Perhaps it’s now impossible to read any political biography without thinking of Donald Trump. The forty-fifth president of the United States looms so large in the global imagination that the impulse to measure all other politicians against him has become almost involuntary. But in the case of Benjamin Netanyahu, the grounds for comparison are stronger than most.
Anshel Pfeffer, a prolific correspondent for both Ha’aretz and The Economist, has written a detailed, revealing, and shrewd biography of Netanyahu that is packed with fascinating insights, yet the word many readers might find themselves mentally scribbling in the margins repeatedly is “Trump.” Pfeffer describes a man raised in elite institutions but nevertheless consumed by hatred of an elite from which he feels permanently excluded; a politician who built his brand through his mastery of television, with a knack for the newsworthy phrase, yet who sees the media as a sworn enemy, convinced that TV and the press have hindered his progress to high office when in fact they have smoothed it. We see a man mired in corruption allegations, watching as his aides flip to assist dogged state investigators, but who nonetheless retains the adulation of his base.
We are told that at
rallies organized by his supporters, he launched into long rants against the “leftist fake news media” he said were behind the “unprecedented witch hunt” against him and his family. He made long lists of his achievements, punctuated with the refrain, “That, they don’t report!”
Pfeffer is describing Netanyahu, but it could just as easily be Trump. Earlier, we see Netanyahu interviewing the unnamed N, a prospective new head of the Mossad. The prime minister asks an odd question: “‘Will you be loyal to me?’ N answered that he would do everything necessary to protect the state. ‘I’ll get back to you,’ said Netanyahu.” Change the names, and that exchange—with its demand for personal rather than institutional fealty—could have been lifted verbatim from the memoir of James Comey, the FBI director sacked by Trump.
The parallels verge on the uncanny. Netanyahu has trouble keeping his staff; the churn rate is impossibly high. He attacks his opponents with wholly bogus, invented charges. (In the 1996 election, for example, he claimed without evidence that Shimon Peres was planning to divide Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians.) In 1999, in a move that might resonate with Rex Tillerson, who learned he had been fired via a Trump tweet, Netanyahu fired his defense minister on live TV.
Once Trump entered the White House, Netanyahu wasted no time in making the connection explicit. Keen to ingratiate himself, he tweeted: “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.” His third wife, Sara, is similarly brazen. When Trump and his third wife, Melania, came to visit, Sara embraced them with the words, “We’re just like you. The media hate us but the people love us.”
Pfeffer writes, “Both men are fundamentally insecure, lacking in introspection, and have an uncanny ability to sense their rivals’ weak spots and sniff out their voters’ inner fears.” They both have a knack for “stirring up resentment and divisions between parts of the electorate.” And for both, those divisions are often crudely ethnic.
Bibi might be flattered to be considered the Israeli Trump, but it’s probably more accurate to see Trump as the American Bibi. Netanyahu has been at this game for much longer, first leading his country two decades ago when Trump was still Page Six fodder. Indeed, it’s plausible to see Netanyahu as a trailblazer for a trend in politics that is now accelerating across the democratic world but that was visible in Israel years ago. He was a populist would-be strongman before it was fashionable, exploiting nationalist fear and resentment and railing against the liberal elites before most of us had heard of Viktor Orbán, Narendra Modi, or indeed Donald Trump.
But there is much more to Netanyahu than a mere echo of the man in the White House. Even his enemies concede that Bibi is a more substantial figure than that, and not only because he has governed his country for so long. He has a coherent worldview, one that has crowded out all others in Israel but that also has shaped much thinking beyond, especially in the United States. Not least through his inaction, he shares responsibility for the current dire state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If he remains in office until July 2019, he will overtake David Ben-Gurion’s record of days in the prime ministerial chair: he’s already occupied it for twelve of the last twenty-two years. This period—defined by relative affluence and improved security for Israelis, unending occupation for Palestinians, and paralysis in the conflict between them—has been the age of Bibi.
For the armchair psychologist, it has long been tempting to see Benjamin Netanyahu as ruled by a triangle of influences: his father, Benzion, a severe, forbidding scholar raised in the hard-line Revisionist camp of Zionism; his late brother, Yoni, commando and slain hero of Entebbe; and his wife Sara, the notorious Lady Macbeth figure of Israeli tabloid caricature, whose taste for expensive living and short temper, along with her apparent veto over personnel decisions, have aroused constant, if not feverish, interest. Pfeffer adds flesh to all three of those narratives, but also nuance. What emerges is a far subtler, more complex picture than the amateur Freudians might have assumed.
The book does not dwell too long on Sara Netanyahu, reminding us that it was she who chased her husband in their courtship, the then twenty-nine-year-old El Al flight attendant identifying the rising star diplomat-turned-politician as a catch. It retells the story of the “hot tape,” when Sara was called at home during Bibi’s first bid for the Likud leadership in 1993 and was told that a recording existed of her husband having sex with another woman: if he didn’t withdraw from the campaign, the tape would be released.
