Pay At­ten­tion To That Man Be­hind The Cur­tain

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - By Batya Un­gar-Sar­gon

BIBI: THE TUR­BU­LENT LIFE AND TIMES OF BEN­JAMIN NE­TANYAHU By An­shel Peer Ba­sic Books, 432 pages, $32

Early in “Bibi: The Tur­bu­lent Life and Times of Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu,” An­shel Pfe er’s ex­cel­lent bi­og­ra­phy of Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, the au­thor quotes an anec­dote that Ne­tanyahu likes to share. It’s about the time a mob of anti-Semites cor­nered Ne­tanyahu’s grand­fa­ther in the old coun­try. Ac­cord­ing to Ne­tanyahu, as the group beat him with their clubs, his grand­fa­ther thought to him­self: “The shame. The shame that a de­scen­dant of the Mac­cabees is ly­ing here in the mud, help­less.”

The story has a happy end­ing. As Ne­tanyahu’s grand­fa­ther lay bleed­ing, he promised him­self that if he sur­vived the night, “he would move with his fam­ily to the land of Is­rael and help to build a new fu­ture for the peo­ple of Is­rael in its land.” He did in­deed sur­vive the night, Ne­tanyahu said, adding, “I am here to­day as prime min­is­ter of Is­rael due to the prom­ise my grand­fa­ther made.”

The story is in­struc­tive, but not so much as a piece of his­tory; Pfe er (with whom I have cor­re­sponded on Twit­ter) notes that it may be apoc­ryphal. Its sig­nif­i­cance lies, rather, in what it re­veals about how Ne­tanyahu sees the Di­as­pora.

Ne­tanyahu por­trays his grand­fa­ther not as an­gry with or scared of the ruf­fi­ans who at­tacked him, but rather as ashamed of his own vic­tim­iza­tion. It’s

shame­ful to be caught and beaten by a mob that hates you, shame­ful to be help­less. And it’s from the ashes of his grand­fa­ther’s vic­tim-sham­ing self-loathing that Ne­tanyahu rises, phoenix­like, as a New Jew to lead the peo­ple of Is­rael.

This fort-da dance with the Di­as­pora — draw­ing it close, in or­der to paint him­self as its sav­ior from its own loath­some ten­den­cies — is one Ne­tanyahu has sus­tained through­out his career. “He has a true dis­dain for pro­gres­sive Jews,” a se­nior o‘cial in Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion told Pfe er. “He talks about stu they like — high-tech and gay rights — but it’s clear he dis­re­spects peo­ple who put their lib­er­al­ism on a par with their Jewish­ness.”

This ten­sion also in­forms Pfe er’s bi­og­ra­phy in a more gen­eral sort of way. Ne­tanyahu is just one year younger than the State of Is­rael, and Pfe er tells his story as a synec­doche for the story of the Jewish state. Just as Is­rael has al­ways had a com­plex re­la­tion­ship with the Di­as­pora, so, too, Bibi.

Pfe er was never granted an in­ter­view with Ne­tanyahu (“This is Mr. Pfe er who’s writ­ing a book about me,” Ne­tanyahu once told the au­thor’s edi­tors at The Econ­o­mist. “He doesn’t know any­thing about me. It will be a car­toon.”) In­stead, Pfe er seems to have cho­sen to por­tray Ne­tanyahu’s ego as the main char­ac­ter of the bi­og­ra­phy, and he chron­i­cles Ne­tanyahu’s self-pre­sen­ta­tion, his glo­ries and hu­mil­i­a­tions, as though they were the man him­self.

This strat­egy makes up for the few mo­ments when one might have wished

to get a lit­tle closer, to hear, in Ne­tanyahu’s own words, events that in Pfe er’s telling must re­main mys­te­ri­ous.

Ne­tanyahu’s dis­dain for the Di­as­pora is not one of those ar­eas. A colum­nist for Haaretz and The Econ­o­mist, Pfe er knows how to sat­isfy Is­raeli and nonIs­raeli read­ers si­mul­ta­ne­ously, and Ne­tanyahu’s feel­ings about non-Is­raeli Jews are a topic on which Pfe er is thor­ough.

The con­tempt was formed early. Ne­tanyahu went to high school in Amer­ica, where he and his brother Yoni — later killed in the En­tebbe raid and memo­ri­al­ized as a hero — de­vel­oped con­tempt for their soft and ditzy Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts, who lacked the grav­i­tas of Is­raeli youth, not to men­tion the mil­i­tary ser­vice.

