“BIBI: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu” by Anshel Pfeffer— Understanding Israel/Netanyahu

Pfeffer, Anshel. “BIBI: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu”, Basic Books, 2018.

Understanding Israel/Netanyahu

Amos Lassen

Anshel Pfeffer’s “BIBI: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu” is a “deeply reported biography of the scandal-plagued Israeli Prime Minister, showing that we cannot understand Israel–its history, present, and future–without first understanding the life and worldview of the man who leads it.”

Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself involved in scandals that are all of his own making, and may soon be ousted from the office he has held longer than any prior Israeli Prime Minister aside from David Ben Gurion. Bibi is no stranger to controversy. For many in Israel and elsewhere, he is “an embarrassment, a threat to democracy, even a precursor to Donald Trump” yet he continues to dominate Israeli public. He may survive his current crises, the most challenging of his career.

Pfeffer argues that we must see Netanyahu as “representing the triumph of the underdogs in the Zionist enterprise.” Born in 1949, Netanyahu came of age in a nation dominated by liberal, secular Zionists. His grandfather and father left him with a brand of Zionism that integrates Jewish nationalism and religious traditionalism and he identified with the groups at the margins of Israeli society including right-wing Revisionists, orthodox, Mizrahi Jews, and small-time professionals living in the new towns and cities of Israel. He carefully cultivated each faction individually and then brought them into a coalition that has frequently proven unstoppable in Israeli politics.

Netanyahu also spent many years in America where he learned the techniques of modern political campaigns as well as the necessity of controlling the media cycle. He is product of the affluent East Coast Jewish community and the Reagan era whose politics and worldview were formed as much by American Cold War conservatism as by his family’s right-wing Zionism.

It appears that Netanyahu’s influence will endure even if his career soon comes to an end. The Israel he has helped make is a mix “of ancient phobia and high-tech hope, tribalism and globalism–just like the man himself.” Pfeffer brings together stories from Netanyahu’s time in America and Israel, and from his family history, military service, and political career to show that Netanyahu is the indomitable outsider who became Israel’s three-time prime minister. We see the ways in which the prime minister is both a product and a beneficiary of the divides that have shaped the nation’s politics from its earliest days. He is the changing face of his divided nation. Pfeffer explores the complex ideological and familial foundations that continue to shape the thinking and governing of the man who might become Israel’s longest serving Prime Minster.

Benjamin Netanyahu is haunted by scandal and is a controversial figure at home and abroad. He makes headlines and arouses strong feelings because he deals with big and enormously divisive issues (war and peace in the Middle East, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the future of the Palestinians and the fate of the Jewish people. He has a strong sense about his in making history.`

His identity as someone who has always stood outside the mainstream might just be the key to understanding the man who sees to be beyond understanding. His grandfather and father were members of the right-wing “Revisionist” movement at a time when Zionism was dominated by the left in Eastern Europe, America and Palestine. There is a theme in the history of Israel. The country’s founding fathers and their sons behaved very differently. In the case of the Netanyahus, it was because they were not allowed to become part of the establishment and this made for unusual continuity between the generations.

Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, a year after Israel’s independence and what Palestinians call the Nakba (“catastrophe”) forged one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. While attending high school in Philadelphia, he saw his views as out of sync with what was Israel’s collectivist ethos. By the early 1980s, after studying at M.I.T. and working as a management consultant, Netanyahu was rising quickly at Israel’s Washington embassy. It was there, and later as ambassador to the United Nations, that he perfected his public relations skills by becoming friendly with columnists, talk-show hosts and influential and wealthy Jewish and other Americans, including the then real-estate entrepreneur Donald Trump. In 1988, he went home to join the Likud Party.

In 1995, before the trauma of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish extremist, Netanyahu was widely accused of “incitement.” Yasser Arafat paid Rabin’s widow a condolence call; Bibi was not welcome but he still won an election by a tiny margin soon afterward.

Pfeffer focuses on Bibi’s attitude toward the Palestinians. In his first term of office in 1996, he inherited Rabin’s Oslo agreement with the P.L.O., which the Likud opposed, but grudgingly complied with it. Back in power in 2009 after a period that encompassed the second intifada, Arafat’s death and Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, he came to appreciate how Oslo maintained Israel’s security while allowing settlements to expand as the American-led “peace process” was not going anywhere. Initially, Netanyahu was seen as committed to a two-state solution while simultaneously demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. However, just a few years later things changed. Pfeffer says that the only peace that Netanyahu will consider “is one where Israel bullies the Palestinians into submission.

Netanyahu has always seen the Palestinian issue as a diversion and terrorism and unchanging Arab and Muslim hostility were and are what he prefers to emphasize. In recent years he has been obsessed with the danger from Iran whose plans to acquire nuclear weapons threaten a new Holocaust. Barack Obama’s support for the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement and his efforts to halt Israeli settlements gave the two major leaders a reason to hate each other.

Bibi has had to deal with investigations into bribery and corruption — accused of accepting gifts of cash, champagne and cigars and by the behavior of his wife, Sara, “whose tantrums and lavish sense of entitlement at public expense made for damaging leaks.” Nonetheless, Netanyahu wins standing ovations from supporters, in particular in the United States. He sees himself as not just Israel’s premier but as the leader of the Jewish people and he seems to have little or no concern for the problem that challenges Zionism 70 years after the birth of the Jewish state and that is what to do about the other people who live on the contested land. It seems, according to Pfeffer, that the greatest achievement of Bibi’s career can be seen as a negative one, “trying to ensure that Israel did not have clearly defined or internationally recognized borders.”

By the time this book was published and hit the stores, it was already out of date and we still have more Netanyahu to deal with.

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