“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 While not all the provisions of the accord concerning this stage have been carried out, Israel has indeed withdrawn from Gaza and Jericho.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.
The third aspect of Netanyahu’s fight against terror—his position as the leading ideologue of this struggle—is even more important than his record as a commando fighter or as creator of a symbol. One of the people “educated” by Netanyahu’s Jonathan Institute was Ronald Reagan. The institute organized two conferences on terrorism, one in 1979 and one in 1985. Netanyahu edited the proceedings of the 1985 conference, which appeared under the title Terrorism and How the West Can Win,4 and included two essays by Netanyahu himself on the need to oppose terror. In his own book published in 1993, Netanyahu claims that Reagan read excerpts from the conference record which appeared in Time magazine—and shortly afterward the Americans attacked Libya.
Netanyahu does not conceal his pride that the Arab press blamed him for the attack. The irony is that the attack on Qaddafi’s house, in which his wife was injured and his adopted child killed, was a typical act of terrorism according to the definition Netanyahu gives in the book:
Terrorism is the deliberate and systematic assault on civilians to inspire fear for political ends.
No less ironic is the fact that Netanyahu is now head of a party formerly headed by Begin and Shamir, who both ran organizations that clearly were terrorist by his definition. This is not to say that his definition of terrorism is a bad one. The problem is that it does not cover everything that Israelis, and particularly Bibi himself, call “terror.” It does not, for example, describe the acts of the construction worker from Hebron who came to my neighborhood in October of 1991 and, while shouting “Allahu Akhbar,” slaughtered three people near my house. This man had no apparent political motives; he simply wanted revenge for an incident on the Temple Mount in which Israeli border police shot seventeen Palestinians. Yet Israelis consider this an act of terror.
Terror, according to Netanyahu, is a matter of harming the innocent. He is right. The problem is that identifying the innocent is a highly contestable matter. My son had left the soldiers’ bus terminal at Beit Lid just two minutes before a Hamas suicide bomber blew himself up there. He and his young paratrooper friends had been returning to the army after a few days of home leave. To me, no one could be more innocent. Nevertheless, I can see how the suicide bomber and those who sent him believed that they were killing fighters who were not innocent.
It is interesting that it was the Islamic terrorist organizations, rather than the secular ones, which for some years restricted the targets of their attacks to soldiers, in order, they said, to avoid harming civilians. Only after Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Muslims at prayer in the mosque in the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994 did Hamas announce that, in spite of its general policy against such measures, it would take revenge in five separate acts and would not confine them to soldiers.
The political aims of the Islamic terrorist attacks are not always clear. In some cases, the suicide bombers may not have specific aims at all—they may view their acts just as a supreme manifestation of religious sacrificial devotion. Hamas as an organization, however, does have a definite political goal—the creation of an Islamic society that will not be corrupt and will be guided by Islamic law (the Sharia). The terrorist actions are meant to show that Hamas has not abandoned the struggle against Israel in order to establish a different kind of Palestinian society—as opposed to Arafat and his Fatah organization, who are portrayed as corrupt collaborators with Israel. Islamic terrorism is intended more to impress the Palestinians than to accomplish a particular political result, at least so far as Israel is concerned. Terror against Israel is the vehicle for Hamas’s struggle to determine the character of Palestinian society.
My use of the word “terror,” however, is different from Netanyahu’s. In a struggle that is at least partly ideological, terror occurs when the weak group uses violence against the strong one, and does so in circumstances other than battlefield conditions. When the strong group uses violence against the weak one, it is repression. Here a comparison of deaths caused respectively by Palestinian terror and Israeli repression is telling. Between the beginning of the intifada in December 1987 and the end of July 1995, Palestinian terror killed 297 Israelis, whereas during the same period 1,418 Palestinians died as the result of Israeli repression, including 260 people under the age of sixteen.
In Netanyahu’s view, terror is not what weak groups do to strong ones, but what dictatorships do to democracies. He considers Islamic terror the instrument of a sort of Islamic Comintern whose center is the Teheran dictatorship. In the past he saw the PLO terrorists as a branch of international Communism; now he sees them as an arm of international Islam.
