The Bibi boom

A new biography lays bare the extremist ideology that drives Benjamin Netanyahu, an early champion of the demagoguery that has now brought us his old friend, Donald Trump.

In 1934, in British-occupied Jerusalem, a small Hebrew-language newspaper was founded called Ha’Yarden (“The Jordan”), so-named for its editorial position that a Jewish state should be established on both sides of the river that today forms the Kingdom of Jordan’s western border. Arguing for the minority “Revisionist” strain of Zionism, led by the Russian activist Ze’ev Jabotinsky (whose name topped the paper’s masthead), Ha’Yarden relentlessly attacked the mainstream Zionist movement for its alleged softness vis-à-vis the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, whom the Revisionists held should be subjugated or expelled, plain and simple; fended off by “an Iron Wall of Jewish bayonets,” in Jabotinsky’s words. Among the paper’s editors was Benzion Mileikowsky, a 24-year-old Warsaw-born settler in Jerusalem, better known by his pen name, Benzion Netanyahu. In his columns, Benzion was given to calling the Palestinians "desert savages" and "redskins," comparing Zionists favorably to the early American colonists and agitating for "the conquest of the soil."

The paper didn’t live long in its original form, being shut down after a year by the British censors (it would later reopen), but it was archetypal of the cause to which Benzion would dedicate his eight decades of adult life, and of the ideological vein in which he would raise his three sons, Yonatan, Binyamin, and Iddo.

A new biography of this middle son1, known in English as Benjamin, kicks off with an illuminating primer on this historic split within Zionism, between the Revisionist ultras and the somewhat less dogmatic mainstream movement represented by Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and David Ben-Gurion. The general contours of this will be familiar to casual students of Zionism—the debates about working with Britain or opposing it; the divide over the Uganda Plan. What’s not so often emphasized, and what the book’s author, Anshel Pfeffer, brings out in disturbing detail, is the extent of the ideological kinship between Revisionist Zionism and literal, self-identifying fascism. One leader of a pro-Mussolini Revisionist sub-group, proudly calling itself Brit Ha’Biryonim (“The Alliance of Thugs”), Abba Ahimeir, wrote a regular newspaper column titled “From a Fascist’s Notebook,” and once referred to Hitler as “glorious.” The Beitar monthly co-founded by Benzion Netanyahu himself included “a rather admiring essay on the merits of fascism” in its inaugural issue, Pfeffer writes. Nor did this dalliance by any means cease entirely once Nazism was in full stride: the Lohamei Herut Yisrael militia led by Avraham Stern, often called “the Stern Gang”—of which the future Israeli prime minister under whom Netanyahu would serve, Yitzhak Shamir, was a member—reached out to Berlin offering an alliance with the Axis against Britain as late in the day as 1941. Small wonder, perhaps, that the worst of the atrocities perpetrated by the Zionist militias, from the King David Hotel bombing to the Deir Yassin massacre, were carried out by the Revisionist Irgun, of which Jabotinsky was officially commander. Such is the substance in which the wool of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister, was dyed.

It’s an inheritance he’s never repudiated. By Pfeffer’s account, the Revisionist worldview imbibed by Benjamin at his father’s knee has ever remained the driving force of his thought and action, the star by which he navigates.

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Netanyahu spent his childhood and teens between the brand-new state of Israel (he was born in 1949) and the United States, where he acquired citizenship via his mother, and where he took a dim view of the mostly liberal-leaning American Jewish community (a sentiment he would retain for life). His elder brother Yonatan joined the Israeli army in 1964, fighting in the Six Day War in ‘67. The eighteen-year-old Benjamin was in Jerusalem at the time, but as a civilian. He joined his brother two months later. Being in decent physical shape, having played soccer keenly in Philadelphia, he was accepted into the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, which specialized in covert operations on foreign soil (or, as Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon once summarized its purpose, “You have to kill Arabs”2). Most of what he got up to in this unit is still classified, but a few operations have come to light. One was the 1968 attack on Beirut airport, in which he and sixty-five others blew up twelve passenger jets and two cargo planes on the tarmac with hand-placed explosives, retreating to Israel by helicopter; possibly the first but not the last civilian targets he would have a hand in destroying. He appears to have been a capable operative, though not as much as Yonatan, who rose to the rank of Matkal commander before being killed in the 1976 Entebbe raid and subsequently lionized as a national hero.

