Biographers typically have an affection for their subjects. Sometimes so much so that they descend into hagiography. No danger of this from Haaretz writer Anshel Pfeffer, an extreme example of the debunking biographer. Typical of his snarky style: Netanyahu “had given up on Israeli journalists being honest enough to present him as the country’s only true leader.”
What is striking about Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu is the author’s refusal to give Netanyahu credit for nearly anything. Few dispute that as finance minister under Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu made important reforms to Israel’s economy. The ever critical Haaretz admitted, “He succeeded beyond all expectations. His decisiveness, courage and rectitude in pursuing unpopular but important policies succeeded in stabilizing Israel’s economy.”
Yet even here Pfeffer claims Netanyahu’s impact “has been exaggerated,” with the previous Rabin government deserving the real credit for the investments that led to Israel’s high-tech boom.
In view of Pfeffer’s stubborn adherence to the moribund peace process, it is not surprising that his major criticisms of Netanyahu center on his views and policies in relation to the Arabs. Given Pfeffer’s own bleak view of Israel (he has elsewhere described Israel as “a dysfunctional society fighting an uphill battle—one that it often loses—against racism and corruption”), it is ironic that he repeatedly complains of Netanyahu’s “bleak” view. Pfeffer considers it bleak because of Netanyahu’s common-sense belief that “real peace can only come when the Arabs recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist” and that is unlikely to happen in our lifetimes.
Pfeffer complains that Netanyahu is “dragging his feet” with the peace process, with the only peace he is willing to consider “one where Israel bullies the Palestinians into submission.” Pfeffer blames the failure of the Oslo Accords largely on Israel, dating their collapse to reactionary violence starting with Baruch Goldstein, a religious Jew who killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in December 1994. In so far as he mentions Arab involvement, he blames the terrorism on Hamas. Pfeffer seems utterly blind to Yasser Arafat’s, or now Mahmoud Abbas and the entire Palestinian Arab leadership’s inability to come to terms with Israel as a Jewish state. On May 10, 1994, months before Goldstein’s actions, Arafat famously declared in a Johannesburg mosque that the Oslo Accords were but a tactical step toward Israel’s elimination and called for jihad to liberate Jerusalem.
Hemispatial neglect is a medical syndrome following a stroke, in which the patients behave as if half of their body, indeed half of their world, does not exist. They will eat only from one side of a plate, read only from one side of a book, shave or put makeup only on one side of their face. It’s a remarkable condition. It’s also one that afflicts much of the Israeli journalistic community. Pfeffer, like so many of his colleagues, only sees one side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is political hemineglect.
Pfeffer’s animus is such that he goes after Netanyahu’s entire family, starting with his grandfather Rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky and father Benzion Netanyahu, “men of many words but much less action.” Pfeffer could as easily have said these were men of principle who put their beliefs into action. Mileikowsky, though ordained as a rabbi, chose the life of an itinerant Zionist, traveling throughout Russia to spread the word to the persecuted masses, eventually emigrating to Palestine with his wife and young son in 1920.
Benzion was as ardent a Zionist as his father. He cofounded one rightwing monthly and wrote for another and later helped Revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky in his efforts to raise a Jewish Army in the United States to fight Hitler. (The effort fizzled with Jabotinsky’s untimely death in 1940). It’s true that Benzion was more scholar than leader. A fairer biographer could have said Benzion set aside his research in order to help mobilize an army in desperate times for the Jewish people.
Neither does Pfeffer spare Bibi’s older brother Yonatan, the special forces commander killed in the 1976 raid on Entebbe, which he led. “Yoni had a relatively minor role in the planning,” Pfeffer writes, adding, “Yoni’s heroic death obscured the fact that he had been going through a deeply troubled time in the months leading up to Entebbe,” so much so that his “increasing absences and lack of attention” led his commander to recommend that he be relieved of his command.
All this may be true. A recent book, Operation Thunderbolt, suggests that Yonatan’s role wasn’t as expansive in organizing the mission as previously thought. But in his efforts to debunk his high standing in Israel, Pfeffer misses the important point that his struggles made Yonatan Netanyahu all the more a heroic figure. He could have remained in America where his parents moved for a time, or after his first term of army service, stayed at Harvard with his young wife. Ehud Barak, his commanding officer in Sayeret Matkal, the elite unit in which he served, said Yoni wasn’t a natural soldier, but consciously turned himself into one. He served roughly 11 years, completely devoting himself to his task to the exclusion of all else, costing him his marriage and eventually his life. It is not surprising if shortly before his death he had reached burn-out.
That Pfeffer says nothing bad about Benjamin Netanyahu’s own military career (he served in the same elite unit as his elder brother) suggests it must have been stellar. Pfeffer quotes Colonel Yossi Langotzky, a senior intelligence officer: “I was very impressed by Bibi, not that it should come as a surprise, but he was part of the crème de la crème of the IDF. He was extremely professional and achieved a very high operational level.”
Pfeffer devotes a section to the police investigations into Netanyahu’s financial affairs. Not surprisingly he believes Netanyahu guilty of the charges and wants to see him indicted. He suggests the prime minister was cleared in the first case—”Bibitours”—because his former “trusted cabinet secretary” Avichai Mandelblit was attorney general. Most of the accusations sound like small beer: receiving gifts of cigars and champagne and spending $100,000 of public funds on private meals when the Netanyahus had a government cook—breaking a rule created just before they entered office. (Netanyahu’s attorney makes a strong case that the rule itself is unlawful.) The main accusation against Netanyahu that could spell trouble is that he is accused of granting favors to media tycoons in return for better coverage.
There’s no question that the spending, particularly on the part of his wife Sara, has damaged Netanyahu’s public image in a country that idealizes the Spartan life styles of most earlier prime ministers. David Ben-Gurion, whose only weakness was for buying books, lived modestly and spent his last years in a desert kibbutz. Menachem Begin was wholly indifferent to material pleasures. And Golda Meir thought it right and just that she earn less than the janitor of the Histadrut building where she served on the executive committee because he had more children. The Netanyahus are clearly not in their mold.
On one point, Pfeffer’s analysis of the prime minister is accurate: Netanyahu is susceptible to pressure. In 1997, he relented to U.S. demands and redeployed Israeli forces in Hebron, becoming the first Likud prime minister to order IDF troops out of “part of the historical Land of Israel,” as Pfeffer notes. A year later, he again folded, signing the Wye River Memorandum, transferring still more areas to Arafat’s control. Given Netanyahu’s worldview, it is clear he did not want to do these things. His character, alas, is not as strong as his intelligence.
In the end, the reader coming to this book for an insight into what makes Netanyahu tick will be disappointed. Pfeffer doesn’t know. Netanyahu wisely refused to cooperate in what he suspected would be a hatchet job. Pfeffer reveals that he met Netanyahu a few times in the company of others. Netanyahu would say each time: “This is Mr. Pfeffer who’s writing a book about me. He doesn’t know anything about me. It will be a cartoon.” Netanyahu is credited with keen powers of analysis. He was spot on in this case.