But as Olivier Roy recently argued in his instructive book The Failure of Political Islam,5 there is no Islamic Comintern, no authoritarian center that determines global strategies for Islam and uses its obedient branches to further these aims. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two radical Islamic movements in the occupied territories, are only weakly connected to outside organizations. And according to a poll of Palestinian public opinion, Hamas is supported by only 18 percent of Palestinians, and the Jihad by 4 percent.6
The results of such surveys are hardly reflected in Netanyahu’s views. He is essentially a cold war ideologue, and this in large part accounts for his tendency to turn the Israel–Arab conflict into a struggle against international Islam. When the Soviet Union still existed, Netanyahu as a diplomat in Washington argued that Israel was a strategic Middle Eastern asset in the struggle against world communism and its terrorist offshoots. Now he agrees that it is an asset to the West on the front line of the war against international Islam.
Indeed, following the Oklahoma bombing and the sarin gas attack in Japan, Bibi feels that terror has again become a problem of immense urgency. “Terrorism is back—with a vengeance,” is the opening line of his new book. Fighting Terrorism.
“Admittedly,” he writes, “the modus operandi of this new wave of terrorism is usually different from that of the earlier terrorism that afflicted the world for two decades beginning in the 1960s.” By a change in the mode of operation, he means that both hostage-taking and hijacking have become rare, while bombing has become more precisely targeted.
The new wave of terrorism Netanyahu refers to is mainly homemade terrorism with no international backing. It calls into question the picture of terror he gives in his previous book as a product of grand international conspiracies, promoted by totalitarian regimes, to undermine “the West” by manipulating internal terrorist groups. With the end of the Soviet Union, however, Netanyahu finds that terrorist domestic groups are also totalitarian, implying that such groups as the Idaho militias today practice a totalitarianism more or less comparable to that of the USSR. Terror has changed mainly in its modus operandi.
However, the horrifying events in Oklahoma City and in Tokyo suggest again the inadequacy of the definition of terror that Netanyahu repeats in his new book: “Terrorism is a deliberate and systematic assault on civilians to inspire fear for political ends” (author’s italics). What is particularly maddening about the acts of terror in Oklahoma and Japan, as well as in other places, is that they lack clearly defined political ends. They belong to what one might call expressive politics rather than to instrumental politics. They give vent to rage against state power and to feelings of revenge (for the “victims of Waco”) or else they are extreme manifestations of religious devotion. One goal, however, is shared by more than a few terrorist groups, particularly in the Middle East: that of freeing their members from jail. For many groups this becomes an end in itself.
There is a conspicuous omission in Netanyahu’s books on terror. He makes no estimates of the actual casualties of terrorism throughout the world. In fact, the number worldwide is smaller than the total number of traffic accidents in Israel during the last few years. The effects are terrible, and inexcusable, but they do not pose a major world problem, or even a major problem for “the West.” (See chart on opposite page). They remain, however, a problem for Israel, where more acts of terror are expected from Hamas.
Still, what Bibi thinks about Hamas will not affect his own chances in the upcoming elections. What will matter is what Hamas thinks about Bibi. The Hamas leadership wants to sabotage the accord between Rabin and Arafat, and Netanyahu wants to annul it. If he comes to power in the next election, that will mean the end of the Oslo agreements. Precisely this fact led Rabin to announce, “Bibi Netanyahu is a Hamas collaborator…. Hamas and the Likud have the same political goal.”
But Hamas also has to take into account the public mood among the Palestinians, who are afraid of a new Likud government. In a poll conducted among the Palestinians in the territories, 73 percent responded that the Likud has bad intentions toward them, and, even more important, 57 percent of those who said that they trusted Hamas also said that they wanted the talks with Israel to continue in order to expand Palestinian autonomy to the entire West Bank. The Hamas leaders likely fear that the Palestinians will blame them for helping Netanyahu come to power; and this may prevent the organization from carrying out terrorist acts before the Israeli elections. I say “may” because while the Hamas political leaders seem to be capable of understanding this, I’m not sure that the terrorist squads themselves share their view.
