The sea is the same sea
- Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu by Anshel Pfeffer
Hurst, 423 pp, £20.00, May, ISBN 978 1 84904 988 7
‘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 for ever 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 paralysed 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 per cent 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.
Benzion’s greatest achievement in Hatzohar was to represent it at a 1940 conference in New York: he was a right-wing nebbish, ‘at most, a peripheral figure in the leader’s entourage’. But he was a true believer, devastated by the movement’s defeat in its rivalry with the socialist Zionism of Ben-Gurion, who tactically endorsed the idea of partitioning Palestine. With the establishment of the state of Israel under Ben-Gurion’s leadership, men like Benzion Netanyahu were left to lick their wounds. A rigid and gloomy man, he licked them for the rest of his life, most of it spent in proud, self-imposed exile from Zion. Believing that ‘our real national core had been destroyed’ after the Holocaust, he saw the state’s new leaders as weak men, preparing the way for ‘Zionist liquidation’. After independence he found work as an editor at the new Encyclopedia Hebraica, but seethed with bitterness at his inability to secure an academic post worthy of what he felt were his talents.
Benjamin Netanyahu, ‘Bibi’ to his family, was born in 1949 in Tel Aviv, three years after his older brother, Jonathan (‘Yoni’), and grew up in Katamon, a neighbourhood dominated by Christian Arabs before the 1948 War. (A third son, Iddo, was born in 1952.) In 1963, the boys were uprooted when their father, convinced that he had been blacklisted by academia, moved the family to Elkins Park, a leafy suburb of Philadelphia. For a Revisionist family, leaving Israel was no small humiliation: Jews who emigrate are known as yordim, those who ‘go down’ (immigrants make aliyah and ‘ascend’). In ‘going down’, the Netanyahu boys had to postpone their entrance into the army, their keenest aspiration: both Yoni and Bibi were determined to wash the shame of their bookish father, a prophet outcast in the Jewish state. Yoni’s letters to his friends back home suggest a kind of Zionist Sayyid Qutb, disgusted by American hedonism: ‘People here talk about cars and girls. Their life revolves around one subject – sex, and I believe Freud would have rich ground here to seed and pick his fruit. Slowly I am being convinced that I live among monkeys, not humans.’ Yoni contented himself at first with preaching Zionism to his classmates, but in 1964 he returned to Israel to become a paratrooper, fulfilling his father’s fantasy of the Jewish warrior defending his land from the Arabs, whom he saw as ‘a rabble of cave dwellers’.
Without the older brother he worshipped, Netanyahu seems to have been lost in the wilderness of the American 1960s. At Cheltenham High, he was known as Ben, not Bibi. He played on the soccer team and was a member of the chess society but mostly kept to himself. He had little in common with liberal Jewish classmates fired up by the civil rights movement. A reader of Ayn Rand, he was preoccupied with the evils of communism, not the evils of racism. A week before the outbreak of the 1967 war, he flew to Israel. Netanyahu claims he returned to fight for his country, but Pfeffer says the main reason was that he missed Yoni.
Back in Israel, Bibi trained as a combat soldier, and joined Sayeret Matkal, an elite special forces unit whose existence remained an official secret until 1992. Although thicker than his lean, spartan older brother, he was extremely fit, and served for five years, taking part in numerous cross-border attacks, including the 1968 Battle of Karameh in Jordan, where he fought against Palestinian guerrillas under Arafat’s command. In May 1972, he was wounded in the shoulder by friendly fire during the rescue of the hijacked Sabena Flight 707.
Bibi could have continued with a career in the army like Yoni, but he had more worldly ambitions. Two months after the Sabena rescue he returned to the States with his girlfriend, Miki Weizmann, whom he married shortly afterwards. He enrolled on MIT’s architecture and planning course (he later did a second degree at the school of management) while Weizmann studied chemistry at Brandeis. He went back to calling himself Ben rather than Bibi; he even changed his last name to ‘Nitay’ because Americans had trouble pronouncing ‘Netanyahu’. It was a typical mix of assimilationist zeal and contempt for the only country where he has known anything resembling a civilian life: as an adult in Israel, he has only been a soldier or a politician. A few months before the 1973 war broke out, he enticed Yoni, now Ehud Barak’s deputy in Sayeret Matkal, to spend the summer semester at Harvard. Although Yoni shared Bibi’s admiration for America’s entrepreneurial energy, the anti-war activists on campus repelled him, especially Jewish ones: ‘They seem to have long ago ceased being objective. A pity for America, because these crazies will destroy it.’ (Both brothers served in the war; Bibi has spoken proudly of standing next to Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak along the banks of the Suez Canal, but Barak says he has no memory of such a meeting.)
