Monday, October 18, 2021

Bibi - the Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu

At the risk of being labelled a "Bibiphile," I recently read a second biography of Bibi, this one  written by Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for  Haaretz.  In case you didn't get a chance to read my earlier blog, in September, I reviewed Ben Caspit's book The Netanyahu YearsCaspit is a columnist for Maariv, a paper that is somewhat more to the right than Haaretz.

These books are written in quite a different style, though much of the ground covered is similar.  Pfeffer's book has references, footnotes, and, is seemingly, somewhat less speculative.  One gets the impression that he has been much more careful with his research and his sources even though that might be unfair to Caspit.  Since Pfeffer wrote in English, the writing is somewhat more enjoyable and fluent as one might expect.

Bibi reads a bit more like an historian's work with an overriding theme that Bibi's legacy is one that is all about political self-preservation and self-aggrandizement at just about any cost.  In that respect, there may not be that much daylight between this book and Caspit's.  But Pfeffer arrives at that conclusion in a different manner.  Overall, I would say that I enjoyed this book quite a bit and found it to be somewhat more balanced, as harsh as its conclusion might be.

Pfeffer's book examines Netanyahu's family history and covers the contributions to Zionism by his father and grandfather.  He circles back quite a bit to his father's career path, his unfulfilled aspirations to play a significant  role in the Zionist enterprise and, strikingly, the disconnect between his father's staunchly revisionist politics and his ultimate decision to spend most of his professional career in the United States.

Pfeffer also spends a great deal of time discussing Netanyahu's mixed attitudes towards the United States.  On the one hand, he  points out on several occasions that Bibi developed American style  capitalist views at an early age.  Netanyahu is characterized as scornful and dismissive of the centrist, liberal views of  so much of the American Jewish community and described as viewing "progressive" attitudes as weak.  He has always been contemptful of the Israeli Liberal-Zionist leaders who founded Israel as a socialist influenced state.  In another life, he might have liked to take a run at the U.S.  presidency, suggested at least one commentator. 

On the other hand, Netanyahu has always been an avid  Zionist with a strong interest in the Jewish people and a tireless  dedication to strengthening and preserving the State of Israel, in a way that he has best seen fit, especially if he is able to make all or most of the decisions.  And yet, at the same time, he has always enjoyed the "good life," including fine cigars, high-end restaurants, first class hotels and world travel.  For many Israelis, he has been viewed has having American taste and sensibilities and being completely detached from life for the average Israeli.

Bibi spends some time dealing with the tragic history of Bibi's late brother, Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed in the Israeli special operations  raid on Entebbe to free a plane-load of kidnapped hostages.  Pfeffer references some of the historical work that his been done and concludes that Bibi and his family exaggerated and amplified Yoni's involvement and dealth in the operation into the "Yoni Myth" for political purposes.  Incidentally, he asserts that Shimon Peres and some other politicians were also complicit in this process for their own political gains.  This is not an attack on Yoni Netanyahu but rather an examination of the way some politicians used his death for cynical political purposes, while downplaying the role of so many other heroes who planned and carried out the operation with Yoni.  Bibi is  portrayed as the chief architect and primary beneficiary of this cynical approach.

Perhaps Pfeffer uses this as an early example of Bibi being prone to exaggeration, prevarication and constant political deception.  Some sordid stuff, one might say, but well supported by the historical record according to many observers who have written about him.

Pfeffer does not downplay Bibi's intelligence, drive, focus or the meteoric nature of his rise to the top in Israeli politics.  He reviews Bibi's outstanding academic record, his tremendous talent in front of a camera and his knack for understanding the big picture and analysing situations.  He acknowledges that Bibi did a "brilliant job" as  Israel's ambassador to the U.N. in the early part of his career, though he also points out that he only managed to convince those who were already convinced.

Ultimately, Bibi's subsequent political history is one of divide and conquer.  Over the course his years in politics, Bibi's conduct led countless Likud members, trusted advisors, friends and colleagues to separate themselves from him, and in many cases, become bitter enemies, often forming opposing parties.  In fact, Israel's current Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, is a one-time Netanyahu protege.  Of course, this may be common in the Israeli political world, which is painted as a cesspool of backroom dealmaking, backstabbing and an environment generally devoid of trust.

At times, Pfeffer seems to pick up on the language of Israeli professor Avishai Ben Haim, who constantly rails on tv about the "second Israel"  - the "non-elite" who have, so often, been excluded from the corridors of power.  Bibi was about as "elite" as one could be in this regard, having been educated  at Yale, and having grown up in reasonably affluent circumstances.  Nevertheless, and perhaps ironically, he built up his voter base to consist of working class Israelis, the Mizrahi community, and other sectors of Israeli society that Ben-Haim describes as forming part of the "second Israel."  Unlike Ben-Haim, Pfeffer is not prepared to give Bibi a pass for his misdeeds on this basis and would prefer to hold him accountable irrespective of which constituency he might have been representing.