Hezbollah (“the party of God”) is the radical Shiite group that wants to establish an Iranian-style Islamic regime in Lebanon and is currently fighting a war with Israel in South Lebanon. When Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon in 1985 it kept a strip of South Lebanon, called the “security zone,” in which it maintains troops and strongholds in order to keep the guerrilla forces away from its northern border. The continual war between Israel and Hezbollah in this zone is not terror, in my view, because it takes place under battlefield conditions. Still, Hezbollah fits more closely than Hamas Netanyahu’s image of an Islamic group dependent on Iran. There are close religious ties between Shiite Hezbollah and Shiite Iran—Hezbollah’s religious leaders studied in Iran—whereas Hamas is a Sunni Muslim organization. Iran clearly supports Hezbollah with money and arms. But in the last analysis, even though Hezbollah is influenced and aided by Iran, the Iranians do not run it.
The war in South Lebanon has been very costly for Israel. The new commander who was recently put in charge of the front there—General Amiram Levin, who was Bibi’s commanding officer in the Unit—has changed Israel’s strategy, taking the initiative and chasing the Hezbollah squads northward, past the border of the security zone. Levin, who is perhaps the best field commander in Israel today, has had a number of impressive successes in South Lebanon. Yet it is clear—and no one knows this better than Rabin—that the war there can have no military solution. Rabin rightly believes that a peace agreement with Syria is the only solution. Lebanon has long been a Syrian protectorate, and Lebanese Hezbollah still serves Syrian interests. But if there is a peace accord between Syria and Lebanon in which Israel officially recognizes Syria’s “special status” in Lebanon as part of a general agreement, then, as Peter Partner recently wrote in these pages, Syria will be able to eliminate, or at least severely curtail, Hezbollah’s activity against Israel.7
In June of this year it looked as if Assad and Rabin were on the verge of reaching an accord. Things look less hopeful now. While the timetable of Rabin and Assad is uncertain, the basic provisions of the accord are clear. The accord will roughly duplicate the one between Israel and Egypt, an accord stipulating Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the Six Day War, which means the Golan Heights. Israel is holding out for withdrawal to the internationally recognized border, while Syria is insisting on Israeli withdrawal to the 1948 cease-fire line. Between the two lines, there is a difference of some 15,000 acres. Immediately after the agreement is signed a process of “normalization” is to begin, including the exchange of ambassadors, while the withdrawal itself will take place three years later. The security arrangements, including the demilitarization of the Golan, have not been agreed on; nor have many other details of the accord. But the direction in which the talks are heading seems clear.
The right wing headed by Netanyahu is bitterly opposed to what it has heard of the treaty. It accuses Rabin of deceiving the voters who elected him, since Rabin, campaigning before the last elections, said that the country would never withdraw from the Golan, not even for peace. Rabin changed his position, but there is plenty of precedent for his doing so. Many important steps in world politics have been taken by conservative leaders who, in the name of the reality principle, “betrayed” the voters who elected them: De Klerk in South Africa, De Gaulle in Algeria, Nixon in China, Begin with the Camp David Agreement, and now perhaps Rabin.
Rabin has promised to hold a referendum on any accord with Syria, a move without precedent in Israel. He believes that he will be able to get popular approval when the details of the accord, particularly the security arrangements, are worked out. He needs the support of only 40 percent of the Jewish voters, since the Israeli Arabs will obviously support the accord, and they make up 14 percent of the voters. Reports by Israeli intelligence have convinced Rabin that Assad has changed his strategic approach to Israel and now really wants a deal.
