The Paradoxes of Binyamin Netanyahu
Jun 28, 2021 | Bret Stephens
The personal and the political
I once got an unexpected, unpleasant, and altogether unforgettable phone call from Binyamin Netanyahu. This was in 2004, when Netanyahu was serving as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s Government and I was editor of the Jerusalem Post.
At the time, nobody thought of Israel as the dynamic “Start-up Nation” that it would later become, thanks largely to Netanyahu’s policies. Instead, it was a country beset not just by waves of Palestinian suicide bombers but also by the stultifying legacies of the country’s socialist roots: high taxes, inefficient state-owned companies, excessive welfare subsidies, a bloated public sector.
Netanyahu knew that I was one of the few editors in Israel who fully endorsed his controversial agenda of tax cuts, privatisation, deregulation, and budgetary discipline. He also knew that while the Post’s influence in Israel was limited, the paper was widely read by many of the foreign investors, policymakers and financial analysts of the sort he was always keen to cultivate.
But he wasn’t interested in talking about his plans. Instead, he lit into me because one of the Post’s opinion columnists had mentioned a notorious 1993 episode in which Netanyahu had gone on TV to confess an extramarital relationship while denouncing a blackmail attempt. “My children can now read English, you know!” he said, eliding the fact that his children could just as easily have learned of the affair on the Internet from sources in Hebrew.
It took me a few minutes to realise that the point of his tirade wasn’t to complain about unfair or inaccurate coverage. It was a rebuke for failing to provide compliant coverage, as if the purpose of the Post was to burnish his children’s image of their father. Unlike most politicians, he wasn’t interested in cultivating me as a friendly media voice. He wanted me as a patsy, and he wasn’t subtle about letting me know it.
In itself, this long-ago encounter with the once and future prime minister didn’t mean much – although Netanyahu’s habit of demanding obsequious reporting would come to haunt him after he had returned to the prime minister’s chair.
Yet the story helps explain the paradox of Binyamin Netanyahu, in perhaps the most paradoxical year of his long political career. To wit, how does a man of such ambition, talent, and undeniable achievements manage so often to be so petty and self-defeating?
And how can a prime minister whose recent triumphs include peace agreements with four Arab states, a series of spectacular blows to Iran’s nuclear program, and a world-beating COVID-19 vaccination effort lose to the strangest coalition of political bedfellows ever assembled in Israeli – if not Western – history?
In a word, it’s personal.
In 1998, during Netanyahu’s turbulent first term as prime minister, his father, Benzion, gave a candid interview about his second son: “He doesn’t know how to develop manners that captivate people by praise or grace,” he said, adding, “He doesn’t always succeed in choosing the most suitable people.” About the nicest thing Benzion could say of his boy was, “He may well have been more suited as foreign minister than as head of state. But at this moment I don’t see anyone better.” One doesn’t have to play armchair psychoanalysis to observe: some father.
In fact, Binyamin Netanyahu can also be engaging and charming, at least when he’s in the public eye. But there was more than a grain of truth to the father’s observations. When I first arrived in Israel as editor of the Post, I paid a visit to my predecessor as editor, David Bar-Illan, the pianist and polemicist who had gone to work for Netanyahu as his press spokesman before running afoul – like so many who came before and after – of Netanyahu’s feared and unpopular wife, Sara. So traumatised was David by the manner in which the Netanyahus had treated him that, after suffering a crippling heart attack, he waved off Netanyahu from a sickbed visit.
Stories like this are remarkably common among those who have known Netanyahu over the years. And they go far to explain how Netanyahu’s long reign as prime minister came to an end – not because he was defeated by his ideological opponents, or brought down by a legal case against him, or turned out of office following some policy fiasco. Rather, Netanyahu fell because, through a combination of high-handedness and jealousy, he allowed too many of his onetime allies and ideological fellow-travellers to become permanently embittered ex-friends.
