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The Terror Master

Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Defeat Domestic and International Terrorists

by Benjamin Netanyahu
Farrar Straus and Giroux, 153 pp., $17.00


If direct elections for prime minister were held today, and the candidates were Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu, whom would you vote for?” This question was asked of a sample of 501 Israelis in early August. The answers were: Rabin, 41 percent; Netanyahu, 41 percent; undecided, 10 percent; do not intend to vote, 8 percent.1

The question itself is new in Israel. In the next elections, scheduled for the fall of 1996, the political system will have changed, and voters for the first time will directly elect the prime minister as well as the parliament. At the same time, in contrast to the American system, in Israel the prime minister will continue to be part of the parliament. The arrangement is unprecedented in Israel, and, so far as I know, anywhere else, and no one is certain whether it will work. Rabin and Netanyahu both support the idea of direct elections for prime minister. Each is sure it will work in his favor. Both cannot be right.

These recent polls are important not so much for what they say about future elections, as for what they tell us about current Israeli politics. And what they say about Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Israelis call Bibi, is that he could be the next Israeli prime minister. The polls have forced even people who refuse to take Bibi seriously as a person to take him seriously as a candidate.

The Oslo Accord that was signed in September 1993 by the PLO and the Israeli government stipulated that peace would be made in two stages. In the first, Israel was to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the town of Jericho in the West Bank, and a Palestinian Authority was to be set up in both places. While not all the provisions of the accord concerning this stage have been carried out, Israel has indeed withdrawn from Gaza and Jericho. Most of the details of the second stage have now been worked out, following an agreement on its basic outline reached on July 4. If this agreement is carried out, Israel’s security forces will withdraw from six towns of the West Bank, and free elections for the Palestinian Authority will be held.

When the Oslo Accord was signed on the White House lawn, it had widespread support from Israelis. Polls showed that 61 percent of those surveyed favored it, with only 31 percent opposed. But support for the accord, as well as for Rabin’s government, has eroded with the terrorist attacks by Hamas and Jihad. Even late in 1994, before the murderous suicide bombing on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv (Israel’s Broadway), which killed twenty-two bus passengers, 60 percent of Israelis expressed their support of the accord. But after a second suicide bombing, at the Beit Lid bus terminal some thirty miles north of Tel Aviv in January 1995, which killed twenty-two Israeli soldiers, support for the accord fell to 35 percent. Polls conducted in early February, showed 52 percent for Netanyahu, while only 38 percent favored Rabin.2 After a month in which the occupied territories were closed off, terrorist attacks were less frequent, and support for the accord increased once more, although it was not as strong as before.

The general pattern is clear: after every terrorist attack there is a vehement public reaction which is expressed in decreased support for Rabin and his government; but this reaction becomes weaker with time. The outcome of the next Israeli elections will depend largely on whether or not there will be successful terrorist attacks close to the time of the elections. Netanyahu’s future is thus heavily dependent on terror.

How much do the terrorist attacks actually hurt Israel? During the eighteen months between the Oslo Accord and March 1995, forty-nine civilians and twenty-two soldiers have been killed in such attacks in Israel, as defined by its pre-1967 borders. During the previous eighteen months, fourteen civilians and six soldiers were killed within the same borders. By contrast, 750 Israelis were killed in traffic accidents during the eighteen months before the accord, and approximately the same number in the eighteen months that followed. But very few Israelis are much concerned about the rate of traffic accidents, while many Israelis are haunted by terrorist attacks.

To some extent the intensity of Israelis’ obsession can be traced to the ferocious competition between the two main daily papers, Yediot Aharonot and Maariv, which together account for about 75 percent of the newspaper readers, and which devote many of their pages to each attack. Of course, the press and television did not create the public’s preoccupation with terror, but they have greatly magnified it.

Yet there is another, more rational side to the extreme reaction to terrorist attacks since the Oslo Accord. Most Israelis are not interested in the complex details of their government’s dealings with the Palestinians. For them the issues can be reduced to a single proposition: the Palestinians want independence and we want personal security. While the accord has brought the Palestinians closer to independence since it was signed, it has brought us less personal security, for terrorist attacks have increased. This view still prevails among Israelis, and, quite apart from Netanyahu’s personal qualifications to be prime minister, each terrorist attack works in his favor.

When it comes to the more personal reasons for Netanyahu’s success in becoming a serious candidate for prime minister, they can be formulated as a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis.

