimillionaire, and quite quickly, but not Netanyahu: His brother Yonatan was the only Israeli killed in the spectacular 1976 Entebbe rescue he commanded. Netanyahu moved back to Israel in 1978 to establish the “Yonatan Netanyahu Anti-Terror Institute,” which was both a very earnest expression of brotherly love (Netanyahu terrorized Max Hastings, who tried to write an honest biography of his surprisingly sensitive and heroic brother), and a very effective political platform for himself.
Once embarked on his political career, Netanyahu was submerged in the relentless intrigues of Likud and coalition politics, but for his years as finance minister under Sharon. In that role his performance was downright phenomenal, as even his most bitter opponents readily concede. He inherited stalled growth, high cyclical unemployment, and much institutionalized underemployment in the overgrown, almost Soviet-style public sector.
Everything he did was predictably MIT Business School and Boston Consulting, everything he did from deregulation to privatization was bitterly criticized as the abandonment of the founding fathers’ socialism. It certainly did increase inequality. But Israel’s economy was launched on a boom of high-quality growth that continues still after 17 years, drastically reducing unemployment, eliminating most “socialist underemployment,” sharply improving the debt-to-GDP ratio, and allowing the country to pay for a health care system that takes care of all Arabs and Jews within its borders (that is, not Gaza or the West Bank), and that competes with the world’s best. Israel now ranks ahead of Sweden, France, Germany, and the U.K. in overall longevity, even as it invests heavily in education, science, technology, and of course, in very expensive armed forces. The country’s high-tech sector that now carries the rest of the economy could never have boomed and kept booming without Netanyahu’s reforms.
That is actually the ultimate irony of Netanyahu’s career. In contrast to his great managerial effectiveness as a reforming finance minister, his political performance as prime minister has consisted of a very long sequence of mediocre compromises, but for a few brilliant exploits: His commando raid on Pfizer has made Israel the most vaccinated country in the world; just before that, he was a protagonist—along with the oh-so-easy to underestimate Jared Kushner—of the “Abrahamic” diplomacy that diminished the Arab encirclement of Israel that began in 1947 to a few irrelevant holdouts, and the two fractured states of Iraq and Syria. It was not even by Netanyahu’s own decision that the Palestinians were never really on his agenda but for brief bouts of fighting to tame Hamas, and for constant jockeying with the Palestine Liberation Organization to preserve its security cooperation. It was automatically mandated by the only coalitions that would support him. As for Iran, Netanyahu was not the sole author of Israeli policy. It really was an institutional team effort with the Mossad at the center, but Netanyahu was certainly its eloquent advocate, at least most of the time.
All Israelis I know are sick and tired of Netanyahu, who is now bitterly opposed on the right as well as by the left, while centrists support the ex-officials and ex-generals who function as midstream “institutional” candidates. Even his core support among the least educated Israelis has shrunk. Last time, he pulled off a Houdini act to remain prime minister even after essentially losing the election. But a repetition is unlikely: Last time, his rival believed his promise to take turns in heading the government, a mistake no one will repeat. ’Tis a pity that Israel’s economy is not in crisis, for otherwise Netanyahu and his supporters might be seen off with the offer of the Finance Ministry once again.
Edward N. Luttwak is a contractual strategic consultant for the U.S. government and an author.