Until that year, Benjamin had only dabbled in political activism, handing out leaflets for the new Likud movement led by Menachim Begin, Jabotinsky’s successor as head of the Revisionists, at MIT, where he studied architecture and management after leaving Matkal in 1972. His brother’s death would create opportunities of which he had no compunction about making use. In 1979, he organized the first conference of the “Jonathan Institute,” a think tank started by the family in tribute to the fallen soldier. An impressive speakers list was assembled by the Institute’s executive director—Benjamin himself—including ex-CIA chief George H. W. Bush and Senator Henry Jackson. When in 1982 Israel’s new ambassador to Washington, the staunch Revisionist Moshe Arens, was looking for a deputy, “he remembered Benzion Netanyahu’s son who had made such an impression three years ago organizing the Jonathan Institute conference.” Netanyahu accepted the job offer immediately, moving to D.C. with his second wife, Fleur, with whom he had had an affair during the pregnancy of his first wife, Miriam.

It was, as Pfeffer says, a “dream job” for the thirty-three-year-old. With Begin—Israel’s first Revisionist prime minister, who spoke of the West Bank having been “liberated” in 19673—and his defense minister Sharon in the saddle, the Israeli right was on the charge, declaring the annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan in 1980 and 1981, respectively, and re-invading Lebanon in 1982. In his embassy posting, and even more so in his next role as ambassador to the United Nations from 1983, based in New York, the ambitious and telegenic MIT graduate with faultless American English became Revisionist Israel’s de facto spokesman to the West, “a fixture on news shows” as well as a “darling of the new wave of Reagan Republicans” who were much enamored of the Likud ethos. He became “a star of AIPAC conferences.” A new friend, Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, introduced him to “the millionaires who would become his supporters.” It was another handy new contact, Ronald Lauder (son of Estée), who first connected him with Donald Trump, who joined the “list that Bibi compiled of millionaires upon whom he could rely for various favors.” He also made key political acquaintances, such as the Brooklyn-based Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, leader of the fundamentalist Chabad movement that would later “play a pivotal role in Netanyahu’s ascendancy” back in Israel. By one count, Netanyahu was ABC’s Nightline’s most-interviewed “terrorism” analyst between 1985 and 1988, beating Henry Kissinger. He had, indeed, a considerable hand in putting “terrorism” front and center of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy agenda. A book published in his name in 1986, Terrorism: How the West Can Win, appeared on the cover of Time magazine and was apparently read by Reagan himself on Air Force One.

The Israeli press could hardly fail to notice his trailblazing, and he courted them no less aggressively than he did their American counterparts. When the 1988 Israeli elections came round, he left New York for Tel Aviv and ran for the Knesset on Likud’s list. He won a seat, and was made deputy foreign minister as a bonus. While the position carried little formal authority, the media-savvy self-promoter had no difficulty keeping in the public eye, using first the Palestinian Intifada and then Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks on Tel Aviv to maximum hasbara effect (in one typically subtle stunt, he gave an interview to CNN wearing a gas mask). When Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin defeated Begin’s successor, Shamir, in the 1992 elections, the now-famous Netanyahu made a move for the Likud leadership, and won.

He did not look at all likely to win the next election, in 1996, held only months after Rabin’s assassination by a fanatical West Bank settler for his signing of the Oslo II Accord. Having called Rabin “worse than Chamberlain,” Netanyahu had spoken at a number of toxic far-right rallies in the build-up to the assassination at which “Death to Rabin” was not an uncommon chant. Much of the public held him responsible for the murder, with Rabin’s widow refusing to shake his hand at the state funeral, accepting condolences from Yasser Arafat but not Netanyahu. His name was mud, and he trailed Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, by 20-30 points in the polls.