The defining drama of Netanyahu’s life as a young man took place in July 1976, when Yoni was killed at Entebbe airport, during a mission to rescue Israeli and Jewish hostages from Air France Flight 139, which had been hijacked by four members of a German cell of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The story of his death and who killed him remains contentious. According to the most widely accepted account, he defied orders by opening fire on Ugandan soldiers, thereby drawing the attention of the control tower, from where the shots that killed him were most likely fired. The Netanyahu family, however, refused to believe that their son had been killed by a subaltern African soldier, and insisted that he had been killed by the German commander of the hijackers. Although Yoni had been depressed for months and incommunicative at briefings, he was exalted in family mythology as ‘the peerless commander’, transformed into an icon even before his burial. ‘I expected the father to say how much he loved his son and missed him,’ the Likud politician Moshe Arens recalled after the funeral. ‘Instead Benzion said, the Arabs don’t know yet what a loss they have inflicted on the Jews.’
Commissioned by the family to write Yoni’s biography, Max Hastings portrayed him as a moody, stubborn loner, much like his father, only without his father’s brains – ‘a troubled young man of moderate intelligence, striving to come to terms with intellectual concepts beyond his grasp’. Far from being the peerless commander, Yoni had been ‘actively disliked by more than a few of his men’. Furious at Hastings, the Netanyahus had the book published in a bowdlerised form. Hastings, who wrote about his encounter with the family in his memoirs (‘one of the sorriest episodes of my career’), took a particularly strong dislike to Bibi, who boasted: ‘In the next war, if we do it right, we’ll have a chance to get all the Arabs out … We can clear the West Bank, sort out Jerusalem.’ Bibi’s racism, Hastings recalled, wasn’t limited to Arabs. ‘He joked about the Golani Brigade, the infantry force in which so many men were North African or Yemeni Jews. “They’re OK as long as they are led by white officers,” he grinned.’
For all his braggadocio, ‘Ben Nitay’ was still floundering well into the 1970s. He gave occasional speeches in the Boston area on behalf of the Israeli government, which recognised an asset in his special forces experience, American accent, good looks and, not least, his flair for hasbara – a Hebrew word that means defending Israel by way of a highly selective presentation of the facts. But at $25 a speech, hasbara didn’t pay the bills, or not yet, so Netanyahu relied on his work as a consultant, and, for a brief moment, as a marketing director for a furniture manufacturer in Israel. His personal life was a shambles. His marriage collapsed shortly after the birth of his daughter Noa in 1978, when Weizmann found out about his affair with Fleur Cates, a British-German woman whom he had met at the Harvard Business School Library, and later married.
Netanyahu remained in the shadow of Yoni, the favoured son: he was entrusted with overseeing the publication of his brother’s letters and setting up a think tank in his name. Menachem Begin’s election in 1977, which brought Likud to power and heralded a major realignment in Israeli politics in the right’s favour, should have improved his prospects. But Begin, the former commander of the Irgun militia and a Jabotinsky follower, considered Bibi’s father ‘a pompous windbag who had preferred a comfortable life in the United States’, and looked askance at his yordim son. When Begin agreed to withdraw from the Sinai, Netanyahu saw it as a betrayal, but was sufficiently calculating not to sign any protest statements: the family needed Begin’s seal of approval for the first international conference of the Jonathan Institute, held in Jerusalem in 1979.
