Bibi, the second time around
Bibi is back. Unlikely as it seemed after his resounding electoral defeat in 1999, Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, has returned triumphantly from the political wilderness and was inaugurated -- for the second time -- as prime minister on Tuesday. He’s nearly 60 now, more jowly and generally droopier than during his first term, and the problems he faces are, if anything, more complex. Still, it must be a satisfying comeback for a man who left office a decade ago unpopular with the electorate, despised by the liberal intelligentsia of Tel Aviv and disliked almost as intensely by the Clinton administration for his unwillingness to pursue the Oslo peace process with any enthusiasm.
But Netanyahu is nothing if not determined, and in the years that followed, he bided his time in the Knesset, plotting, strategizing and finally reemerging on top. As he rolled back into power last week, leading a confusing coalition of parties from the right and left, the question that dogged him was the same one that always has: Who is he really? Is he a pragmatic, flexible leader? An admirable, uncompromising man of principle? A rigid, obstinate right-wing ideologue? Will he be Nixon in China, or will he reject any concessions to the Palestinians as a sign of weakness?
So, what does Netanyahu himself say?
On paper, he is pretty clear. He stands for security, for not being fooled by dovish idealism, for not making concessions to terrorists that would weaken Israel. His popularity always rises when Israelis are especially worried about suicide bombers or Hamas rockets or about Iran’s threats to annihilate the country.
And how will his tough stance translate in practice?
That’s what we don’t know. He’s under heavy pressure from the U.S. and the European Union to seek a peace deal with the Palestinians, but under at least as much pressure from the Israeli right -- which dominates his fragile coalition government -- to hold firm.
He has promised to pursue talks with the Palestinians toward a permanent accord, but he has also called U.S.-backed peace talks a “waste of time,” and he refuses to endorse the two-state solution that the U.S. and the EU support.
During his first term, it was much the same. Netanyahu was reluctant at first to engage with Yasser Arafat but ultimately shook the Palestinian leader’s hand and negotiated with him. Under intense international pressure, Netanyahu agreed to cede land to the Palestinians but then dragged his feet, carrying his promises out grudgingly or not at all.
What’s his background?
Some people believe you can learn everything you need to know about Netanyahu by studying his father. Benzion Netanyahu is an ultra-right-winger who served as personal secretary to Vladimir Jabotinsky, the militant nationalist Zionist leader, before the establishment of the state of Israel. A professor of Jewish history (who will turn 100 this year), the elder Netanyahu’s worldview was summed up in his monumental history of the Spanish Inquisition, in which he argued that even conversion and assimilation can’t protect Jews from the world’s hatred. The father has said that “the Arabs’ aspiration to destroy the Jewish state will never end. If they could, they would wipe us out.”
But Bibi is not his father.
Of course not. Benzion Netanyahu was born in Warsaw at the turn of the 20th century; his son was born in Tel Aviv in 1949 -- that alone is a huge difference. Benjamin Netanyahu is a member of the Six-Day War generation -- modern, Americanized, less directly molded by the shtetl and the Holocaust. He’s still the only prime minister of Israel to have been born after the creation of the state.
Netanyahu dismisses attempts to draw a direct line between his politics and his father’s as “psychobabble.”
“Psychobabble” is such a colloquial term. Why does he speak English so well?
Netanyahu’s English is flawless and utterly unaccented because when he was 14, his family moved to Cheltenham, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. He graduated from Cheltenham High School and subsequently attended MIT and Harvard.
What brought him into politics?
Probably the event that most shaped Netanyahu was the death of his older brother. Yoni -- Yonatan Netanyahu -- was a commander of the Sayeret Matkal, an elite special forces unit within the Israeli military (in which Bibi also served). He was killed in 1976, at the age of 30, at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, while leading the now-legendary raid to free more than 100 hostages from a plane that had been hijacked by militant supporters of the Palestinian cause.
The future prime minister later published his brother’s letters. In one, Yoni wrote: “I feel profoundly apprehensive about the future of the Jewish state. Shedding illusions, I see that the process aimed at annihilating us is gathering momentum and the noose is tightening.”
Is Netanyahu religious?
No, he’s secular. (He’s also on his third marriage, which survived his very public television admission of infidelity with a married advisor in 1993).
Did the White House get along with Netanyahu the last time he was in power?
In a word, no. Joe Lockhart, President Clinton’s press secretary, summed it up when he said Netanyahu was “one of the most obnoxious individuals you’re going to come into -- just a liar and a cheat.”
Was Netanyahu a successful prime minister?
Depends on who you ask, but not in the eyes of the U.S. government. During his term, the Oslo peace process stalled. Netanyahu was seen by many as both arrogant and inexperienced as he flitted from crisis to crisis. Particularly damaging was a series of riots and shootouts with Palestinians after the Israeli government opened an ancient tunnel to tourists beneath the Western Wall and the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Not to mention the botched assassination of Khaled Meshaal.
The botched assassination of Khaled Meshaal? What was that?
Khaled Meshaal was a senior leader of Hamas; he now runs the organization from Damascus, Syria. In 1997, eight Israeli Mossad agents were sent to Amman, Jordan, posing as Canadian visitors, with orders to stop Meshaal on the street near his office and jab him in the ear with a poison-filled hypodermic. They got close and lunged at him, but after that their plans went awry. Meshaal was poked, but he stumbled away, survived, and two of the agents ended up in a Jordanian prison.
It was the Mossad’s biggest failure in decades. A diplomatic crisis ensued; Netanyahu (who had approved the operation) flew secretly to Amman four days later to accept blame and apologize to King Hussein, but the king refused to see him. The upshot was that Israel agreed to release Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, from prison (in return for the release of the Mossad agents). What a mess!
Nothing big. The most amusing (for outsiders, anyway) was “Nannygate,” in which Netanyahu fired his children’s nanny after she burned the soup; the nanny then went straight to a local newspaper and told embarrassing personal stories about the nastiness, neuroses and highhandedness of Netanyahu’s wife.
So what happens now?
In his second term, Netanyahu will face, if anything, a more difficult situation than before. If he didn’t like dealing with Arafat, he’ll really hate dealing with Hamas, which governs Gaza. His coalition won’t make things easier. It includes Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister from the left-of-center Labor Party who made the Palestinians the most generous peace offer in Israeli history in 2000 -- but it also includes Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a right-winger from the Yisrael Beiteinu party who rejects the idea of a Palestinian state and who said last week: “Those who think that through concessions they will gain respect and peace are wrong.” The right significantly outweighs the left in the coalition, though, and if Netanyahu makes too many concessions to the Palestinians, he may find himself with little room to maneuver.