Bibi: The turbulent life and times of Benjamin Netanyahu
Basic Books, US$32 hb, 432 pp, 9780465097821
In 1901 the cultural Zionist Israel Zangwill, borrowing a phrase from Lord Shaftesbury, declared, ‘Palestine is a country without a people, the Jews are a people without a country.’ That cliché has continued to influence the impasse in the Middle East for almost a century.
Advocates for Israel’s policies seem to relish rehearsing the notion that the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. In this version of history, Palestinians were offered statehood in the proposed partition of 1939, by the United Nations in 1947, in 1979 during the Egypt–Israel peace negotiations, the Oslo agreement in the 1990s, by Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000, and by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. Accordingly, Palestinians have refused the offer to dismantle settlements, the reclamation of East Jerusalem, and sovereignty over religious sites and proposed withdrawals from Gaza and the West Bank. For Palestinians, the missed opportunities are the consequence of Israel’s bad faith during a catalogue of failed negotiations.
The calculated development of Jewish settlements in the West Bank certainly makes one doubt Israel’s commitment to peace. So, too, do the checkpoints, constant military presence, and the harassment. Palestinian aspirations to self-determination have evolved from the demand for the right of return to a two-state solution with a return to pre-1967 borders. Agreement in this region is rare, but public opinion polls on the two-state solution suggest that most people support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and an end to the occupation. Anshel Pfeffer’s biography suggests that Israel’s leadership from Ben Gurion onwards has vacillated between ambivalence and hostility regarding any real progress towards peace. This is a fascinating, albeit deeply depressing account of Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarkable political long- evity (prime minister since 2009, he also held the position from 1996 to 1999). To understand his staying power, Pfeffer revisits the political leadership that preceded him to discover the themes that shaped his prime ministership.
Netanyahu’s rise to power derived largely from his father, a mediocre academic and devout follower of Jabotinsky (who hoped Israel would be an ‘iron wall of Jewish bayonets’), an education in the United States, and the death of his older brother, Yoni, in the Entebbe raid, in 1976. The Netanyahu family has been particularly adept at inserting itself into political history. Yet the father was never an influential figure in the revisionist movement, Yoni was not a military hero in Entebbe, and Bibi was not an especially talented army officer.
Netanyahu likes to imagine himself as the saviour of the Jewish people. The reality is that his policies have jeopardised the security of Israel’s citizenry, corrupted civil society as only prosecuting an occupation can do, and made Israel an international pariah.
Netanyahu lacks the political will to make peace with the Palestinians. He plays the international community with cynical abandon, and relies on a coalition of religious extremists and right-wing bullies for electoral success. He is the master of spin both at home and abroad, he seduces a devoted American Jewish lobby, he has ‘reached out’ to Christian fanatics (fellow readers of Ayn Rand), and he has cosied up to right-wing leaders from Putin to Trump and Orbán. Last time he addressed the US congress, he received twenty-six standing ovations – to quote Jon Stewart, ‘by far the longest blowjob a Jewish man has ever received’.
At home, Netanyahu performs as the strong leader who will brook no deal with the Palestinians, while abroad he continues to feign interest in a resolution. He has toyed with a succession of worn-out American emissaries, while encouraging settlements and offering Palestinians the token of highly delimited self-rule. According to Pfeffer, he has never relinquished the conviction that the Middle East conflict is the result of implacable Arab hatred of the West and of Israel as the West’s outpost in the Middle East. The recent Nation-State Law declared Israel the nation state of the Jewish people, that only Jews have the right to self-determination, downgraded the status of Arabic, and continued support for settlements.
From all the evidence, it is hard not to conclude that Netanyahu has zero interest in resolving the conflict. He describes the Palestinian issue as a ‘rabbit hole’, while adopting the diversionary tactic of ramping up the threat Iran poses to the region and international order. Netanyahu’s enemies are the usual suspects: objective journalists, academics, policy analysts, Haaretz, and, of course, The New York Times. Like Donald Trump’s politics, his own are populist; his rhetoric appeals to the polity’s basest instincts. He fosters outsider versus insider resentment, dismisses criticism, and thinks in sound bites. Trump’s support for Israel, his relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem to insist on the city as Israel’s capital, were gifts from one marketing whiz to another.
All four of Israel’s most recent prime ministers have been investigated for corruption and bribery; Netanyahu and his wife are currently under investigation. Netanyahu has been caught with the proverbial in the trough. His wife finds largesse irresistible, bullies staff, and seems to have a touch of the Imelda Marcos. As a quid pro quo for Netanyahu’s indiscretions, his wife now vets all his appointments and has full access to his schedule.
Pfeffer argues that Netanyahu embodies Israel, a ‘hybrid society of ancient phobias and high-tech hope, a combination of tribalism and globalism’. The former prime minister, Ehud Barak, told Netanyahu ‘your behaviour is living proof that it is easier to take the Jews out of the galut [diaspora] than it is to take the galut out of the Jews’. Netanyahu’s strategy is to tolerate diplomatic entreaties while continuing to ensure that Israel does not have defined borders. Put simplistically, the problem is that Israelis want a homeland for Jewish people and Palestinians want a state of their own.
Pfeffer’s biographical challenge is to situate Netanyahu in the context of Israel’s political history, to accept the constraints of anonymous sources, and the subject’s refusal to be interviewed. He reportedly said, ‘Pfeffer doesn’t know anything about me, it will be a cartoon.’ Unfortunately, the story of Benjamin Netanyahu is anything but comedic.
My only quibble with this superb study is Pfeffer’s suggestion that Netanyahu is an intellectual. Tragically for the citizenry of Israel and Palestine, I can see no evidence of intellectual rigour and all that entails – evidence-based analysis, transparency, moral decency, and integrity. Instead, I read this brilliant biography as revealing a talent for spin, reading the Zeitgeist, blazing self-belief, raging ambition, and opportunism. How the impasse will be resolved remains unclear – in the era of the populist demagogue, I fear Bibi is not finished yet.