In a move that echoes Alexander Hamilton’s Reynolds Pamphlet, Bibi sought to preempt the scandal by going on television—where else?—and telling his version first. The subsequent police investigation never did find a tape, but Netanyahu was left embarrassed, while his wife was given enormous leverage. Pfeffer writes, “Despite her anger, Sara was prepared to remain in the marriage, on her terms.” Their lawyers met and reached an accord. There’s no proof that a written contract was signed, but
the facts remain that from the last weeks of the primary campaign to this day, Sara has accompanied Bibi on nearly all his major public engagements, and especially his foreign trips, with the exception of military- and security-related events. She has had full access to his schedule and has vetted the appointments of members of his staff.
From then on, we hear of important advisers, and advice, excluded from Bibi’s circle because of a perceived slight to Mrs. Netanyahu. Her influence is undeniable. But Pfeffer supplies two important caveats. First, though it might be convenient to cast Sara, already renowned for her grasping appetites and indicted on June 21 for systematic fraud involving catering expenses, as responsible for Netanyahu’s drift toward the billionaire class—gladly enjoying the largesse of Israeli and foreign tycoons, generosity that has led to some of the current corruption allegations against the PM—the evidence suggests he was quite capable of making those mistakes all by himself. Representing Israel in Washington and at the UN in New York in the 1980s, before he had even met Sara, “he had acquired a taste for good living, for being chauffeured and eating in fine restaurants, where someone else picked up the tab.”
Second, and perhaps more surprisingly, Pfeffer refuses to let Bibi off the hook by depicting him as the bullied victim of his wife. He writes that “the self-centered Netanyahu, who rarely acknowledges those around him, not only has borne Sara’s constant presence with complete grace, indulging her every whim, but has seemed truly devoted to her.”
That myth-busting effort is more pronounced, and more profound, when it comes to the second point of the triangle: Bibi’s older brother, Yonatan, or Yoni. The official narrative is that Yoni was an unambiguous war hero, not only a patriot who laid down his life leading the mission to rescue Israeli hostages herded by Palestinian and German hijackers into a disused terminal building at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976, but also a thoughtful, passionate leader of men whose posthumously published letters home would become compulsory reading for impressionable Jewish teenagers everywhere. The Netanyahu family certainly worked hard to tell that story, funding conferences and biographies that would amplify and entrench the legend of, as Pfeffer puts it, “a warrior-philosopher and leader-in-waiting.”
It was a story that helped launch Bibi, both directly and indirectly. Directly, in that he became an in-demand speaker and TV guest, a human link to the valor and glamour of Entebbe. But indirectly too, in that Bibi seemed to be the reluctant bearer of a torch passed to him by fate. Just as it was John F. Kennedy’s war-hero older brother, Joe Jr., who was meant to be president, so Yoni could be seen in retrospect as the man who had been destined to lead—a storyline that cast Bibi as JFK.
In Israel it has been known for some time that the truth is not quite so simple. Still, for many readers, it will come as news to learn that Yoni was not the primary planner of the Entebbe operation; that he missed some of the essential preparations; and that his own comrades believed he made crucial misjudgments on the night of the rescue that both cost him his life and endangered the mission.
Nor is it sufficient to follow the pop-psychology view of the hawkish Bibi as somehow striving to match the heroism of his brother and determined to compensate for his own lack of comparable glory. For one thing, Pfeffer shows that Bibi had a distinguished military record in his own right. He served in the same elite special forces unit, the Sayeret Matkal, as his brother. Indeed, he too took part in—and took a bullet during—a successful hostage rescue operation, under the command of future prime minister and rival Ehud Barak. If anything, what’s striking is how little Bibi makes of his own military résumé: had he been a US politician, it would surely have formed the core of his public persona.
This relative modesty of Bibi’s might be a function of the Israeli context, where among top-rank politicians a stellar past in uniform is the rule rather than the exception. He could hardly have shown off his medals during the 1999 campaign, given that his opponent, Barak, was a former Chief of General Staff and jointly the most decorated Israeli soldier ever.
The notion of Bibi as a would-be tough guy seeking to be as fearless in the PM’s chair as his brother was on that Ugandan airfield falls at a more basic hurdle. No one would ever mistake Netanyahu for a peacenik, but he has been consistently risk-averse. His rhetoric is bellicose, but Pfeffer tells us that “he is the prime minister with the lowest casualty rates in Israel’s history.” He launched the Operation Protective Edge military offensive in Gaza in 2014, but even then the author depicts him as the voice of relative caution and restraint around the decision-makers’ table, keen to avoid pushing further or deeper. As for the all-out wars that have punctuated Israel’s seventy years, Netanyahu has not yet launched one. Similarly, and this will surprise those for whom Bibi has long been an object of hate, he is the settlers’ friend but not much of a builder. We learn that “during his tenure, fewer new settler homes were built in an average year in the West Bank than under any of his predecessors in the past three decades.”
