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Netanyahu's Legacy After 12 Years As Israel's Prime Minister


Though the outcome of the vote in Israel's Parliament yesterday was anticipated, it was not without tumult.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).



Amid the heckling and by a one-vote margin, Naftali Bennett became prime minister of Israel, ousting Benjamin Netanyahu. Bennett is a former ally and aide to Netanyahu. They're both right-wing politicians. But Bennett is backed by a coalition from the left, right and center that was united in the desire for a new leader, someone not so divisive as Netanyahu or facing a corruption trial, as he is.

SHAPIRO: Netanyahu answered with a speech calling the new government dangerous and vowing to continue fighting to return his Likud Party to power. He punctuated the point in English.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Non-English language spoken). We'll be back soon. We'll be back.


CORNISH: He says he'll be back, but this chapter is over. And we're going to remember some of the big moments. Benjamin Netanyahu led Israel's government for 12 straight years, a record, and he had a deep impact on the politics of Israel at home and around the world.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Daniel Estrin has covered Netanyahu's prime ministership, traveled with him and chronicled how Israel changed under his leadership. He joins us from Jerusalem.

Hi, Daniel.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with how Netanyahu would characterize his own impact. I mean, how did he cast himself?

ESTRIN: He really fashioned himself as this American-style politician. He has perfect English. He's this modern, kind of business-forward leader who helped his small country punch above its weight in the global economy. I remember a talk he gave a couple years ago at the Economic Club in Washington, D.C.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: But if, you know, you had a chance to write your own legacy...

ESTRIN: And he was asked how he would describe his legacy.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What would you want people to say about what you've done?

ESTRIN: And he said...


NETANYAHU: Defender of Israel...

ESTRIN: ...Defender of Israel...


NETANYAHU: ...Liberator of its economy.

ESTRIN: ...Liberator of its economy. Under Netanyahu's leadership, Israel became more of a free market economy. Israel largely avoided the global financial crisis.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: ...To some good news. There is some good news in terms...

ESTRIN: And it was one of the first economies to reopen after the pandemic, thanks to Netanyahu securing Pfizer vaccines early. And he was praised for that.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Coming out of Israel because, in a lot of ways, they have really been the model. They...

ESTRIN: And on security, Netanyahu is known as Mr. Security. He oversaw three wars with Hamas and Gaza. He accelerated tensions with Iran. But compared to other periods, though there still were many casualties among Palestinians, during his leadership relatively few Israelis were killed in violence.

SHAPIRO: He expanded Israel's role on the world stage, traveling from country to country, meeting with world leaders.


NETANYAHU: My friend, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, welcome to Israel.


NETANYAHU: President Duterte, welcome to Israel.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about what he was doing in all of these high-level meetings.

ESTRIN: What stood out for Netanyahu, internationally, I think, was his relations with right-wing populist leaders around the world, leaders like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro.


NETANYAHU: Jair Bolsonaro.

ESTRIN: Even Viktor Orban of Hungary, a leader who's downplayed his nation's role in the Holocaust.


NETANYAHU: ...Orban. Viktor, welcome to Jerusalem.

ESTRIN: And, of course, he aligned himself with former President Donald Trump.


NETANYAHU: Mr. President, my dear friend, Donald...

ESTRIN: Now, many Israelis, especially progressive Israelis, saw Netanyahu as eroding their country's democracy and aligning with leaders who themselves eroded their democracies.

SHAPIRO: And the relationship with the U.S., of course, was one of the most important international relationships. Over the 12 years that he was prime minister, Netanyahu really aligned Israel with the Republican Party, which was a shift. When did this become apparent?

ESTRIN: He did. Israel traditionally had bipartisan support in the U.S., and that's going back all the way to Israel's founding in 1948. But one of Netanyahu's legacies is that under his administration, Israel did become a partisan issue in the U.S. He aligned Israel and his government with the Christian evangelical community and also with the Republican Party. He embraced his old friend, Mitt Romney, when Romney, a Republican, was running against President Obama in 2012. And then when Obama was negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran, that is what led to a very public rupture in Netanyahu's relations with Democrats because Republicans invited Netanyahu to speak at Congress.


JOHN BOEHNER: The prime minister of Israel, his excellency, Benjamin Netanyahu.


ESTRIN: ...Essentially going behind Obama's back in doing so. He made a speech critical of the Iran nuclear deal.


NETANYAHU: To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle but lose the war. We can't let that happen.


ESTRIN: That was a key moment.


DONALD TRUMP: I just want to say, Mr. President...

ESTRIN: But the partisanship really peaked when Trump was elected.


NETANYAHU: The alliance between America and Israel has never been stronger, never been...

ESTRIN: Trump was blamed for a wave of anti-Semitism in the U.S. early in his tenure, and Netanyahu came to his defense.


NETANYAHU: There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump. I think we should put that to rest.

ESTRIN: And Netanyahu even campaigned for election with billboards featuring photos of himself posing with Trump.

SHAPIRO: So much of this has centered around the way Netanyahu has handled Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, also the treatment of Palestinians inside Israel who are citizens of the country. Talk about what Netanyahu's strategy looked like there.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu's strategy was to try to prove that Israel could flourish on the world stage without needing to give in to Palestinian demands, like the demand to establish a Palestinian state in land that Israel occupies. And for many years, Netanyahu kind of proved that that could be true. And as for the two-state solution - ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, allowing a Palestinian state next to Israel - I think Netanyahu, in his more than a decade straight in office, strengthened a divide between Palestinians. He undermined the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank continued and grew, taking up land the Palestinians hoped would be reserved for their own country. And now today, many here will say the two-state solution is dead.

SHAPIRO: And this worked for a long time. I mean, he held office for 12 years, longer than any other Israeli prime minister. What changed?

ESTRIN: Netanyahu had this divisive leadership style. It helped him win elections, but it made many Israelis sick of him. And there is a sense that Netanyahu, by the end, was paralyzing a country, trying to hold onto power. And people, even those who appreciated so many aspects of his leadership, felt like it was time for a change.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

Thank you so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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