If you attended Jewish day school or spent the summers of your youth at a Jewish sleepaway camp, you couldn’t go a full year without watching Operation Thunderbolt, a movie that dramatized the mission undertaken by Israeli commandoes to rescue more than 100 passengers on a civilian flight hijacked by terrorists and taken to Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.
Those repeated viewings turned out to be unexpectedly useful, since the raid on Entebbe changed the course of Israeli history. The one rescuer to lose his life in the mission was Yonatan Netanyahu, a magnetic and highly decorated soldier whose death sparked the political career of his younger brother, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. In 2019, Bibi passed David Ben-Gurion to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history. Along the way, he remade Israeli politics even as he worked to unshackle its economy from the last vestiges of its socialist and monopolist roots while ex-panding the Jewish state’s global footprint from China to Russia to Eastern Europe to the Arab world.
His brother Yoni’s death was always understood to be the origin story of Netanyahu’s endeavors as a public figure. But never has that fact been made clearer than in Bibi: My Story, the new autobiography by the once-again-incoming Israeli prime minister. The book begins with the tragedy of his brother’s death and depicts “how Yoni’s sacrifice and example helped me overcome inconsolable grief, thrust me into a public battle against terrorism, and led me to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.”
Bibi: My Story is a surprisingly sentimental and ideologically thoughtful autobiography from a politician known for his cold, hard realism. Unlike other political autobiographies, which mostly serve to obscure their subjects, this one provides us with the tools to understand this signature figure in modern Jewish history.
The one person who influenced Netanyahu’s life more than his brother was his father, the scholar and historian Benzion Netanyahu. Benzion’s teaching appointments in the United States were responsible for Bibi’s childhood and teenage years spent in America. Those years not only provided Bibi with the fluency in English that his own mother (who grew up in part in Minneapolis) had; they also gave him a grasp of the country he would need to navigate as no Israeli had done before him. Bibi studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, staggering his time between elite military service in Israel and elite higher education in the United States. Rather than leave the exploration of his father’s influence at that, Netanyahu puts it under the microscope. It is one of the pleasures of the book.
In addition to his studies—his exploration of the Spanish Inquisition marked him as one of the great scholars of the age—Benzion Netanyahu was a Zionist activist and admirer of the great Jewish intellectual Vladimir Jabotinsky. The leader of the Revisionist Zionists and the most sophisticated exponent in his time of the concept of Jewish peoplehood, Jabotinsky was the force behind the Jewish Legion in World War I, which fought as Royal Fusiliers under the command of Colonel John Patterson. Patterson eventually became such a close friend of the Netanyahus that he was named Yoni Netanyahu’s godfather.
As the Second World War approached, Jabotinsky sought to create another Jewish fighting force. In the spring of 1940, Jabotinsky arrived in New York with a delegation that included Benzion Netanyahu, who had been raising money for the trip back in Palestine. Jabotinsky died that August in New York. Benzion Netanyahu picked up the torch and became director of the New Zionist Organization of America, making inroads into both the Republican and Democratic Parties.
Bibi Netanyahu mentions this for two reasons. First, he uses it to explain his own ideological roots and the experiences and influences that shaped his belief that Israel could achieve peace only through strength. Second, he offers it as a response to his critics who accuse him of politicizing the U.S.–Israel relationship by deepening his ties with Republicans whenever Democratic enthusiasm for Israel starts to waver. “Father,” Netanyahu writes, “did something virtually unprecedented in Zionist and Jewish circles at the time. He went to the Republicans. He did so not because of an innate identification with this or that party but because he believed that influencing Republican policy was the best way to influence Democratic policy” (emphasis in the original). The result was that the Republican Party’s 1944 platform included support for the establishment of a Jewish state; “cornered,” the Democratic Party soon added the Zionist plank to its own platform.
This strategy of appealing to global public opinion is almost an ideology in itself. And that is a central insight of Bibi: My Story. Netanyahu traces it back to a 1929 essay in which Jabotinsky developed “the Theory of Public Pressure.” The fight to sway public opinion, the surest way to effect change in a democracy, requires a public campaign “like the constant drizzle on a green English lawn,” in Jabotinsky’s words. To Bibi, his father “was the quintessential practitioner of Jabotinsky’s formula: Influence governments through public opinion, influence public opinion by appealing to justice, influence leaders by appealing to interests.”
That is what holds the reader’s interest in the second half of the book, which mostly avoids interpersonal drama and is light on revelations. The Bibi/Benzion interpretation of Jabotinsky’s theory of public pressure is the Rosetta stone to deciphering his decision-making throughout a uniquely successful four-decade career in politics.
It wasn’t foolproof. Take Netanyahu’s most controversial foray into shaping U.S. public opinion: his decision to accept an invitation by House Republicans to address a Joint Session of Congress in 2015 to denounce President Obama’s looming nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu writes that he agonized over whether to go through with the speech but finally came to believe it was his responsibility: “If I don’t take a stand on a nuclear deal that could threaten Israel’s survival, I thought, what the hell am I doing here? That clinched it.”
