As you might know Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ("Bibi") released his memoires in the midst of Israel's most recent election campaign. He wrote the book himself in longhand over the course of the year and half or so of being the leader of the opposition in the Israeli Knesset. I couldn't resist picking up a copy and comparing it to the other books on Bibi that I have read and reviewed.
As you might recall, I wrote this review of the book "Bibi" by Anshel Pfeffer and this review of Ben Caspit's book The Netanyahu Years. I have not yet read any other reviews of Bibi's book but I did go back and look at my reviews of these other two books to compare.
For starters, I have to say that I quite enjoyed reading the book. Netanyahu is a very skilled communicator. The book flows well, is very readable and contains some very interesting stories and antecdotes.
I would say that it is structured like a legal argument rather than a true biography. It is presented as an argument for Bibi's legacy. Netanyahu asserts that he, almost singlehandedly, reformed the Israeli economy from a socialist leaning, old style economy to a modern capitalist society and moved Israel from a developing country to one that is fully developed and closing in on a AAA credit rating. All of this as a result of Bibi's work as Israel's Finance Minister and subsequently as Prime Minister, where he continued the work that he had started.
A second theme throughout the book is that with Bibi's background, having obtained his undergraduate degree at MIT, he was keenly aware of the power of technology and made technological development a priority throughout the course of his tenure as Israel's Prime Minister, leading to Israel's recognition as a true technological powerhouse.
A third theme is that the key to Middle East peace is bypassing the Palestinians, since they aren't really interested in a deal anyways and developing peace with other Arab countries first as a precondition to resolving the whole of the middle east conflict. I will come back to this shortly.
A fourth theme is that the focus of Bibi's foreign policy efforts since 1999 or even earlier has been to see Iran as the real threat and focus on containment of Iran and prevention of the Iranian development of a nuclear bomb.
A fifth theme is to raise the profile of his father, his wife Sara, his sons Yair and Avner and brush away or deflect any criticism of any of them. From the descriptions of Sara that Netanyahu has provided, it is hard to imagine a kinder, more perfect, more gracious, more supportive spouse than Sara. But,of course, perhaps this is all in response to the various other Bibi books including those by Caspit and Pfeffer that strongly suggest otherwise.
So how does Bibi fare with these arguments?
Interestingly, he starts off by saying that a good lawyer, when appearing in court, often leads by diffusing the strongest arguments that opponents might present. Bibi's first parts of the book deal with the tragic death of his brother Yoni in the course of the Entebbe raid, his own academic accomplishments, which are indeed impressive, and his analysis of the history of Israel, Zionism and the importance of a strong, militarily capable, home for the Jewish people.
Bibi puts forward arguments for the importance of a strong free market economy and traces his Zionism back to the Zionism of Jabotinsky and his successors, many of whom became Likud party members, as opposed to the more socialist bent of the Labor party that dominated Israeli political life for so many years.
Much of this analysis is cogent and convincing. But these are certainly the strongest points that Bibi would have to put forward and they are what he tackles first. That might be due to chronology but I note that he starts with his brother Yoni and then goes back in time. This is a particularly deliberate choice, which partially responds to some of the criticisms made by Pfeffer and Caspit about the cynical use of Yoni's legacy by Bibi and his family.
As the book moves on, a few things became particularly interesting.
One thought I had was that a great deal of the book is "Bibi's spin" on different historical events irrespective of how accurate that spin might be. The other thought I had was what was left out as opposed to what was included. This is certainly not a "comprehensive" book even though it is 650 pages long.
Certainly Bibi's contributions to the change in Israel's economy are significant. Israel has become a booming modern country with skyscrapers galore. At the same time, the cost of living has skyrocketed, the gap between the wealthy and the poor has increased dramatically, and wealth has become ever more concentrated in the hands of very few. No comments from Bibi about these issues, other than some platitudes that suggest that everyone is now better off and would not have been if Israel had followed different policies.
Many political figures, industry leaders and others contributed to the change in Israel's economic structure and I am somewhat skeptical that Bibi's role is as singularly definitive as he asserts.
Having read many other books about how Israel has become a technological superpower, I find it very difficult to give Bibi as much credit as he would like to take in this area. For example, steps taken by Shimon Peres to develop Israel's Air Force and other military technology were dramatic as were many taken by Ehud Barak. Moreover, many different private companies as well as private-public consortiums have focused on technological development. Although Bibi clearly appreciates all of these developments, I find his efforts to take credit for them less convincing.
Bibi's recount of his dealings with the Palestinians is a whole different story.
