“Bibi: My Story,” by Benjamin Netanyahu, Threshold Editions, 2022. Quotes on this piece are taken from the Hebrew version.
Within the lead-up to general elections, Israeli politicians sometimes conduct informal meetings with members of reports desks. In 2008, several party leaders visited Maariv, the every day where I used to be working as an editor. We might meet within the conference room; the foremost value of the events was the stream-of-consciousness, free-flowing conversations that sometimes developed with leaders who, at the least when on camera, rarely went off script. Ehud Barak impressed everybody within the room along with his strategic evaluation and command of details. Per week later, Avigdor Lieberman was politically shrewd and intellectually shallow.
Finally, Benjamin Netanyahu arrived. Almost a decade after the defeat that ended his first term as prime minister in 1999, and a few years after suffering his worst political loss, when his Likud party won an all-time-low 12 Knesset seats, Netanyahu was on the verge of a long-awaited return to power, running head-to-head against Kadima’s Tzipi Livni.
In a room stuffed with skeptical journalists, a lot of whom opposed and even openly despised him, Netanyahu made good on his repute as a superb communicator. He spoke somewhat than lectured, and seemed honest and fascinating. His humorousness humanized him — though one comment he made, concerning the way through which economic growth brought down the Arab birth rate, thus helping to keep up a Jewish majority amongst Israeli residents, made a few of us move around uncomfortably in our chairs.
Netanyahu mostly discussed the economy, a subject he clearly enjoyed talking about, having served in his last ministerial role, from 2003-2005, as finance minister. But when the time got here for Q&A, the paper’s editor-in-chief immediately cut to the elephant within the room. “What concerning the Palestinians?” he asked.
This was only a couple of short years after the top of the Second Intifada, and a latest reality was still taking shape: Hamas had taken over Gaza, while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was discussing the two-state solution with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinians were The Issue. Yet standing before us, Netanyahu had little or no to say beyond criticizing the Olmert government’s ideas and solutions and saying Israel must be more forceful in arguing its case. When pressed to present his own plan, he described something like an enhanced Palestinian autonomy within the West Bank, with Israel maintaining control over the Jordan Valley. As he spoke, I considered how the person who made a profession out of opposing the Oslo Accords, was effectively suggesting turning them right into a final-status agreement — a rather improved version of the established order. It wasn’t just ironic; his considering seemed out of touch with reality. “Unbelievable,” the paper’s editor summed it up when Bibi left the room.
“Bibi: My Story,” Netanyahu’s autobiography, written through the nine months he spent within the opposition and published just ahead of this week’s Israeli election, feels in some ways like a continuation of that meeting in 2008. This can be the fifth election Israel has seen in 4 years — an unprecedented political crisis that revolves entirely around Netanyahu. The polls are as tight as will be; victory may very well be determined by several thousand votes going to 1 small party or one other. Accordingly, Bibi’s memoir is partly a campaign document, and partly aimed toward cementing his legacy.
Netanyahu’s personal fate still hangs within the air, but his place in history is assured. He feels vindicated, proven right by the events of recent years. But while he has succeeded in making mainstream what previously seemed implausible, and rewriting the vocabulary of Israeli political discourse, his stubborn avoidance of the Palestinian issue signifies that it should proceed to define the contours of Israeli politics long after he’s gone.
Sidestepping the Palestinians
In his memoir, identical to 12 years ago, any discussion of the Palestinians is put forth solely with a purpose to refute, somewhat than to color a vision of the long run. Referring to the Palestinians who live inside ‘48 borders as “Arabs,” he insists they’re full, equal residents, while those that live within the West Bank and Gaza ”run their very own lives” and are “by no means governed by Israel.” If apartheid exists, Netanyahu writes, it’s contained in the Palestinian Authority, which doesn’t allow Jews to buy land inside its territory.
The book is riddled with these sorts of half truths and facts deprived of context. As Netanyahu knows all too well, Israel does settle Jews inside Palestinian Hebron and the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, while Palestinians under occupation can’t even travel freely without an Israeli permit, and even dream of living in Jewish cities or settlements. Even when a Palestinian marries an Israeli citizen, they would wish to live outside the country, or individually. And as for “running their very own lives,” Palestinians’ borders, exports, imports, roads, regional zoning plans, currency, electro-magnetic frequencies, air space and more are all controlled by Israel.
Throughout his long years in power, Netanyahu stayed true to his promise: he maintained the occupation, expanded settlements, and argued his case forcefully. But something modified during this era: today, no one can dismiss his version of reality as “unbelievable.” Bibi has turned his worldview into the common denominator of Israeli politics. His idea of a final status agreement — annexing the settlements while keeping Palestinians in Bantustans scattered between them — has even changed into a proper peace plan recommend by the Trump White House.
Netanyahu admits in his book that he prefers American administrations to not take care of the Palestinian issue in any respect; “messianism” is the term he reserves for this project, accusing those that pushed for a two-state solution of “chasing Nobel Prizes.” His opposition to repeated peace efforts led by each Bill Clinton and Barack Obama is for him a source of pride, not a matter for soul-searching, which rarely exists in his book. He even blames the Bush and Trump administrations for focusing an excessive amount of on the Palestinians.
For years, Netanyahu fought against the notion that an agreement with the Palestinians is the important thing to Israel’s acceptance within the Middle East. Indeed, following the Arab Spring, several Sunni dictatorships have warmed as much as Israel — some have even signed normalization agreements with it. Netanyahu feels almost gleeful when he quotes former Secretary of State John Kerry, who claimed in 2016 that “there can be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world… without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace.”
