Admiration and respect are not words usually attached to the persona of Benjamin Netanyahu by either friend or foe. Rather, it is his prowess as ‘the national goalkeeper’ and the guarantor of security that matters. In the eyes of many Israelis, the question of whether he possesses a moral compass is secondary, if not irrelevant.
Early in his career, Netanyahu was labelled ‘the Abba Eban of the CNN era’. Most react to and focus on this aspect of his political activities; his command of public relations and of the ‘spin’ that he is so adept at pitching. Like Donald Trump today, Netanyahu long ago understood the use of populist rhetoric and cutting soundbites in the television studio. Indeed the besuited, presentable Netanyahu always carried with him six clean shirts, all of the same colour, as he went from one broadcast to the next. But who is this man behind the golden words? What does Netanyahu actually believe in?
Neill Lochery, an academic and a veteran Netanyahu watcher has produced an informative book, which focuses mainly on Israeli politics during the last quarter of a century. Lochery has striven for fairness and objectivity in trying to decipher the enigma that is Netanyahu. He tries hard not to be diverted by cynicism and condemnation. His focus on Netanyahu’s period in office since his election in 2009 is particularly timely – it is always difficult to place contemporary events in a historical framework.
Early on in the book, Lochery alights on the central motivation of Netanyahu – that of survival, personal and national. His rise as a bare-knuckle fighter in the Israeli political arena coincided with the rise of the far Right, which exited from Menachem Begin’s broad coalition of the Right after the Camp David agreement in 1979. Begin had argued that the Sinai was not Eretz Israel – the Land of Israel – and therefore could be returned to the Egyptians. Many believed that he was also about to return the West Bank to the Palestinians. He was not, but despite this, it gave rise to a plethora of far Right parties – Techiya, Tsomet, Moledet, Morasha – as well as profound disaffection within Begin’s Herut party, which resided at the core of the Likud. Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Netanyahu, all of whom accepted the responsibility that accompanies the burden of being Prime Minister, concluded that they had to merge ideological belief with pragmatism. This opened up the way to a series of attacks by the far Right.
Netanyahu, like his predecessors, tried to ward off such attacks by speaking in two voices: one for the Likud loyalists, the other for the Israeli public. For example, during the public debate about the Elor Azaria trial, when an IDF soldier unlawfully killed a wounded Palestinian attacker, Netanyahu moved swiftly to embrace the Azaria family and pose as an uber-patriot. When he was in danger of losing the 2015 election, he told Israeli voters that ‘Arabs are going to the ballot box in droves, bussed in by left-wing NGOs’. It worked: there was a clear movement from the far Right to the centre Right on election day. It resulted in an unexpected Likud victory and a tally of 30 seats. This testified to a strong determination from Netanyahu not to be outmanoeuvred by the far Right.
Shortly after his election as Likud leader in 1992, Netanyahu made concerted efforts to cultivate the Russians – many of whom had voted for Yitzhak Rabin – and the far Right. He understood that he needed to win over both constituencies if he were to govern with a majority. The alternative was a coalition with Labor. In his campaign to reverse the 1993 Oslo Accords, Netanyahu thus worked in harness with the far Right which was happy to demonise Rabin at every opportunity. On 5 September 1995 Netanyahu famously spoke at a rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square amidst depictions of Rabin in a Gestapo uniform and cries of ‘Death to Rabin’. Lochery terms this as ‘one of the biggest mistakes of Netanyahu’s political career’ and explains his indifference at the time to a lack of judgment and experience, while writing that the Shin Bet had allegedly asked Netanyahu to tone down his rhetoric. There is a telling quote from ‘Fuad’ Ben-Eliezer, the Minister of Housing, who accidently found himself in the midst of such a demonstration:
A young man, who later turned out to be the brother of Yigal Amir, climbed onto my car. The amount of cursing and swearing to which I was subjected was unbelievable and at the lowest levels, including spitting in my face. Luckily for me the police were called and they extricated me in quite a state.
Netanyahu later assured Fuad that ‘nothing was going on’. Although he condemned such behaviour after Rabin’s murder, Netanyahu was driven at the time to forge a broad coalition of the Right in order to secure election next time at the ballot box. As history records, Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, was not considered to be unhinged before the assassination, but just another far Right activist.
In January 1997 during his first tenure in office, Netanyahu defined leadership as ‘the meeting ground between vision and reality, between ideology and practicality’. Indeed he stated then that no new settlements would be built, but that existing ones would be allowed to grow. While this raised the question of how to interpret the meaning of settlement expansion, he was also willing to return West Bank territory to the Palestinians.
