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The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu

by anshel pfeffer
basic, 432 pages, $32

After Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by an ultra-­Zionist fanatic in November 1995, the veteran anti-Israel terrorist Yasser Arafat was among the mourners welcomed at Rabin’s home to console his widow.

But Israel’s most prominent right-wing politician, Benjamin Netanyahu, was warned coldly to stay away.

Remember as you ponder this fact that Arafat, though forced by the U.S. to go through the motions of peacemaking, had uttered such hard-to-retract sentiments as “I have no use for Jews. They are and remain Jews,” and “Peace for us means the destruction of Israel.”

Yet in the house of Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat was more acceptable than Netanyahu. The tacit charge against Netanyahu was that he had helped to incite Rabin’s murder.

This astonishing act of spite distills the enlightened reaction to ­Netanyahu, though it does not explain it. He is loathed beyond reason in his own country and elsewhere. The suggestion implicit in much that is said about him—that he is a uniquely crude stirrer of violent political passion—is untrue. Rabin himself, though now a sort of martyred saint, was hardly the gentlest man in Israeli politics. He had, in ­January 1988, publicly urged the use of “force, might, and beatings” against Arabs under Israeli occupation. He is alleged to have made the call even more fiercely in private instructions to army officers. Bones were broken, and in great numbers.

In a vital passage of what is in general a cool and just assessment of ­Netanyahu, his biographer Anshel Pfeffer notes that “the charge that he led the incitement [against Rabin] has become accepted truth.” Pfeffer then thoroughly dismantles the Israeli left’s charge that Netanyahu’s rhetoric somehow brought about the ­assassination.

On the contrary, Netanyahu had confronted the seething crowds who had called Rabin a traitor for making peace with Arafat. “He’s not a traitor, [but] he’s making a big mistake,” he said to those crowds. “We are dealing with political rivals, not enemies. We are one nation.”

But a river of fire divides the two sides of Israeli politics from each other. The Israeli left, which was in charge of the country for most of its first forty-five years, is quite capable of launching wars, savagely repressing Arabs, and all other kinds of grave sins which nice liberals deplore. But it still manages to regard itself as high-minded, peace-loving, morally austere, and idealistic. The Israeli right, which has gradually gained the ascendancy in modern times, is less two-faced. It has, in the past, openly embraced terrorism and massacre when doing so suited it. It has never imagined that a Jewish State could be established or sustained in the Arab, Muslim Middle East without ruthless violence. What really earns it the resentment of gentle and humane people is that it does not seem to mind all that much.

For the Israeli left, such hard realism is an unwelcome reminder of the disagreeable truth that its country is, like all others, built upon blood and bones, and began its life with an act of severe ethnic cleansing. For the rest of the world, it is yet another excuse or pretext for people who do not like Jews anyway to dislike Israel.

Of course, their condemnation is selective, as most morality is in foreign policy. There is hardly a country that cannot be accused of ­savagery in its foundation, its defense, or both. Some of these crimes are quite recent. But Israel has become a stage on which the world believes morality plays are being acted out. Once, a certain idealistic romance clung to figures such as David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish State’s first prime minister. He looked like a cellist, or perhaps a philosopher. His small country was reassuringly poor and shabby and only a little bit aggressive. Many of its people lived on utopian kibbutzim that were about as close as twentieth-­century humanity ever got to true communism in practice. It was, therefore, easy for herbivorous liberal persons to sympathize with the Zionist project, even though there were ­obvious problems with the idea of setting up a new state in a land where other people already lived.

Nobody now would make such allowances for Benjamin Netanyahu or for the iron-walled nuclear power that he rules. Israel’s neighbors have all felt the sharp edge of Israeli power. The kibbutzim are almost gone, replaced by super-rich investors in ultra-modern technology.

Netanyahu, for all I know, loves a good cello concerto and reads Wittgenstein for relaxation. But he does not look as though he does. He looks as though he has been on TV too much. One of his many resentful rivals, the bloodstained old soldier Ariel Sharon, who could not be made beautiful by any artistry, used to refer to Netanyahu scornfully as “the male model.” Well, being insulted by Ariel Sharon is by no means the worst thing that can happen to a man. But as Netanyahu continues his extraordinarily long season at or near the top of Israel’s political dung heap, one must ­wonder: Is he just lucky, cunning, cynical, good on TV, and a brilliant fund-raiser? Or is he, in fact, an accomplished leader of men, worthy of our respect, despite the cosmetics, the warmongering, and the vulgar riches?

A levelheaded assessment must conclude that any nation would be lucky to have such a person in the front rank of its politics. He is a man of proven physical courage and hard discipline, a long-serving special forces soldier who was wounded in combat—perhaps the highest education available to anyone.

His comrades in arms in the secret Sayeret Matkal unit, even those who later became his political enemies, recall him as a highly professional fighter. His courage under fire is not in doubt, and of how many politicians can that be said? He has borne grief and bereavement. His beloved elder brother Jonathan, also a special forces officer, died in the 1976 Entebbe raid, a rare flash of bravery and resolution amid the general readiness of civilized countries to compromise with terrorist blackmail. Instead of obtaining some or all of their demands, the Entebbe gangsters—having carefully separated Jewish passengers from non-Jews on the plane they had captured by armed threats—were killed, and their captives freed by an extraordinary act of courage and organization.