A number of things then quickly began working favorably for him. Three months before election day, Hamas stepped up its suicide-bombing of Israeli shoppers and bus passengers in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of Yahya Ayyash, the group’s top bomb maker. Fifty-nine Israelis were killed in an eight-day span. Suddenly, Labor’s overtures to the Palestinians were less impressive to voters, and the surge of public sympathy Peres inherited from his slain predecessor vanished overnight. Netanyahu, who had hired a veteran American campaign manager, tailored his attacks accordingly, portraying Peres as a pinko who would empower Hamas and “split Jerusalem.” This shrewd, if baldly dishonest, strategy, combined with Netanyahu’s courting of the ultra-Orthodox Haredim as well as the largely right-wing Russian immigrant bloc that had arrived with the fall of the Soviet Union, closed the gap to a near-tie. On election night, Peres looked to be winning by a slight majority. Labor supporters began cheering; Netanyahu himself thought he’d lost. Not till 3 a.m. did the news arrive that the final vote count put him just ahead, by 29,000 votes. The disgraced forty-six-year-old debutant had humiliated the national founding father twenty-six years his senior.

He would face his own humiliation soon enough. His first term as prime minister was notable chiefly for scandal and failure. He was questioned by police, and nearly indicted, on bribery charges. Cabinet ministers frequently resigned. His awful third wife, Sara, a cruel and breathtakingly entitled megalomaniac, kept the press busy with her luxury hotel room requirements, constant demands for gifts, and extensive abuse of domestic employees. (Netanyahu, who arguably owed her his career after she agreed to stay with him when it came to light he’d cheated on her too during his Likud leadership campaign, was powerless to curb her behavior, assuming he even wanted to: he was, and is, himself no stranger to the gifted wristwatch, the undeclared cigar box, the swanky restaurant bill expensed to a donor.) This at the same time the economy, which he had pledged to improve, was going nowhere. Even his supposed strong suit—security—he bungled. Hamas kept bombing. An operation he approved to assassinate its politburo chief Khaled Mashal in Amman was botched, forcing him to hand the Jordanian authorities the antidote for the poison used to avert a diplomatic crisis, saving Mashal’s life. More embarrassing still, he was compelled to release dozens of Palestinian prisoners, including Hamas’ founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, in order to secure the return of the two Mossad agents captured in Amman. The leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas movement, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, called him a feckless “blind goat.” His own father, Benzion, said, “he may well have been more suited as foreign minister than head of state.” By 1998, with his coalition crumbling, he announced early elections for May 1999, which he lost to his old Matkal commander, Labor’s Ehud Barak. He resigned his Likud leadership without a fight.

He wasn’t retiring from politics, of course, so much as taking a tactical break. The plan was to make some money—to upgrade his house to one he “and Sara felt their standing warranted”—which indeed he did, earning an estimated $4 million on the speaking circuit and buying a million-dollar “weekend villa by the sea in exclusive Caesarea.” That done, he could begin his comeback. When Barak’s government collapsed after less than two years, Ariel Sharon led Likud to electoral victory, appointing Netanyahu foreign minister, then finance minister, until his own government imploded in turn in 2005 following the Gaza “disengagement.” This surprise withdrawal of 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza split Likud in two, with Sharon breaking away to form an ostensibly centrist party, Kadima, bringing key Likudniks together with Labor heavyweights including Peres. That Netanyahu once again became leader of what remained of Likud seemed to matter little given the far greater support now enjoyed by Kadima. Sharon had reached “epic heights of popularity,” says Pfeffer, being seen as standing up to both the Second Intifada and the settlers. Had he been able to run in the 2006 elections, we might never have heard of either Likud or Benjamin Netanyahu again. A deus ex machina, however, arrived in the form of the January 2006 stroke that left Sharon comatose until his death eight years later. His designated successor, Ehud Olmert, took over Kadima and won the election, but was forced to resign two years later over police investigations into his legendary corruption. The Kadima brand was badly damaged, and suddenly Netanyahu was back in the running. When Olmert’s successor, Tzipi Livni, failed to win enough votes in the 2009 election to form a government, Netanyahu cobbled together a coalition combining Likud, other right-wing parties, the ultra-Orthodox, and, improbably enough, Barak’s Labor. The “blind goat” was back on the mountaintop, where he’s remained ever since.

