The temptation to write a biography of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister of Israel for twelve years and continues to be preferred by many Israelis over other possible candidates for the job, is great. Like Menachem Begin, the founding father of the Likud party and Israel’s first right-wing prime minister, Netanyahu arouses fierce and contradictory emotions. Supporters view him as a leader who has transformed Israel into a regional power with a thriving economy, enjoying relative security against the backdrop of a tempestuous Middle East. Opponents argue that he is fostering the rise of chauvinistic nationalism in Israel, neglecting the diplomatic and moral need to resolve the Palestinian issue and, above all, splitting Israeli society with his divisive rhetoric. The Netanyahu puzzle demands a solution.
Such a task requires an accomplished biographer, and Anshel Pfeffer, correspondent for Haaretz and The Economist, embarked on this mission courageously, despite the fact that Netanyahu refused to cooperate. Pfeffer recalls that at one of their meetings, in the presence of other journalists, Netanyahu, commonly known as Bibi, remarked: ‘This is Mr Pfeffer who’s writing a book about me. He doesn’t know anything about me. It will be a cartoon.’
In that respect, at least, Netanyahu was mistaken. This is not the first biography written about him, but it is truly fascinating and definitely the most comprehensive. Pfeffer omits no detail concerning Netanyahu, from his grandfather’s involvement in the Zionist project through to stormy recent times, as Netanyahu fights for his political life (and perhaps for his personal liberty if he is convicted of corruption) against the legal and media establishments.
Who is Bibi, and why does he simultaneously arouse such admiration and antagonism? The first reason lies in the fact that Bibi, who was born in Israel as the new state was being established but was educated in the United States, where his father, Benzion, moved for his academic career, has never maintained a single, deep-seated identity. As a youth in the United States in the 1960s, he felt alienated from the American experience and wanted to go home. He returned to Israel at the age of eighteen to enlist in the Israeli Defence Force’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit. On the other hand, after completing his military service five years later, he felt that he could not find his place in Israel. He returned to the United States to study and later settled in the country. In the 1980s, thanks mainly to his family connections, and after his brother Yoni was killed in the daring operation to free Israeli hostages in Entebbe in 1976 (a tragic death that gave the Netanyahu family a halo of national heroism), Bibi began to work in the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC. He later served as ambassador to the United Nations. During this period, in his late twenties and thirties, it seems that Netanyahu became captivated by American culture. His assimilation in America in the 1980s came as the neoconservative camp was exerting increasing influence within the Republican Party. Armed with the connections and ideological influences he acquired during this time, Netanyahu returned to Israel to compete in the 1988 election on the Likud list. Since his return, his disconnection from Israeli culture has been apparent. To this day, he conducts his intimate conversations in English.
Herein lies the paradox. In this period, Netanyahu was welcomed with open arms both by Likudniks and by the media as a ‘man of the world’ who had come to Israel from America. At the time, Israel was still a conservative and insular society that admired anyone who came from overseas equipped with perfect English. As the years passed, however, and the world became more accessible to Israelis, Netanyahu’s American character began to arouse feelings of alienation and strangeness.
Nevertheless, as Pfeffer shows, the key to understanding Netanyahu lies not in his cultural affinities but in his ideology. In 1993, five years after entering the Knesset, he conquered the leadership of Likud, which at the time was in opposition. In the same year he published his important book, A Place Among the Nations. To this day, the book remains a compulsory text for understanding his worldview. In it, Netanyahu leaves no room for any practical hope of peace, at least until a substantive process of democratisation occurs in the Arab world. He sets the Arab–Zionist conflict against the backdrop of a wider struggle between Islamic values and those of the West, shared by Israel.
In September 1993, shortly after his book was published, the leaders of the Israeli Labor Party, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, signed the historic Oslo Accord with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. At first, it seemed that the agreement would lead to a new era in which Jews and Palestinians would share their contested land and the entire region would become ‘a new Middle East’, as Peres promised. Netanyahu suddenly seemed to have missed the boat, remaining faithful to the outdated ideology of the Greater Land of Israel. It was at this point that he began his battle against the mainstream Israeli media, which supported the Oslo Accord initiated by the country’s old elites. The fact that the agreement was followed by terror attacks led many Israelis once again to suspect that the Palestinians could not be trusted. In 1996, after Rabin had been assassinated by a religious Jew opposed to the agreement, Peres and Netanyahu stood in direct elections for the position of prime minister. To the great surprise of all – at least all who relied on the media – Netanyahu was victorious, albeit with a wafer-thin majority.
In 1999, Netanyahu’s suspicious attitude towards the peace process and poor relations with party colleagues led to his defeat by Ehud Barak, who, like his predecessors in the Labor Party, offered the hope of a comprehensive peace deal. However, the negotiations for a permanent agreement collapsed in 2000, leading to the outbreak of the Second Intifada and a new wave of terror attacks. Ever since, Israelis have been unwilling to vote for the Left. In 2009, after finally regaining the leadership of the party, Bibi led Likud back to power.
From then on, Netanyahu has won repeated elections. Netanyahu is convinced that he wins simply because he is right. Pfeffer quotes Netanyahu’s assertion during his time in the military that ‘more than Israel needs America, America needs Israel as its ally’. He highlights Netanyahu’s consistent conviction that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is merely part of the greater story of the conflict between the West and the Arab world – and not a particularly important one at that. Accordingly, Netanyahu is in no rush even to attempt to resolve the Palestinian issue.
The secret of his leadership lies in a profound pessimism that is reflected in his approach to the conflict (and, to an extent, to life). It’s a pessimism that is regarded as realism by most Israelis. The fact that the evaporation of hope in the peace process has been accompanied in recent years by an economic and cultural boom in Israel has enabled him to justify his policy, exacerbating the frustration of the liberal camp in Israel, which, as in many other parts of the Western world, is in decline.
Pfeffer accurately describes Netanyahu’s success in winning over Israel’s lower class, despite the fact that he was born to an elite family, and in channelling the anger of many Mizrahi Jews and right-wing Israelis towards the old elites and the media for his own benefit. In this respect, Bibi is both a uniquely Israeli phenomenon and part of an international trend of populist leaders who exploit democratic systems in order to amplify their own power, at the same time weakening the mechanisms that are essential for protecting democracy.