Netanyahu tried to define himself in the tradition of David Ben-Gurion’s realism rather than by the incendiary rhetoric of Begin. Speaking to the National Defence College in 1997, Netanyahu said it was all-important to know ‘when to compromise, when to grasp opportunities and when to display determination and decisiveness’. While Netanyahu certainly adhered to ‘the wholeness of the Land,’ Lochery omits to mention that the traditional, crucial phrase ‘in its entirety’ was left out. This set off alarm bells in some quarters in the Likud. Coupled with a perceived lack of authority, crucial figures such as Shamir, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin deserted Netanyahu. They had all left the Likud by 1999.
It is also significant that Netanyahu rarely mentions ideological reasons for retaining the West Bank in contradistinction to the views of Begin, Shamir and his own father. Shortly after his defeat in 1999, he told the Likud Central Committee:
Arab expectations are again on the rise. If Israel complies with their demands, it will soon find itself dwarfed, shrunken, with its back to the sea. Such a state will be a constant temptation to threats of aggression and terror.
It can be reasoned that his rationale for an ongoing settlement expansion and a growth factor of 5 per cent per annum of the West Bank population is based on the need for security, provided for by strategic depth – and not on national and religious notions of a Greater Israel, so central to the beliefs of previous generations.
Netanyahu was propelled into politics by the shock of the death of his much-loved, elder brother, Yonatan, during the raid on Entebbe in 1976. Up until then, he was distinctly apolitical with a taste for la dolce vita and an interest in architecture. He was the son of Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a stern, devout and intellectually inflexible follower of Revisionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
After Yonatan’s killing, Netanyahu decamped to the US and, adopting the name ‘Ben Nitai,’ worked for the Boston Consulting Group. He defended Israel – but not its Labor government – on university campuses. In memory of his slain brother, he established the Jonathan Institute and held an international conference on terrorism in 1979. This was attended by political grandees from both the US and Israel. Local networking in the US and sponsorship by seminal figures such as Moshe Arens launched Netanyahu’s political career.
His long sojourn in the US characterised him as more American than Israeli. He felt very much at home with Americans. Indeed, his later wooing of Congress provoked the comment that the Republicans would have preferred Netanyahu to be their US Presidential candidate in 2012 than Mitt Romney. During Clinton-era negotiations, Madeleine Albright had to keep reminding herself that Netanyahu was not an American. Netanyahu’s public rebuke of Barack Obama and his open disaffection with the US president could also be presented as more of a family quarrel than solely a reflection of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Lochery interestingly writes that many Israelis regard Netanyahu as an outsider – ‘an American imposter who has taken over the country and tried to reshape it into a small political, economic and cultural outpost of the United States’.
Many American donors undoubtedly felt a loyalty to Netanyahu rather than to the Likud. He needed such funding to fuel his campaigning both within Israel and outside it. He enjoys the good things in life – Cuban cigars, a spacious home and exquisite cuisine. He aspires to being well-to-do – and of course, financial security also brought with it personal independence. Out of office after his electoral defeat in 1999, Netanyahu used his time to make his fortune. In 2013, Forbes Israel revealed that he was worth 41 million shekels – all made during his years in political exile. He charged US$60,000 per speaking engagement, and as an adviser to Electric Fuels earned US$10,000 for each one-to-one meeting with a multi-millionaire. Lochery notes that in 2014 it was revealed that Netanyahu held a Royal Bank of Scotland off-shore bank account in Jersey. This led to severe criticism from his political enemies. Shelly Yachimovich, his Labor opponent, said that such an action was ‘the very opposite of Zionism, of the love of the state and concern for its citizens. It is simply chutzpah’.
Yet such behaviour was also related to Netanyahu’s philosophy when he was Minister of Finance under Ariel Sharon. He initiated the privatisation of public companies, deregulation, wage reform and the shrinking of the welfare state. Lochery notes that the highest rate of individual taxation was reduced from 64 per cent to 44 per cent. Corporate tax was reduced from 35 per cent to 18 per cent.
The Israeli Right has traditionally been enmeshed in fatalism: the Jews are destined to be a people that dwells alone. The further right one goes, the stronger the fatalism. Yet such a mind-set also inhibits initiative, innovation and a vision of the future. It downgrades the universalist themes in Judaic tradition. It is disdainful of pragmatism and feels more comfortable with ideology. Despite the chaos in the Arab world, this, in part, has hemmed in Netanyahu from putting forward any peace plans.
While Netanyahu seems simplistic when he is in public relations mode or cultivating the US Congress, he reads widely about Jewish history – and the History Channel is his means of relaxing before going to sleep. The survival of a state of the Jews is a central component of his raison d’etre – a lesson inherited from his father.
Neill Lochery’s book fleshes out the man behind the mask. Even so, the Revisionist Zionist background is not clearly delineated in this book. Begin was never a Revisionist in the ideological sense. It is actually Meridor, Netanyahu’s one-time rival for the Likud leadership who today is a genuine disciple of Jabotinsky.
Neill Lochery has written a comprehensive overview for the interested reader who wishes to make sense of the Middle East imbroglio today. He has brought Netanyahu in from the cold.