Naftali Bennett, the new prime minister, was a Netanyahu protégé who served as his chief of staff from 2006 to 2008 before an angry falling out. Gideon Sa’ar, the new justice minister, was brought into the Likud by Netanyahu but fell out with him once Netanyahu began to perceive him as a credible rival for party leadership. Benny Gantz, defence minister in the new government and the last, whom Netanyahu had appointed as IDF chief of staff, was double-crossed and politically humiliated last year after he agreed to a power-sharing deal with Netanyahu – a deal Netanyahu had no intention of honouring (and, predictably, didn’t). Avigdor Lieberman, the new finance minister, was an ideological soulmate and right-hand man to Netanyahu who came to despise him after he authorised private investigations and an anonymous legal hit on his family (or so Lieberman claims).
These four men command 28 Knesset seats between them. Together with one or both of the ultra-Orthodox parties, they would have easily given Netanyahu and his 30-seat Likud party a robust, right-of-centre mandate in the last election – if only he could have won them over to his side. Yet when it came to the prime minister, the feud was personal. That they preferred to join forces with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid, Mansour Abbas’ Islamist Ra’am, and the left-wingers of Labor and Meretz is a vivid demonstration that Netanyahu’s powers of personal repulsion have exceeded those of ideological attraction.
Yet if we are to judge Netanyahu by his faults alone, it would be impossible to account for the fact that he is the most dominant figure in Israeli politics since David Ben-Gurion. To his inveterate critics, that’s merely a function of his ability to win elections, which they attribute to his being a silver-tongued fearmonger who appeals to Israel’s racist side – in effect, a Donald Trump-like figure with a better brain.
The caricature sells Netanyahu and his voters short. It also fails to comprehend the scale of his achievements in his second, 12-year tenure in office. Let’s list a few.
Diplomacy: The crown jewels in Netanyahu’s diplomatic legacy are the Abraham Accords, which effectively represent the end of the Arab–Israeli conflict (even if subsidiary conflicts, above all with Palestinians, remain). The accords did not happen by accident. They are the result of Arab admiration for Israel’s economic success; respect among Arab leaders for Netanyahu’s willingness to denounce the Iran nuclear pact (and, by implication, Barack Obama) in the US Congress; and some canny deal-making that involved a threat to annex much of the West Bank, which was then used as a bargaining chip for diplomatic recognition.
But the accords are not Netanyahu’s only diplomatic victories. He renewed or strengthened Israel’s old ties with African countries – Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Chad, Nigeria – that are battleground states in the fight against Islamist terror. He developed strong personal bonds with Narendra Modi of India and Shinzo Abe of Japan. He maintained a functional relationship with Vladimir Putin, which is a vital Israeli interest whatever one thinks of the Russian dictator. He forged strategic ties with Greece, historically one of the more anti-Israel countries in Europe.
And, of course, he cultivated Trump. Many consider this a scandal, as if Netanyahu would have done better by sneering at the American president in the manner of, say, Canada’s Justin Trudeau. But the payoff for Israelis of Netanyahu’s courtship of the 45th president was spectacular: an American Embassy in Jerusalem, US recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, a severe downgrading of US relations with the Palestinian leadership. The Biden Administration has predictably reversed this last policy but is unlikely to reverse course on the Embassy or the Heights. This achievement, for Israel, is permanent.
Security: Despite three traumatic wars with Hamas in Gaza and the harrowing “knife intifada” of 2015, Israelis have enjoyed greater security during Netanyahu’s time in office than they had in the 10 years of terror and retreat between his first and second terms. The regional picture for Israel also seems to be relatively better, at least when it comes to the Sunni Arab states. And since regaining office in 2009, Netanyahu never made any irreversible concessions to the Palestinians, even in the face of eight years of heavy Obama Administration pressure to do so.
The reason for the relative calm has much to do with what Israeli generals call “the war between the wars,” but which might also be described as the Netanyahu Doctrine. After being dissuaded in 2010 from a full-scale strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Netanyahu settled for a strategy of applying low-grade but continuous military pressure on Israel’s enemies in ways that seldom invite open retaliation or create international controversy. In 2019, the IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told me, with respect to Syria, that Israel had “struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit.” Jerusalem has also been instrumental in helping Cairo deal with an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, in ways that go all but unnoticed in the West but have helped solidify its security ties in the Arab world.
