CLEVELAND, OH — April 11, 2029 — Last summer, Boris Johnson won an intra-party election to become the British prime minister charged with finally leading his nation through its secession from the European Union, a task that ended the premiership of his predecessor. Johnson became the third person to lead the Mother of Parliaments in as many years. A few days before Johnson’s ascendancy to 10 Downing Street, another staunch American ally observed a contrasting milestone. On July 20th, Benjamin Netanyahu surpassed David Ben–Gurion to become Israel’s longest–serving prime minister. Israel’s short history as a nation–state forces one to look elsewhere for parallels to Netanyahu’s remarkable career in public life. But there are no analogs among Netanyahu’s contemporaries in other countries, either. To find a suitable comparison, one most go back to Victorian Britain and examine the political career of another Semitic statesman, Benjamin Disraeli.
The sons of middle-class parents, the political philosophies of both Disraeli and Netanyahu were influenced by their youthful experiences abroad. Disraeli travelled extensively in Southern Europe and the Middle East, imparting on him an appreciation for Eastern culture and how stability in the Eastern Mediterranean was vital to the security of the British Empire. Netanyahu spent much of his younger days living, studying, and working in the United States, where he would pick up an affinity for free market economics and American-style political campaigning. Both men entered parliament in their thirties after first achieving success in other fields.
While in elected office, both men distinguished themselves by leading rebellions against sitting prime ministers of their own parties. Disraeli led the Tory backbenchers in opposition to Sir Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws (protective tariffs on various types of grain). Although unsuccessful, the majority of his party supported Disraeli’s position and the ensuing split forced Peel and most of his lieutenants out of the Conservative Party. Disraeli’s stand against Peel was controversial and earned him more than his share of detractors. But it left Disraeli the de facto leader of his party and on the path to power.
Netanyahu left a cabinet post in the government of Ariel Sharon over his opposition to Sharon’s forced removal of all Israelis living in the Gaza Strip. Unable to prevent the Gaza withdrawal, Netanyahu challenged Sharon’s leadership of the Likud Party, a move that would eventually result in Sharon leaving the party to form his own Kadima Party. Upon Sharon’s exit, Netanyahu was elected Chairman of the Likud Party, giving him the keys to the vehicle that would eventually take him to the prime minister’s office.
Leaving Their Mark
Both Disraeli and Netanyahu gained experience in national leadership as the finance ministers of their respective nations. Each served non-consecutive tenures as prime minister with the first stint being noticeably briefer than the second. Both men were known as accomplished orators and writers, although Disraeli was a novelist and Netanyahu has thus far stuck to non-fiction. But the greatest similarity between the two is that both men led in such a way that their parties became synonymous with security, national defense, and patriotic glory. Disraeli accomplished this by acquiring a major interest in the Suez Canal and giving a major address before the Congress of Berlin that resolved the Russo-Turkish War in a manner favorable to the security of British imperial possessions in the east (mainly India). Netanyahu has secured U.S. recognition of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as Israeli possessions and gave a major address to a joint session of Congress that would lay the intellectual foundation for the eventual U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. Moreover, he accomplished this while avoiding any unilateral concessions to the Palestinians on disputed territory and forming an anti-Iran alliance with Sunni–majority nations in the region.
In recent years, Netanyahu has had to worry about threats to his own freedom as well as Israel’s, as controversial corruption allegations have dogged him. However, the current coronavirus crisis has been as beneficial to Netanyahu’s political health as it has been detrimental to Boris Johnson’s personal health. The first hearing in Netanyahu’s much anticipated corruption trial has been delayed for two months as Israeli’s court system has drastically reduced operations. More importantly, Netanyahu’s bold measures to counter the virus have splintered Likud’spolitical opposition with Netanyahu’s main rival now expressing interest in joining an emergency government headed by Netanyahu. This represents a stunning reversal of fortune for the Israeli leader after failing to forge a parliamentary majority in three successive elections over the last year despite strong showings by Likud. But regardless of when Netanyahu’s time atop the Knesset comes to an end, whether at the hands of the voters or the prosecutors, he has already left an indelible impression on his country and the world as the Israeli Disraeli of the 21st Century.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.