The transformative legacy of Mr. Status Quo

Benjamin Netanyahu made everybody believe there could never be an alternative to the so-called 'status quo.' His departure should serve as a reminder that one always exists.

Palestinian youth paint street art in Nazareth during Palestinian Economic Independence Week, in which activists held cultural events around the country promoting Palestinian heritage and self-sufficiency, June 7, 2021.

Unlike many of his predecessors, the young Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t plan on a career in politics. Former Israeli prime ministers such as David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Olmert chose a political path at a young age. Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Barak segued into politics after a military career, like many other generals.

Netanyahu, in contrast, grew up in the shadow of an older brother, Yoni, who was cultivated by his family — and particularly by their father, Benzion —  as a future leader. Bibi, meanwhile, wanted to become an American businessman. It was Yoni’s death as a soldier during the 1976 commando raid in Entebbe, and the natural talent the young Benjamin exhibited during debates and TV appearances, that launched what is arguably the most successful political career in Israeli history.

Netanyahu leaves office today as Israel’s longest serving prime minister, following an unprecedented term of 12 consecutive years on top of a three-year term in the 1990s — an achievement most observers deemed impossible in Israel’s chaotic and fragmented political system. Like many Israelis, I spent most of my adult life with Netanyahu as prime minister.

The question that should be asked today is not whether Netanyahu will one day return to the political scene. Rather it is what kind of legacy he is leaving behind, and whether the undercurrents that drove him to power and served him so well have finally turned. Is this day just about Bibi — a final episode in the soap opera of his final years in office — or is it a more significant transformation, one that could bring about actual change in Israel-Palestine?

A decade of sustaining the status quo

The Palestinian issue was and remains the most consequential question in Israeli life, constructing and affecting all aspects of politics, including among Jewish citizens themselves. Consider the simple fact that most Palestinians under Israeli sovereignty — even the residents of East Jerusalem, Israel’s so-called “undivided” capital — are not allowed to vote or be elected to national office, and one begins to imagine the many ways in which everything would change if Israel were to become a “one person, one vote” democracy.

But one need not go that far. Even today, all the fundamental aspects that undergird Israeli society — from the role the military plays in shaping Israeli life, to the legal status of Jewish religion, to laws governing the allocation of state land — are related to the Palestinian question.

Early during Netanyahu’s term as prime minister, I argued that his rise signified a strategic choice by Israelis to maintain the so-called “status quo” of control over millions of Palestinians. Almost everything that has happened since has reaffirmed this observation — or more accurately, everything that didn’t happen. The blockade of Gaza was never lifted; the Palestinian Authority remained a subcontractor for Israel in the occupied West Bank rather than a state in the making; settlement activities continued without Israel formally annexing any occupied territory; and the Knesset adopted the Jewish Nation-State Law, designed to prevent challenges to the state’s character by its Palestinian citizens while entrenching the superior status of the Jewish majority.

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