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Bibi: The Turbulent Life & Times of Netanyahu

“The problem with Israel,” Tony Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2003, “is not – as is sometimes suggested – that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-19th-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ – a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded – is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”

Today, it is Judt’s liberal internationalist certainty that seems like an anachronism, while Israel – a “hybrid society of ancient phobias and high-tech hope, a combination of tribalism and globalism,” in the words of the journalist Anshel Pfeffer – looks increasingly like the embryo of a new world governed by atavistic fears, whose most malign symptom is the presidency of Donald Trump.

Pfeffer, a correspondent for Haaretz, has written a biography of Benjamin Netanyahu as a way of explaining today’s Israel – by no means an enviable task. Say what you will about Netanyahu’s predecessors, they had their fascination, from the monastic self-discipline of David Ben-Gurion to the gluttony of Ariel Sharon. Netanyahu comes across as a hollow figure: a “marketing man,” in the words of Max Hastings, who met him while writing a biography of his brother Jonathan. 

Yet Netanyahu can hardly be avoided, or his survival skills denied. If he is not forced out of office on corruption charges before July 2019, he will be Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, overtaking Ben-Gurion. Israeli democracy, the marketing man’s brand, has fallen into terminal discredit among liberals in the West, but he has never cared what liberals think, and they have far less influence in an era of populist demagoguery. Trump, Putin, Modi, Orbán: Netanyahu could hardly be more at home in a world of nationalist strongmen. Without giving up an inch of occupied land, he has won over Sunni Arab states paralyzed by fear of Shia Iran, fed up with the Palestinians and incapable of exerting pressure on Israel. 

Palestinian resistance in the West Bank has virtually come to a halt. Israeli Jews – of whom more than 600,000 live in settlements – have no reason to think about the Palestinians, unless they’re bingeing on episodes of Fauda, the Israeli TV series about the occupation. Most Israeli Jews consider the siege of Gaza, which has rendered the territory almost uninhabitable, an acceptable price to pay for “security,” even if the misery caused by the siege is precisely what heightens their insecurity. 

This view is not shared by Palestinian citizens of Israel, around 20 of the population, but they are an internal pariah.

Netanyahu’s Israel embodies what Ze’ev Jabotinsky, his father’s hero, called “an iron wall of Jewish bayonets.” Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, dreamed of an Israel on both banks of the Jordan. Netanyahu has made his peace with Hashemite rule over Jordan, but in his commitment to a Greater Israel and his implacable opposition to Palestinian self-determination he remains his father’s son. 

Born into a Zionist family in Warsaw in 1910, Benzion Mileikowsky settled in Jerusalem in 1924, and joined Hatzohar, the World Union of Zionist Revisionists, right-wing but secular Zionists deeply influenced by blood-and-soil nationalism, and adopted his father’s pen name, “Netanyahu,” “given by god.” He became a student of the Spanish Inquisition, advancing the pitiless thesis that, rather than die for their faith, the conversos had embraced the Church out of ambition.

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Palestinians pay a steep price for resisting the occupation, whether violently or non-violently. The Israeli military calls this “mowing the lawn.” Pfeffer describes Netanyahu as “the prime minister with the lowest casualty rates in Israel’s history,” but he is only counting Israeli bodies. In the 2014 Gaza war alone, more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, two-thirds of them civilians, while Israel’s death toll stood at 64 soldiers and six civilians. Netanyahu’s response has been to accuse Hamas of using “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.” Most Israelis share this view. In 2016 in Hebron, during the short-lived “knife intifada,” Sergeant Elor Azaria was filmed executing a wounded suspect called Abdel Fattah al-Sharif. He had been lying on the ground for ten minutes when Azaria shot him. Azaria was condemned by Netanyahu’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, but when most Israelis seemed to be rallying to his defense, Netanyahu changed his tune, making a sympathy call to the killer’s family. After nine months in prison, Azaria walked free.

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