Two years later, Netanyahu’s speech at that conference got him his first break in politics, as deputy chief of mission under Moshe Arens, Israel’s hawkish new ambassador to the US. As fluent in Ayn Rand as he was in English, Netanyahu flourished in Reagan’s Washington, where laissez-faire economics and Revisionist Zionism were the twin pillars of right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. He rehearsed for interviews in front of video cameras, and learned to ‘keep his eye fixed on the lens while presenting the left side of his face, the side without the scarred lip’. (Netanyahu cut his upper lip as a child when he fell from Yoni’s grasp while climbing a fence, another ‘heresy’ expurgated from the Yoni mythology.) ‘Young, personable and oozing self-confidence’, as Pfeffer puts it, he ingratiated himself with Israel’s champions in the American media, from William Safire, a neoconservative columnist at the New York Times, to the more debonair Zionist Ted Koppel of ABC, on whose show, Nightline, he made frequent appearances as a ‘terrorism expert’. Safire urged Israel to make Netanyahu its new ambassador when Arens replaced Sharon as defence minister, after Sharon was forced to step down over the Sabra and Shatila massacre. But Yitzhak Shamir, the new prime minister, saw Netanyahu as ‘shallow, vain, self-destructive and prone to pressure’. As he put it, ‘the sea is the same sea and Netanyahu is the same Netanyahu.’
The ‘princes’ of Likud may have had little time for Netanyahu, but he succeeded in wooing Shimon Peres, the Labour leader, who made him ambassador to the UN in 1984, after forming a national unity government with Shamir. No sooner had Netanyahu moved to New York than he put in a request for renovations at the ambassador’s residence opposite the Met. He lived in style with Fleur at the Regency Hotel until the apartment was ready, and courted wealthy Jewish New Yorkers like Ronald Lauder, who introduced him to other millionaires, among them Donald Trump. Although not religious himself, he forged an alliance with the Lubavitcher leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who welcomed him at his Brooklyn residence and commanded him to ‘light a candle for truth and for the Jewish people’ in that ‘house of lies’, the UN.
In his role as ambassador, Netanyahu was little more than a smooth practitioner of hasbara – a ‘lightweight demagogue’, in the words of Reuven Rivlin, chairman of Likud’s Jerusalem branch and now Israel’s president. But in Moshe Arens he had a more useful ally, who in 1988 persuaded Shamir to make him a deputy in the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu hired an unofficial aide: Avigdor Lieberman, an extremist settler from Moldova, nine years his junior, a former nightclub bouncer. Although Arens was his boss, Netanyahu had trouble restraining himself, at one point denouncing American policy as ‘based on lies and distortions’. James Baker, George Bush’s secretary of state, barred him from entering the State Department. ‘I was offended by his glibness and his criticism of US policy – not to mention his arrogance and outlandish ambition,’ Robert Gates, then deputy national security adviser, recalled in his memoirs.
But Netanyahu had his sights set on taking over Likud, not on peace in the Middle East; he was performing for the audience back home. His fusion of bombast and calculation worked. During the first Gulf War, he likened the threat of Iraqi poison gas attacks to the Nazi gas chambers, and wore a gas mask in his interview with CNN. He had to find a special gas mask with a side filter, since the standard issue had large filters in front that left the wearer inaudible. ‘I must say, this is the darnedest way to do an interview,’ he said. ‘What it does show, however, is the threat that Israel faces.’ In fact, the threat he hoped to neutralise was not Saddam Hussein but his chief rival in Likud, David Levy, a Moroccan-born Jew who didn’t speak English and lacked his flair for hasbara.
Netanyahu nearly lost his battle with Levy when his new wife, Sara Ben Artzi, a young flight attendant he had met in Amsterdam shortly after his marriage to Fleur unravelled, received a call from an anonymous source who claimed to have a videotape of him having sex with another woman. Expelled from his latest matrimonial home and living with his parents, Netanyahu declared himself the victim of ‘a crime unprecedented in the history of democracy’ and all but pointed the finger at Levy. The marriage survived, thanks to an agreement orchestrated by lawyers giving Sara full access to his schedule and the right to vet the appointments of all staff members. And Netanyahu was duly elected as Likud’s leader, with 52 per cent of the votes of party members. He surrounded himself with right-wing Israelis who had either been born in the US or spent long periods there: David Bar-Ilan, a concert pianist who edited the Jerusalem Post; Dore Gold, an academic from Connecticut who wrote his thesis on Saudi support for terrorism (now a rather delicate matter, I suspect); and the Revisionist intellectual Yoram Hazony.
