Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu, a handsome, charismatic figure who spent nearly two decades on the Israeli political stage, quietly and with dignity announced his intention to step aside from political life Monday after being trounced in his bid for re-election.
“For almost 20 years I’ve worked as a public servant,” he told his dejected supporters 35 minutes after the polls closed. “I have much more to contribute to our country. But I believe that now the time has come to take a break. I think that now the time has come … to be with my family, with my wife, with my children, and to decide my future.”
Reminding his audience that he had been an ambassador in Washington and at the United Nations, Netanyahu, 49, said he was “very proud of what we accomplished.” With his wife, Sara, at his side, the prime minister thanked those who worked with him “to bring peace and security to Israel, peace for all generations and not for the passing moment.”
“We ended terrorism almost completely, we returned personal security to the citizens of Israel,” he said. “We created the principle of reciprocity, we continued the peace process, we reduced unemployment. … We turned the economy to free market and brought foreign investment to Israel. I believe that all of these are strong foundations on which to build a brilliant future for the State of Israel.”
As he stepped off the stage, his wife brushed away a tear.
In the days before the election, Netanyahu blamed the media for his expected downfall.
Ironically, it was Netanyahu who had been the darling of the media when he was Israel’s spokesman at the United Nations, and when he helped reassure viewers during the Gulf War in 1991 — donning a gas mask live on CNN and continuing with the interview.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page writer, Robert Pollock, pointed out that just one day before the election, Israeli television devoted extensive live coverage to Yitzchak Mordechai’s withdrawal from the prime minister’s race. But when Netanyahu held his own news conference to respond, Israeli TV cut away after only a few minutes. Netanyahu complained and the live feed resumed briefly, but an announcer then spoke over the prime minister’s words, providing viewers a summary of what he was saying.
Pollock said he found “much to like” about Netanyahu. Although the prime minister was not a “generous or gracious man,” Pollock wrote, “he strikes me as a man consumed, perhaps overwhelmed, by his strong sense of duty to the Israeli people. Far from the intransigent hard-liner portrayed in the world’s media, he is simply a firm believer in liberal democracy and the market economy.”
Had Netanyahu been driven by a lust for power, wrote Pollock, he would not have “tried to import Reaganite economics to the land of the kibbutz. He isn’t afraid to explain, contrary to all Israeli conventional wisdom, that the free market is the key to Israel’s ability to absorb new immigrants and live in peace with its Arab neighbors.”
Thomas Friedman, writing in The New York Times, credited Netanyahu with convincing Israelis that it was now time to proceed with the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians.
“It may have been that the only way to bring the majority of Likud voters into Oslo, without triggering a civil war, was by Mr. Netanyahu winking, nodding, lying, blaming everything on Labor, the Ashkenazi elites and ‘the leftists,’ and constantly bashing Mr. Arafat, whether he was living up to his commitments or not. …
“And therein lies the greatest irony about Bibi Netanyahu: He brought a whole segment of Israel into the peace process – but he stayed out of it himself. That is, he never wanted to take ownership of it, and he still doesn’t.”
Laura King of the Associated Press called Netanyahu a “consummately public figure, yet an enigmatic one. Although he is universally known by his childhood nickname, Bibi, few would claim to truly know what makes Netanyahu tick.
“Israel has a long tradition of larger-than-life leaders who left their personal stamp on the land and its people. Netanyahu might have lacked the touch of greatness associated with the likes of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, but he had a way of getting under everyone’s skin.
“Those who supported him did so passionately,” she said. “Those who hated him did so with equal passion.”