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"Bibi"/author Anshel Pfeffer

“Bibi – The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu”
By Anshel Pfeffer
McClelland & Stewart
Published May 2018
423 pages
Reviewed by
BERNIE BELLAN
Even his name adds to the confusion surrounding just who is Bibi Netanyahu.

Is he Binyamin – or, as he is commonly known in Israel – Bibi, or is he Benjamin or, as he preferred to be known in the Unites States as a young man, Ben?
This fascinating new biography by Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer seeks to make sense of the many contradictions surrounding the man who will soon surpass David Ben Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
For instance, although he is viewed as arguably the most right-wing prime minister Israel has ever had (although one might make a good case that title should go to Yitzhak Shamir), the fact is that under Netanyahu’s watch, Israel has suffered fewer military casualties on a year-by-year basis than at any other time in its history. As Pfeffer shows time and time again, Netanyahu’s absolute aversion to taking risks has also kept him from entering into risky military ventures, such as engaging Hezbollah in any type of direct confrontation.
As well, Netanyahu is someone who is a notorious “prevaricator”, according to Pfeffer (“a person who speaks falsely; a liar, a person who speaks so as to avoid the precise truth; quibbler; equivocator.”) Time and time again he has pledged to enter into meaningful peace negotiations with the Palestinians only to draw back from making any concessions. Remember that some years ago Netanyahu held out the notion of a “two-state solution” with “two nations living side by side in peace”, yet nothing has ever come of that lofty goal. As Pfeffer explains so thoroughly, while the Palestinian side is also fully to blame for the elusive goal of peace always seeming to be out of reach, Netanyahu’s very fabric is diametrically opposed to the notion of a Palestinian state ever being created.

In the epilogue to his book, Pfeffer describes Netanyahu this way: “Netanyahu has no plans because his policies are tailored for his daily political preservation and inspired only by a bleak view of Jewish history. There is nothing in between immediate survival and centuries of jeopardy. Bibi inherited from Benzion (his father) a deep disdain for what he sees as an inherent weakness in the Jewish character. Only a strong leader, capable of withstanding unbearable pressure to succeed, can safeguard Jewish sovereignty for another generation. But their lack of faith in the Jews runs counter to every intellectual, spiritual, and material achievement of Jews around the world, and of course the foundation and success of Israel long before Bibi came along.”
There have been other biographies of Netanyahu written before, but none since he was re-elected as prime minister in 2009 – now having served nine consecutive years without being dislodged from office – as he was in 1999, when his Likud party was crushingly defeated by Ehud Barak’s Labor party – the last time a Labor leader served as prime minister, by the way.

While “Bibi” is a fascinating read in many respects – especially in detailing aspects of Netanyahu’s early life that shaped the man he ultimately became, some readers may find the amount of material devoted to the blood sport that is known as Israeli politics somewhat tiresome. There are so many characters who appear in this fairly long book – most of whom come and go, since Netanyahu is apparently loyal to very few individuals, that it can be a might tedious trying to keep track of just how many political parties there have been in Israel during Netanyahu’s long career as a politician.
What is fascinating to read, however, are the influences that the two most important male figures in Netanyahu’s life had over him: his father, Benzion – who lived to the ripe old age of 102, and his older brother, Yonatan (or Yoni, as he was commonly known), who was the only Israeli casualty during the 1976 raid on Entebbe.
Benzion was quite a curmudgeon – never particularly interested in ingratiating himself with others who might have been able to help him advance his career as an academic. His life-long study of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 kept him preoccupied, but his adherence to the ideals of Zeev Jabotinsky’s brand of Zionism was what influenced the young Bibi so heavily early on. Jabotinsky, according to Pfeffer, was no right wing radical; instead, he had a healthy skepticism that Jews and Arabs would ever be able to live together in peace in one land. It was others, such as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, however, who translated Jabotinsky’s goals into practical results, as Benzion decided to move to the United States rather than pursue his academic career in Israel, where he could easily have been quite successful had he decided to remain.

The chapters dealing with Bibi and Yoni’s years in America are highly entertaining. While Bibi took to American culture quite readily – and became thoroughly immersed in all the mannerisms that any young American would have acquired growing up in Philadelphia, then Long Island, in the late 50s and early 60s, Yoni was less enamoured of American life – and pined to return to Israel.
When Yoni did return home – and ended up joining the elite Sayeret Maktal commando unit, it was not long before young Bibi followed in his footsteps. And, while Yoni has been lionized for his role in the raid on Entebbe, Pfeffer shows how the Netanyahu family, including the parents and Bibi himself, deliberately set out to create an almost mythological image of the late Yoni. It is fascinating to read that Yoni might have caused his own death by his recklessness during the raid; he led the charge at the terminal where the Israeli hostages were being held without planning the attack carefully.
Yet, young Bibi worshipped Yoni, and was determined to prove his own bravery as a member of Sayeret Maktal. Interestingly, despite Bibi’s having been involved in many daring missions, he has remained close mouthed about his career as an elite commando. It was left to others to describe just how courageous he was.