Ne­tanyahu also de­vel­oped a dual per­sona, one for Is­rael and one for the Di­as­pora, with two names — Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu ver­sus Ben Ni­tay, the last name short­ened be­cause he grew sick of Amer­i­cans butcher­ing the four syl­la­bles. This abil­ity to per­form di er­ent selves came in handy years later, when he re­al­ized that the key to suc­cess was to look good on TV. Pfe er notes how, as deputy chief of mis­sion at the Is­raeli Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton, Ne­tanyahu, “worked as­sid­u­ously on his tele­vi­sual skills, tak­ing lessons from pro­fes­sional coaches and spend­ing week­ends re­hears­ing at home… us­ing hired video cam­eras.” He prac­ticed every­thing from sound bites to lead­ing an­chors’ first names to “the mys­tery of male makeup,” and be­came a fa­vorite of the Amer­i­can talk shows. (Larry King once said, “on a scale of Ž to Ž‘ as a great guest, he is an ’. If he had a sense of hu­mor, he’d be a Ž‘.”)

But it was when he be­came am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions in Ž•’– that he re­ally de­vel­oped his sig­na­ture style. Ne­tanyahu fo­cused most of his e orts on his speeches, which he saw as “his­toric events,” ac­cord­ing to one for­mer diplo­mat at the mis­sion: “The factcheck­ing that went into them, the test­ing out of ev­ery id­iom and nu­ance, [was ] painstak­ing and went on for days.” Yet he al­ways gave the im­pres­sion of an “o -the-cu de­liv­ery.” In this ca­pac­ity, Ne­tanyahu de­vel­oped his pen­chant for bring­ing vis­ual aids to his talks.

In ad­di­tion to cap­tur­ing Ne­tanyahu’s use and abuse of Di­as­pora Jews, the book’s most im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion is its ex­plo­ration of Ne­tanyahu’s han­dling of the Pales­tini­ans, whose na­tional as­pi­ra­tions and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion would be­come a vir­tual im­pos­si­bil­ity dur­ing Ne­tanyahu’s ten­ure. This was de­lib­er­ate, the work of a well-de­vel­oped Weltan­schau­ung: “Ne­tanyahu has al­ways main­tained that the Pales­tinian is­sue is a di­ver­sion, not a cen­tral prob­lem in the re­gion. In the Ž•’‘s, Syria and the Soviet Union were the real is­sues. In the Ž••‘s, it be­came Iraq, and since the be­gin­ning of the twenty-first cen­tury, he has fo­cused on Iran.”

So, too, in his first White House meet­ing with Obama, in May ¡‘‘•, Ne­tanyahu “was dis­mayed to dis­cover that Obama wasn’t in­ter­ested in talk­ing about Iran at any length. ” For Ne­tanyahu, “the Pales­tinian is­sue was a dis­trac­tion from the real threat, not just to Is­rael, but to the en­tire world. How could Obama ex­pect Is­rael to waste time and re­sources on a lo­cal side-show and make dan­ger­ous con­ces­sions to the Pales­tini­ans while its very ex­is­tence was be­ing threat­ened by Iran?”

For Obama, of course, the ex­act op­po­site was true. The only way con­front-

Ne­tanyahu has al­ways main­tained that the Pales­tinian is­sue is a di­ver­sion.

ing Iran would suc­ceed was if pur­sued through diplo­macy, which re­quired a so­lu­tion to the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict. For him, solv­ing the con­flict had to be Is­rael’s des­tiny.

We all know how that turned out. Ne­tanyahu lever­aged his pop­u­lar­ity among hawk­ish Amer­i­can Jews and con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans to try to stop Obama’s Iran deal, and failed.

And yet, amaz­ingly, as Pfe€er notes, Ne­tanyahu’s colos­sal gaslight­ing of those con­cerned for Pales­tini­ans’ hu­man rights ul­ti­mately worked: “Ne­tanyahu has failed to con­vince the world that Is­rael was jus­ti­fied in keep­ing the set­tle­ments, but has suc­ceeded in tak­ing the set­tle­ments o€ the global agenda.” Ne­tanyahu ex­panded Is­rael’s diplo­macy to the Far East, “where lead­ers were es­pe­cially eager to ac­quire Is­raeli tech­nol­ogy and had lit­tle in­ter­est in the Pales­tini­ans.” But he found an ever-big­ger coup in the in­cur­sions he made with Arab Sunni dic­ta­tors from Egypt and Saudi Ara­bia, “who saw him as a part­ner both in their joint ri­valry with the Shi’a Iran and as a use­ful ally to have when deal­ing with Trump’s Wash­ing­ton.”

