In March 2015, at the start of Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth term as prime minister, people around him began comparing him to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister who is considered the greatest Israeli leader of modern times. At first, this comparison sounded like little more than an anecdote about how Netanyahu might eventually be in office as prime minister for a longer consecutive period than the country’s founding father. Upon his return to office — after Moshe Sharett's two-year term as prime minister in 1954-55 — Ben-Gurion held the position of prime minister for 2,790 consecutive days. Netanyahu was approaching this record, and surpassed it in November 2016.
Then, just a few days ago, the very specific comparison evolved into a dense and detailed text, written by Netanyahu himself, in which he uses Ben-Gurion to highlight his own (alleged) greatness. He wrote the text — a letter to Israel’s founding father — to mark the 70th anniversary of the country’s independence. It was published by Makor Rishon newspaper as part of a project called “Letters to the Founders’ Generation,” with Netanyahu reposting it on various social networks. To be fair, the project began as a nice marketing gimmick by the flagship newspaper of the right. What Netanyahu did was turn it into a cynical propaganda tool to glorify himself as Israel’s greatest leader.
The letter, which includes a portrait of Ben-Gurion as the background for an image of Netanyahu, is a fascinating text. It is important, too, since it reveals Netanyahu’s plans for the future as the battle over his legacy looms. Netanyahu acts in a sophisticated manner; not only does he try to step in Ben-Gurion’s enormous shoes, he even attempts to overshadow Ben-Gurion’s iconic image in the history of the Zionist enterprise.
At the very beginning of his letter, Netanyahu notes that he represents “the camp that opposed you for years.” The subtext is clear: The right won in the end. It is now the camp in power, while the left has lost its way.
Netanyahu does use his letter to thank Ben-Gurion for his leadership in declaring Israel’s independence. Still, Ben-Gurion must be turning over in his grave to hear Netanyahu continue by describing the enormous achievements made by the state under his own leadership, particularly in terms of the economy and military strength. Even though Ben-Gurion died in 1973, Netanyahu managed to sneak in a barb, as if the late prime minister was a real, living, breathing political rival. "Israel’s economy has undergone a remarkable transformation since your day as leader of the nation,” he wrote. “For the past 20 years, I have been spearheading an economic revolution, replacing the centralized economy with a free market system."
Netanyahu, in his late 60s, realizes that an uncertain future lies ahead of him. He could well be convicted of bribery and forced out of office. As the son of a historian, he understands that this is now the time to influence the way his legacy is handled by future generations. As a talented marketer in constant campaign mode, and as someone who may yet be involved in another election, he is determined to compare himself to a great historical figure, who lies well within the consensus. The subtext is this: “I'm in the same league as Ben-Gurion, if not greater.”
The problem with this text is its complete lack of credibility. Ben-Gurion was a leader of remarkable stature, particularly when it came to making difficult decisions. In fact, he made many of those decisions in the first few months of Israeli statehood. In contrast, Netanyahu cannot boast of a single major decision that he made as a leader. He actually has difficulty making decisions and will sometimes change his mind right after he has decided on something. Just two weeks ago, he broke a personal record, when he scrapped an agreement with the United Nations to assist in the resettlement of labor migrants and asylum-seekers in the West just hours after he announced the plan at a press conference, simply because he was worried that furious voters from the right would abandon him in droves.
Netanyahu may have been prime minister for more years than anyone, but it is still impossible to point to a single, formative moment in the country’s history under his leadership. Menachem Begin had the peace treaty with Egypt and the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor; Yitzhak Rabin had the Oslo Accord; and Ariel Sharon had the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Ehud Olmert may have ended up in prison, but he can still take credit for destroying Syria’s nuclear reactor.
Ben-Gurion’s biographer, professor Michael Bar-Zohar, likes to talk about how Ben-Gurion confronted the unbearable decision of whether to declare Israel’s independence. He does this to underscore the enormous burden that Ben-Gurion alone was forced to deal with as a leader. The prime minister took a huge risk, especially given the opposition he faced, not only from the international community but even from within his own party, not to mention the chilling scenarios presented by military seniors who warned that all the Arab armies would destroy the state before it was even created. Ben-Gurion could have lost everything and gone down in history as a leader who gambled foolishly with the fate of his people.
The world inhabited by Netanyahu is nothing like that. He did not attack Iran’s nuclear reactor, even though he described it as an existential threat to Israel. He never signed a peace treaty, preferring instead to spend his years in office strengthening Israel militarily and focusing on the economy, foreign relations and the media. Without diminishing the importance of any of that, the one thing that history will judge Netanyahu for is failing to take the necessary steps to ensure Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish and democratic state. When faced with the possibility of arriving at a resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians, he preferred to hide his head in the sand, even when various regional opportunities emerged over the past few years. Netanyahu decided to abandon the historic diplomatic process, even though he is well aware that Israel cannot continue ruling over millions of Palestinians under occupation for long. He said as much to quite a few people after delivering his Bar Ilan speech in 2009. Yet resolving the conflict is the most critical task facing the leader of the State of Israel in this generation, along with the need to maintain the country’s military superiority.
Legacy is an elusive concept. One’s legacy can change overnight because of certain unexpected events. Netanyahu can continue to feed his ego by writing texts describing a veritable utopia under his leadership. He can even minimize Ben-Gurion’s legacy. But what he can’t do is control events or determine how history will judge him.