Which brings us to the apex of the triangle: Benzion Netanyahu. Some of the most vivid material in the book comes in the early chapters, which begin with the lives of Bibi’s father and grandfather, a rabbi born in what is now Belarus. (The protagonist himself is not born until page 48.) This background is worth dwelling on, for it turns out that Bibi is a third-generation unbending Zionist with deep ties to the United States: both his father and grandfather were full-time advocates for their cause and, like him, dispatched to the US to make the case for a Jewish homeland. All three had experience pressing US Jews for funds.
Once Bibi is on the scene, we see in close-up what many people may believe they already know: that the young Netanyahu had a double life almost from the very start. His academic career thwarted in the new Israel, Benzion, a historian specializing in the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, moved to a series of US institutions. The young Netanyahu spent two early years in New York, then four and a half formative adolescent years in Philadelphia, returning without his parents to spend the summers in Israel. “There emerged the American Netanyahu and the Israeli Netanyahu, which were so distinct from each other that they had different names,” Pfeffer writes. American Ben, “studious and rather detached,” gave way to Israeli Bibi, “gregarious and outgoing,” every June.
This duality of Netanyahu’s has been both an asset and a burden. For some Israelis, it raised a question of authenticity, as if somehow Bibi was not a true Israeli: some called him a yored, literally “one who descends,” the pejorative Israeli term for an emigrant that carries a hint of abandonment, even betrayal, of the homeland. His critics have mocked him for the name he adopted when studying architecture at MIT in his twenties, suggesting that “Ben Nitay” was an attempt to move away from his Israeli roots. Pfeffer defends his subject from that charge: “Ben Nitay was the Hebrew pseudonym that Benzion had used during the 1930s and a name appearing in the Bible and in the Talmud.” Bibi used it because Americans were struggling to pronounce “Netanyahu.”
There are nuances like that throughout. It’s true that Ben immersed himself in US culture and current affairs, but Bibi and Yoni clearly itched to return to Israel, heading back there alone year after year. Publicly, Bibi was reverential toward his father, but Pfeffer makes clear that Benzion was a chilly figure, shut off behind his study door, plowing for decades a single academic furrow, with little understanding of the emerging Israeli society to which his sons were so committed. The brothers Netanyahu seem impatient with, even at times contemptuous of, their father. He was a man of books and footnotes, while his sons were determined to be men of action. For all that, Benzion’s influence is clear and points to one of the most striking Netanyahu traits: ideological consistency. As Pfeffer writes:
Few politicians have had such a long and intensive career without their views evolving. Over the years, Netanyahu has been forced to publicly jettison some positions and present a more pragmatic image. In his actions, he has remained resolutely doctrinaire.
At the center of the Netanyahu worldview is an absolute faith in the primacy, if not supremacy, of the West. For Benzion, the pivotal historical moment was the fifteenth-century Reconquista, when the Christians triumphed over the Moors in Iberia and, in his view, Western civilization was saved from Islam, a victory that he believed prefigured the Jewish return to Palestine. Bibi displays a similar cast of mind when he repeatedly depicts Israel as the vanguard in a broader Western struggle against the forces of Islamist darkness.
This doctrine can manifest itself as crude racism. In his memoirs, the British journalist and historian Max Hastings, hired after Entebbe to write an encomium to Yoni, recalled a conversation with the young Bibi:
He joked about the Golani Brigade, the Israeli infantry force in which so many men were North African or Yemenite Jews. “They’re okay as long as they’re led by white officers.” He grinned.
More directly, Benzion was a hardcore follower of the uncompromising Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who believed the Jews should construct an “iron wall” to stand between them and their Arab enemies. (As part of their general fondness for mythmaking and brand-building, the Netanyahus have tried to suggest that Benzion served as Jabotinsky’s secretary. In fact, writes Pfeffer, he was never more than “a peripheral figure” within Revisionism.) Benzion remained implacable. In 1947 he drafted a full-page New York Times ad that denounced the imminent UN partition plan with its proposal of a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one. Sixty-two years later, aged ninety-nine, he told an interviewer, “This land is Jewish land, not for Arabs. There is no place here for Arabs and won’t be.”
There is an echo here of another of Bibi’s earlier, unguarded remarks to Hastings: “In the next war, if we do it right we’ll have a chance to get all the Arabs out,” he told the reporter all those years ago. “We can clear the West Bank, sort out Jerusalem.” Benzion made his remarks after his son’s 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, when Bibi appeared to countenance the notion of a Palestinian state for the first time. But Benzion was clear that, regardless of the words Bibi had uttered, his son had not moved.