I found Bibi's analysis of dealings with President Bill Clinton quite interesting. Although he recognizes that Clinton was well intentioned, he accuses of Clinton of buying the "Palestine first" narrative and focusing all of his efforts on persuading Israel to accept a deal rather than pushing the Palestinians. Here, there is a reasonable argument that Bibi's version is sound. Even Clinton in his later writings noted that despite all of the concessions that he was able to wrangle out of the Israeli side, Arafat was still not prepared to accept the deal. And that is Bibi's thesis, that Palestinian rejectionism is, primarily, what has led to the current situation. That being said, this does not, in my view, mean that the resolution of Palestinian issues is of a much lower level of importance, even if it is extremely difficult to attain.
Bibi also spends a great deal of time on his relationship with President Obama. Bibi is somewhat more deferential than I had expected, particularly given the relationship between these two. He points out Obama's decision to "recalibrate" the relationship in the Middle East after first becoming President by visiting a host of Arab countries but not Israel. He also discusses the failed policy of bolstering the "Arab Spring" and the disaster that occurred in Egypt when Morsi took over. That being said, Bibi outlines some of the differences of opinion and concludes that Obama was probably the "toughest opponent he had ever faced." In fact, in reading some of the discussions and arguments that Bibi recalls having with President Obama, it is not clear to me Bibi's position is the more convincing one.
Bibi goes out of his away to try and explain away all of the different incidents in which he was accused of trying to embarrass and humiliate President Obama. Here, I didn't find him that convincing. Although he claims that it was all about the Iranian threat, the Israeli interests and his commitment to remaining bi-partisan, I just don't think that meshes with the manner in which events really played out. He highlights that his differences with Obama were all about "POLICY" (which he puts in capital letters). But in my view, other historical accounts are far more convincing - suggesting that Bibi deliberately set out to humiliate Obama and tilt Israel policy towards the Republicans.
Moving on to Trump, I would say that, reading between the lines, Bibi is much less complimentary of Trump. Although Trump was a "committed friend" who was willing to give in to Bibi on a whole range of issues including moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan and putting together a proposed peace deal with the Palestinians without any Palestinian input, there is little true respect shown for Trump, perhaps deservedly show.
The one area where Bibi does show appreciation for Trump is in the development and negotiation of the Abraham accords, though the book suggests that these are all really Bibi's creations, which he was able to foist onto Trump as a priority. On the other hand, Bibi claims that Trump had promised to recognize Israeli sovereignty over much of the West Bank and has some very harsh words for Trump over the U.S. decision to back out of this commitment, even though some have argued that this was all used as a smoke screen to make progress with the UAE and Bahrain.
Ultimately, even with Trump, Bibi still had to deal with the U.S. (and worldwide) position that Israel needs to come to a political solution with the Palestinians. Whether it is the Clinton Plan, the Obama Plan, the Saudi Plan, the Trump Plan, or anyone else's, if it is to be a viable solution that also protects Israeli demographic interests, there will need to be a Palestinian State, or some form of separation of the two peoples, with a Palestinian territory being the one that can address any Palestinian refugee claims.
But Bibi has no time for this argument. I was waiting to see what he might outline, in the book, as his proposed solution. What is the Bibi plan? Perhaps, I thought, he was a "Jordan is Palestine" proponent (given that more than 70% of the Jordanian population is Palestinian). No, he explicitly rules that out as dangerous in no uncertain terms. Maybe he supports a population transfer and/or incentives to the Palestinians to relocate? No suggestion of that as a policy, even though he is now entering a coaltion government with 14 coalition members from the Religious Zionist Party that support that approach. Two state supporter? Well even though he accepted that in principle after much arm twisting from past U.S. Presidents, he leaves little doubt that he opposes a two state solution in this book.
Ultimately, the best I could discern, to use hockey terminology - his preference would be to "rag the puck" (i.e. just to kill time). He favours a continuation of the current status quo with only minor changes to the way things have been going with the hope that one day, the problem will just go away. This just does not seem like a viable long term solution. If Israel moves to annex large amounts of Judea and Samaria, as now requested by the Religious Zionist coalition, we will be closer to an apartheid type of regime, unless when Israel annexes these territories it also grants full and equal citizenship for all of the people living in the territories irrespective of religious background. If it simply de facto annexes these areas, Israel will continue on with a smouldering situation, trying to control a hostile population of millions of Palestinians. Ultimately, Bibi fails to propose any type of viable solution for the current conflict with the Palestinians and even castigates all of those leaders who have tried to resolve it.
