Requiem for a Middleweight

  • Share
  • Read Later
Like his friend Newt Gingrich, Benjamin Netanyahu was swept to power on a wave of conservative anger. And like Gingrich, his larger-than-life ego became a lightning rod for the enmity that grew in the face of his failure to deliver on revolutionary political promises.

And after his wild three-year ride in office ended, there was more than a shade of Gingrichian "I'll be back..." in Netanyahu's defiant final speech to the party faithful Thursday, marking his retirement from parliament.

The 49-year-old defeated prime minister vowed to stay involved in "the battle for the future of the country," and repeated the same dire warnings of the mortal danger to Israel inherent in the peace process, warnings that formed the centerpiece of his 1996 election campaign.

Netanyahu rose to prominence at the same time as Yitzhak Rabin led Israel down the Oslo Accord path of land-for-peace compromise with the Palestinians. While Rabin traded for peace, Netanyahu cried treason. His was the rude voice of a brash young politician who eschewed the traditional mutual respect with which the pioneering generation of Israeli leaders had managed their political differences.

The American-educated former soldier and diplomat had been active in politics for only six years, but his mercurial rise to the leadership of the Likud party had marked him as the largest personality on Israel's political landscape.

The assassination of Rabin opened the way for Netanyahu's eventual accession to power, and for a long time after her husband's death, Leah Rabin held the brash naysayer personally responsible for creating the climate of hysteria that had prompted his killer to act. Netanyahu made his anti-Oslo message the centerpiece of his election campaign and edged out Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, by fewer than 30,000 votes. Once in office, however, he found himself having to balance Israel's international commitment to the agreements signed by Rabin with his own fierce opposition to the very principle of trading land for peace.

His slick, telegenic presence and mastery of the art of the sound bite helped him rally American Jews against the Clinton administration's attempts to pressure Israel to stick to its Oslo commitments, but Israelis were less impressed. As a series of personal scandals dogged him, his abrasive manner and reputation for duplicity cost him many a key ally.

But it was the politics of his three-year reign that were always his government's most dangerous fault line -- his coalition partners on the right wanted Oslo scrapped in its entirety; his centrist allies wanted the peace process continued. The breaking point came in January 1998, when his moderate foreign minister, David Levy, resigned in protest over Netanyahu's stalling on the peace process. That left Netanyahu with a one-vote majority to govern a country riddled with political divisions.

Last year's Wye Accord, in which Netanyahu had to finally agree to resume transfers of West Bank land to Palestinian control, marked another turning point: It demoralized Netanyahu's conservative power base by signaling that the promise of scrapping Oslo was untenable. That left Netanyahu, like Gingrich before him, in a no-win situation -- reviled by opponents who targeted him personally in their election campaign, but also increasingly under fire from within his own ranks.

Asked in a January interview, what he might do differently in a second term, Netanyahu told TIME magazine: "I wouldn't do anything differently on the political side. Where I would do things differently is in the management of egos. I would say the prime minister has to devote equal time not only to the tasks of security and peacemaking and economic reform, all of which I did to my utmost, but to the maintenance, shall we say, of, ah, personal relationships."

He'll have plenty of time for that now that he's quit active politics. And with his stated intention being to work the lecture circuit in the U.S., he'll probably get a lot more opportunity to compare notes with his old pal Newt.