In 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu made his second appearance on the cover of Time magazine. In his profile, managing editor Richard Stengel crowned him “King Bibi.” Poised to become the longest-serving prime minister since David Ben-Gurion, Stengel wrote, Netanyahu “has no national rival.... At a moment when incumbents around the world are being shunted aside, he is triumphant.”
Nonetheless, Netanyahu – and Israel – continued to face daunting problems, including, of course, a nuclear Iran and demands for a Palestinian state. The question remains, Stengel concluded, “whether he is a prisoner of history or he can write a new narrative.”
According to Anshel Pfeffer, a senior correspondent for Haaretz and Israel correspondent for The Economist, “the answer was to be negative.”
In Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, Pfeffer takes on the daunting challenge of crafting a biography of a polarizing political leader who is still in office. Pfeffer has had to rely heavily on contemporaneous articles in Israeli and American newspapers and magazines.
The majority of the interviews he conducted were anonymous and off the record. Apparently, he had no access to government records or private correspondence.
He visited Netanyahu in his office twice, along with colleagues from The Economist, he tells us, and on each occasion the prime minister declared, Mr. Pfeffer “is writing a book about me. He doesn’t know anything about me. It will be a cartoon.”
Bibi is certainly not a cartoon. Pfeffer provides a richly detailed account of the founding of Israel; Israeli politics (and the rivalry between the Labor and Likud parties) since 1948; Israel’s complex relationship with the United States; and the “tough neighborhood” in which Israelis live. He demonstrates that, like his grandfather and father, Revisionist followers of Jabotinsky, Netanyahu combined pride in his Jewish identity “with a lack of faith in the political wisdom and resilience” of Jews and their leaders and a conviction that Zionists must pursue their national interests without being deterred by “local opposition or international opinion.”
And Pfeffer acknowledges that Netanyahu “is a politician with near flawless timing.”
That said, Pfeffer does not try to hide his antipathy to Netanyahu. His tone, it seems to me, makes it difficult to separate substantive, legitimate criticism from partisan, polemical and personal attacks.
Over a long and intensive career, Pfeffer claims, Netanyahu has been “resolutely doctrinaire.” His views have not evolved.
Netanyahu is adept at stirring up tribal divisions and racial animus for political gain. Like Donald Trump, he has begun to “show increasing tendencies toward authoritarianism.”
Nor is Pfeffer inclined to give Netanyahu credit for any of his policies.
When Netanyahu was finance minister, Pfeffer indicates, unemployment and inflation dropped, the deficit disappeared, and GDP grew by 5% or more each year.
However, Pfeffer writes, Netanyahu’s role in economic recovery “has been exaggerated.”
Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin laid the groundwork in the 1980s and early ’90s by exercising budgetary restraint and investing in hi-tech. Equally important, Netanyahu had a “tin ear” for the lower rungs of society. Many Likud voters were hurting, and he “failed to even pretend that he felt their pain.”
Pfeffer acknowledges that Netanyahu was the first prime minister to officially announce a freeze on settlements, but hastens to add that it was “only” for 10 months, exempted east Jerusalem, and when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made some concessions, Netanyahu extended it for only 30 days.
Although Netanyahu did depart from his core doctrines by freezing the settlements, Pfeffer may be right, in my judgment, to give Benzion Netanyahu the last word on his son’s intentions: “He doesn’t support a Palestinian state. He supports conditions they won’t accept.”
Pfeffer is almost certainly right to take seriously the mounting evidence that Netanyahu has engaged in corrupt practices while prime minister – and to mock as “rants” his claims about “witch hunts” by “leftist fake news media.” Sara Netanyahu, he points out, has been indicted for fraud. The police have closed in as well on his closest associates, and Netanyahu is clearly in their crosshairs. “Emphasizing that nothing will happen because nothing happened,” Netanyahu, Pfeffer reminds us, has vowed to stay in office even if he is charged.
As Bibi moves toward its conclusion, Pfeffer makes the surprising and improbable claim that although he did not convince the world that Israeli settlements were justified, Netanyahu changed the existing diplomatic paradigm that the Palestinian conflict was the source of the fundamental problems in the Middle East – and took settlements off the global agenda.
Pfeffer is more in character at the very end of his biography. The next leader of Israel, he hopes, will begin the “process of healing and building” as soon as he/ she takes office: “because on the day after Benjamin Netanyahu leaves, his ultimate legacy will not be a more secure nation, but a deeply fractured Israeli society, living behind walls.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.