Ben Nitai

Ben Nitai

A biography considers Netanyahu’s essential good-enough-ness

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a news conference in Jerusalem in March 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a news conference in Jerusalem in March 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

As Benjamin Netanyahu navigates his way through a fourth tour as prime minister of Israel and comes within hailing distance of David Ben-Gurion’s record tenure in office, two salient facts emerge about his polarizing and persistent leadership:

(A) he seems noticeably less esteemed by Israeli constituents than a leader should be (not that recent Israeli leaders have been all that estimable; indeed, could anyone be in the current climate?) and (B) he seems noticeably less esteemed by his shadow constituents in the United States when they consider how the lone steward of democracy in the Mideast should comport himself.

There probably is a C. And it’s that he’s been consistently underestimated by the parties to A and B. In short, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to embody the perfect porridge of Mideast politics: not too hot, not too cold, just right; a blend of survival and resilience in a vocation and location where both are in short supply.

To put a point on it, he’s not particularly admired in either geographical sphere, but he is extremely valued; he’s not noticeably inspiring or risk-taking, but he is aggressively nimble as a fundraiser and political infighter; he’s not ideologically progressive, but he’s not regressive enough to cause outright consternation in the thicket of Israeli politics. Every Netanyahu downside seems to uncork an upside.

In his modest but helpful deconstruction of the prime minister’s career, “The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu,” Neill Lochery plumbs the Netanyahu phenomenon. Spanning pre-Oslo through the election of 2015, Dr. Lochery, a professor of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean studies at University College, London, traces Netanyahu’s trajectory of winning elections (with one blemish) while leaving a campaign trail littered with fear-based politics and pandering appeals.

Lochery structures the book, the first such purported study of the prime minister published in English, with nine decisive and chronologically unfolding moments in the Netanyahu saga. But even more telling is the brief listing in the preface of ten fear factors Netanyahu has repeatedly sounded for different sectors of the electorate. There is no room for nuance in his narrative of survival, either for himself or for the state of Israel.

Perhaps this obliquely hints at the “Resistible Rise” portion of the title. But rather than generating opposition or rejection, Netanyahu’s predictability and familiarity seem to breed only content with the electorate. And it’s a content that Israelis, after two intifadas, Hamas and Hezbollah insurgencies, global boycotts, a leaderless PLO, bombings, and the existential threat of Iran, choose to live with for the foreseeable future.

Netanyahu is virtually a man with two countries, feet firmly planted in each, but without corresponding traction befitting either. A substantial number of Israelis complain that he is too soft and too Americanized, while a significant group of American Jews chafe at his rigidity and, well, Bibi-ishness (best summed up as dissemble and delay; code for dealing with the Palestinians).

These competing criticisms attach to the first prime minister who was born in independent Israel — but who completed high school in the United States. Netanyahu grew up something of a hybrid, billing himself as Ben Nitai when he resided along the East Coast, studying architecture at MIT and becoming a financial consultant. But he inherited his ideologically wired DNA from his father, Benzion, a Revisionist Zionist who died an unreconstructed hard liner at 102.

His flawless English, complete grasp of American politics, and “proper” lineage served him well during a Likud party apprenticeship as a deputy envoy at the Israeli consulate in D.C. and then ambassador to the U.N. from 1984 to 1988. The old leaders, Eastern Eurocentric in the extreme, regarded the newcomer with suspicion, if not outright contempt. And he was impatient, not willing to work the chairs or bide his time.

A2-netanyahu-cover-0414Netanyahu hit his stride during the Gulf War, when his telegenic ease and compelling sound bites mesmerized CNN viewers around the world, especially in the States. His focus remained on Israel but his gaze went global. He hired a key Republican operative from the United States and took aim at Likud leaders (David Levy and Ariel Sharon) and, ultimately, the premiership.

Results came relatively fast. Lochery attributes Netanyahu’s razor-thin victory over Laborite Shimon Peres in 1996 to a superior debate performance reminiscent of Kennedy besting Nixon. But he presided over a disappointing first term and subsequently lost to Ehud Barak. His years in the wilderness proved profitable as both a freewheeling finance minister under the Sharon government and as an entrepreneur and motivational speaker.

Though far from a fan, Lochery concedes Netanyahu’s stunning political savvy and doggedness in reclaiming the premiership in 2009 and in two elections since. But despite lengthening service, no reservoir of good will or affection seems to coalesce around him; he has evoked nothing like the loyalties engendered by his predecessors. He never will be endowed with the eponymous qualities of a Ben-Gurion; or the earthy, endearing appeals of Golda Meir and Menachem Begin; or even the eventual gratitude and mellowing the country showed Shimon Peres.

Martyrdom in the mold of Yitzhak Rabin is reserved for his older brother, Yoni, the commander and lone casualty of the Entebbe raid. Netanyahu’s own IDF service as a captain in an elite unit making raids deep into Syria and Sinai during two wars — and being wounded several times in the process — was eventful enough, but his military boss at the time, Rabin, didn’t think him suited for higher rank.

Official investigations of his dealings, his admission of an extramarital affair, and his wife’s oft-scrutinized influence seem only to bring out the Teflon qualities of a Ronald Reagan. However haltingly, Netanyahu keeps reinventing himself as the indispensable go-to guy of Israeli governance. He continues to pocket elections, either directly for prime minister (since jettisoned) or as a coalition chief, blithely shifting positions (always rightward) while collecting or discarding new partners as someone else might replenish the contents of a refrigerator.

I resisted reviewing “The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu” until after his initial White House meeting with President Donald Trump on February 15. I needed to compare his tense, tendentious interaction with President Barack Obama to his behavior with a new chief executive who is considerably less polished and well versed in diplomacy and policy than his predecessor.

Which Netanyahu would show up? The lecturer, ready to recount a history of the Jews, as he did for a remarkably restrained Obama? The opportunist, fresh off a Knesset victory to retroactively claim West Bank land for “legitimized” settlements? Or the supplicant, salivating at the prospect of possibly exceeding the unprecedented amount of military, intelligence, antiterrorism, and economic aid his country received during the Obama era?

Netanyahu’s smile broadened as Trump gave him a virtual pass on a two-state solution and cautioned him only mildly on the expansion of West Bank settlements. Although the Iran nuclear deal wasn’t mentioned and a decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was put on a back burner, you could almost hear Netanyahu exhale.

At least with this president, he wouldn’t have to make an end-run speech before Congress. Nor would he feel pressured to choose a “vision” for the state of Israel, binary or otherwise. The resistible rise of Benjamin Netanyahu would, in all likelihood, continue unabated.

Jonathan E. Lazarus is a former editor at the Star-Ledger and a proofreader for the Jewish Standard.

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