When he was asked by a student in 2018, what is the most important subject to study for a political career, Benjamin Netanyahu replied that there were three answers: ‘History, history and more history’.
In writing his own history during the Bennett-Lapid interregnum, dictated when he was out of office, Netanyahu does not appear to have taken his own advice. Netanyahu’s autobiography is more Hollywood than history. The book is ‘Bibi-lite’, stripped of ideology and inconvenient facts — and made palatable for a diaspora audience. It is a stream of consciousness rather than a factual, informed life story.
The book opens heroically with Netanyahu’s time in the Sayeret Matkal — Israel’s remarkable commando force that has defended Israelis and Jews against lethal forces. He is rightly proud of his service and his participation in the storming of the Sabena flight at Lod airport in 1972.
From this background flows the attack on Entebbe airport and the killing of the commander of Operation Thunderbolt whose force rescued Jewish hostages, passengers on a hijacked Air France Airbus 300. The commander was, of course, Yonatan Netanyahu — Netanyahu’s older brother whom he idolised in all respects. Netanyahu writes: ‘He was our North Star, guiding us through life’s labyrinthine paths and serving as a model to be emulated.’ The shock of his death clearly traumatised Netanyahu and his family and the spirit of his dead brother hovers over this book.
Netanyahu’s involvement in hasbarah (explanation) began shortly after the Yom Kippur war when he spoke to countless audiences in the US to explain Israel’s case. This launched him into a mastery of public relations and eventually into the highest office in the state of Israel. There is however a distinction between informatziah (information), hasbarah (explanation) and ta’amulah (propaganda). Netanyahu’s skill has been to subtly merge one category into another and to eliminate any distinction between them – to drop hints and to imply connections. For a wider non-Jewish public for whom understanding Israel is not at the top of their priorities, Netanyahu is a charming, erudite exponent. For many Jews in the UK, Netanyahu’s ability to move from one category to another has actually been a catalyst to study Jewish history in order to understand the rationale for a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel rather than Netanyahu’s questionable version of it.
The importance of this book is that it portrays how Netanyahu sees himself and his place in Jewish history. He takes umbrage against those who do not accept this narrative. Ehud Barak and Naftali Bennett are disparaged. He takes particular aim at Barack Obama: ‘He disregarded our history and disrespected Israel’s elected leader who dared to disagree with him’. Yet over 70 per cent of the Diaspora’s most pro-Israel community voted for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012.
The PLO rightly comes in for harsh criticism, but all acts of terror are attributed to a monolithic organisation, controlled by Arafat — other Palestinian actors are rarely mentioned. Netanyahu comments that ‘Palestinian terrorists’ had attempted to murder Shlomo Argov, the Israeli Ambassador to the UK outside the Dorchester Hotel in June 1982. He continues: ‘Israel sent its army to South Lebanon — the area that the PLO had taken over and turned into an anti-Israel mini-state’. As history records, all this led to the debacle of the first Lebanon war — no songs were written about this war.
The ‘Palestinian terrorists’ whom Netanyahu mentions were in fact members of the Abu Nidal Group which was vehemently opposed to the PLO and actually assassinated PLO diplomats such as Said Hammami and Issam Sartawi. While Palestinian forces in ‘Fatahland’ in southern Lebanon continued to carry out periodic attacks on Israel, the PLO was not responsible for the maiming of Argov. This deception was the first of many practiced by Menahem Begin and Ariel Sharon in a war which brought out 400,000 Israelis in protest — the equivalent of five million in Hyde Park — in September 1982. Yet there is no mention of this demonstration in the book, only a criticism of Begin’s ‘capitulation’ to the recommendation of the Kahan Commission in 1983 to remove Sharon from the Ministry of Defence.
There are many such examples of misinterpretation and omission in this book.
Netanyahu’s upbringing is extremely interesting. He came from a family of intellectuals, wedded to the Zionist idea. His grandfather, Rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky and his father, Professor Ben-Zion Netanyahu devoted their lives to the Zionist movement. His uncle was Professor Elisha Netanyahu of the Technion’s Mathematics department and biographer of Richard Feynman, the popular explainer of sub-atomic particles and theorist of quantum electrodynamics. Growing up in Talpiot in Jerusalem, Netanyahu was embedded in a unique intellectual milieu with neighbours such as Joseph Klausner and Shai Agnon.
Although he regards himself as a man of the Right, Netanyahu comes across as much more of a libertarian than a conservative. There are many examples in this book of his desire to circumvent orders or to bypass accepted rules. Indeed, he regards the unwillingness of Israel’s intelligence services to support a military attack on Iran a decade ago as evidence of their deeply cautious, conservative nature.