‘Few politicians have had such a long and intensive career without their views evolving,’ Pfeffer writes. Those views were spelled out at numbing length in Netanyahu’s 1993 book A Place among the Nations, in which (in Pfeffer’s helpful summary) he argued that the Israeli-Arab conflict has nothing to do with ‘Palestinians, borders or refugees. It’s not even about Israel. It rises from an implacable Arab and Muslim hatred toward the West, and Israel as the West’s outpost in the Middle East.’ Only the ‘peace of deterrence’ would keep the Arabs in line; territorial compromise was unthinkable, indeed treasonous. ‘You are worse than Chamberlain,’ Netanyahu told Rabin in the Knesset, when the Oslo conversations were first revealed in August 1993. ‘He put another nation in danger, but you are doing it to your own nation.’ Pfeffer insists that Netanyahu’s speeches against Rabin were ‘measured’, and defends him against charges that he bears responsibility for the campaign of incitement that led to Rabin’s assassination on 4 November 1995. ‘While riding the far-right tiger,’ he writes, ‘at no point did Netanyahu use the vocabulary of the far right against Rabin and his ministers.’ But he didn’t have to. He merely had to go to rallies where Rabin was called a murderer and a traitor, and say nothing. Rabin’s widow, Leah, refused to shake his hand at the state funeral: ‘I will not forgive him as long as I live.’
In the 1996 elections, Netanyahu narrowly defeated Peres, whose failed campaign against Hizbullah, Operation Grapes of Wrath, had culminated in the shelling of a UN compound in southern Lebanon, killing more than a hundred civilians who had taken shelter there. ‘Netanyahu is good for the Jews’ was his campaign slogan. ‘The Jews had beaten the Israelis,’ Peres remarked, a bitter allusion to the dark shtetl mentality which, in his view, set Netanyahu’s Revisionism apart from the confident sabra ethos promoted by Ben-Gurion. In his inaugural speech, Netanyahu promised to encourage ‘pioneering settlement’, and drew no distinction between the two sides of the Green Line that separated Israel’s pre-1967 borders and the occupied territories: ‘The settlers are the real pioneers of our day and they deserve our support and appreciation.’ Settlers in the Gush Etzion bloc would soon enjoy the benefits of a new road and tunnel – the creation of Netanyahu’s minister of national infrastructure, Ariel Sharon – that gave them direct access to Jerusalem, bypassing Palestinian towns.
In becoming prime minister, Netanyahu had overtaken Yoni, but his father wasn’t impressed. ‘He would make an excellent minister of hasbara,’ or ‘a very good foreign minister’, Benzion told a journalist just after the election. How about a prime minister, the journalist asked. ‘Time will tell.’ Netanyahu’s first term was as rocky and short-lived as a starter marriage. He surrounded himself with loyalists with little or no experience, all of whom had to be green-lighted by Sara, whom he ‘never tried to curb’. (She also acquired a reputation for terrorising the nannies of their young son, Yair.) After his first meeting with Arafat he immediately announced the construction of 1500 settlement homes, and threatened to close the PLO’s ministry in East Jerusalem. In a naked bid to assert Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem, he opened the exit to the Hasmonean tunnel linking the Via Dolorosa and the Western Wall. Since the exit was in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, this was bound to enrage Palestinians, but Netanyahu insisted that the exit ‘touches the bedrock of our existence’. The result was a short war, which left nearly a hundred Palestinians and 17 Israeli soldiers dead. Pfeffer credits Bibi with being the first Likudnik to order Israeli troops out of a part of the ‘land of Israel’ when he accepted Palestinian Authority control over part of Hebron. But the Hebron ‘compromise’ left 450 Jewish settlers in control of 20 per cent of the city, with thousands of Palestinians and the city centre under military occupation.
Pfeffer claims that Netanyahu was disliked by the left in part because he came from the same cosmopolitan, secular Ashkenazi milieu, yet shared the beliefs of the ‘other Israel’, composed of working-class, Mizrahi and Russian Jews. Perhaps, but his determination to kill Rabin a second time, by burying any chance of an agreement with the Palestinians, was more important. He was as feckless as he was provocative. In 1997, he arranged to have Khaled Mashal, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, poisoned in Amman, violating Rabin’s order to end clandestine operations inside Jordan, and severely damaging Israel’s relations with its only real Arab ally.[*] Not only was Netanyahu forced to provide the antidote that saved Mashal’s life, but he had to release Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, a serious blow to Arafat, Israel’s supposed peace partner. The Economist anointed Netanyahu ‘Israel’s Serial Bungler’. By the end of his first term, he had lost the respect even of the religious right, his most cherished allies. Rabbi Ovadya Yosef, the fanatical Iraqi-born cleric who led the Shas Party, called him ‘a blind goat’.
