Between 2006 and 2012, 40,000 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants arrived in Israel by way of Egypt, many settling in the parks and abandoned buildings surrounding Tel Aviv’s seedy bus station.
Though the influx would cease with better policing and the construction of a border fence near the entry points, the remaining migrants’ status has become a flash point in Israeli politics. Residents of South Tel Aviv have protested increased criminality and social breakdown in the neighborhood. Left-wing activists and their international allies have insisted that, given Jewish history and Israel’s own beginnings, the state has a special responsibility toward migrants. The Supreme Court, in the habit of issuing dictates on human-rights grounds, forbade the government from jailing migrants. Meanwhile, most Israelis, who only reluctantly would set foot in that corner of Tel Aviv, look on in wonderment.
On April 2 of this year, a beaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had reached a deal to defuse the crisis. Israel would permanently accept 14,000 migrants; the rest, according to a plan agreed upon with the United Nations’ refugee agency, would be settled in Western countries. But this compromise, moderate in its very essence, enraged virtually everyone. Activist groups on the left spoke darkly of upcoming deportations. Enraged right-wing members of Netanyahu’s coalition threatened to bring down the government over a perceived betrayal of their hard line on illegal migrants. After a few frantic hours in which his governing coalition seemed at risk, Netanyahu announced that the deal was off. The can was kicked down the road.
This latest migrant episode occurred too recently to appear in Anshel Pfeffer’s new biography, Bibi. Yet it is of a piece with Netanyahu’s political style as depicted in the book. A student of Israeli politics might view Netanyahu’s reversal of position as a prime exhibit of a political culture and parliamentary system that can actively block long-term planning and basic political horse-trading. Pfeffer, a columnist for Haaretz as well as the Economist, instead points the finger at Netanyahu himself.
Pfeffer’s view is that Netanyahu’s policies “are tailored for his daily political preservation and inspired only by a bleak view of Jewish history.” When he leaves office, therefore, Netanyahu’s “legacy will not be a more secure nation but a deeply fractured Israeli society, living behind walls.”
This view does not give Netanyahu the credit he deserves. Still, Pfeffer’s book, along with Ben Caspit’s 2017 The Netanyahu Years, which covers some of the same ground, is among the first attempts to grapple with the man who has dominated Israeli politics for the past decade and been a constant presence in Israeli life for over a quarter-century, and on that grounds alone is worth a serious look.
Bibi begins at an apt beginning: the Zionist story of Nathan Mileikowsky, Benjamin’s paternal grandfather. Born in 1879 in Belarus, Mileikowsky was one of those young Jews who, in response to the pogroms and growing anti-Semitism of tsarist Russia, saw settlement of the Land of Israel as the answer to the Jewish problem. Mileikowsky came on aliyah in 1920 with his wife and seven children. Unlike many of his peers in the Ḥovevei Tsiyon (Lovers of Zion) movement, however, he never broke from Jewish religious practice.
This absence of any ideological rupture from Judaism left its mark on the family. Although Mileikowsky’s children and grandchildren would drift away from religious observance, they would not manifest the same ingrained hostility to the Old World and the Jewish past as was common among many early Zionists.
Pfeffer rightly also devotes significant attention to Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, who passed away in 2012 at the age of one-hundred-one. Born in 1910 in Warsaw, Benzion spent his youth shuffling through the best Hebrew schools in Mandate Palestine. Although no less devoted than his father to Zionist activism, he broke from Ḥovevei Tsiyon in favor of Theodor Herzl’s explicitly political Zionism, which emphasized the effort to win legitimacy for a Jewish state over simply building houses and draining swamps. It was Benzion who chose “Netanyahu” (a variant form of Netanel or Nathaniel, “God has given”) as a suitably Hebraic patronymic for himself.
In the official family account, Benzion was a largely unheralded Zionist hero, an aide-de-camp of the Revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky and a brilliant Zionist thinker who fell victim to the Labor movement’s dominance of both political and intellectual life in the state through its early decades. Pfeffer sets out to puncture this image. In his telling, Benzion had never been too close to Jabotinsky; his Zionism had always been tempered by an academic careerism that led him to move his family around the United States; and it wasn’t Labor-party hostility but his own contempt for Menachem Begin’s allegedly pragmatic leadership of Revisionism that actually led to Benzion’s marginalization in Israeli life.
Pfeffer mounts a similar effort to myth-bust the story of Benjamin’s older brother Yoni Netanyahu, to whom the young Bibi was exceptionally close. A career military man and commander of the elite special-forces unit Sayeret Matkal, Yoni was the only Israeli operative to fall in the rescue of the hijacked passengers at Entebbe on July 4, 1976.
Here Pfeffer takes on not only the Netanyahu family account but scholarly books and the minor Hollywood movie Raid on Entebbe, all of which portray Yoni as the leader and hero of the operation. Pfeffer writes instead that Yoni, who at the time was going through a rough patch both professionally and personally, had been in Sinai during the days leading up to the operation and was largely uninvolved in the planning. As for the operation itself, his special-forces comrades, along with Brigadier General Dan Shomron, the IDF chief infantry officer, may have had far more to do with its success than did Yoni.