Iron­i­cally, these suc­cesses have en­abled the en­trench­ment of the oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank and the block­ade against Gaza.

This ten­sion, be­tween open­ing to the Arab world and fore­clos­ing on Pales­tinian hu­man rights, lies at the heart of Ne­tanyahu’s legacy. And yet, bal­anc­ing con­tra­dic­tions — be­tween na­tion­al­ism and lib­er­al­ism, open­ness and pro­tec­tive­ness, Old Jew and New Jew — is a Ne­tanyahu fam­ily legacy. For three gen­er­a­tions, the Ne­tanyahus have staked their claim in the Re­vi­sion­ist Zion­ist camp of Ze’ev Jabotin­sky, as­sum­ing Jabotin­sky’s Hobbe­sian out­look, that na­tions who wish to sur­vive must “keep apart, un­trust­ing, per­pet­u­ally on guard.” And though his el­ders re­mained ob­scure out­siders in the his­tory of Zion­ism, ul­ti­mately their brand of Zion­ism seems to have won the day; “in­te­grat­ing Jewish na­tion­al­ism and re­li­gious tra­di­tion is one of the dom­i­nant ideologies in Is­rael.” This is in no small part due to Ne­tanyahu, who, though staunchly sec­u­lar him­self, has al­ways used the ul­tra-Ortho­dox par­ties and the re­li­gious-Zion­ist set­tle­ment move­ment to his ad­van­tage.

With his will­ing­ness to mine the worst in hu­mans to en­sure his po­lit­i­cal longevity — who can for­get the Face­book video of Ne­tanyahu warn­ing vot­ers to get to the polls be­cause the Arabs were vot­ing “in droves” — and an abil­ity to ma­nip­u­late the press while si­mul­ta­ne­ously whin­ing about un­fa­vor­able cov­er­age, some read­ers might be re­minded of Pres­i­dent Trump. (Sara Ne­tanyahu told Me­la­nia Trump when the first cou­ple landed in Ben Gu­rion Air­port: “We’re just like you. The me­dia hate us but the peo­ple love us.”) As the Is­raeli politi­cian Dan Meri­dor told Pfe€er, “Bibi isn’t a racist him­self, but he is adept at us­ing racism for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses.” It sounds eerily fa­mil­iar.

But Pfe€er’s Ne­tanyahu is a man driven by both po­lit­i­cal self-preser­va­tion and deeply held con­vic­tions. He in­her­ited from his fa­ther “a deep dis­dain for what he sees as an in­her­ent weak­ness in the Jewish char­ac­ter.” “Only a strong leader, ca­pa­ble of with­stand­ing un­bear­able pres­sure to con­cede, can safe­guard Jewish sovereignty for an­other gen­er­a­tion.”

And though the Jewish state has ex­isted for ˜™ years, much like Ne­tanyahu him­self, “its ex­is­tence re­mains as pre­car­i­ous as that of the Has­monean dy­nasty of Judea.” One wrong turn and you’re ly­ing in a pud­dle of mud af­ter hav­ing been beaten up by a group of rušans — or on your way to the gas cham­bers.

This also means that Ne­tanyahu sees threats to his lead­er­ship as threats to na­tional se­cu­rity, a con­fla­tion that will only in­crease as his le­gal trou­bles close in on him.

On ev­ery page, one feels Pfe€er’s en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of his sub­ject and his pro­found fair­ness in as­sess­ing Is­rael’s leader. For Amer­i­can Jews es­pe­cially, the book pulls back the cur­tain on a man held in high es­teem who holds us in con­tempt.

Batya Un­gar-Sar­gon is the For­ward’s opin­ion edi­tor. Contact her at un­garsar­gon@for­


AM­BAS­SADOR TO THE U. N.: Ne­tanyahu de­vel­op­ing his sig­na­ture style in 1986.


SPEAK THE SPEECH: Ne­tanyahu pre­pares to warn mem­bers of Congress against what he con­sid­ers an ill-ad­vised nu­clear deal with Iran, 2015

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