In 2018, Haaretz, a left-wing Israeli newspaper, asked historians, political scientists, biographers, and political figures in Israel to help them rank the 12 Israeli prime ministers. These experts actually ranked Netanyahu last.
While Netanyahu’s ranking was unfair, I mostly agreed with the rest of the list. David Ben-Gurion was at the top of the list. The second-best prime minister on the list was Menachem Begin.
It’s difficult to understate David Ben-Gurion’s impact on Israeli society. As Israel’s first prime minister, he established many of the country’s institutions.
On my first trip to Israel in 2003, I visited Independence Hall in Tel-Aviv where Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence. Our tour guide told the story of how most Israelis didn’t think that they would prevail.
In the War of Independence (1948-1949), more than 6,000 Jews were killed. About a third of those deaths were Holocaust survivors.
No Israeli Prime Minister had a tougher job than David Ben-Gurion. When Israel had to fight again in 1956, Israeli victories on the battlefield were another testament to Ben-Gurion’s leadership.
During Ben-Gurion’s tenure, Israel’s population tripled from 800,000 in 1948 to 2.4 million in 1963. Approximately 870,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries in response to Israel’s reemergence in 1948. Two thirds of Jewish refugees from Arab countries moved to Israel. Ben Gurion had the difficult task of absorbing those refugees into Israeli society.
The second-best Prime Minister was Menachem Begin. He had two incredible accomplishments during his tenure. He was the first Israeli Prime Minister to make peace with an Arab country.
Begin was fortunate to have Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as a partner in peace. President Carter also deserves credit for the indispensable role he played in the peace treaty.
Begin and Sadat were properly awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. President Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 in part because of this achievement.
Begin’s second greatest achievement was his decision to destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981. At the time, a number of Israelis opposed a preventative attack on Iraq.
Not only did the leader of the opposition, Shimon Peres, oppose this attack, but even some of Begin’s Cabinet thought most of the world would condemn this attack. Some Israelis thought it could even endanger the treaty between Egypt and Israel.
After the attack was successful, many countries throughout the world condemned Israel publicly. According Richard V. Allen, who was President Reagan’s National Security Advisor at the time, some Middle Eastern countries were “privately pleased.”
In response, Prime Minister Begin said, “There won't be another Holocaust in history. Never again, never again. We shall defend our people with all the means at our disposal. We shall not allow any enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against us.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu has followed the Begin Doctrine in his efforts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu’s achievements do not compare with Ben-Gurion or Begin, but I think they are better than any other Israeli prime minister.
The four normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco were an extraordinary accomplishment. The only other Israeli prime ministers to make peace with Arab countries were Menachem Begin with Egypt (1979) and Yitzhak Rabin with Jordan (1994).
With President Clinton’s help, Yitzhak Rabin made peace with Jordan and they both made a great effort towards a two-state solution. While King Hussein of Jordan was ready for peace with Israel, Yasser Arafat was not.
Rabin’s achievements are not as impressive as the Abraham Accords. President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu deserve the Nobel Prize for this achievement.
Netanyahu also deserves credit for his economic stewardship. Israel’s transition from a socialist economy began with Menachem Begin who was Israel’s first non-socialist prime minister. Begin’s early attempts to liberalize the economy resulted in high inflation.
It was Netanyahu’s brief tenure as Finance Minister (2003-2005) when he had the opportunity to further liberalize the Israeli economy. He continued this process when he became prime minister again in 2009.
Netanyahu’s background with the Boston Consulting Group, and his fluent English, made him an outstanding spokesman in promoting Israel as the “Start-up Nation” to the world in the past 12 years.
Netanyahu wasn’t perfect. I did not agree with all of his decisions. For example, I thought his 2015 speech to Congress failed to convince Democrats to oppose the Iran Deal. I agreed with the substance of the speech, but Netanyahu’s actions alienated many Democrats.
That being said, Netanyahu successes far outweigh his mistakes. Even if he never returns to power, Netanyahu was a transformative leader.
Robert Zapesochny is a researcher and writer whose work focuses on foreign affairs, national security and presidential history. He has been published in numerous outlets, including The American Spectator, the Washington Times, and The American Conservative. When he's not writing, Robert works for a medical research company in New York. Read Robert Zapesochny's Reports — More Here
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