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Odd as it may seem, given his longevity (he has since won two further elections), the faults of his first term in the ‘90s have persisted in his subsequent ones, and indeed metastasized. Yawning economic inequality and rising costs of living and housing sparked mass protests in 2011, sending his approval rating to rock bottom. There has been a “relentless barrage of police investigations into his and Sara’s financial affairs;” for years, a sympathetic attorney general helped stave off indictments, but in 2018 Sara was formally charged with fraud and breach of trust for spending $100,000 of public funds on private dinners with the mega-rich. Just Friday, reports emerged of fresh fraud allegations. To navigate these straits, he has tacked ever-rightwards, ditching his Labor partner and forming “his most right-wing coalition ever” with the Israel Our Home and Jewish Home parties of Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, respectively; returning, one might say, to his roots. “Netanyahu’s policies today remain essentially identical to those he held as a relative newcomer to politics,” writes Pfeffer. “Few politicians have had such a long and intensive career without their views evolving. Over the years, Netanyahu has been forced to publicly jettison some positions and present a more pragmatic image. In his actions, he has remained resolutely doctrinaire.”

In few areas is this doctrinaire rigidity more apparent than his dealings with the Palestinians. On this score, he’s been nothing if not consistent. He has publicly opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state since at least 19784. When in 1990 the Bush administration pressed Shamir to meet with a PLO delegation, Netanyahu was among those in cabinet standing against it. Shamir brought him along to the Madrid Conference a year later precisely in order to ensure nothing substantive would come of it. When Bill Clinton, who invested more time and energy into the “peace process” than any president before or since, finally badgered Netanyahu into signing the Wye River Memorandum with Arafat in 1998, he “lost no time in trying to sabotage it,” refusing to make even the limited withdrawal from the West Bank that had been agreed. His cabinet formally suspended the memorandum later that year. When Sharon pulled the settlers out of Gaza in 2005, Netanyahu resigned in protest. When, under pressure from the Obama administration, Netanyahu said in 2009 that Israel could eventually accept a “demilitarized Palestinian state,” he “didn’t even try to get his own party to accept the speech as its policy,” writes Pfeffer. “The Likud platform continued to oppose a Palestinian state.” As though to dispel any possible confusion, he clarified in the plainest possible words during his 2015 electoral campaign that there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch. Perhaps the neatest summary of his lifelong position was provided by him in 2002: “A Palestinian state means no Jewish state and a Jewish state means no Palestinian state.”5 In July 2018, the Knesset passed a bill formally enshrining into law Israel’s status as a “Jewish state.”

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Speaking of Palestinians, one is obliged to record a few of the book’s weaker aspects. Palestinian civilians are almost entirely absent from the story (“terrorists” less so; Pfeffer is a keen user of the term). Occasionally, his telling of historical episodes veers toward what might be termed the David-versus-Goliath version of events.6 Netanyahu’s 2012 war in Gaza, Operation Pillar of Defense, in which over 100 civilians were killed, including infants, gets just two cursory paragraphs of the 386-page book. The seven-week-long assault on Gaza in 2014, meanwhile, Operation Protective Edge—“the closest thing to full-out war in Netanyahu’s entire time as prime minister”—gets a page and a half. Here, Pfeffer curiously portrays Netanyahu as a moderating, almost dovish, influence on the military top brass, who pined for a mass ground invasion. It’s true Netanyahu would naturally prefer an air campaign over the public backlash that would follow any Israeli soldiers’ lives lost on the ground, especially when the Iron Dome missile defense system was doing so well at stopping Hamas’ artillery. Still, one struggles to believe the families of the 2,100 Palestinians killed in those weeks would share Pfeffer’s view of the prime minister as a man of restraint. The reader wouldn’t know in any case: not a single Palestinian appears to have been interviewed for the book. This is an account, in the end, of what Netanyahu means for Israelis, not for the people bearing the worst brunt of his rule.

