The Netanyahu Years
On November 21, 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu surpassed David Ben Gurion’s record of longest continuous service as prime minister of Israel. Though Netanyahu’s years in power have been marked by scandal and political intrigue, his popularity with the Israeli electorate over the past seven years has grown, allowing him to do practically anything he wants.
In his monumental new biography, The Netanyahu Years, Ben Caspit, a columnist for the left-of-center Israeli daily newspaper Maariv, provides a disturbing window into Netanyahu’s life and career.
He was born in Tel Aviv in 1949 to Tzila and Professor Benzion Netanyahu, a Revisionist Zionist who believed that only force would bring about a Jewish state. Between 1956 and 1958, and again from 1963 to 1967, he and his family lived in the United States in Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. During those years Benzion promoted the Revisionist movement’s agenda. Both Benzion and Tzila were strict parents who demanded loyalty and achievement.
Benjamin (Bibi), a sensitive child with artistic tendencies, was deeply affected by the way he was treated by his psychologically absent father and abusive mother. His constant need to live up to his parents’ expectations, writes Caspit, helps explain “the reason he surrounds himself with grasshoppers who won’t endanger his greatness.”
After graduating from high school in 1967, Netanyahu returned to Israel to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces and fought with distinction in the Six Day War. He moved back to the United States in 1972 to study at MIT. His studies were interrupted when he returned to Israel in 1973 to fight in the Yom Kippur War. Returning once again to the United States in 1975 he graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, after which Netanyahu was recruited as an economic consultant for the Boston Consulting Group.
He returned to Israel in 1978 to found the Yonatan Netanyahu Anti-Terror Institute, named after his brother, who died leading Operation Entebbe to free hostages of an airline hijacking. Netanyahu served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C, from 1982 to 1984 and as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations from 1984 to 1988. Returning to Israel and joining the Likud Party, he served in the Knesset and then, in 1996, became Israel’s youngest Prime Minister. In 1999, he was defeated by Ehud Barak. After serving in a variety of ministerial positions, he was elected prime minister once again in 2009.
Caspit tells us that Netanyahu identifies as an American in many ways and sees himself as an American leader in exile. The book makes much of the adversarial relationship between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. According to a top-level Israeli official who served with the prime minister and is well-versed in intelligence issues, the CIA prepared a psychological profile on Netanyahu, which members of the American administration, including Obama, studied closely.
The distrust was mutual. According to Caspit, “Netanyahu felt a blend of disdain, disgust, and disappointment regarding Obama. If during Obama’s first term Netanyahu had still tried to hide it, by the second half of the second term, he no longer bothered.”
Citing credible sources, Caspit describes Netanyahu as a narcissist with a powerful sense of entitlement who expects everyone around him to affirm his superiority. His demand for constant affirmation and his inability to empathize with others are reinforced by his third wife, Sara, who, according to Caspit, “is the controller, and he is the controlled. She is the handler, and he is the handled.”
Caspit portrays Bibi as a political opportunist with no real ideology whose main objective is holding onto power. Everything he does flows from Bibi’s firm conviction that what is good for him is good for everyone. He allows neither personal relationships, prior agreements, nor promises to get in the way of that goal. A good example is the suspension of the agreement he made with Women of the Wall, the Reform and Conservative movements, and the Jewish Agency for Israel to construct an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
The Netanyahu years, concludes Caspit, represent a saga of missed opportunities. “He is a leader blessed with talents and analytical skills. How unfortunate it is that all this is wasted on personal survival, adherence to the status quo, and fear mongering. Had Netanyahu had the courage to hope, he could have really influenced history. Instead, he has succeeded in bringing Israel back to the exact spot left by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1992, a country devoid of vision and hope, stuck, isolated. A people that dwells alone.”
This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the impact of Bibi Netanyahu on Israeli diplomacy, particularly U.S.-Israeli relations.
Rabbi Robert Orkand, who retired from the pulpit rabbinate in 2013, lives in the Boston area. He is a past chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
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