Bibi spends a fair bit of time looking at the relationship between Israel's leaders and the various U.S. Presidents over the years.  Bibi was certainly not the first Israeli Prime Minister to have disagreements with various U.S. presidents.  Pfeffer reminds the readers of various issues and disagreements that Israeli leaders had with Nixon, Bush Sr., Reagan, Clinton and others.  Bibi was no different than Shamir, Begin or, at times, even Golda Meir, in their willingness to fight for Israel's security and interests, even at the expense of their immediate political relationship with the U.S.  With respect to Obama, Pfeffer is somewhat easier on Obama than Caspit and seems to lay more of the blame for the failed relationship at Bibi's feet.

Although, like Caspit, Pfeffer decries Obama's decision to visit Egypt and Jordan early in his presidency but skip Israel, Pfeffer nevertheless concludes that "contrary to the “throwing Israel under the bus” narrative pushed by Netanyahu’s people in Jerusalem in Washington, Obama authorized taking the intelligence-sharing and operational coordination between the two countries to unprecedented levels.”  Pfeffer also notes that Obama authorized a 10 year $38 Billion military aid package on October 15, 2015, before leaving office.  This despite the fact that Netanyahu put everything he could into fighting Obama's Iran deal at all costs and waging an all-out political war against Obama  Overall, this is described as a failed policy that did not succeed in stopping the deal and did not help Israel politically.

In some ways, Netanyahu revelled in this characterization and sold himself around the world as “...the leader  of a small country who  had  brazenly defied two presidents of the United States and emerged  unscathed.”  Perhaps, viewed from some other angles, there were elements of success to Bibi's approach.

Pfeffer also suggests that Israel's stated intention of attacking Iran to destroy the nuclear program might have been a bluff to put pressure on the U.S. to deal with the situation.  Perhaps Bibi knew that Israel couldn't really launch this type of attack given the potential consequences.  Or perhaps he was hoping to convince the United States to go along and at least threaten the possible use of military action against Iran, even as a bluff to get a better nuclear deal.  None of this is to say that Pfeffer was convinced that the eventual Iran deal authored by Obama was a good deal - but his suggestion is that Israel might have been able to push for a better deal if Israel had cooperated with the U.S. adminstration rather than antagonizing it endlessly.

The book does not give other Israeli politicians, even opponents of  Bibi on the left, a free ride and is particurly harsh in its assessment of Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, and even Tsipi Livini, who is described as thoroughly incapable.  There is also a discussion of the role that the late Lubavitch Rebbe Schneerson played in ensuring that his supporters helped deliver at least one electoral victory to Netanyahu, in exchange for dubious and sometimes opaque concessions.  Other Ultra-Orthodox and right wing extremist leaders are targeted as well. 

The book was written before Trump became President, or very early on in his presidency, so there is very little analysis of Trump's policies and actions.  However, Pfeffer does conclude that Trump's policies made a complete mess of Syria and ceded control to Russian and Iranian influence, while ousting the U.S. Pfeffer's comment here is that Bibi kept quiet and was largely uncritical of Trump's actions.  If it had been Obama or another Democratic president, Bibi would have acted very differently.

Like Caspit, Pfeffer touches on Bibi's three marriages, his history of infidelity and his strange relationship with his current wife, Sara Netanyahu, who has played a very active role in so much of Bibi's political life, particularly after Bibi was caught cheating on her.  The descriptions of Sara, along with the descriptions of her various legal troubles, allegations of corruption, employee abuse and her penchant for being treated like royalty, all contrast with the admiring descriptions of Bibi's previous two wives.  Incidentally, the book was published before Sara Netanyahu actually filed a guilty plea to several allegations  of corruption in the Israeli courts as part of a plea bargain deal.

Pfeffer leaves the book with hints of Bibi's pending legal troubles, a story that has developed to a much greater extent since the book was released.  That being said, over the course of the book, Pfeffer touches on a number of other scandals and corruption allegations that were closed before rising to the level of criminal charges.

Overall, it is not a flattering biography, but it is quite an interesting read.  There are few genuine political accomplishments that Pfeffer can cite over the course of Bibi's career, other than finding a way to remain in power.  In fairness, Pfeffer gives Bibi some credit for his work as Israel's finance minister. He also notes that Bibi has presided over a period of relatively few military casualties in comparison to other Israeli Prime Ministers, which he acknowledges.  There has been economic progress on some fronts, but Pfeffer also reviews contributions made to that progress under previous Israeli regimes.  But Bibi's overall legacy is to have left a deeply divided country with a festering Palestinian issue to address and some other potential powder-keg issues, while at the same  time damaging the American-Israeli relationship and causing it to become significantly less bi-partisan. And all of that is without any conclusions on the three sets of criminal charges for various forms of corruption, bribery and breach of trust that Bibi is now fighting.

Whereas Caspit's conclusion about Bibi is that his stewardship was one  of "wasted potential," Pfeffer seems more inclined to the view that this is precisely the legacy that Bibi wanted to leave and therein lies the problem.

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