Like the McCarthyists in the 1950s America, Netanyahu finds ‘reds under the bed’ everywhere — liberals who beg to differ are transformed into leftist lawyers, leftist journalists, anti-religious leftists, leftist British intellectuals (even within the weekly Economist). Anything that they write about, must, by definition, therefore be incorrect, fuelled by ulterior motives — from criticism of his wife’s handling of ‘disgruntled’ employees and purchase of cordon bleu concoctions for the family table to Netanyahu’s explanation of the appointment of Roni Baron as Attorney-General in 1997 who resigned 48 hours afterwards, following a public furore.
Investigations into his conduct in public office are dismissed with alacrity. The CIA Affair (1996); the Gifts Affair (1999); the Bibi Tours Affair (2011); the Pistachio Affair (2013); the Laundry Affair (2013); the Submarine Affair (2016); Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 (2019) are insidious allegations. Netanyahu warns that he strongly opposes ‘legal interference in Israeli politics’ — perhaps a portent of the shape of things to come in a government which includes Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.
Netanyahu’s autobiography is primarily directed at an American audience. This is not surprising as he spent 18 years in the US, but it is also the country where power lies. Britain is, on the other hand, seen as an island off the coast of northern Europe that once occupied the Land of Israel. Yet Netanyahu does include some references to the United Kingdom. The former Israeli Ambassador to the UK and aide to Netanyahu, Mark Regev, is depicted as a regular ‘Sir Humphrey’, Alex Ferguson is demoted from manager to ‘coach’ while Sara Netanyahu, a devotee of ‘The Crown’, told Prince William how much she identified with his mother.
Netanyahu recalls the well-attended Israel Solidarity rally in Trafalgar Square in May 2002 in the midst of suicide bombings by Palestinian Islamists and falsehoods about the Jenin ‘massacre’, taken up by sections of the British media. There was considerable internal debate within Jewish leadership as to whether it was wise to call upon Netanyahu’s services to present the case for Israel. Netanyahu pledged not to be controversial, but on the day could not resist the temptation to reach rhetorical heights — telescoping Chamberlain, appeasement, Churchill, the British in Palestine, Palestinian terrorists, antisemites, Arafat and the PLO into one long monologue. Richard Harries, the then Bishop of Oxford, commented later that Netanyahu ‘used the occasion for his own political purposes’.
Netanyahu also writes about his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and the crushing of the miners’ strike in the 1980s. He writes that the Israeli economy was then ‘mired in an antiquated semi-socialist bog’ and that Thatcher’s example inspired him to confront the Histadrut and the ‘unionised welfare state’. This moved him to privatise El Al, Zim, Bezeq, Bank Hapoalim and the Israel Discount Bank as Minister of Finance under Ariel Sharon.
It is significant that Netanyahu only applies the epithet ‘dictator’ to virulently anti-Israel regimes such as Syria and Iran. Putin and Xi jinping are not granted that label because Netanyahu clearly perceives that it is not in Israel’s national interests to do so.
Netanyahu notes that he regularly studied the weekly Torah portion with his son. Yet in political life, he has ignored the universalism within Judaism and its concern for global justice.
Throughout, Netanyahu often quotes Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the great builders of the Zionist movement, but also someone whose current image has been moulded down the decades by the political dictates of both Left and Right. In many senses, the true Jabotinsky has been lost and has become little more than a caricature especially within the Likud. Thus Netanyahu gets it completely wrong in this book in suggesting that Jabotinsky predicted the Holocaust. Jabotinsky certainly stated that Jews would suffer if they did not leave for Mandatory Palestine, but this was a general comment — and unspecified. Jabotinsky like all Jews never predicted the horror and enormity of the Holocaust. In July 1937, he unveiled the rudiments of his ‘Ten Year Plan’ for Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe to a meeting at the House of Commons. Would he have formulated a ten year plan — stretching to 1950 – if he had feared an immediate Holocaust? Within the Likud, some veteran figures such as Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, regard themselves as the genuine adherents of Jabotinsky’s teachings and disdain Netanyahu’s use of Jabotinsky.
In contrast to Netanyahu’s cultivation of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, Jabotinsky strongly opposed Abba Ahimeir and the maximalists in his Revisionist movement. Jabotinsky never wavered in his opposition to authoritarianism and illiberal thought. He died in the US in 1940, attempting to create a Jewish army to fight the Nazis.
One wonders what he would have made of this book — perhaps this review provides at least part of the answer.