Barring him pulling an unforeseen and unprecedented political rabbit out of a hat, the next time I write this column Binyamin Netanyahu will no longer be the prime minister of Israel. Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics and policy like no other figure since David Ben Gurion, and it is not only a function of his longevity in office.
He has overseen, and in some cases explicitly driven, significant shifts in Israel’s standing within its region, its perception in different quarters of the U.S., and its policies toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. He has implemented real changes in Israel’s economy, presided over a period of increasing polarization in Israeli society, cemented right-wing dominance in Israel’s politics, kept Israel out of any large-scale conflicts beyond the confines of Gaza, and whether purposely or not opened the door to the inclusion of an independent Arab party in an Israeli governing coalition for the first time. He has overcome the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an unprecedented way, and also ensured that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain with Israel in an unprecedented way. Entire books could, and no doubt will, be written on Netanyahu’s legacy, the ups and downs and everything in between, and this may only be the end of the second act rather than the curtain closing. Trying to do it justice in 1,500 words is a fool’s errand.
In considering Netanyahu and what he is leaving behind though, what jumps out at me is just how dependent any ultimate assessment of him is on what happens next. This is obviously true of any world leader, as the impact of their policies and decisions do not expire with their terms in office, but with Netanyahu this dynamic is heightened. Throughout the past twelve years, the common view of Netanyahu has been that he is largely cautious and risk-averse, notwithstanding his increasingly desperate recklessness of the past few years as his legal troubles boxed him into a corner and his political fortunes dictated pushing for seemingly endless and irresolvable elections. But Netanyahu has actually made some big bets, the status of which is yet to be determined, and he has also put changes in place that will be monumental–some for good, some for ill–if they outlast him. How we ultimately view Netanyahu rests on the decisions that others are going to make next.
There is one big achievement that Netanyahu pushed for and successfully oversaw that is likely safe from any intervening developments, which is the normalization process embodied by the Abraham Accords. Whether the agreements expand is an open question, but the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas and the ongoing tensions in East Jerusalem demonstrated the Accords’ relative imperviousness to complicating external events. The agreements were built primarily on the foundation of shared economic interests, with shared security interests playing a role as well, and as the gains from these relationships become realized to a greater extent, the countervailing pressure created by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will hold even less sway. Much as the peace treaty with Egypt is part of Begin’s legacy irrespective of anything else, this will be a big part of Netanyahu’s legacy no matter what.
But there are at least three other issues that will just as significantly impact how we view Netanyahu, and while he set them in motion, they are all now entirely out of his hands. The first is the U.S.-Israel relationship, where Netanyahu was responsible for both unprecedented highs and unprecedented lows. Because of the relationship that Netanyahu forged with President Trump, Israel benefited during the latter’s tenure in ways that seemed unimaginable before January 2017. But the way that relationship played on the other side of the aisle along with the more tense relationship that Netanyahu crafted with President Obama and other Democrats has led to rockier periods in U.S.-Israel relations, ultimately manifesting in challenges to U.S. security assistance to Israel while Hamas rockets were falling on Israeli cities. There are two ways in which this might go; when Netanyahu is off the scene, the difficulties for which he was partially responsible could largely dissipate beyond a fringe of elected Democrats, or the new way in which some Democrats view Israel and Israeli behavior after over a decade of Netanyahu could be cemented irrespective of who is prime minister. If ten years from now Israel’s status in the U.S. has eroded in a significant way, it will be an inseparable part of Netanyahu’s legacy.
Similarly variable pathways exist for Netanyahu’s legacy when considering Israeli polarization and domestic cohesion. There is no questioning the fact that Netanyahu has now spent years casting doubt on Israeli state institutions, and more recently on Israeli electoral integrity and democratic legitimacy, as a result of the police investigations into his conduct, the state attorney’s recommendation to indict him, the attorney-general’s acceptance of that recommendation, and his current trial before the Jerusalem District Court. Whether you believe that Netanyahu is justified in doing this because he is the victim of a deep state conspiracy or you believe that it is his effort to leverage mob rule in order to thwart justice for his actions, it is a fact that Netanyahu has done more to cast doubt on the legitimacy of fundamental underpinnings of the Israeli state than anyone before him.
We in the U.S. are familiar with this particular movie. The question is what happens next. If the new Israeli government–which does not include anyone who has demonstrated inclinations similar to Netanyahu’s–turns down the temperature, goes out of its way not to incite against the justice system in particular despite Yamina and Tikva Hadasha’s belief that the Knesset has ceded too much power to the courts, and Israeli politics goes back to normal negative campaigning as opposed to claiming that the other side is fundamentally illegitimate or trying to undermine Zionism, then Netanyahu’s actions and rhetoric will still be notable but not revolutionary. But that outcome is not at all preordained or guaranteed. For all that Trump did during his tumultuous four years, January 6 is going to be in the first paragraph of his obituary. If Netanyahu behaves out of power as he has in power, he will increase the chances of the current level of Israeli polarization being a waystation on the journey down rather than a nadir, and that will ultimately factor in at the beginning of his obituary too.
Finally, there is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu has institutionalized the position that the conflict will not and should not be solved, and that it should instead be managed. He has elevated the idea of the status quo as a doctrine while not actually abiding by the status quo, and turned it from a temporary fix born out of necessity into a permanent solution representing the ideal scenario. For a majority of Israelis, this fits with their thinking on the conflict precisely; they do not believe there is a partner on the other side, they do not believe that two states is currently achievable or even currently advisable, and they also do not want to absorb the costs of de jure annexation or permanent occupation. Thus, Israel under Netanyahu has adopted a policy of de jure ambiguity with de facto creeping annexation, moving the status quo to the right day by day, hilltop outpost by hilltop outpost, demolition order by demolition order, all while maintaining what increasingly looks like a legal fiction that Israel is committed to a two-state outcome should conditions on the Palestinian side allow it.
If Israel is able to somehow manage this for another fifty years, this may eclipse the Abraham Accords as Netanyahu’s most enduringly successful foreign policy and security legacy. At the moment, this formula has allowed for unprecedented Israeli security in the West Bank without having to make any hard choices on settlements or Israel’s long-term presence; has allowed Arab states to normalize relations with Israel or inch slowly forward on non-official public relations; and has created a way for the overwhelming majority of Israelis to not have to deal with, absorb, or even see the military occupation of the West Bank.
But things can also turn on a dime in any number of ways, from Mahmoud Abbas being replaced by a Palestinian leader without a similar commitment to non-violence, to a third intifada, to a Palestinian Authority collapse and Hamas takeover, to an increasing international acceptance of charges that Israel engages in apartheid. Should any of these things happen, Netanyahu’s legacy of not making a decision in either direction while also ensuring that the PA remains weak will backfire enormously, as Israel finds itself more territorially intertwined with the West Bank and its Palestinians than it ever has been and without any workable exit strategy. Netanyahu has never wanted to bring about two states and has also never wanted to oversee the paradigm’s ultimate collapse. If the latter ever occurs, he will own that outcome and its consequences more thoroughly than anyone else.