Benjamin Netanyahu is one of the most unloved and unlovable figures in Israeli politics, a solid finish in a competitive field. Yet when it comes to polling day, his Likud party watches ‘Bibi’ pull off another win. Many consider him venal, duplicitous, arrogant, vain and loutish. His opponents have even worse things to say. Israeli elections were once decided on the question of socialism vs. capitalism, and later peace vs. security. Today Israelis are divided over whether Netanyahu is a bastard or a necessary bastard.
Anshel Pfeffer belongs to the former camp. His new biography, Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, is a forensic character study of Israel’s first native-born prime minister and of the Israel he has birthed across 12 years in power. Pfeffer sees a country that mirrors its leader: flabby, self-satisfied and shirking fundamental moral dilemmas.
Until now, the primal moment in Netanyahu’s life, the event that would drive him to become the tough guy of Israeli politics, was thought to be the death of his beloved brother Yoni at Entebbe. Pfeffer hints instead at their father’s awkward, somewhat bitter career as a Zionist ideologue. Netanyahu family mythology has memorialised Benzion as an icon of the intellectual right; but Pfeffer renders him a minor figure in the Revisionist movement, who chose the wrong faction in the pre-state struggle and found himself on the outside after independence. Benzion Netanyahu warred with the academic establishment, who failed to reward his talents, despaired of diaspora Jews (too weak and insufficiently nationalist), and loathed Israel’s early governments for their socialism and airbrushing of the revisionists’ contribution to driving out the British.
This resentment of the outsider, Pfeffer reckons, inspired Bibi to build an electoral coalition around the angry and the marginalised. The history of Zionism is a struggle for legitimacy (and the power to delegitimise your opponents) between left and right, which the left appeared to have won decisively until Menachem Begin’s election in 1977. Netanyahu has taken disparate demographics and offered them the chance to get their own back — on the intellectuals, the left, the Arabs, and every other bogeyman. If this sounds familiar, Pfeffer is already way ahead of you, noting that Bibi and Donald Trump are both ‘fundamentally insecure, lacking in introspection, and have an uncanny ability to sense their rivals’ weak spots and sniff out their voters’ inner fears’.
Pfeffer is a correspondent for Haaretz, a left-wing daily held in high regard — sometimes even by others — for doggedly challenging the country’s government, armed forces and human rights record. Imagine the Guardian with much higher stakes. Yet Bibi is no polemic. It is a work of searing insight that persuades with research rather than rhetoric.
To my mind, Netanyahu is necessary, and so I spent much of this volume shifting uncomfortably, forced to confront the bastardry. There is Bibi the panderer, who Facebooked a video on election day 2015 warning that ‘Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves’. There’s Bibi the phoney two-state-solutioner who, though promising ‘peace through security’, has done less to advance peace than any of his Likud predecessors. And there is Bibi the unprincipled, who reveres the land of Israel when he’s courting settler votes but who has built fewer settlements than any prime minister for three decades.
Pfeffer’s work would benefit from greater reflection on the role of the left in creating the circumstances Bibi so ruthlessly exploits. It was the Labour-Zionist elite that abandoned the pragmatic hawkishness of Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir for relativist mush and peace-at-all-costs. It was the left, the New Jews who built the state and their offspring, who made scant space at the table for the Old Jews, in particular the Mizrahim, whose low social standing was (and still is) mocked rather than alleviated. If Bibi is Trump in Jerusalem, the Israeli left are the Democrats relocated to north Tel Aviv. If Netanyahu has prospered by dividing Israelis, it is because the left stopped pursuing the dream of One Israel in favour of sectional interests.
However, this is quibbling about a sliver of cork in a rare and rich claret. Bibi is biography at its most honest, most powerful — a work of sober analysis that does not neglect the importance of personality. It is written with the immediacy of the moment, yet this gives the book the quality of aliveness that makes living history so compelling and reminds us that events, though in hindsight they may appear to, do not come in sweeps but are the consequences of moral choices made by leaders.
Shabtai Teveth’s The Burning Ground cemented the old man’s heroic reputation by venerating his character; Bibi, which merits being mentioned in the same breath, may have the opposite effect on its subject because Pfeffer portrays a man who already considers himself a hero but whose character is sorely in doubt.