Perhaps the most conspicuous surprise in Anshel Pfeffer’s biography of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s long-serving but little-loved prime minister, who glowers from the cover, is his emergence from these pages as a man of unbending principle.
This does not conform to the Netanyahu we think we know, the master manipulator of Israel’s political sphere, the man trailed by criminal investigations whose own fans admiringly claim him as a bully.
The change in perspective leading to this realization is one result of the daunting task Pfeffer, a writer for the Israeli daily Haaretz, has set for himself: to recount the life of Netanyahu against the background of the life of Israel, from its pre-state inception into its 71st year.
The mirroring may have been too tempting to resist. When not referring to himself as the voice of the Jewish people, Netanyahu, 68, Israel’s first Israeli-born prime minister, has a penchant for using himself as a metaphor for the state.
Set aside the pettiness of politics and the daily accommodations necessary to survive a rough-and-tumble democratic arena. Pfeffer’s Netanyahu is convincingly portrayed as a devoted adherent to a rigid, right-wing worldview from birth.
Three consecutive generations, starting with Nathan, the premier’s grandfather, who attended the Eighth Zionist Congress of 1907 and adopted the name Netanyahu, are portrayed as unchanging in their conception of the world as it pertains to Jews — and Jews, their fate and their agency, are the unchanging topic that consumes the Netanyahu men.
History, of course, has provided some validation for their dystopian vision.
Still, it is amusing but not shocking to read that 20 years ago, as Israel turned 50, Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister’s father, grumpily conceded to a journalist that “with all the faults and weaknesses it was a wonder in my eyes that with the human material at our disposal, which was not ideal, we succeeded in building a viable state.”
The “not ideal,” in his eyes, was David Ben Gurion, Israel’s legendary founding prime minister and a visionary who never harbored a single doubt about the viability of the state, yet was, from the Netanyahu standpoint, a wimp.
A chip on the shoulder, it turns out, can be hereditary. Netanyahu has built a myth around his family’s contributions to the success of the Zionist enterprise, but Pfeffer writes that “Benzion was just as peripheral a figure as Nathan, a failed politician who never once failed to bet on the wrong horse. Bibi is the exact opposite — a politician with near flawless timing.”
The family first came to public attention in 1976, when Yoni Netanyahu, Bibi’s older brother, died while commanding the rescue of Israeli hostages at Entebbe.
The Bibi who emerges from this readable, thought-provoking book is an utterly recognizable Bibi complete with his familiar smirk (now explained: scarred in a childhood accident, the prime minister still instinctively hides his lip), the polished English, the self-assurance, the shameless political ploys and the obsession with Jewish vulnerability.
But this Bibi is also new, a chrysalis. Some facts about Netanyahu, it turns out, have been distorted by time. He did not expediently adopt an American persona while studying at MIT, as Israelis believe. Instead, through his mother, Tzila, he was born a dual national, American and Israeli to the root.
And he fought hard for the flawless American English that has won him the admiring votes of two generations of Israelis. Bibi’s childhood memories include the trauma of showing up at a new school in New York, aged 8, not knowing a word of English, during one of the family’s numerous transatlantic relocations. Yoni never lost his Hebrew accent.
In grappling with the dilemma that defined his life, the prime minister’s father, Benzion, Pfeffer writes, “was incapable of identifying with his sons, who felt that by leaving Israel, they were abandoning the Zionist enterprise that was central to their self-identity.”
We discover that the Netanyahu boys’ coming of age was defined by rebellion against their unyielding, standoffish father, who preferred American university libraries to Israel, where his ideological nemeses were building a state and where, casting off his awkwardness, his good-looking, fitness-obsessed sons were ravenously integrating into the élite.
In a fascinating section, Pfeffer describes a stiff Netanyahu in post-Kennedy America, “a chameleon” already inhabiting “the dual persona that would characterize him for life”: American Ben filled with “disdain for liberal-leaning, Democrat-voting American Jews,” and Israeli Bibi, back home for the summer, lecturing kibbutz “friends about the evils of socialism.” He was 14.
This is also when Netanyahu developed the contempt he makes little pains to hide today toward diplomats, military officers, journalists, anyone, really, professing any sort of expertise.
The sons defied the father in every aspect of life but one: a fixed dogma unaffected by time or the appearance of adaptation to political reality.
Yes, a first-term Netanyahu shook hands with Yasser Arafat in 1996 (the picture chosen by Pfeffer makes it look as pleasant as a colonoscopy) and signed the 1997 Hebron Agreement, turning major responsibility for security to the Palestinian Authority. Yes, in 2009, months into his second elected term, Netanyahu delivered the Bar Ilan speech, reaffirming his commitment to the two-state solution with the Palestinians.
“Bibi” makes plain that none of this made one bit of difference. In his heart, Bibi is unchanged. In 2001, no longer in government, Netanyahu said the Hebron agreement had been a mistake. In the 2015 election, he bellowed that there would be no Palestinian state as long as he is prime minister.
It is a lifetime riddled with the carcasses of mentors and allies Netanyahu discards without a thought, pierced through with a steel thread of certainty.
About midway through the book we encounter the early 1980s Netanyahu, recently appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. It is not a coincidence that that Bibi remains vivid in the minds of so many; it was, Pfeffer notes, at that time that Netanyahu discovered the role that would allow him to do what he did best: “be an Israeli on the American stage.”
“Oozing self-confidence, he quickly became a fixture on [American] news shows,” Pfeffer says, adding that Netanyahu quickly started lobbying for the post of ambassador to the United States. “The idea of appointing a 33-year-old with no political standing and only six months of relevant experience to Israel’s most sensitive diplomatic posting may have seemed absurd, but Netanyahu believed he was the best man for the job.”
Those 10 words could serve as the title for this book.
Pfeffer begins his chapter on Netanyahu and President Obama with the observation that “both men were elected leaders of their countries in their mid-forties, with little political experience but enough eloquence and charisma to defy entrenched political establishments.” Netanyahu, he reveals, hoped Obama would win against Hillary Clinton in 2008. He’d had enough of the Clintons with Bill, who figures prominently among the diverse list of American presidents — Eisenhower, Reagan and George H.W. Bush — who brought the vaunted American-Israel relationship to a chilly low spot.
In this context, the Obama era is interesting not because of its overexposed flops, but in the particulars, especially the Obama team’s mystifying yet complete inability to productively engage with the Middle East. The background to the first Obama-Netanyahu White House encounter unfolds almost like a thriller, with each side confidently striding toward a precipice.
Pfeffer describes Netanyahu, his mind on the Iranian threat, expecting a meeting with a generically Democratic president, whereas Obama, either unaware of diplomatic precedent going back to 1967, or unaware of its significance, resolved to demand a “complete settlement freeze” from the Israelis.
“Nothing,” Pfeffer writes, “could have prepared Bibi for that meeting.”
Nine years later, with Iran licking at the Israeli border in Syria and settlement growth unstopped, one wonders how Obama will describe the encounter in his upcoming autobiography.
The final rendering of Netanyahu is devastating. “Israel turns seventy in 2018. Netanyahu will turn seventy in 2019. He is convinced that no one else but him is qualified to lead the nation into its eighth decade and beyond,” Pfeffer concludes.
Netanyahu is depicted as a man stricken with an acute case of l'état, c’est moi, a “patriot” with little faith in the remarkable nation he leads, believing only in himself.
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent who reports on Israel and the Middle East for The Times.
“Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu”
Basic Books: 432 pp., $32