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Turning next to his subject’s early life, Pfeffer addresses the internal tensions between the Israeli Bibi and the American Benjamin. Born in Jerusalem in 1949, Bibi grew up there but attended high school in Philadelphia, where his parents had moved so that Benzion could take up a post at Dropsie College. Bibi excelled in this, to him, laughably easy public high school, eagerly returning to Israel every summer where he kept up with a group of friends and of course with Yoni, who had earlier preceded him as a student in America but had never liked the place. (“People here talk about cars and girls. Life revolves around one subject, sex,” young Yoni wrote to the younger Bibi back home.)
Pfeffer grants that many of Benjamin Netanyahu’s gifts were apparent very early on. Intelligent, preternaturally serious, he had an immense capacity for hard work, always seeming older than his age. He was also fanatically devoted to physical fitness, anticipating an eventual return to fight in the Israeli army, and to public speaking, which in his college and later days he deployed to argue on behalf of Israel. If he would continue to possess many American characteristics, he was also brash in an Israeli way. In 1972, on his first day as an undergraduate at MIT after nearly five years in the military, he demanded permission to take a double course load. He did not have four years to spend on an education—important business awaited at home.
Of Bibi’s own time in the Sayeret Matkal, where he followed in Yoni’s footsteps, much remains classified; to the irritation of all historians of Israel, the state has no set timeline for the release of classified information from its archives. Pfeffer does an admirable job with what is known, describing the rigors of perhaps the toughest training sessions anywhere as well as what is known of missions in which Bibi participated in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. (Ben Caspit is also very readable on these military exploits.)
Upon leaving the military for good after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Bibi spent much of the next decade in America, where he divorced his first, Israeli wife and married the Englishwoman Fleur Cates. His big break in politics came in 1982, when Moshe Arens, Israel’s new ambassador to Washington, offered Netanyahu the position of deputy head of mission. Netanyahu, who with his new wife was working for the Boston Consulting Group, had impressed Arens a few years earlier by organizing an international conference on terrorism in memory of his slain brother.
As Pfeffer tells it, Netanyahu’s years working for Israel in the United States were a time of extreme personal ambition and self-promotion. In Washington and New York, Netanyahu assiduously cultivated political, media, and Jewish-community elites, becoming a fixture on television. For Pfeffer, Netanyahu’s mastery of the American media foreshadowed his style of politics first as leader of the opposition and then as prime minister: a PR-heavy politics of talk over action. Reading these lines, one is reminded of the traditional contempt for “chatterers” expressed by Israeli political leaders from David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir to Yitzḥak Rabin.
The most interesting and fair-minded section of the biography concerns Netanyahu’s ascension to the leadership of the Likud party in the 1990s and his opposition to the Oslo Accords signed by Prime Minister Yitzḥak Rabin in 1993. Netanyahu opposed Oslo less for “Greater Israel” reasons than out of a conviction that the negotiations would lead to violence rather than peace. Palestinian suicide bombing had just made its debut on Israeli buses, and the vitriol between the peace camp and the anti-Oslo camp was immense.
For years after the November 1995 assassination of Rabin by Yigal Amir, Netanyahu was dogged by allegations that he had incited violence against the prime minister in the preceding months. Weighing the evidence, Pfeffer largely clears him on this score. At a September 1995 campaign rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, there were indeed scattered shouts of “with blood and fire we will banish Rabin,” but Netanyahu replied: “that’s not the way. No blood and fire, just the ballot box.” Rabin, he insisted on other occasions, was “not a traitor, just wrong.” In this test, other politicians, including Ariel Sharon and many of Netanyahu’s contemporaries in the Likud party, performed less well.
Quickly dispatching Netanyahu’s troubled first term as prime minister (1996–99), Pfeffer conveys how he was compelled by Washington to advance peace-process measures even though he had rejected the basic idea of the peace process itself. We are also reminded of the Clinton administration’s active tampering with Israeli elections in order to promote the Labor candidates Shimon Peres (1996) and Ehud Barak (1999).
Somewhat surprisingly, the least meaty part of the book concerns Netanyahu’s current term in office, which began in 2009 after Likud essentially scored a draw with the Kadima party led by Tzipi Livni, leading President Shimon Peres, who more than once in his life came to Bibi’s aid, to ask him to form the government.
In his recounting of the packed years that followed, Pfeffer focuses on the shifting dynamics of Bibi’s coalitions, including his surprising partnership with Ehud Barak at the beginning of this decade and the constant sparring with the Obama administration over its “rebalancing” toward Iran that ultimately resulted in the 2015 Iran deal. On a point that has made some news, Pfeffer accurately reminds us how the most plausible domestic window for an Israeli attack on Iran came in 2011, during the peak of the Netanyahu-Barak partnership, and he reveals some (but only some) of the many efforts of the Obama administration to nullify any such possibility.
There is little in the book on Netanyahu’s reform of the economy during his years as finance minister under Sharon and his stewardship of Israel through the financial crisis of 2008-09—not to mention his many other substantial accomplishments.
