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King Bibi: Netanyahu becomes Israel’s longest-serving leader

Bel Trew

Benjamin Netanyahu had been in the job for just a year when as Israel’s newest and youngest prime minister, he allegedly became the first world leader to launch his own website.

It was 1997, and the early days of the World Wide Web. Netanyahu, in his late 40s and a comparative newcomer, was seemingly 10 steps ahead of his rivals.

The premier, who is a technophobe in private, apparently owning no phone or computer, told the population in the online video that they didn’t need “interpreters and mediators”: a reference to the media.

“You can ask me what you want … you can decide what you hear,” he said straight to the camera.

“It is this kind of foreseeing the future of politics that is his strength,” says Dan Shadur, a filmmaker who captured the moment and other rare archival footage in his documentary King Bibi that tracks the “life and performances” of the leader.

“The main revelation for me was seeing the footage showing how early he understood the populist methods that are so popular now all over the world. Seeing him inciting the crowd back in 1995 against the media, which really we see in Trump in 2016.”

“When you look back at how he operates, there is almost no chance of anyone combating him. He is so good at it. He is so sharp.”

Fast forward two decades and Netanyahu or “Bibi” as he is nicknamed, is still in office and remains very much a master of social media.

Although he lost the 1999 elections, the former soldier and diplomat would storm to power again on the heels of the 2009 war with militants in Gaza. He kept winning, securing a fourth consecutive term in office in April this year.

In fact on Saturday this winning streak will make history, as he becomes Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, limping past the country’s founding father David Ben Gurion who served 4,875 days in office.

His recent win came despite the fact Netanyahu was campaigning under the shadow of indictment across three corruption cases and in just a few months faces the prospect of becoming Israel’s first serving prime minister to stand trial.

In a long line of firsts, Israel is also due to go back to the ballot box in September less than six months since the last polls, which is unprecedented in Israel’s history. Fresh elections were called when Netanyahu could not form a new coalition government.

Despite this, as a caretaker premier, Netanyahu celebrated 13 years in office defiantly.

“We have turned Israel into a rising global power,” he said in a special interview with Israeli daily Israel Hayom.

“We have proven that Israel could be transformed from a small country in the corner of the Middle East into a major force on the global stage,” he added.

He has maintained solid approval ratings, and although the latest polls show he may fail again to put together a coalition government, is still the favourite to win the September elections.

Former advisers, observers and critics all agree he is a master in un-statesman-like statesmanship.

He has delivered to a right-wing majority Israel what it wants: a transformed powerful economy, and comparative security despite two wars with Gaza and the threat of conflict with Iran, and the forces it backs in Syria and Lebanon.

“Over the past 10-year period it’s been pretty stable. We have ties with China, Russia, the Gulf,” Anshel Pfeffer, author of Bibi, the Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, says.

Meanwhile support for him within his right-wing Likud party is “unprecedented”,” Pfeffer adds.

There are many reasons for that.

For a start, Pfeffer says the leader has a “unique” talent at leveraging small majorities to build coalitions against the so-called “threat of the left”.

“He manages to make settlers, immigrants, the Ultra-Orthodox and the secular nationalists fit together in this coalition of outsiders.”

Netanyahu has successfully batted off all potential rivals within his party including Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Kahlon, Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked, all former Likud members who broke away to build rival parties but have failed to form winning teams.

Benjamin Netanyahu celebrates winning in 1996 after that year’s May elections, receiving 50.4 per cent of the vote to Shimon-Peres‘ 49.5 per cent (Reuters/ Jim Hollander)

He has also impressively point scored over his last term.

Since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, whose campaign style appears inspired by Netanyahu’s delivery, the US has moved its embassy to Jerusalem, recognising the contested city as Israel’s capital.

Washington has also recognised Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, slashed all aid to the UN’s Palestinian aid agency and trashed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, all key Netanyahu demands.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, delivered the first tranche of a regional peace deal last month which successfully avoided all references to a Palestinian state as a solution to the conflict, another key demand of the Israeli right.

In fact, Netanyahu has proudly resisted various peace initiatives and allowed controversial West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law, to flourish.

He managed to “empty” the long-term left-wing battle cry that not resolving the Israel-Palestinian crisis would lead to total isolation, Pfeffer continues.

“There was a moment last May when Trump pulled out of the [Iran deal] in a speech he gave using all of Netanyahu’s talking points. Two days later Bibi was in Moscow as a guest of honour. A few days after that Bibi attacked Syria, including Russian-given weapons,” Pfeffer adds.

“In that moment it seemed he could do anything, showing how far he had come.”

And that is why at rallies people have taken to chanting “magician” at him.

“He thinks that ... he is the one who will save Israel and lead Israel to a safe haven,” Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu aide, recently told the Associated Press. Israelis think that “things are good, so why should we change a winning horse,” he added.

That said, many feel that this may be a period of calm before the storm.

[Netanyahu] seemed he could do anything, showing how far he had come

Anshel Pfeffer, author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu

Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, agrees that while Netanyahu’s political longevity might be seen as a success story, “it may also be that ... we will remember him more for leading Israel down the road to more oppression of the Palestinians”.

Filmmaker Shadur continues: “It is difficult to pin down what defines his time in office.”

Unlike his predecessors, Netanyahu has not left his mark by winning a war or signing a peace agreement.

“It may be he will be responsible for a certain stagnation which will lead to a disintegration.”