Opinion

Right-wing Jewish Nationalism Created Netanyahu. Then Netanyahu Became Its Master

For the last 30 years, Bibi has been Israel's most constant, compelling and important story. But he wants to control how history will see him. As journalists, our job is to prevent him from doing so

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he addresses a health conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2018
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

My new book, "Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu" is out next week. So I’m exercising a columnist’s droit de seigneur and this column is a shameless puff-piece on my book’s virtues.

I was asked recently in an interview why I wrote the book - and for a few seconds I didn’t quite know what to answer. Because I’m a journalist, of course, and a writer, and Netanyahu is the biggest, most compelling and most important story in Israel over the last 30 years.

Quite frankly, I don’t understand why many more books haven’t been written about him over this period. This is only the fifth biography to appear to date, in Hebrew or English. More are now being written. And that’s as it should be.

Netanyahu is a figure who has dominated Israeli life for a quarter of a century, and counting. A major figure on the world stage as well. So the question, why write this book, almost seems to answer itself.

The real question for me, assuming my Bibi will be sharing shelf-space with others, was how to make this book stand out - what was I offering readers by writing it? I spent a good deal of time thinking about this and the conclusion I reached, which guided me through writing it, was that Netanyahu’s personal and political story is very much the story of Israel.

That should be obvious from the bare facts: he’s the first and only prime minister of Israel born since the foundation of the state, in October 1949, so he’s nearly the same age as Israel. But he’s not seen as  that kind of articulation of the state's history. Certainly by many who portray him in the media. For two reasons.

First, on a more general level, even today, in 2018, there’s still a tendency to view the 70 years of Israel’s existence, certainly the defining early decades, through the perspective of Mapai, the forerunner of today’s Labor Party, who were in government in Israel’s first three decades. That’s natural because Mapai was the party of the founding fathers who built the state and dominated it, before and after independence.

But that perspective overlooks the many groups within the Zionist movement and in early Israel, who shared the Zionist vision and were here when the state was built, but are barely mentioned in the accepted canon of Israel's history.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his late father Ben Zion at a memorial ceremony for Yoni Netanyahu at the Mt Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem
flash 90

Netanyahu, the third Likud prime minister, embodies along with his father Benzion, and grandfather Natan, the parallel narratives of Israel and Zionism, in many ways, even more than Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, the first Likud prime ministers.

Which leads us to the second reason why I think Bibi isn’t seen as the embodiment of Israel’s story, as he should be. Many of his political opponents, particularly on the center-left, but also many on the right, still feel, after all the time that’s passed since he entered political life 30 years ago, that he’s an aberration. A foreign transplant from America who’s taken over the Israeli body politic.

This perspective is not just very wrong, it’s also the central reason Bibi’s opponents, both within Likud and certainly on the center-left, have always underestimated and failed to read him. And as a result, they've usually lost to him.

The forces of Jewish nationalism that created Netanyahu existed in the Zionist movement from its inception. The components of the right-wing-religious coalition which has served as Bibi’s base were there from 1948. It may have been Begin who first brought them together in his government in 1977, but Netanyahu has made this coalition-maintenance and appealing to the base an art of survival, far surpassing anything that Begin ever imagined. It’s the secret of his success.

Israel today is the sum of those tensions, passions and divides in Israeli and Jewish society which created the Netanyahu coalition. 

Trying to combine a history of Zionism and Israel, alongside Netanyahu’s own personal story, makes perfect sense. But writing it as an account of contemporary Israeli politics as well was not so simple. Netanyahu is still such an active politician that it’s sometimes astonishing when you remember he will be 69 in October and just how far back his own story goes. Those of us who are old enough to remember when he first appeared on the scene, and I’m sorry to say that I am, still think of him sometimes as this exciting new meteor.

Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with attendees before a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S. March 3, 2015
Bloomberg

A few weeks ago was the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Karameh. The first time the Israeli army carried out a major operation against a Palestinian organization, it was also Netanyahu’s first military operation.

Bibi was there as a young soldier, manning one of the roadblocks out of Karameh where they captured fleeing Palestinian fighters. Their main target was Yasser Arafat, but he had escaped on a motor-bike shortly before they arrived.

That’s half a century, more than two-thirds of Israel’s history, in which Netanyahu has been on the frontline of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It began with a failed operation - and Netanyahu, who hates being associated with failure, has never spoken of being at Karameh, except once, when he first met Arafat in 1996 and said to him, “We were both there 28 years ago.”

Last month was also the thirtieth anniversary of his entry into politics, in an interview on Israeli television in which he announced he was resigning as a diplomat and joining Likud. He was so busy that day rehearsing for the interview that he barely remembered at the last moment to call up the Foreign Ministry and tender his resignation.

And then there are the personal milestones. 60 years ago, his parents informed him they were moving to the United States. He would spend the next few months sitting in a classroom in a public school in Manhattan, struggling to understand a word that was being said. The humiliation of being treated like an idiot would motivate him to master English, better even than a native speaker.

Next week is a much more poignant date for him: the fortieth birthday of his daughter Noa, mother of his three grandchildren.

Noa and her children are never seen in public, and even the single photograph of her that Bibi once had in his office, disappeared 22 years ago for "reframing." It never returned. This may have something to do with her being the daughter of Bibi’s first wife, Miki, that when she was born in Boston, her parents had already separated, and, of course, the way that Bibi’s current persona has been built around his new family with his third wife Sara.

Protesters hold signs calling upon Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step down during a rally in Tel Aviv, Israel. February 16, 2018
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Getting all these three Netanyahus, the historical, the political, and the personal Bibi, in to one book was a challenge. It would have been impossible without the dogged work of Israeli journalists, especially at Haaretz, who have tirelessly ferreted out every detail, challenged every spin and - no matter how hard he has tried to suppress the media - relentlessly held Netanyahu to account.

Each one of the many Israelis, and Americans with personal insights into Netanyahu I spoke to has a story of betrayal. In some cases, many stories. Even those who have forgiven him and continue to support his policies. And so many of them were eager to tell their stories. Except one.

Bibi ignored my requests for interviews for this book. He didn’t even take the trouble to refuse. But over the last couple of years, whenever we did meet, he had something sarcastic to say.

Once when I was sitting with some colleagues in his office, he suddenly stopped mid-conversation and said to me, "I can see you’re taking notes of what my office looks like. Don’t worry, I’ll let you have a look afterwards." Of course, he didn’t.

On another occasion, when we entered his office, he announced: "This is Mr Pfeffer who’s writing a book about me. He knows nothing about me. It will be a cartoon."

Last week, I was surprised to see that the essay I wrote, based on the book, had been copy-pasted, in its entirety, on Netanyahu’s Facebook page. I’m not sure whether I should see that as a compliment. Perhaps he just likes cartoons.

The truth is, he is actually obsessed with cartoons. And the way cartoonists portray him. In a meeting with Haaretz journalists a couple of years back he drew a cartoon of himself, not a bad one, to lampoon how we in the media see him. That's his overriding obsession.

Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu
Basic Books

And it’s why he is already working secretly on his memoirs, though he plans to remain for many more years in office. Not satisfied with his power over Israel’s present, he wants to control how history will see him. A large part of our job as journalists is to prevent him from dictating the narrative of his life and times.

"Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu" (Basic Books) will be published on May 1, 2018