Two months ago at the UN General Assembly, we proudly observed as our Prime Minister employed his golden tongue to promote the case for Israel. It was reminiscent of his previous address to Congress, which evoked repeated bi-partisan standing ovations.
In addition, today, irrespective of the merits of the deal with Hamas, he is applauded by most Israelis for having achieved the release of Gilad Schalit.
Yet ironically, probably no Israeli Prime Minister has ever encountered so much hatred and resentment from both his constituents and much of the media who unrelentingly defame him and his family, failing to even distinguish between his personal and public life.
Netanyahu’s critics allege that he has major character deficiencies. He is frequently depicted as a cold hearted person incapable of forming lasting relationships. Some of his former associates accuse him of lacking loyalty and flippantly abandoning his friends and allies whenever it suited him.
They claim that under pressure Netanyahu is indecisive and tends to wilt. That, in lieu of displaying leadership he has a penchant to send trial balloons, only implementing policies when confident he will achieve public acclaim.
In contrast to former ascetic leaders like David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, he is frequently accused of being hedonistic and leading an extravagant lifestyle. The hostile media continuously allege that he frivolously wastes taxpayer’s funds at luxury hotels, despite the fact that it would have been degrading for Israel were its Prime Minister to behave otherwise.
Needless to say, his principal opposition emanates from the far left which depicts him as a cold hearted capitalist and fanatical nationalist, insensitive of others. To this day he is still accused of having created the climate of hatred which led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Yet in reality he correctly predicted that the Oslo Accords were a prescription for disaster.
His government coalition is problematic as exemplified by frequent contradictory statements and public spats between him and his Foreign Minister and the inexcusable delays in important appointments such as the endless deferrals until a permanent ambassador to the UN was selected.
Netanyahu’s former Likud associate, Tzipi Livni the head of Kadima and leader of the opposition, spares no effort in demonizing him.
She condemned him for conceding to the 10 month settlement freeze. Yet subsequently when he refused to renew a further settlement freeze, she accused him of undermining the Israel-US relationship. She blames him, rather than Abbas, for the breakdown in negotiations with the Palestinians. Instead of supporting him against Obama’s one-sided pressures, she placed all the blame on him. Despite the severity of the threats currently confronting us, she refused to consider a unity government or even adopt a constructive opposition role.
Needless to say, Netanyahu is far from perfect and some of the weaknesses and criticisms leveled against him may have merit.
But one must balance these deficiencies by taking into account his achievements. Netanyahu’s greatest success is that despite presiding over a solidly right-wing coalition, he has effectively moved the nation towards a centrist position, achieving the broadest consensus amongst the people since the rupture over the Oslo accords.
Whilst continuously accused by his critics of intransigency and taking advantage of every opportunity to prevent Israel from establishing an accommodation with its neighbors, he has in fact displayed even greater flexibility than Yitzhak Rabin. He steered Likud and Israel Beiteinu towards adopting the principle of a two state solution – subject to having a genuine Palestinian peace partner – which, through no fault of his, is currently nowhere on the horizon. This alienated him from the hawkish elements of the coalition who accuse him of capitulating to American pressure.
Netanyahu assumed office as the nation faced one of the most difficult periods in its relationship with its vital ally, the United States. He was confronted with an American president who from the outset was overtly personally offensive towards him, making it clear that he had no confidence in him or in his “right wing” government.
Nevertheless, he succeeded in balancing an extraordinary diplomatic tightrope, refusing to yield on issues crucial to Israel’s security whilst persuading his right-wing coalition partners to accept unprecedented concessions like the 10 month freeze on settlements in order to assuage Obama and avoid further polarizing the relationship between the two countries.
Although he was bitterly criticized for “embarrassing” the US president on his visit to Washington, his refusal to submit to Obama’s unexpected bullying, combined with his eloquent presentation to Congress will be regarded in history as having effectively intensified the tide of public opinion in the United States in favor of Israel. It undoubtedly paved the way for the dramatic turnabout by Obama in his pro-Israeli speech at the UN General Assembly and at least, for the time being, the more balanced approach adopted towards Israel.
Whatever Netanyahu does, he will be criticized. To this day, most media commentators continue to castigate him for failing to forestall the Palestinians by launching his own initiative and blame him for Israel’s current isolation. But what could he be expected to do with a nonexistent peace partner who has no intention of compromising one iota and is merely seeking to rack up further concessions without reciprocity?
Initially encouraged by Obama, Abbas developed this tactic of ‘we take you give’, trying to force Israel to extend further concessions without even a hint of reciprocity and then demanding that these become the opening benchmark for subsequent negotiations. It is essentially a strategy designed to dismantle the Jewish state in stages. It is thus ridiculous to blame Netanyahu for not rewarding Palestinian intransigency by making further concessions. He made repeated unconditional offers to negotiate but was rebuffed even after introducing an unprecedented 10 month settlement freeze.
Many Israelis may yearn nostalgically for the days of the warm and dynamic Menachem Begin or the straightforward no-nonsense Yitzhak Rabin. But it was Netanyahu who reunited the nation divided since Oslo, marginalizing extremists on both the left and the right.
He achieved the best possible outcome during the course of one of the most difficult periods in the history of Israel when Islamic radicalism in all our neighboring countries grew exponentially. He did so whilst confronted by a highly problematic US president who until very recently appeased our enemies and put a distance between us and the United States, further compounded by his uncomplimentary remarks in conversation with Sarkozy reflect an ongoing personal animus.
Despite the need for internal economic reforms which are underway, Netanyahu can also take credit for having laid the foundations for an economy which enabled Israel to bypass the recent global economic meltdown.
It is much too early to be conclusive but, notwithstanding the weaknesses and human frailties of our Prime Minister, today most Israelis – including many who have reservations about some of his qualities or consider him either too weak or too extreme – would find it difficult to deny that he stands head and shoulders above any other contender for leadership of the nation during these troubled times.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post