Contrary to his more dismissive critics, Netanyahu was right about Iran’s nuclear program representing an existential threat. And the terms of Obama’s deal were, indeed, disastrous—the inspection regime was full of holes, and the restrictions were only temporary anyway. But could Netanyahu’s speech have stopped it? No. The cost in diplomatic capital arguably outweighed the benefit.
Bibi’s victories have been more numerous than his failures, however, and they began right out of the gate. After Yoni’s death, Netanyahu threw himself into the study of terrorism. Entebbe was a clear indicator of the way such sub-state violence, often with the assent or material support of states, would shape global security in the final quarter of the 20th century and beyond.
Netanyahu’s quick mastery of the subject and its implications soon made him a familiar figure among policymakers and politicians in the West. George Shultz, the future secretary of state, was one of them. When Bibi was recruited to join Israel’s diplomatic corps in the U.S. during the Reagan administration, his relationship with Shultz paid dividends in the fight against international terrorism. Shultz put Netanyahu’s ideas in front of President Reagan. The result was that the first true war on terror was prosecuted by the United States using Netanyahu’s framing, especially the need to hold state sponsors accountable for their support of nonstate actors. That principle would guide the West after 9/11 as well.
The book goes through the major points in Bibi’s astonishing political career after that, mostly offering the Cliff’s Notes version of events spiced up with the occasional personal assessment of the American presidents and some of their top aides along the way. And here is where you can tell he expected to be back in office dealing with some of these figures again. Joe Biden appears and reappears in times of trouble the way Mother Mary comes to Paul McCartney in “Let It Be.” After Obama made clear he intended to put daylight between Washington and Jerusalem, Biden, then Obama’s vice president, told Netanyahu: “You don’t have too many friends here, buddy. I’m the one friend you do have. So call me when you need to.”
When a housing official announced plans for new units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem during Biden’s visit to Israel, the Obama administration blew its top, disingenuously manufacturing a crisis. But the man who was supposedly disrespected directly by the announcement—Biden—was the one who kept his head.
Netanyahu writes: “Over the phone, Biden and I put together a task force to stamp out the fire, consisting of Ron Dermer, US Middle East representative Dan Shapiro and Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren. After hours of work they agreed on a statement I would issue later that night…. While this statement was being worked out, Biden came with his wife Jill for a late dinner. We discussed his life, the tragedy he had to overcome with the loss of his first wife and daughter, the challenges he had faced raising his two sons, the support he received from Jill. It was a wonderful evening and a good ending to our meetings.”
When Ariel Sharon died in 2014, Biden attended the funeral. Afterward, Bibi’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, invited Biden for dinner at the Netanyahu residence. “We had another friendly dinner,” Netanyahu writes, a bit obsequiously. “Biden, always the gentleman, sent Sara a bouquet of flowers and a thoughtful note the next day.”
For his part, Donald Trump receives expected praise for his willingness to cross the foreign-policy establishment and keep his promises—chiefly to leave the Iran deal and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Trump also recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and bucked the “Palestine-first” approach of a generation of American negotiators who had insisted that wider Israel–Arab peace would have to wait for the attainment of a two-state solution. The Abraham Accords that resulted represent a sea change in Arab normalization with Israel.
This earns Trump the benefit of the doubt from Netanyahu when he gets something wrong. Trump’s early enthusiasm for Israeli–Palestinian negotiations is blamed on bad advice from Jared Kushner. And Trump’s perception that Netanyahu was the obstacle to peace is attributed to “a Jewish mutual friend of Trump and mine with whom I had severed my personal ties [who] had bad-mouthed me in front of the president”—a thinly veiled allusion to World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder.
Just as carefully calibrated are the (admittedly rare) targets of Netanyahu’s ire, most prominently Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, who each took a turn as prime minister after briefly forming a coalition without Bibi. These men, Netanyahu knows, remain in his life and in his way. “This ‘Brotherly Alliance’ between Bennett’s supposedly hard-right party and Lapid’s party on the center left was peculiar,” he writes. “Their platforms shared few goals, if any. The only thing that united them was a desire for power, and a willingness to shed their commitments to their voters to achieve it.”
All of which is a reminder that Bibi remains in the arena. While he continues to win elections, the number of potential coalition allies is dwindling, and his adversaries smell blood.
And yet, if his confidence is flagging, Bibi doesn’t show it. This book was written in the year between Netanyahu’s ouster from the prime minister’s office and the November election victory that has all but secured his return to power. Netanyahu acknowledges writing parts of the book “in the Knesset plenary during impossibly long budget debates.” He knew he had a limited window until he was back in the big chair. He never intended the end of Bibi: My Story to be the end of his story. Its existence is just another part of that story, and it’s a far better book than we had any reason to think it would be.
Featured Photo: Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine
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