To his supporters, he’s the tireless protector of modern-day Israel who helped turn the small nation into an economic powerhouse with outsized influence on the world stage. To his critics, he’s a divider who helped destroy the country’s democratic institutions while enabling the rise of extremists.
Without question, Netanyahu has left an indelible mark on Israel, changing and molding its path. And though he may be leaving the highest office for now, his influence is far from over.
“In some ways Israel is stronger after Netanyahu. Certainly Israel is economically much stronger and militarily … In other ways he leaves Israel much weaker in particular in the internal divisions.” said Natan Sachs, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. “After 12 years, he deserves credit and fault.”
Despite his years of dominance, Netanyahu rarely garnered a huge amount of Israeli popular support. He barely beat Shimon Peres in 1996 to become prime minister in one of the few direct elections for the position; in subsequent elections as the leader of Likud, his party never received more than 30% of the vote.
“Bibi’s genius is not so much how many votes he’s brought Likud, it’s how he’s built his coalitions,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a correspondent for The Economist and Haaretz who has written an extensive biography on Netanyahu titled “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.”
By fully embracing ultra-Orthodox parties and bringing them into the folds of Likud and other right-wing parties, Netanyahu “created the situation where he’s almost impossible to replace,” Pfeffer said.
“He created what he calls the natural allies of Likud, and these parties won’t support anyone else partly because they know their voters … vote for them to a large extent because they know they’ll go with Bibi anyway,” Pfeffer said.
Critics also say Netanyahu’s courting and deals with far-right and religious political parties helped embolden them and bring them from the fringes into the mainstream in a way that incites divisions between left and right, religious and secular Jews, and Jews and Arabs.
But since 2019 Netanyahu has failed to bring about a functioning government — election after election resulted in the same political deadlock. An investigation and eventual trial into allegations of corruption led to increasing attacks on Israel’s judicial system.
“For the last two years he’d subsumed the fate of the country to his personal fate has also exacerbated the divisions dramatically,” Sachs said. “He’s attacked the judiciary simply because of his personal fate. And has deeply damaged trust in these institutions.”
Even successfully managing a massive Covid-19 vaccination campaign, which essentially brought the country back to normalcy well ahead of the rest of the world, was not enough for Netanyahu and his allies to fully gain control after the 2021 election.
Any sort of progress on a Palestinian peace process fizzled in the past few years, as Netanyahu instead focused on normalization agreements with other Arab nations, while angering Palestinians by allowing a boom of Israeli settlements to be built in the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s position on a future Palestinian state has shifted several times throughout his career. He came into his first term as a strong opponent of the Oslo Accords, which paved the way for a two-state solution. But then Netanyahu said he’d try to implement the accords as prime minister because they were law, angering some of his right-wing base with negotiations and agreements he made with the Palestinians, such as the Wye River Memorandum.
When former US President Donald Trump came into office, the process nearly completely froze. Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Palestinian leadership cut ties with the White House in response.
“(Netanyahu) spent a lot of his time basically creating a situation where there is no solution,” Sachs said. “(He) created a situation where Israel and the West Bank are ever more entangled with one another, and the fundamental question of what borders Israel wants and what citizenry it wants, these are fundamental questions he leaves much more acute then when he came in.”
“The Israeli government has demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the occupied Palestinians territory,” Human Rights Watch said in a report in April. “That intent has been coupled with systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them. When these three elements occur together, they amount to the crime of apartheid.”
Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have vehemently denied the apartheid claim, with the Israeli Foreign Ministry calling Human Rights Watch’s report “fiction” with a “a long-standing anti-Israeli agenda.”
Three bloody conflicts with Hamas-led militants in Gaza since 2009 and an increasingly divided Palestinian political situation has only further cemented the status quo, Sachs said, although Netanyahu has otherwise kept Israel out of major military conflict.
“For 12 years he’s been prime minister of the major power in this conflict and he’s done exactly nothing to reshape it,” Sachs said. “On the contrary, he’s done a lot to maintain the current state of affairs … which is only getting worse.”
Instead Netanyahu has focused on historic normalization agreements with Arab countries like UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, deals that were quietly in the works for years but greatly facilitated by Trump.
Pfeffer said such peace deals show how Netanyahu shifted the paradigm in the region away from the idea that peace with the Palestinians must come before Israel could enjoy relations with other Arab nations.
“Israel hasn’t given anything else and despite it being under one of the most right-wing governments and having made no progress with Palestinians in so many years … Sudan, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco all signed agreements,” Pfeffer said.
For Netanyahu’s supporters, those deals showed bold action and new thinking, especially as a way to confront the threat of a nuclear Iran — a shared concern among many of these Arab countries and Israel.
Israel may have a population of less than 10 million, but its presence on the world stage has always loomed larger — ballooning even further under Netanyahu.
In his memoir, former President Barack Obama described Netanyahu as “smart, canny, tough and a gifted communicator,” who deployed his fluent English and deep knowledge of American politics to help sway policy in the US.
Netanyahu branded himself as the leader of the fight against anti-Semitism around the world and against a nuclear Iran as well as Tehran’s regional proxies, like Hezbollah.
Then came Trump, with a bromance that gave Netanyahu political gift after political gift, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and endorsing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu never publicly criticized Trump and touted their close relationship in giant billboards during his election campaigns, even unveiling a settlement named after Trump in the Golan Heights.
But his handling of the Palestinian issue, and his closeness to Trump and other populist leaders around the world, helped erode longstanding bipartisan support for Israel in the US, Sachs and Pfeffer said.
“Israel is more reviled on the American left than it has ever been,” Sachs said.
Beyond the United States, Netanyahu has tried to boost Israel’s diplomatic and economic ties in Latin America and Asia, while maintaining important strategic relationships with world powers like India and Russia.
“(Netanyahu) was very good in capitalizing on the geopolitical developments,” Pfeffer said, noting that “he did not invent populism.”
Though he may no longer be prime minister, Netanyahu’s political life is far from over. Friend or foe, many marvel at the 71-year-old’s seemingly boundless energy.
He’s expected to continue in parliament as a vocal opposition leader attempting to chip away at what will be a fragile government comprised of many disparate political parties who don’t seem to agree on much other than their opposition to Netanyahu.
If the new government fails, new elections would be called, giving Netanyahu a way back into the prime minister’s office.
But Pfeffer noted Netanyahu may have a big motivation to leave his parliament: money. Netanyahu still faces an ongoing corruption trial, one that is expected to last several costly years. By leaving parliament, Netanyahu could start charging hefty fees for speaking engagements and making money elsewhere while still wielding incredible influence over Israeli politics, but without the constraints of the rules of office.
“If you’re Bibi, you want to continue being the king in exile,” Pfeffer said. “But to be the king in exile, it might not be in the opposition.”
CNN’S Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.