The greatest merit of Anshel Pfeffer’s well-composed biography is as a kind of collated, journalistic first draft of Benjamin Netanyahu’s life. Many of the more salacious details here—such as his love of minor luxuries, the importance of the opinions of his third wife Sara regarding the art of coalition politics—have fed hundreds of vituperative Haaretz articles over the years. Revealing as these sometimes are, they detract from deeper reflection on Bibi’s life and politics.
An early case in point is Pfeffer’s effort to debunk Netanyahu family lore concerning Benzion and Yoni Netanyahu. Is Bibi’s father better understood as just another frustrated Jewish academic-for-hire or as an important Zionist thinker? It goes without saying that it’s possible to be both. A fair reader of his work on the great Jewish medieval statesman Don Isaac Abarbanel as well as his collection The Founding Fathers of Zionism (2012) would find serious Zionist work that has seldom been surpassed. Pfeffer barely mentions this scholarship.
As for the son and brother, Yoni Netanyahu in the flesh may not have been the inspired leader depicted in Raid on Entebbe. He may, as Pfeffer implies, have been burned out and approaching the end of the line as a special-forces commander. But this does not detract from the fact that he was one of the more remarkable figures in Israel’s history. The published Letters of Yoni Netanyahu suggest that he was the true soldier-poet of the young state, and it is quite fitting that his words continue to inspire young Israelis today.
Mockery of Bibi’s “PR-heavy” style of politics ripples through this book and represents a common critique that he lacks the daring typically expected of Israeli leaders. Yet his speech-making has also indisputably borne fruit. Netanyahu drew intense criticism, for himself and for Israel, through his strident opposition to the Iran deal. From the Israeli point of view his sharp criticisms were well founded, and in making his case he retained credibility for the Israeli position when, as has happened, the political winds in Washington changed, thereby leaving Israel in a stronger position to deal with Iran.
Indeed, a survey of the major events in Israel’s political life during Netanyahu’s tenure, missteps included, would paint that tenure in a generally strong positive light. Israel’s wars, such as the incursion into Gaza and the frequent sorties against Iranian-backed forces in Syria, have been carefully calibrated and successfully executed. The deteriorating relationship with the European Union has been somewhat offset by significant advances in ties with India, many African countries, and, mostly importantly, a pragmatic working relationship with Russia. Sotto-voce alliances have been cultivated in surprising places around the Arab world. Yes, there is “gridlock” in Israel-Palestinian negotiations, but this is a flaw only if you are convinced that a two-state solution is plausible right now.
Meanwhile, the economy has often grown above the yearly rate of 5 percent and has never dipped much below it—with Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians benefiting markedly from the prosperity. Israel’s wealth has progressed to the point that, for the first time ever, it may even have a housing bubble.
No one can deny that Bibi is indeed a bit of a fish out of water in contemporary Israel. He is more comfortable with American-born aides as well as with supporters in America than with rank-and-file Likud members, to say nothing of Israel’s literary and media establishment. Pfeffer rightly attributes this to his “American journey” in education, business, and politics, yet misses the essential point.
During his time in America in the 70s and 80s, Bibi became a serious student of the new common-sense economic and political thought that would soon, like everything in America, develop an “ism” to go with it: in this case, neoconservatism. In my one and only personal encounter with Netanyahu in 2015, he astonishingly rattled off from memory the argument of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1978 Commentary article “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”
In Washington and New York, Bibi was not merely social climbing. He was paying attention. What he learned in America helped him in the ensuing years as a steward of Israel’s politics and especially of its political economy.
Pfeffer lampoons Bibi for his desire to stay at the helm, based on his seeming paranoia about looming dangers to the state. Bibi, he asserts, believes Israel’s “existence remains as precarious as that of the Hasmonean dynasty of Judea”—a supposed delusion that “runs counter to every intellectual, spiritual, and material achievement of Jews around the world, and of course the foundation and success of Israel long before Bibi came along.”
No doubt Netanyahu will, for better or worse, soon give way to a successor. Israel’s political system is violent, and he has now held on to power for an unprecedented number of years. But just because Netanyahu’s time in office, like any leader’s, will eventually end does not justify Pfeffer’s complacency concerning the secure state of the Jewish world either “long before Bibi came along” or today.
Netanyahu’s political resurgence began in the early 2000s with the country besieged by an intifada, facing a sovereign debt crisis, and suffering a mass emigration. Now Israel’s population is larger than ever before, its per-capita GDP matches that of the average Eurozone member, its culture is flourishing, and its geopolitical situation is both stronger and more solid than at any point in its 70-year history. If anything, the country’s growing strength and stability during Bibi’s tenure at the helm compel the controversial insight that his alienation from certain conventional opinions held dear by the Israeli elite has been one of the secrets of his success.
Israel remains, however, a very improbable and somewhat implausible outpost of success amidst hostile surroundings and very long odds. It relies on an extremely small class of political, military, and religious/cultural figures who influence and run it. If this group were ever to decline precipitously in quality or lose its faith in the project, the country’s fortunes could turn very quickly. Though greater than at its founding, the margin of safety for contemporary Israel remains extraordinarily thin. Seen in this light, Bibi’s rule of a prospering and growing nation is no small achievement.
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