An accord with Syria would mean neutralizing the last front where an army with an offensive capacity still poses a military threat to Israel. Peace with Syria would consolidate the peace achieved with Egypt and Jordan and dramatically reduce the chances of future wars. Rabin wants to conclude the agreement while Israel still holds a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. He is afraid of an alliance between Syria and Iran that would accelerate the nuclear arms race with Israel, a race in which Syria might get aid from Pakistan. Having lost the support of the Soviet Union, Syria, if the conflict with Israel continues, would be likely to try to acquire nuclear weapons with the help of Iran. A peace accord should reduce the pressures on Syria to form an alliance with Iran.
Such are the considerations that are apparently central for Rabin. But all this is high strategy. Most Israelis have a more concrete sense of the Golan: they see it as a plateau from which the Israelis living in the valley below are an easy target. In other words, as in old westerns, they tend to see the bad guys sitting in ambush at the top of the canyon and shooting at the good guys below. Netanyahu makes the most of this image, especially when talking to American Jewish activists visiting Israel.
There are other reasons for Israel’s not wanting to give up the Golan. Its Jewish settlements are flourishing, and the Golan is a popular place to visit for both Israelis and foreign tourists. Moreover, Israelis see it as very different from the West Bank, because they think of it as free of Arabs. This is not exactly the case: there are more Druse, who are still Syrian citizens, than Israelis on the Golan—17,000 as opposed to 13,000. The Golan, moreover, has been quiet since the 1973 war; since many Israelis believe that Syria could not mount an attack without support from the Soviet Union, they can’t see any reason to give up the Golan.
Of all the arguments against an accord with Syria, the one that disturbs me most is the claim that the Syrians cannot use military force against Israel. All of Israel’s wars began with a situation in which the Arabs were assumed to have “no military option.” In 1967 it was said that Nasser was deeply involved in a war with Yemen and could not afford to start a war with Israel. But then it turned out that Nasser’s way of getting out of Yemen was precisely by opening up a front with Israel. When Nasser was defeated in that war, we were told that it would be many years before he could rebuild his army, and so he would not again resort to military force. But Nasser didn’t wait for years—he immediately began a war of attrition with Israel. In 1973 it was said that Egypt and Syria had no military option because Israel’s military superiority was so great that they wouldn’t dare start a war. The worst war of all then broke out on both fronts. Peace with Syria will not mean the end of the conflict with the Palestinians or the end of terrorism; but it could well mean an end to any military threat against Israel, and this is what Rabin cares about.
If the Israeli-Syrian accord is concluded just before the next Israeli elections, the referendum will probably not be held. The elections, which would center on the accord with Syria, would then take the place of the referendum.
Netanyahu’s views on the great questions of “war and peace” appeared in his A Place Among the Nations, published in English in 1993, which appeared in Israel as A Place in the Sun. The journalist Rami Rosen, who helped the Israeli publisher edit the book, introduced sections of it in the daily Yediot Aharonot, saying
More than any other senior politician in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of shallowness and superficiality. Precisely the person who studied at the best universities in the world—Harvard and MIT—is often presented as someone who may be capable of transmitting messages efficiently but simply has nothing to say. Netanyahu’s book…should explode this myth.
(Rosen also observed that when Netanyahu quotes Kant he has actually read him, and that, moreover, it was Bibi himself who wrote his own book and no one else.)
Netanyahu’s book has two main themes: the right of Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the way to achieve “real peace” with the Arabs. While Netanyahu may indeed have written the book himself, the presence of his father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu, makes itself felt everywhere in its early pages. The elder Netanyahu, a historian specializing in medieval Spanish Jewry, has long been an advocate of Revisionist Zionism, which demands the establishment “in blood and fire” of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River. In the 1930s Benzion Netanyahu was the editor of the Revisionist newspaper Jordan in Palestine.
Bibi’s account of the British Mandate reproduces a version of the Revisionist Zionism of the elder Netanyahu’s generation. In his version, any eccentric, romantic, minor British officer who had read the Bible and saw the Jews as the children of Israel had clearly seen the light, while British officers who had studied Arabic at Oxford and were attracted to the desert tribes were seen as benighted, anti-Semitic “Arabists.” Bibi’s book has many strange quotations from both types of officers, as if there were some great truth buried in the writings of these imperial eccentrics.