Netanyahu was defeated in the 1999 elections by Barak, who ran with the endorsement of Netanyahu’s Likud rival David Levy. Only a few months later an investigation was opened into his exorbitant monthly budget for Cuban cigars and the extravagant renovations that Sara, ‘his perfect partner in entitlement’, had ordered for the Netanyahu residence. But in his last year in office, Netanyahu made a series of moves that would repay him handsomely. While reassuring Bill Clinton that Monicagate ‘will all blow over’, he began appearing at Evangelical rallies led by Clinton haters like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, forging the Israeli-Evangelical alliance that is now a fixture of Trumpworld. And the Ayn Rand follower reinvented himself as a man of the people, running, as he put it, against ‘the rich, the artists … these elites. They hate everyone … They hate the people. They hate the Mizrahis, they hate the Russians, hate anyone who is not them.’
This message didn’t fly in the 1999 election. Nor did Netanyahu make friends among ‘the people’ when, as Sharon’s finance minister, he belittled a Likud-voting single mother who marched from the Negev to Jerusalem in protest at benefits cuts. (‘She probably does jogging every evening.’) But, as Pfeffer underscores, the marketing man had an intuitive grasp of the way politics was shifting from the streets to the internet, and the crucial importance of messaging. He hired a new adviser, Ron Dermer, an American-born consultant who would become known as ‘Bibi’s brain’, and decided that he needed his ‘own media’. The American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson agreed, and in 2007 set up Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today), a free right-wing daily, at a cost of about $25 million a year. To maintain his new image as a man of the people, Netanyahu cancelled the publication of his free-market manifesto The Israeli Tiger, so as not to alienate voters who had taken a hit during the 2008 financial crisis. (It has never been published.) And in 2009, he was back in power, with Barak as his defence minister. His foreign minister – promoted to defence minister when Moshe Yaalon resigned – was his old friend the unrepentant Moldovan settler Avigdor Lieberman, who said Palestinian citizens of Israel should be forced to swear an oath of loyalty or lose their citizenship.
Pfeffer claims that Netanyahu ‘is no warmonger’, and that ‘for all his talk of confronting the Iranian threat, he has been too risk-averse to launch any wars – which is to his credit.’ This is partly true. Netanyahu is a right-wing pragmatist whose overriding concern has always been to remain in power; he has a sense of limits. But, as Pfeffer shows, he has a taste for brinksmanship, especially when it comes to Iran, whose nuclear programme has been his obsession for the past two decades. In 2010, Netanyahu and Barak ordered Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF chief of staff, to place the army on highest alert, using a term that in Hebrew means ‘cocking the gun’. They relented after Ashkenazi reminded them that cocking the gun was an act of war, which by law required the authorisation of the entire cabinet. In the summer of 2012, he contemplated carrying out a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities just after a joint exercise with the US military, and two weeks before the US presidential elections. A group of former senior intelligence officers that included commanders of Sayeret Matkal sent him a private letter warning of the ‘terrible chaos that will come in various ways after the euphoria’. Barak claims he didn’t need to be persuaded: by attacking just before an election, ‘we would be setting a political trap for the president of the United States.’[†]
That president was, of course, Barack Obama, whom Netanyahu famously loathed (the feeling was mutual). Netanyahu lobbied furiously against Obama’s efforts to reach a peaceful agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme, most notably in his bellicose speech to a joint session of Congress in 2014. For this shameless defiance of Israel’s major patron, he received 26 standing ovations – in Jon Stewart’s words, ‘by far the longest blowjob a Jewish man has ever received’. There were side benefits to Obama’s Iran diplomacy, which, as Pfeffer notes, ‘saved Netanyahu from making progress with the Palestinians’. Even so, Netanyahu cast Obama ‘in the consciousness of the Israeli public as the nation’s enemy’. They didn’t require much persuading: the son of a Kenyan father with a Muslim middle name and a surname that rhymed with Osama, Obama cut a suspiciously Third World figure in a country where race prejudice runs deep, as not only Palestinian Arabs but African asylum-seekers and Ethiopian and Moroccan Jews can attest. Never mind that Obama had declared the American bond with Israel ‘unbreakable’: he had also described the occupation’s ‘daily humiliations’ as ‘intolerable’. Worst of all, in the minds of Netanyahu and his supporters, he had suggested that Israel was created because of the Holocaust, rather than because of the Jews’ ancestral claim to the land, tapping into Zionist anxieties about ultimate ownership rights.
