Review of Anshel Pfeffer’s Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu
Published by Hurst, pp. 424
Netanyahu” means “given by God” in Hebrew. Anshel Pfeffer, one of Israel’s most insightful journalists and the author of this excellent biography, clearly doesn’t believe this to be the most appropriate of surnames for Israel’s current prime minister. His predecessor as leader of Israel’s right-wing governing Likud party, Yitzhak Shamir, regarded Benjamin Netanyahu as “shallow, vain, self-destructive and prone to pressure”. Yet shortly he will be Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
Netanyahu is regarded at home as the guarantor of national security in a region currently consumed in flames. His expertise
as “the national goalkeeper” thereby supersedes any personal flaws in conduct and behaviour in the public imagination. He has
proved to be a savvy operator in the bear pit that passes for Israeli politics. For Netanyahu, there are no loyalties, only alliances that serve his goals at a particular point in time.
Pfeffer describes the difficult upbringing that Netanyahu and his two brothers experienced. Their austere, aloof and academic father, the contrarian Ben-Zion Netanyahu – he was more interested in the intricacies of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 than in his family. Their father’s intellectual pursuits took the brothers with him into American exile, waiting for the day when they were old enough to return to Israel.
After they did, Benjamin and Jonathan Netanyahu – “Bibi” and “Yoni” – both joined the Sayeret Matkal, an elite commando unit. In 1976, Yoni was killed commanding the successful attack on Entebbe airport, in the rescue of Jewish passengers on a hijacked airliner. It was Benjamin’s desire to honour Yoni’s memory through promoting him as a stereotypical Israeli hero and establishing the Jonathan Institute that brought him to the attention of both Israeli and US leaders – in particular in the Republican Party. He began to enjoy speechmaking and being an Israeli (though at the time with US citizenship) on the American stage.
Divorced from his first wife and distant from his work as a Boston management consultant, in 1982 Netanyahu was suddenly appointed deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy by the American-born ambassador, Moshe Arens – an event that even today seems inexplicable. Giving up his American citizenship, Netanyahu was appointed Israeli ambassador at the UN two years later.
A central point in Pfeffer’s book is that Netanyahu’s American background shaped his approach to Israeli politics. Pfeffer points
out that both Netanyahu and his brother were critical of the aimlessness of American youth when they were growing up in the US. The worst, they thought, were American Jews – the majority of whom embraced liberalism and the Democratic Party. This was the basis of his later protracted conflict with the Obama White House. President Obama’s advisers included Jewish supporters of Peace Now, while Netanyahu’s in Tel Aviv were American- born Israelis who identified with the far Right. It explains the virtual absence of representatives of American Jewish organizations – liberals and Democratic Party supporters
in the main – and their replacement by rightwing Christian evangelicals – at the ceremony which marked the controversial relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem recently.
The Netanyahu family had a long history of oppositionist politics. They participated in demonstrations against Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Egypt. They opposed Menachem Begin’s success in signing the Camp David agreement with President Sadat of Egypt in 1979 and were unhappy at the strong condemnation of Ariel Sharon’s manipulative leadership as Defense Minister during the Lebanon war in 1982.As UN Ambassador, Netanyahu refused to follow the political direction of Israel’s Labor-led government of Shimon Peres.
Netanyahu’s fluent English and way with words cultivated a wide circle of wealthy admirers in the US, including the young
Donald Trump. Their funds provided Netanyahu with a solid political base which allowed him to operate independently in Israel and without the need to seek employment. He dressed immaculately, changed his shirt several times a day and shaved more than regularly. He developed a taste for the good life, for Cuban cigars and pink champagne – all of which later provided his army of critics in Israel with an endless supply of ammunition.
After an unsuccessful tenure as prime minister between 1996 and 1999, he re-emerged as Minister of Finance under Ariel Sharon – a rival who continually outfoxed him in their struggle for power. He told Sharon that “a Palestinian state means no Jewish state and a Jewish state means no Palestinian state”. He often acted as if he was the Republican Party’s representative in Israel, and pushed a market-driven economic policy, privatizing the national airline, El Al, the Zim shipping line and Bezeq telecommunications. These moves cushioned Israel from the effects of the economic collapse of 2008. Even so, cuts in benefits to the poorest and the lack of housing for young couples brought many onto the streets.
As Pfeffer emphasizes, Netanyahu brought American pollsters, PR pundits and electoral advisers to Israel. Campaign messages were now fine-tuned as never before. Following Sharon’s stroke in 2006 and the premiership of Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu returned as prime minister in 2009 and continued to advocate anattack on Iran – a view strongly opposed by Israel’s military leadership and intelligence community.
Today he has the ear of Donald Trump and has even supported the US President’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border – much to the fury of the Jewish community in Mexico who, like the vast majority of Diaspora Jews, have privately grown
deeply antagonistic towards Netanyahu. Anshel Pfeffer’s book is a dark record of the astute helmsman of Israel’s recent history.
Times Literary Supplement 8 June 2018