That is not to say that there is an ideal solution. There is a great deal of historical truth to Bibi's assessments of Arafat and Abbas (both as two-faced liars and terror supporters) as well as his assessments of past U.S. Presidents including Clinton and Obama (both of whom naively thought that the Palestinian leadership would agree to a deal). However, there is also something to the thesis argued by Caspit and Pfeffer. Bibi had a golden opportunity with a sympathetic U.S. President in Trump, a powerful domestic political position and even a solid relationship with Putin and other European leaders, while at the same time, developing ties with a range of other Arab countries. He could have tried to use this position of great strength to come up with a viable solution, even if it would be difficult to sell to the Palestinians. Perhaps he could have obtained worldwide support to impose a solution. There is little to show, from Bibi's account, that he made any such efforts or that he has any vision that he is willing to share about how to resolve the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
On the Iranian policy side, Bibi spends quite a bit of time dealing with his battle with President Obama on the COJPA and his fight to stop the agreement or have it shredded. He outlines many of the flaws with the agreement and it is hard to argue with him that the agreement would have done anything other than delay Iranian nuclear armaments by 10-15 years. He characterizes this whole issue as existential, perhaps one of the most existential threats that Israel has ever faced.
However, now that he "succeeded" in shredding the agreement, what did he accomplish? Trump refused to bomb Iran's nuclear program or even threaten to do so. Iran is moving ahead with its program at breakneck speed. Perhaps Bibi is simply laying the groundwork for justification of a pending Israeli military attack on the Iranian nuclear program. I guess we will see. But from what I have read from various sources, there are a whole host of concerns about that option. It may lead to large, wholesale war that would cause enormous loss of life in Israel. The U.S. may oppose this type of attack - as might a range of allies. Israel may not even have the full military capability to reach these underground nuclear sites and destroy all of them. And ultimately, this may only set the program back by a short period of time and may lead Iran to redouble its efforts.
Overall, there may well have been other options, including different approachs with Obama and Trump that may have led to a better deal that would have actually stopped the program, with a combination of threats and incentives.
With respect to Bibi's attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of his family members, including Yair and Sara, in particular, his words just don't sound credible, especially given the multitude of stories about incidents involving these two. For example, he dismisses the fact that Sara pled guilty to criminal charges by arguing that it was all trumped up and the plea bargain was done to end the matter and avoid any further publicity and hassle. Here, again, the actual facts suggest otherwise.
Bibi devotes a short part of the book to dismissing all of the charges against him as "trumped up," "sewn together" and purely political. I guess it remains to be seen what will happen with his trial. Suffice it to say that the initial evidence was deemed as so overhwelming against Bibi at the preliminary stages of these proceedings, that even his political allies refused to dismiss the charges against him. Of course his new governing coalition may find other ways to end Bibi's trial but that won't really prove that the charges were ill conceived in the first place. But getting back to Bibi's initial comments, he took the absolute weakest part of his legacy and buried it near the end of his book with a tone of dismissal and indignation, something that legal counsel might do with an argument for which they don't really have a great response.
One other thought I had was that Bibi says very little, throughout this book, of the compromises that he has had to make with the ultra-orthodox to remain in power. Over Bibi's tenure as president, he has successively provided larger and larger amounts of money to the ultra-orthodox and has granted them with greater and greater power over a range of aspects of Israeli life.
Although Bibi argues so passionately for the power of education and particularly scientific education, he has presided over the growth of an ever increasing number of religious institutions that refuse to teach basic secular subjects. Although he argues for the Republican philosophy of "pulling yourself up by the bootstraps," working hard and saving your money, he has presided over a massive growth in the number of Haredi families that look to the state for their income and remain outside of the labour force. And although he appeals to many aspects of secular culture, including literature and theatre, his deals with co-coalitionists have led to a gradual erosion in the number of public performances and presentations that include an equal gender balance and have led to ever increasing rifts with liberal Jewish communities inside and outside of Israel, including rifts with non-Orthodox Jewish communities which will surely be exacerbated under this new governing coalition.
Bibi has very little to say about the divisiveness that he has created in Israeli society. Although Israel has always been a country in which 2 people have 3 different opinions, the ascerbic nature of public discourse has increased exponentially, fuelled by some of Bibi's political campaigns. He does take credit at points in his book for tactics used in this regard.
Ultimately, this book is well written, entertaining and filled with selected but interesting antecdotes.
But I have many doubts about its veracity and I have arguments with many of the different conclusions that Bibi draws. I guess Bibi can take notes over the coming four years in preparation for adding a few more chapters. I suppose that the jury is still out on his legacy. Perhaps we will have a bit of a better picture when his political life finally comes to an end.