In his response to Obama’s address, Netanyahu pretended to recognise the need for a Palestinian state, but his version of such a state amounted to demilitarised cantons, and he added a new precondition: that the Palestinians recognise Israel as ‘the state of the Jewish people’ before any agreement was reached. Israel had never asked Egypt or Jordan to grant it such recognition; nor had Netanyahu made this demand of Syria when he tried to open negotiations with Damascus during his first period as prime minister. ‘Why do we need the Palestinians, or anyone, to validate us as a Jewish state?’ Barak writes in his memoir. ‘Your rhetoric suggests you have spines of steel,’ he says he told Netanyahu. ‘But your behaviour is living proof of the old saying that it’s easier to take the Jews out of the galut’ – the diaspora – ‘than to take the galut out of the Jews.’ In Barak’s view, Netanyahu sounded not so much like an Israeli prime minister as a fearful ‘rabbi in a shtetl, or a speaker trying to raise funds for Israel abroad’. But that was the point: Netanyahu’s new precondition was pure hasbara. He knew that no Palestinian leader – least of all an old, weak, discredited man like Mahmoud Abbas – could recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish people, since this would be tantamount to endorsing Zionism, the project that had left the Palestinians without a state. But this ‘refusal’ could be cast as ‘rejectionism’ and invoked as a pretext to continue stonewalling, and he knew that Obama wasn’t willing to impose any serious penalties. In his last interview before he died, at the age of 102, Benzion Netanyahu made it clear that his son didn’t support the creation of a Palestinian state: ‘There is no place here for Arabs and won’t be. They will never agree to the conditions.’ When Netanyahu ran for a second term in 2014, he promised that there would never be a Palestinian state, since it would only become a launching pad for ‘radical Islam’. That argument played strongly among Israeli Jews already frightened by turbulence in the Arab world. The Syrian war all but ensures that, for the foreseeable future, the Golan Heights will remain in Israeli hands.
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 two thousand 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 defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, but when most Israelis seemed to be rallying to his defence, Netanyahu changed his tune, making a sympathy call to the killer’s family. After nine months in prison, Azaria walked free.
Israeli liberals used to console themselves with the thought that, inside the Green Line, things were different: to cross from the West Bank into Israel was to enter the rich pastures of a vibrant democracy. This was always something of a fable: Israeli democracy was never untouched by the occupation, or by the authoritarian military government it imposed on the Palestinians from 1948 to 1966, a year before the occupation began. Still, Israeli liberals could reasonably invoke the country’s free elections and lively press as evidence of democratic vitality, at least for Jews. Under Netanyahu, not only has the occupation become even more entrenched, but the line between Israel and the occupied territories has continued to blur. Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, has often remarked that Israel is a democracy for Jews but a Jewish state for Arabs. With the passage of the new Basic Law, which declares Israel ‘the nation-state of the Jewish people’, this is now inscribed in the country’s constitution. Israel has officially become what it has always been in practice: a herrenvolk democracy, where only Jews have full citizenship and non-Jews are at best a tolerated minority; where an immigrant from Miami or Moscow can lord it over a native-born Palestinian citizen whose family has been in Haifa or Nazareth for centuries. Arabic, once an official language, has been downgraded to one with ‘special status’.
Those who oppose the occupation or anti-Arab discrimination inside Israel are no longer critics: they are enemies. Liberal journalists, leftist artists and professors, human rights researchers, Arab voters ‘moving to the polls in droves’: to listen to Netanyahu is to imagine an internal plot against Israel. ‘We have two main enemies, the New York Times and Haaretz,’ Netanyahu said at a private meeting. ‘They set the agenda for the anti-Israel campaign all over the world.’ When Sara Netanyahu was indicted for fraud and breach of trust in September 2017, after being charged with illegally spending public funds on celebrity chef dinners, the couple’s son, Yair, posted a neo-Nazi cartoon on Facebook, superimposing the faces of his parents’ critics.