There are two further inheritances from Benzion to Bibi that are illuminating. Bibi repeatedly places himself in the long sweep of Jewish history, seeing himself as not merely a prime minister of Israel but a leader of the Jewish people, a successor to the Maccabee chiefs and kings of Judea. Pfeffer writes that Netanyahu’s decades-long fixation on the threat of a nuclear Iran is not merely a ruse to divert attention from the Palestinians—though it has certainly achieved that purpose—but is rooted in Bibi’s genuine belief that it is his historic duty to save the Jewish people from a latter-day Haman bent on Jewish annihilation. The origin of this kind of thinking is not hard to locate. At Benzion’s funeral, Shimon Peres spelled it out: “Bibi,” he said, “your father wrote history. You are making history.”
Netanyahu’s commitment to the Jewish people as an abstraction is not in doubt; it’s his commitment to, even affection for, actual Jews that is rather more questionable. US Jews might have swooned for Bibi, with his telegenic fluency and American manners, but the feeling was not mutual. As a teenager in Philadelphia, Bibi disdained the Jews around him, seeing them as soft and weak: they would never wear the uniform of the IDF, never risk their lives for the Jewish state. That attitude endured, his greatest disrespect reserved for Jewish liberals, whom he sees as weaker still. Pfeffer quotes a former Obama official, a Jew, who tells him that Bibi “talks about stuff [progressive Jews] like—high tech and gay rights—but it’s clear he disrespects people who put their liberalism on par with their Jewishness.”
One might expect this to be balanced by a deep love of all things Israeli. But no. Netanyahu prefers American culture and ideas, especially conservative ones, to Israeli ideology. “He has scant appreciation for much of Israeli society or its academia (at least in the fields not connected to technological research),” Pfeffer writes, “and little interest in the nation’s diverse communities, save for the need to appeal to them for votes.” We know of his loathing of the raucous Israeli press, and he is constantly railing against the legal establishment. What does that leave? Surely Bibi admires the storied Israeli military? Not necessarily: “He had spent five years in a small elite unit and had never shaken his disdain for ‘the big and stupid army.’”
Like a socialist who loves humankind but struggles with living human beings, so Bibi is a fierce defender of the Jews without seeming to have much regard for Jews themselves, whether American or Israeli. This too is an attitude easily traced to his father, who in the 1940s had little faith in Zionism’s ability to build a state given “the human material at our disposal.” Both fierce nationalists, father and son were consistently bleak in their assessment of the people who made up their nation.
The clear difference between the two men, highlighted by Peres, is that one was a man of words, the other of deeds. Bibi surely achieved the adolescent ambition he shared with his brother: to be a man of action. On one level, that is of course true. But through all these long years in politics—the campaigns, the coalition haggling, the diplomatic shuttles, the speeches, all of which Pfeffer details meticulously—there is a striking lack of accomplishment. Yes, Netanyahu has sidelined all potential rivals, maintaining his grip on office. But what has he done with all that power?
It’s true that he has got what he wanted with Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, though senior figures in the Israeli security establishment fear that could make Israel less rather than more safe, if Tehran responds by reviving its nuclear ambitions. And it’s true too that he has won from Trump the long-sought relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem. But he has not resolved the puzzle left unsolved by Ben-Gurion: fixing Israel’s borders once and for all. He can point to no diplomatic breakthrough with Israel’s neighbors to match those of Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Rabin. He has not delighted hawks with some audacious military victory. Instead, he has contained the Palestinians, kept them pinned behind a security barrier, thus allowing Israelis to prosper in their own bubble. But he has not wrestled with, let alone answered, any of the fundamental questions his country faces.
On May 14, the seventieth anniversary of Israel’s birth and the day of that embassy dedication ceremony in Jerusalem, a day Netanyahu pronounced “glorious,” Israeli forces killed more than sixty protesters at the frontier with Gaza, an event which not only badly scarred Israel’s reputation everywhere outside Trump–Fox News America, but which also served as a reminder of all that remains unsolved. As Pfeffer concludes, “His ultimate legacy will not be a more secure nation, but a deeply fractured Israeli society, living behind walls.” Not for nothing is the final section of this book titled “Stuck on Top,” for Bibi, and Israel with him, have been stuck for a decade.
Pfeffer has written a revealing biography of a man the world thinks it knows. Rich in detail and taking full advantage of the author’s vantage point as a bilingual journalist, alive to the subtleties of both Israeli and diaspora Jewish life, it is for now the definitive portrait of Netanyahu. It is scrupulously fair to its subject, presenting exculpatory evidence for some of the charges that have long dogged him. If there is something missing, it is not a gap in Pfeffer’s research, but rather a void in the man himself.
August 16, 2018
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