Nonetheless, it remains a well-researched and highly readable chronicle of the man’s life, one that is still far from flattering. Pfeffer is at his most perceptive in placing Netanyahu within the modern club of populists, nativists, “illiberal democrats,” and outright authoritarians who have come to power across so much of the world of late. The connection with Donald Trump is instructive. After meeting in New York in the ‘80s, the pair kept in touch. Years before Trump became president, he endorsed Netanyahu as a “terrific guy” and “terrific leader” in a video produced for the latter’s 2013 election campaign. Netanyahu returned the favor in 2017 by tweeting support for Trump’s Mexico wall proposal, saying, “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.” The two share a benefactor in the American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has showered both with millions of dollars. Both also enjoy the aggressive backing of Stephen Bannon and Breitbart News, the co-founder and CEO of which has written that the website was “conceived” after a 2007 meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem. In a neat illustration of the poison spread by Trump’s presidency thousands of miles beyond the American continent, Netanyahu has now adopted the president’s vocabulary, dismissing unfavorable media coverage as “fake news” and deriding the legal challenges to his corruption as a “witch hunt.” The men are, furthermore, both personally impious serial adulterers who have nonetheless ridden the tiger of puritanical religious extremism to the halls of power. Of course, to say simply that Netanyahu is “Israel’s Trump,” as some have, is to miss, among other things, the sheer martial violence in Netanyahu. He’s what Trump might be if Trump were also a former commando rather than a draft-dodger. It’s also, more obviously, to get the chronology backwards: Netanyahu was Trump before Trump himself was Trump. He was running on the heady cocktail of demagoguery and xenophobia long before his friends Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, Narendra Modi, Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, and Rodrigo Duterte took up the same game. Pfeffer is right to give his original contributions to this zeitgeist the recognition they deserve, and to show that he’s not only a product but also a key creator of our brave new world.

  • 1. Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu by Anshel Pfeffer (UK edition, published by C. Hurst & Co., 2018)
  • 2. ibid., p. 83.
  • 3. And who was famously accused by Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt in a 1948 letter to the New York Times of leading a movement “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.”
  • 4. Pfeffer, op. cit., pp. 131-2.
  • 5. ibid, p. 288.
  • 6. On the run-up to the Six Day War, he writes, “as far as Israel was concerned, the massing of troops on its borders […] was an existential threat.” In reality, as he then goes on to half-admit, the military leadership, including Chief of Staff Rabin, were never in doubt that Egypt’s Nasser was a paper tiger who did not in fact want war and would quickly be steamrolled along with the woefully ill-prepared Syrian and Jordanian armies. On the 1996 Qana Massacre in south Lebanon, Pfeffer says, “On April 18, a team of Israeli commandos operating inside Lebanon came under mortar fire. The commando lieutenant, Naftali Bennett, called in covering fire. Some of the shells fell near a temporary UN shelter at Qana where Lebanese civilians had gathered: 102 were killed.” This is confused in several respects. For one, the shells didn’t land “near” the UN compound that had been in place for eighteen years, at a location certainly known to the Israelis; they made thirteen direct strikes on said compound. For another, a reader who knew no better could be forgiven for inferring from the word “fell” that this was a tragic accident. A report commissioned by then-UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, however, noting the centering of the strikes on the compound, and the presence of an Israeli drone over the scene “before, during and after” the shelling, drily determined it was “unlikely” the site was hit in error. Finally, for what it’s worth, the death toll was 106, not 102.