Then there is Iran, where Israel has conducted the most extraordinary and long-term covert-ops campaign in modern history. The Mossad’s 2018 acquisition of Iran’s entire nuclear archive caused the US to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, and further attacks on nuclear installations and scientists continue to set back the Islamic Republic’s nuclear timetable.
Economy: Netanyahu was Israel’s first prime minister to have a serious grasp of economics and an appreciation for business. Netanyahu also understood that there was no good reason Israel couldn’t be a wealthy country – and that such wealth was a benefit to Israel’s overall well-being, not a stain on its moral virtue.
When Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office in 2009, Israel’s gross domestic product (in current prices) stood at US$207 billion. Ten years later, just before the pandemic, it had nearly doubled in size, to about US$400 billion. By comparison, the UK economy grew by just 17% over the same time period. The average monthly wage in Israel is now nearly 50% higher than it was in 2009.
As in any country, there are arguments to be made about the nature of wealth inequality and distribution, not least along class, ethnic, and religious lines. What should be inarguable is that wealth gives Israel strategic advantages it didn’t previously enjoy. Wealth diminishes dependency. It also makes Israel a more attractive destination to Jews who no longer feel entirely secure in their diasporic homes, or who may simply be seeking opportunity.
Palestinians: Most of Netanyahu’s predecessors as prime minister had gotten the Palestinian issue wrong – some by imagining that Palestinians didn’t, or shouldn’t, exist as a separate people; others by believing they were the most important, if not the only, thing that mattered. Both approaches proved disastrous.
Netanyahu understood that Israel can neither separate politically from the Palestinians safely nor coexist with them indefinitely. The right approach was one of long-term tactical management, not grandiose peace plans and “final-status” solutions.
Undergirding that view is the belief that time is, in fact, on Israel’s side, for at least three reasons. First, the demographic picture is hardly as bleak for Jews as is often suggested (an idea that has ample empirical basis, at least if Israeli Jews maintain their robust birth rate while Arab birth rates continue to decline).
Second, the ideological picture also isn’t as dire for Israel as widely believed – squeamish liberals, campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns, and rising antisemitism in Europe and the US notwithstanding – because much of the world is moving in a more nationalist direction. That gives Israel new friends in the world, whether they are evangelical Christians in the US or Hindu nationalists in India (as well as some unsavory figures like Hungary’s Viktor Orban). The abiding threat of Islamism also helps Israel, insofar as Israel is broadly seen, and widely admired, for its success in fighting it.
Finally, Arab states are growing tired of the Palestinian cause, at least in its maximalist versions, and are prepared to put the issue on ice in pursuit of the goals they share with the Jewish state. The fact that one barely heard a peep of protest from Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, or other Arab capitals during the last round of fighting in Gaza suggests there is much to that belief.
Little of this goes noticed outside of Israel, thanks mainly to shoddy media coverage, monomaniacal obsession with Palestinian grievances, and what can only be described as a kind of Bibi Derangement Syndrome among his critics.
Netanyahu lasted as long as he did in his job because he was, in many ways, very good at it. After the utopian follies of the peace processers in the 1990s, the trauma of the Second Intifada at the start of the century, and Ehud Olmert’s incompetent handling of the 2006 Lebanon War, it’s easy to see the appeal (as one of his campaign ads had it) of the “Bibisitter” – the safe pair of hands who’ll make sure the kids sleep well at night.
But, again, this isn’t quite the whole story.
The usual rap on Netanyahu is that he’s a remorseless ideologue whose only goal is “Greater Israel” and who will do whatever it takes to get it, whether it’s through sly prevarication or open demagogy. An alternative view, most often held by Netanyahu’s conservative critics, is that he either lacks the courage of his convictions, or just believes in little beyond himself.
“How is he better than Rabin or Peres?” the former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir railed against Netanyahu after Israel withdrew from parts of the West Bank after the 1998 Wye River agreement during Bibi’s first go as prime minister. “He has a desire for power for its own sake.”
Naftali Bennett’s own break with Netanyahu became definite after the latter’s 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, in which he accepted the principle of a Palestinian state.
“We go along with this vision that is impractical, and then, we are surprised why the world is angry with us for not fulfilling that vision,” Bennett told me in a 2015 interview. “You can’t say ‘I support a Palestinian state’ and then not execute according to that.”
