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Benjamin Netanyahu showed the opposite of grace as he exited from power on Sunday. If you want to evaluate his legacy on the basis of his final day in office, you will mark him down as one of history’s sorest losers.
History will likely tell a very different story, one that cites Netanyahu’s time in office from 2009 onward as a hinge moment in history itself — as a period during which Israel moved beyond the existential drama of its first 60 years and established itself as an enduring, undeniable and formidable permanent presence on the world stage, a mature nation other countries could no longer pretend would just somehow vanish, go away, or be wiped out.
That is in part because the Israel of 2021 is domestically a fulfillment of the mere promise of Israel in 2009 — with an economy nearly doubled in size over 12 years and household income per capita 50 percent higher. This once-poor, resource-starved struggling nation is now the world’s 31th richest.
Netanyahu is not responsible for this except in one epically important sense — unlike previous leaders, who were either economically illiterate or ideologically hostile to entrepreneurship, he did not stand in the way of private-sector progress and instead viewed that progress as an unalloyed good.
Israel’s economic strength in the face of its challenges helped convince the world it would be a useful diplomatic partner. Well before the astonishing Abraham Accords, which have brought about diplomatic relations with Arab countries that once vowed Israel’s destruction, Netanyahu had traveled the world successfully establishing relations with nations that had previously looked askance at the Jewish state.
All of this was possible because of the alteration in the dynamic of the Middle East and Bibi’s far-sighted grasp of the possibilities that the revolutionary changes in the Muslim world offered to his country.
Israel’s greatest enemy was and is Iran. It became clear as this century progressed that Iran was the greatest enemy as well of the Sunni Arab countries in the region — and that Iran’s support for the destructive terrorists that threatened Israel in Gaza and Lebanon directly mirrored its efforts to undermine its Sunni rivals.
More important, a nuclear Iran would be an existential menace not only to the Jewish state but to the Sunni states.
Netanyahu handled the “enemy of my enemy might just be my friend” approach brilliantly. And he proved to have an improvisatory gift his predecessors did not have when dealing with the insanely complex matter of the Palestinian challenge in Gaza and on the West Bank.
Despite the demented and anti-Semitic claims of his and Israel’s enemies, the Jewish state under Netanyahu has been remarkably careful to avoid confrontational crises with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu was brought down not because of policy failures but because of personal ones — including a refusal to grasp that democratic leaders wear out their welcomes.
He may have been the most adept Western leader of our time, but he treated people like garbage — friends as well as foes — and they finally were able to set aside their differences and get rid of him because he was so awful to everybody.
It reminds me of a great line in Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” in which one old vaudevillian says of another, “As an actor, no one could touch him. As a human being, no one wanted to touch him.”
That is grist for biography. History will consider him a transformational figure. And he may not be done with history yet. The government that replaced him is the Archie’s jalopy of political vehicles. It may not run long. And he’ll be right there to swoop in.
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