Other parts of Netanyahu’s life that are disclosed here – and that haven’t been written about much before, have to do with his first two marriages. In both cases the women to whom he was married have not been willing to talk openly about their marriages to Netanyahu, although neither one is ever reported as having anything bad to say about him publicly. In fact, there was no particular rancor involved in the dissolution of either of Netanyahu’s first two marriages; in both instances there was a realization that the wives’ respective aspirations and Netanyahu’s could not be met within the marriages.
As for Sara Netanyahu – by now, anyone who’s familiar with the endless stories of her insatiable greed must be aware how despised she is in Israel. The fact that both Netanyahus seem to lust after material goods is what must be keeping them together, because when you read account after account of her vanity and tempestuousness, it’s hard to understand how a guy who never had trouble attracting women has remained with Sara. (Years ago, after he was caught having an affair though, Sara gave Bibi an ultimatum: She would accompany him on every overseas trip and any domestic event she wanted to attend, and she would share the spotlight with him at every opportunity. Apparently Bibi has succumbed to her demands without question.)

Netanyahu’s rise to the top of the Israeli political scene is a case lesson in artful scheming. Now, lest you think that’s intended as a criticism, it’s not. As someone who did not have any political benefactors, it is a credit to his cleverness that he was able to insinuate himself into the corridors of power and outmaneuver other rivals to the throne, which was leadership of the Likud party. Pfeffer refers to the men who vied for the top rung of the party as the “princes of Likud”, including Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. They were men who had been sons of powerful leaders of the various political incarnations into which Jabotinsky’s ideas translated, most prominently the Herut party.
Netanyahu was always calculating what he needed to do to sideline his rivals, and he has shown great patience in managing to outwait anyone whom he perceives as an enemy. (And, in his case, that’s quite a lengthy list.) Perhaps somewhat ironically, in recent years Netanyahu’s most trusted ally in his cabinet was Ehud Barak who, although from a different political party altogether and having defeated Netanyahu in the 1999 election, and managed to sideline Netanyahu’s political career for quite some time, did see eye to eye with Netanyahu over the perceived threat from Iran.

Pfeffer provides ample evidence that Netanyahu and Barak were eager to attack Iran’s nuclear installations in 2010. It was the steadfast opposition of the heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Israel Defence Forces, however, that forced Netanyahu and Barak to back down. (See sidebar article.) Still, considering recent events - with Trump abandoning the agreement with Iran that Obama regarded as one of the signature achievements of his administration, the notion of Israel launching a preemptive strike on Iran – this time with American cooperation, must be considered back on the drawing board.
As for Netanyahu’s domestic policies, there isn’t as much attention paid to those in the book, but for good reason: Netanyahu is singularly focused on foreign policy. While he would like to take credit for Israel’s tremendous economic achievements in areas such as high tech, the author suggests that the policies that led to those achievements were set in place long before Netanyahu became prime minister. Pfeffer does give credit to Netanyahu though for his bringing an economist’s perspective to domestic affairs. (He did study economics while getting his masters in Business Administration at M.I.T., after having switched from architecture, and he did serve as a management consultant in Boston.) Still, Netanyahu hasn’t seemed to be much concerned about the growing inequality in Israel between the haves and have-nots.
Other aspects of his long life in politics that are revealed in “Bibi” are the close ties he developed early on with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson. Apparently it was the direct involvement of Schneerson that led to Netanyahu’s becoming leader of the Likud. As well, Netanyahu forged deep ties with the ultra-Orthodox segment of Israeli society – and the religious right wing settler movement. It is those two components that have formed the “base” for his support for years. Never mind that Netanyahu is decidedly secular in his own lifestyle; when it comes to cutting a deal with the devil, religious groups are known to ignore the individual failings of leaders who they think can bring them what they want. (Does that sound somewhat like another prominent politician who has managed to capture the bulk of the votes of individuals who would claim to be leading devout lives? Netanyahu and Trump have formed a mutual admiration society, haven’t they, with Bibi seizing on Trump’s attacks on “fake news” as a model for his own style of press baiting.)
“Bibi” is an interesting read, but unless you’re particularly obsessed with Israeli politics, it’s quite long and at times not all that riveting. Finally, despite my rather cynical references to Netanyahu throughout this review, don’t think that “Bibi” is nothing but a left-wing diatribe against Netanyahu. Pfeffer does an admirable job presenting a fully-drawn portrait of a man who does not accept any sort of criticism readily. In many respects, there is a great deal to admire about Netanyahu, not least of which has been the image of strength he has managed to project from the very first time he spoke to an audience in the United States as a young college student advocating for Israel. He is so very different from any leader Israel has ever had though – so thoroughly American in style, that it is hard to think of him as an Israeli politician. If anything, Netanyahu seems to be an American who, rather than becoming a U.S. Senator, which he probably could have been had he aspired to that goal, decided to transplant himself in Israel, using American style electioneering. It is only now, furthermore, in his fourth decade as a politician, that Netanyahu has actually become popular among a significant proportion of the Israeli electorate. As Pfeffer notes, however, Netanyahu is so vain that he simply cannot envision anyone else succeeding him as prime minister so, as he approaches his 70th birthday, he simply dismisses any notion of retirement. Prime Minister for life – that’s what Bibi would like to be.”