That last point strikes me as unfair: It’s perfectly consistent to accept the idea of a Palestinian state in principle – the principle being that it should model itself on Costa Rica or the UAE – while rejecting it in practice – the current reality being that it has more in common with Lebanon or Yemen as an unstable terrorist entrepot that has no interest in meeting even minimal Israeli demands for peace and security.
But the deeper criticism is that Netanyahu’s tenure amounts to little more than a holding action, a bravura performance in kicking cans down the road.
When I interviewed Netanyahu in 2009, just as he was about to return to office and Operation Cast Lead was winding down, he was quick to criticise the outcome. “Notwithstanding the blows to Hamas, it’s still in Gaza, it’s still ruling Gaza,” he said. Netanyahu’s “optimal outcome,” he claimed, would be regime change for the Strip, but “the minimal outcome would have been to seal Gaza” from being able to acquire lethal munitions. Yet 12 years and three wars later, not much has changed, except that Hamas has gained greater international legitimacy while Israelis have grown used to spending time in their safe rooms periodically.
Something similar might be said of Netanyahu’s approach to Teheran. Dazzling as Israel’s intelligence and diplomatic coups have been, Iran is now enriching uranium to unprecedented levels of purity even as the Biden Administration manoeuvres to re-enter the nuclear deal. That goes also in the north, where thousands of Israeli airstrikes have blunted Iran’s power without altering the fact that Bashar al-Assad remains firmly ensconced in power in Damascus while Hezbollah maintains its firm grip in Lebanon.
In these respects, the strategic picture has not decisively changed on Netanyahu’s watch, and Prime Minister Bennett will face almost exactly the same unenviable choices Netanyahu did in the early days of his tenure. There are circumstances in which buying time amounts to a form of progress, but history hasn’t yet provided a verdict as to whether this was one of them.
There have also been hidden costs to this style of leadership. The essence of good policy – containment comes to mind – is that it establishes conditions in which less-than-superb leaders can be entrusted with its execution. Under Netanyahu, by contrast, the man and the policy effectively became one and the same. “Bibi-ism” isn’t really a set of principles or concepts that his successors can apply or adapt. It’s the view that one man, and one man only, has the wisdom, experience, and instincts to run the country.
The result has been an extraordinary personalisation of Israeli politics. At least a quarter of Israelis – starting with Netanyahu himself – seem to believe that après Bibi, le déluge. That has encouraged Netanyahu and his allies to vilify their political opponents in ways that are both hysterical and potentially dangerous. Early in June, Likud lawmaker May Golan compared Bennett and Sa’ar to “suicide bombers,” while Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas party, warned that Bennett would “destroy Shabbat.”
Netanyahu’s political opponents, by contrast, have come to believe that Bibi is “le déluge” and have been intent to do just about anything to destroy him. Among the many paradoxes of the last few years of Israeli politics is that the legal cases against the Prime Minister did more to encourage him to cling to his office by nearly any means necessary than they did to give him an opportunity for a graceful exit.
That’s what happens when the essence of one’s political program is to stay in power as long as possible, whether out of a belief in one’s own indispensability or a need for legal self-preservation (or, in Netanyahu’s case, both). Democracies do best when parties stand for ideas, not personalities, and when political opponents aren’t viewed as mortal enemies. They also do better when leaders observe some moral boundaries, like not bidding for the support of the Kahanist party or not seeking a pardon for a soldier who murdered a Palestinian terrorist after he’d been neutralised. But that wasn’t Bibi’s way.
The paradox of Binyamin Netanyahu is that a man who rose to power on the strength of a certain vision of Israel held on to power at the expense of that vision. It’s that a man who did much to strengthen Israel’s position in the world through the bullishness of his personality also did much to damage Israel’s politics through the same bullishness. It’s that a man whose thoughts, ambitions, and actions always seemed to have the broadest sweep could become the agent of his own political undoing thanks to a succession of small grievances and petty power plays.
The coalition that succeeds Netanyahu is fractious and thin, held together by little more than its loathing for a singular man. Nobody knows this better than Netanyahu himself, which is why the thought that must surely run through his head, rightly, is, “I’ll be back.”