But the young Netanyahu’s book has a mission—to establish Israel’s absolute claim to the occupied territories. I take very seriously the missionary history in his book. Bibi is not superficial in the sense of a salesman who lacks real convictions. He is the product of one of the true believers of Shamir’s generation—in the ideological as well as the biological sense. Like his father, he is ferociously committed to a Greater Israel. His arguments are no different from Shamir’s, but while Shamir appeared to Americans like the leader of a Balkan peasant party, Bibi seems more like an American politician, a smooth Republican senator, perhaps. His message, like Shamir’s, is simply “not one inch,” and it would be a mistake to see either of them as a tough negotiator trying to extract a better price from the Arabs in the Middle Eastern bazaar. Like Shamir, Netanyahu is not interested in negotiating but in playing for time. The difference between him and Shamir lies elsewhere. Bibi is at home in the world of television studios, and he especially loves Hasbara.
The term Hasbara has no equivalent in English, but it partly overlaps with several similar words: “propaganda,” “preaching,” “indoctrination,” “apologetics,” “rhetoric,” and even “self-righteousness.” The literal meaning of the word is “explanation.” and it is the specialty of Israel’s professional emissaries and publicists. At whom is the “explanation” directed? The intended audiences are not neatly divided into gentiles and Jews, as one might think. The Hasbara mainly meant for Western audiences is addressed just as much to Diaspora Jews who need to be supported in their belief that Israel has always been right as against the “hypocritical” and “perverse” liberal, leftist arguments made by Arab-loving, self-hating Jews. The assumption of Hasbara is that these liberal leftists are now as dangerous to Israel as the medieval Jewish apostates who once made use of their inside knowledge of the Talmud to attack the Jewish religion.
A Place Among the Nations is a work of Hasbara par excellence. In fact it is more than that—it is a work of meta-Hasbara, a book of indoctrination for the would-be indoctrinator. In 1981 Moshe Arens, who was then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, appointed Benjamin Netanyahu to be his deputy at the embassy. And in 1984 Netanyahu was appointed Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. In both jobs Netanyahu was considered a great success, a master of the art of Hasbara, especially among he organized American Jewish community. The trouble is that Netanyahu confuses Hasbara with policy, and one sometimes gets the impression that he has no idea of the difference between the two.
What is Netanyahu’s policy toward the Palestinians? “We’ll tell the Palestinians,” he says, “‘Forget about a state.”‘ He wants the security zones, the borders, and foreign relations all to remain under Israel’s control. Gaza will be closed off and surrounded by a security fence. The Israeli army will retain the right to take what action it wants in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. The Jewish settlements will remain and even be extended. Bibi’s plan is clear: it is to freeze the present situation.
“It’s a joke,” Rabin remarked. “He proposes perpetuating the present situation in the territories and he calls it a plan.” Rabin also mocked the plan as “Bibi’s second videotape.”
The first videotape has come to haunt Bibi no less than the charge of shallowness. On the evening of January 14, 1994, Israel’s television audience was treated to the sight of Bibi describing how some unknown person had attempted to blackmail his wife, Sara, over the telephone. The blackmailer had threatened to make public a videotape containing graphic material about Bibi’s intimate relationship with another woman unless he abandoned his candidacy for the leadership of the Likud. Bibi admitted that he had had a brief affair, adding, “I know who is behind this ugly scandal—one man, surrounded by a gang of criminals, a senior person in the Likud.”
It was obvious whom Bibi meant: his rival for the leadership of the Likud, David Levi. As it turned out, however, Bibi’s accusation was baseless. No such videotape had ever existed. Yet he tried to link the embarrassing story about a tape with his war against terror.
“A crime unprecedented in the history of democracy has been committed,” he declared. “The threat of blackmail has been used in an attempt to prevent a candidate from running for party chairman. When you are faced with blackmail of this sort, when they put a gun to your head, you have two choices: you can run away and hide, or you can go out and stand up for yourself. I do not run away and I do not hide.”