“We bypassed the Palestinian issue and got 4 diplomatic breakthroughs,” Netanyahu writes. “There you’ve the true ‘Recent Middle East,’ built on power.” His success in popularizing this notion is striking: no one within the Biden White House desires to take care of the Palestinians. Yet he avoids an important reason for pursuing a final-status agreement: not geo-politics, but the character of the regime that emerged once the occupation became everlasting. On that, Bibi offers little or no substance.
‘A moderate conservative’
Written in English, Netanyahu’s autobiography seems at times to be directed at a foreign, mostly American audience. It’s a full of life book, stuffed with anecdotes, and is usually interesting to read. He spends long pages discussing his dealings with American presidents; confrontations with Obama were, he says, the best challenge of his life. He compliments the previous Democratic president for his passion and political skills, but believes Obama judged events in accordance with “a neo-colonial worldview.” He even accuses the president who toppled the Libyan regime, escalated the war in Afghanistan, and sent U.S. forces to kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, a U.S. ally, of believing only in “soft power” — mainly because he refused to threaten Iran with war.
The Trump years, Netanyahu says, were the most effective for Israel. He can also be fairly generous with Vladimir Putin’s version of realpolitik, while avoiding mentioning the war in Ukraine altogether.
There are only a couple of occasions of true self-revelation within the book — a panic attack ahead of his 2015 speech before Congress is one rare such moment — and even less reflection or self-doubt. His errors, from confessing to an extramarital affair on television to his bet on Mitt Romney within the 2012 U.S. presidential election, are disregarded. In geopolitics, as in his personal life, Netanyahu never felt sufficiently secure or comfortable to let go of his narrative. His dog-whistle comments on “Arab voters heading to the polling stations in droves” in an try and topple his government within the 2015 election are explained as a matter of sloppy phrasing. He sees himself as a moderate conservative, and rejects the accusation that he fanned the flames ahead of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin (these pages read as if Netanyahu sees himself as the true victim of the affair). For obvious reasons, his political pacts with racists and nationalists aren’t mentioned — Netanyahu will need them again.
He has some kind words for the dead and defeated Shimon Peres, but not for other political rivals, and he’s bitter when discussing the media or his legal troubles. No problem is of his own doing; conspiracies against him are in every single place. For Netanyahu, confrontation was at all times a feature, not a bug. He was ahead of his time: before he was elected, having good relations with the international community — and particularly the White House — was considered a political asset. Today, putting on a troublesome face and sticking it to the world appears to be in fashion, and never only in Israel.
In politics, Netanyahu at all times preferred to energise his base somewhat than wear the mask of a moderate, which might appeal to the middle. Here, too, what once seemed novel and outrageous in his character is now the sign of the times. During his first term, and against the backdrop of the optimism and multiculturalism of the Nineteen Nineties, Netanyahu’s tribalism seemed odd and misplaced; today it is sort of a political cliche. That is now his foremost political challenge: when everybody thinks and acts like Bibi, he finally seems replaceable.
Creating the zeitgeist
Pundits see Tuesday’s election as a key moment in Israeli history: if Netanyahu and his coalition partners win an absolute majority, they promise to implement radical changes in Israeli institutions — from facilitating the nomination of their proxies to key positions, to placing limits on the courts’ ability to stop government actions or to prosecute politicians. This might help Netanyahu stay out of prison over the corruption charges which have dogged him these past years. It could be essentially the most radical government Israel has known, through which Meir Kahane’s racist followers could receive cabinet positions. If Netanyahu loses, he could even find himself in prison. And, after all, there’s at all times the potential for deadlock and one other election.
Yet, irrespective of his personal fortune on this election, Netanyahu has succeeded in transforming Israeli politics. He created a latest political vocabulary that redefined the relations amongst Israeli Jews, and between them and the Palestinians. When Netanyahu’s opponents attack him for not toppling Hamas or for removing Israeli soldiers from parts of Hebron, they achieve this with phrases he himself invented and using talking points for which he was known. When he defends himself in his book, it is generally from his right flank, not his left.
Ideas comparable to demanding that the Palestinian leadership recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” which was never a part of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, are actually seen as an inherent element of any future deal; it has grow to be mainstream political consensus that Jerusalem won’t ever be divided; “leftist” has grow to be a curse word; Kahanism has gone mainstream; and an end to the occupation looks as if a fantasy even amongst its die-hard opponents. The unthinkable has grow to be normal, and what was once deemed “common sense” now seems absurd, outdated, and, to many, dangerous.
Like most books written by lively politicians, Netanyahu’s autobiography lacks intimacy, but there’s something in its tone that feels so near home, so familiar. The yr 1996, when Netanyahu rose to power, was also the primary time I voted in a general election. He has been prime minister for many of the years which have since passed, and even in his absence, Netanyahu continued to solid a big shadow over Israeli public life; it isn’t any surprise that the 2 foremost political camps in Israel aren’t any longer called “left” and “right,” but “Bibistim” (Hebrew for Netanyahu’s supporters) and “anti-Bibistim.”
Netanyahu’s prose is the zeitgeist, a language he created, and which is able to remain his foremost legacy after he’s gone — befitting for somebody who has, from an early age, been referred to as his country’s most adept public speaker. But like many great speakers, he used his gift to avoid problems somewhat than take care of them. Whether Netanyahu likes it or not, the unresolved Palestinian issue, somewhat than Iran, stays the only existential query plaguing Israel and Israelis. Indeed, it’s The Issue. Once, there was, on the very least, an imagined resolution for it. Netanyahu did away with it. With or without him, we’re all left staring into the abyss.