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Opinion

Netanyahu casts a long shadow over Israeli politics

New national unity government is testimony to fallen leader's formidable legacy

| Middle East
Benjamin Netanyahu's exit creates a narrow window for diplomacy.   © Reuters

Lionel Barber is former editor of the Financial Times. He is author of "The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times."

Benjamin Netanyahu has been the subject of countless political obituaries, but Israel's longest-serving prime minister has always had the last word.

The Israeli parliament's vote on June 13 to oust Netanyahu, or Bibi as he is universally known in Israel, from office may not prove conclusive. The 71-year-old strongman lost his grip on power by a single vote only, and continues to define Israeli politics.

The eight-party alliance that will form the next Israeli government ranges from left to right, secular and religious. It looks and sounds unstable. But with its inherent fractiousness comes several notable firsts for the Jewish state.

The new government contains the first Sabbath-observing religious Jew to run the country, the first to share power with an Israeli Arab Islamist party, and the first prime minister -- Naftali Bennett, a former special forces soldier turned multimillionaire -- to become prime minister with just six seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

What unites this rainbow coalition is its hostility to Netanyahu, who served for 15 years as prime minister, the last 12 uninterrupted. This is a testimony to the man's political toxicity and to a formidable legacy.

To his critics, Netanyahu is a ruthless operator willing to trample over democratic institutions and a free press in order to stay in office, latterly adopting every ruse in the book to evade bribery and corruption charges. Ultimately, they say, he lacked the courage to take on Israeli settlers bent on seizing disputed territory from the Palestinians. He therefore must share responsibility for the failure to secure a durable peace in the Middle East between Arab and Jew.

There is, however, another version of history that casts Netanyahu as the driving force behind the creation of the modern Israeli state. Under his leadership, Israel became a top-tier regional power, earning the respect of leaders from China's Xi Jinping to Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Netanyahu has been the guarantor of Israeli security in a hostile neighborhood. He has stood firm while a civil war in Syria raged across the border. He has faced down the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and confronted Iran itself as the new regional power in the wake of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

At home, after the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, when Israeli citizens were at daily risk of suicide bombers, Netanyahu supervised the building of a security fence near the Green Line separating Israel and the West Bank. The fence copied a similar wall around Gaza. While controversial, it nullified the domestic terrorist threat.

The Israeli West Bank wall, pictured in July 2014, is a separation barrier along the Green Line.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Less well known is that Netanyahu, when serving as finance minister and later as prime minister, helped to modernize the Israeli economy, championing the creation of world-class technology companies, many spun out of the Israeli military.

Israel's dynamic tech sector has attracted the interest of Xi and Putin, as well as U.S. intelligence concerned about the risk of technology transfer. It has also served as a wake-up call to the Arab states whose oil-rich economies remain one-dimensional relics of the mid-20th century.

The digital revolution, as much as frustration with the Palestinian leadership and alarm about Shia Iran, explains the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Sunni Arab states, led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It may be premature to talk about a regional realignment, but it does signal a shift from the Arab position challenging the legitimacy of the Israeli state.

The recent explosion of violence in the West Bank, coupled with multiple rocket attacks on Jerusalem, does not fundamentally alter this strategic equation. Nevertheless, it is a warning that Israel's security dilemma remains acute.

For Israeli citizens, the violent clashes between Arab-Israeli citizens and Jews were the most shocking, though the rain of rockets from Hamas forces in Gaza came a close second. Most were halted by Israel's Iron Dome air defense system, but the missile threat remains. And not just from the occupied territories but also neighboring Lebanon, Syria and, at a longer range, Iran.

The Israeli military's assessment of its operation in Gaza remains positive: the destruction of 100 km of underground tunnels used by Hamas, the targeting killing of a number of midlevel Hamas commandos, including those with expertise in cyber, bomb-making and missile production; and an overall death count of more than 250 Hamas militia members, at the cost of one Israel Defense Forces soldier's life.

Yet these grim statistics fail to take account of longer-term trends not necessarily in Israel's favor. Some Israeli politicians and commentators have argued that demographics point to a growing Arab population and a future binational state, though respective Palestinian and Jewish fertility rates and their implications remain disputed.

Netanyahu's ruthlessness, his determination to deal from a position of strength, succeeded in postponing Judgment Day. He was always able to claim that the Palestinians were not credible interlocutors. From Yassir Arafat onward, leaders have consistently succumbed to the illusion that there was a better deal in the offing.

The next generation of Palestinian leaders may be a little smarter. The other potential game-changer is that Israeli right-wing Jewish parties have agreed to serve in a national unity government including an Israeli Arab Islamist party.

With that taboo broken, there is a chance to improve relations between Israeli Arabs and Jews, and just maybe with the Palestinians themselves, as Tom Friedman of The New York Times has written.

Netanyahu's exit, therefore, creates a narrow window for diplomacy. Whether the Israelis, the Arabs, or a still wary U.S. seize the opportunity is another matter.

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