For all his obsession with Palestinian antisemitism Netanyahu has taken a more indulgent attitude towards the antisemitism of his friends. When Victor Orbán launched an antisemitic campaign against George Soros, provoking the ire of Israel’s ambassador to Budapest, Netanyahu came to the defence of his Hungarian ally against Soros, a critic of the occupation. Neither Saudi antisemitism nor Saudi support for jihadists in Syria has impeded the burgeoning love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name between Tel Aviv and Riyadh. And then there is Donald Trump, whose campaign for the presidency was backed by Netanyahu’s patron Sheldon Adelson, and who has surrounded himself with a creepy entourage of right-wing Jews and white nationalists. In casting his lot with Trump in the 2016 election, Netanyahu defied what had long been Israel’s most important overseas constituency: American Jews, most of whom hate Trump, and were disturbed by reports of Steve Bannon’s antisemitism. But Ron Dermer assured him that Bannon was a strong supporter of Israel, and that was enough for him. (Like Netanyahu, Bannon was raised by his father to believe that the Reconquista, the Christian victory over the Moors in Spain, had saved civilisation, and prefigured the return to Zion.) Trump flattered Netanyahu by praising Israel’s wall as a model for the wall he hopes to build on the US border with Mexico, and Netanyahu replied in kind on Twitter. America is now to all intents and purposes aligned with the settlers. The opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem was celebrated while dozens of unarmed Palestinians were killed in Gaza. And the road to a much bloodier war has been opened by Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal.
‘We’re just like you,’ Sara Netanyahu told Trump. ‘The media hate us but the people love us.’ She is half-right: her husband remains popular among Israeli Jews. But Trump’s ‘people’ include very few American Jews, and Israel’s alliance with him has sharpened the divide between American Jews and the Jewish state. Most American Jews, even some liberals, were willing to ignore, or rationalise, Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians. But they are not willing to countenance the war against immigrants, the Muslim ban or the erosion of American democracy. The convergence of Trump’s authoritarian populism and Netanyahu’s settler-Zionism has further exposed the contradictions between their liberal convictions and contemporary Israel. The result has been a re-energised, and increasingly radical, American Jewish left. Bernie Sanders has spoken out eloquently against Israel’s killings in Gaza, sparing his audiences the platitudes about Israel’s security, and the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions is being led, in part, by Jewish Voices for Peace. Some Jewish Democrats remain devout supporters of Israel, but they are increasingly embattled, and support for Israel among young American Jews is declining.
Netanyahu is not concerned. As Dermer recently explained to the New York Times, Evangelical Christians, who make up ‘a solid quarter of the population, and are maybe ten, fifteen, twenty times the Jewish population’, now constitute the ‘backbone’ of US support for Israel. Their ideas about the Jews are not exactly tender. Reverend Robert Jeffress, who delivered the first prayer at the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem, says that ‘you can’t be saved by being a Jew.’ Reverend John C. Hagee, the televangelist who gave the closing benediction, has described the Holocaust as God’s way of getting Jews ‘to come back to the land of Israel’. Netanyahu has yet to pronounce on this theory of the Holocaust, but he has expressed the view that American Jews are destined to assimilate and disappear, like the Spanish conversos his father disdained. Backed by Trump and Evangelical Zionists, Netanyahu’s Israel doesn’t need the Jews, at least not the politically unreliable ones in the diaspora.
Where all this is headed remains unclear. Netanyahu, for the moment, seems exuberant, emboldened by his ties to Trump, the expansion of trade with Asia, and the complicity of the Sunni Arab regimes. Israel’s strategic position has never been stronger, or its neighbours weaker. But the scenes of unarmed protesters killed by Israeli snipers in Gaza are a reminder of the discontent that lies beneath the surface. Under Netanyahu, Israel has run up a substantial bill in blood and tears. Unlike his wife’s credit card, it will eventually have to be paid.
[†] In his recently published memoir, My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace (Macmillan, 496 pp., £14.99, May, 978 1 5098 8928 0), Barak tries to dissociate himself from Netanyahu’s adventurism, but Yuval Diskin, a former chief of Shin Bet, says that he shared Netanyahu’s ‘messianic’ attitude towards the Islamic Republic.