In a way, Netanyahu’s life has been dominated by this tremendous incident of valor and loss, and quite reasonably. His detractors try to diminish it, as detractors will, by whispering about how he lives in his dead brother’s shadow. Yet would not anybody be a better and deeper person for such an experience? ­Netanyahu is not some empty-headed GI Joe whose finger yearns for a trigger to squeeze. He is the son of Benzion ­Netanyahu, the distinguished scholar of Spanish Judaic history at Cornell University. Two contrasting major figures in Israeli politics, the idealist Shimon Peres and the gentlemanly realist conservative Moshe Arens, both identified his talent early and repeatedly advanced his career even though he was not always kind to them. He breezed through his academic courses and impressed his teachers. He is actually and metaphorically bilingual—slipping with ease from Hebrew to English and back, and at home in both the culture and politics of the U.S. and those of Israel. Few things open the human mind more than total acquaintance with a second language and culture—a gift rare in the English-speaking world, where we have come to expect that other peoples will learn our tongue and save us the trouble.

If Netanyahu were a conventional figure, governing a conventional country in the left-wing tradition that academics, journalists, and diplomats tend to admire, he would be feted for his many positive characteristics. Alas for him, he is, at least at the time of this writing, Prime Minister of Israel. (I am cautious because Israel’s political system, apparently designed by the country’s enemies, cannot be relied on to leave anyone in office for long.) In most elevated circles, his name is pronounced with a sneer. In Israel itself, where the academy, newspapers, and broadcasting are dominated by the self-indulgent left, the elite more or less assume his fundamental unsuitability for high office. The accusations of corruption levelled against him are treated as self-evidently true.

Yet he successfully plays and repeatedly wins the electoral game, as well as the absurd coalition game under which nobody can come to power without making a deal with at least one mad faction. There are, it seems, quite a lot of Israelis who are not pacifist liberals—especially the many recent Russian immigrants, schooled in pessimism from birth, who are basically the opposite of the old kibbutzniks. Yet, despite their support, Netanyahu can hardly be described as a warmonger. Just as Israel’s herbivorous left almost always seemed to be in charge in time of war, the carnivorous Netanyahu has not gone to war all that much. Apart from some nasty violence in Gaza, he has had a surprisingly peaceable record so far. The evidence suggests he suffers from caution, hardly a terrifying vice in the leader of a nuclear power in a zone of permanent tension. And his own military experience makes him less, not more, susceptible to the urgings of generals. They cannot befuddle him with the glamour of uniforms, big guns, fast jets, and surgical strikes. He knows there is no such thing as a surgical strike.

Outside Israel, the disapproval is more general. The chattering classes of most of the Western world increasingly view the Jewish State as indefensible—the next South Africa. The comparison is astonishingly ignorant and crude, yet it is made all the time and largely goes unchallenged. And Benjamin Netanyahu, thanks to his many terms in office, is the public face of a near-pariah state. So he is indefensible, too. They seize on things they would forgive or ignore in politicians whose countries and policies they liked—such as his undoubted enjoyment of the expensive things in life, his unhappy personal past, and his ferocious third wife Sara. He is, in truth, hard to like from a distance and quite possibly up close as well.

But above all these things, ­Netanyahu, even more than his supposedly hard-line forerunners—Begin, Shamir, and Sharon—arouses anger because he stands against forty years of Western policy toward Israel and has broken with decades of attempts to reach a negotiated solution between the two communities in the former British colony of Palestine. He has pushed the question of the Arab inhabitants of the region into the background—an amazing achievement when it was for so long the most pressing problem in global diplomacy, or at least everyone thought it was. The shocking, unsayable conclusion—that in fact there is no solution to the West Bank problem or to Gaza—is quietly spreading.

It is hard to imagine any U.S. president now making a serious effort to force Israel into new talks about “final status” with the Palestinian Authority. Even most Israeli liberals have stopped believing that the Arab leadership really wants a settlement, though they would much rather leave it to Netanyahu to express this opinion in public. And indeed, it is far from clear that the Arab leadership really wants such a settlement. Yasser Arafat’s famous confession that he did not want to be the mere “Mayor of Jericho” suggests that it quite enjoys its status as an international star and is not keen to swap it for the dreary realities of running a tiny, impoverished statelet, accompanied by the constant risk of being assassinated by zealots for betraying the Palestinian cause. The Arab world as a whole seems likewise to have lost interest in the subject. The confrontation between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia (with Syria and Yemen as proxies) is now the dominant conflict in the region and is likely to stay that way.

Netanyahu has taken full advantage of the Sunni-Shia conflict. This may be the explanation for his preoccupation with Iran, which his apologists say is a bluff rather than a real policy. This is plausible and comforting but impossible to establish. Without a doubt, he has used the supposed threat of Iran to maneuver both Washington and Riyadh in a way that suits Israel. But what if he really hopes for a strike against ­Tehran? That would surely mean he is as bad as his enemies have always said he is. Just as we should call no man happy until he is dead, we should call no politician a statesman until he is retired and can cause no more wars.

As we ponder the Netanyahu enigma, we should beware of asserting too much superiority over Israel. Many modern nations are founded upon acts of ruthless ethnic cleansing that the world agrees to forget—beginning with Turkey’s massacre of the Armenians and continuing into recent times with the bloody expulsions of German women and children from central Europe after 1945. If one steps a little farther back, the dispossession of the original inhabitants of Australia, New Zealand, and North America is not a pretty sight. Imagine what the United Nations or Al Jazeera would have made of the campaigns of General Philip ­Sheridan against the Native Americans. Title to territory, as we all know deep down, is based on force and power and the readiness to defend what you hold. This itself may flow from the winner’s confidence in the rightness of his cause, but he will need some battalions as well, and the will to use them. This is roughly what ­Netanyahu continues to believe. His lasting unpopularity with right-­minded persons is yet another illustration of the old saying that we hate in other people the things we dislike most in ourselves.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday.

Photo by Chatham House via Creative Commons. Image cropped.