Levi is a man of honor. He never forgave Netanyahu for this false charge; and, most important, he never accepted Bibi’s leadership of the Likud. Bibi, in effect, forced Levi to leave the party, saying that he opposed him as part of his war against blackmail. On June 18, 1995, Levi announced that he would run for prime minister as the head of a new party.
Levi comes from a development town of Moroccan immigrants who arrived during the 1950s. For such people, the Likud has always been a home more than a party. Levi’s career was a Likud success story. It is hard to assess the significance of his departure for the Likud generally and for Bibi’s chances in particular. According to the polls, Levi, running as an independent, could win five Knesset seats out of 120 for his own party, mostly at the expense of the Likud. But Levi’s departure has badly shaken the automatic sense of belonging and identification that Jews of Oriental origin have long felt toward the Likud. The affair of the “tape,” especially Netanyahu’s public admission of marital infidelity, may also hurt his chances among religious voters, even though they are now the most right-wing group in Israel. An admission of this sort is not easily glossed over in the religious community. So the tape that never was has its own existence after all.
Meanwhile David Levi has been raising issues that both parties have so far swept under the carpet, particularly concerning the fast pace of privatization of the state’s economic and social agencies, which is the main social process taking place in Israel today. For many years, the Israeli public sector—the government, the Histadrut trade-union confederation, and the Jewish Agency—made up more than 50 percent of the country’s economy. Today government-owned corporations are being sold, and schools, broadcast stations, and cultural activities are also rapidly being privatized. Privatization is considered a form of “Americanization” among Israelis, and the American-style Bibi is considered part of this process, which includes the much publicized opening of McDonald’s hamburger restaurants in Israel.
Bibi himself has nothing to do with McDonald’s. He claims to prefer yogurt; but he is seen as having introduced American-style campaigning into Israeli politics. When Benny Begin, another rival for the leadership of the Likud, was interviewed on the radio during the campaign for the Likud primaries, the interviewer asked him what he had for breakfast. “Netanyahu said he had a yogurt. What did you eat?” she asked.
“That’s exactly what the primaries are doing to the Likud,” replied Begin. “Yogurtization. The primaries have made the Likud superficial. I am against this Americanization”—by which he meant that the emphasis on the private lives and habits of leaders was trivializing Israeli politics.
Netanyahu’s problem from now until the elections is how to remain “superficial” and avoid mistakes, such as making serious statements and thus becoming vulnerable. He has not so far avoided mistakes. In one instance, he saved Rabin’s government from the colossal folly of annexing 140 acres of land belonging to Jerusalem Arabs, a plan that had led to a gratuitous conflict with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. Netanyahu tried to bring down the government through a vote of no-confidence in which he would have been joined by the Arab parties, who were naturally against the annexation. This gave Rabin and Peres a chance to give up the annexation plan and accuse Netanyahu of disloyalty to Jerusalem.
In the last analysis, however, it is not Netanyahu’s mistakes that will prevent him from coming to power. The Hamas military units (Izz el Din al Qassam) have only a few dozen fighters, but they, more than anyone else, will determine who will be the next prime minister of Israel.
Postscript: On August 21, in a suicide attack on a Jerusalem bus, a terrorist blew himself up, killing four Israelis and wounding several dozen. A spokesman for Hamas in Damascus took responsibility for the attack, proclaiming that “the five battalions” of the Izz el Din al Qassam are “stronger than what the crazy old Rabin imagines.” As of now, therefore, Hamas seems ready to act in ways that favor Netanyahu in the next Israeli election.
—September 7, 1995
October 5, 1995
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. ↩
Yediot Aharonot, February 3, 1995. This poll, too, was conducted by Dr. Mina Zemach. ↩
Israel television, Channel One, June 20, 1995. This poll as well was conducted by Dr. Zemach. ↩
Avon, 1986. ↩
Harvard University Press, 1994. ↩
This poll was conducted in June 1995 by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Fourteen hundred adults were interviewed. ↩
“The Rebirth of Beirut,” The New York Review, June 22, 1995, p. 38. ↩