Thesis: Netanyahu is something like the hero of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There. His main advantage is, simply, that he is the official head of the Likud, and therefore the only alternative to Rabin. No matter who led the Likud, the outcome would not be dramatically different. On this view, Netanyahu has not become more popular than Rabin. According to a poll assessing Rabin’s and Netanyahu’s particular abilities, Rabin is seen as superior to Netanyahu in every respect: in persuasive ability, 42 percent to 28 percent thought Rabin superior. In personal integrity, 43 percent to 26 percent. In assessing stamina under pressure, 41 percent favored Rabin, 34 percent Netanyahu.3 Since the same poll also shows they would divide the popular vote equally, it must express decreased support for Rabin’s policies, not a preference for Netanyahu as a person.

Antithesis: Bibi Netanyahu is a one-man anti-terrorist unit, a sort of Israeli Rambo. If the next prime minister of Israel is elected mainly on the terrorism issue, that is itself a sign of Netanyahu’s success. While he was still in the army, Netanyahu became identified in several ways with the war against terror. He was himself a fighter in an elite unit (the unit that rescued the hostages from the Sabena aircraft hijacking in May 1972, in which he took an active part). He is also the brother of Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu, who was killed commanding the inspiring rescue of the Entebbe hostages on July 4, 1976. Bibi has set up the Jonathan Institute in his honor to mobilize public opinion in the West against terrorism.

Synthesis: The thesis is correct. Netanyahu is not perceived in Israel as having anything particularly interesting or authoritative to say about terror, or anything else. Even his service in an elite unit in the army is marginal to his success and certainly does not make him an authority on security. But although there is no direct connection between his career as an opponent of terror and his political career in Israel, there is an indirect link. Netanyahu is successful in Israel because he is perceived as successful. He is famous for having been famous, not for any special traits of character or achievement. And his image as a success, which led Likud voters to elect him as head of their party and as the person most likely to return the Likud to power, is a United States import. As a diplomat in Washington and as Israeli ambassador to the UN during the 1980s, he built a successful career in the US as a regular and articulate participant in talk shows, much sought after because of his reputation as a leading expert in “the war against terror.”

The synthesis is close to the truth, while the Rambo antithesis is far from it. But it is clear that Netanyahu sees himself mainly as a leader in the anti-terrorist cause, and so his record in opposing terrorism should help us to understand him better.


When Bibi was drafted into the Israeli army in August 1967, he joined a prestigious elite unit involved with secret intelligence operations and guerrilla warfare. At the end of five years of service he had reached the rank of captain. In Israel, being an officer in that unit is an impressive achievement, and Bibi was considered a good officer, although not a brilliant one. Rabin has just appointed as Minister of the Interior Ehud Barak, the former army chief of staff who had been Bibi’s superior, and the brilliant commander of his unit. Rabin may have decided to appoint Barak in order to diminish Bibi’s image, for, as a man of action, Bibi, who greatly admires his former commanding officer, can only suffer by comparison.

At any rate, Netanyahu’s decision to concentrate his public statements on the war against terror—on micro-security rather than macro-security, one might say—was politically astute. He is well aware that to be recognized as a military expert on the macro level in Israel one must be an army general. For example, Rabin, who was chief of staff at the time of Israel’s greatest victory in the Six Day War, is known as “Mr. Security.” But to have been an officer in a highly praised commando unit is to be a certified expert in micro-security. Since in Israel the issue of security is still central to politics, to have experience in security matters is a great advantage for anyone who aspires to be a national leader. In Bibi’s case, he and his younger brother, Iddo, did much to make the eldest brother, Yoni, into a heroic national symbol of the fight against terror.

The three Netanyahu brothers—Yoni, Bibi, and Iddo—all served in the same elite force, called “the Unit” by its members. Bibi brought Yoni into the Unit after Yoni had finished his army service as an officer in the Paratroopers, and had just entered Harvard. Yoni, whom I knew and liked, was a fighter possessed of a rare courage under fire. No one doubts that Bibi had deep feelings about Yoni, but these feelings went beyond the intimate sphere of the family. In publishing his brother’s personal letters, setting up an institute in his name, and publicizing his story, Bibi made Yoni’s experience into a national saga. He had an excellent starting point: Yoni was the only person killed in an anti-terrorist operation whose purpose was the rescue of hostages.

  1. 1

    Yediot Aharonot, daily newspaper, August 11, 1995. The poll was conducted by Dr. Mina Zemach, the most reliable of Israel’s pollsters. The maximum sample error was 4 percent.

  2. 2

    Yediot Aharonot, February 3, 1995. This poll, too, was conducted by Dr. Mina Zemach.

  3. 3

    Israel television, Channel One, June 20, 1995. This poll as well was conducted by Dr. Zemach.

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