Listen to this story here:
After his four decades as a public figure, and a soon-to-be-extended record run as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is there anything we don’t already know about Benjamin Netanyahu? Though there are still plenty of questions for future historians to try to answer about his life and remarkable career, readers of his recently published autobiography, Bibi: My Story, will find few surprises in its more than 650 pages of text.
That’s not entirely a bad thing, as the work contains many elements that are clear reflections of the author’s personality. In the forefront is his unflinching loyalty to his family, including hero worship of his father and slain older brother, Yoni, as well as a willingness to go to bat to defend the much-battered reputations of his wife, Sara, and their elder son, Yair.
His insatiable thirst for getting even with a long list of political enemies is also on display. The score-settling with personalities like his former commander-turned-political-rival Ehud Barak (whom he eagerly claims was always a publicity hound undeserving of the title of “Israel’s most decorated soldier”) begins early in the narrative and never lets up. His often-scathing portrayals of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid fall into the same category.
In his telling, the Israeli press, which he rightly regards as his real opposition, is largely a pack of politically biased hacks with no interest in accuracy. In his words, it lies about him with impunity—an allegation with which an impartial observer (if there is such a thing about Netanyahu) would have to agree.
Nor, with a few, not-very important exceptions, does he demonstrate much interest in soul-searching about decisions he’s made over the years. He is willing to acknowledge a few tactical political errors, including the way he treated other senior Likud leaders during his rocky first time as prime minister in the 1990s.
And he knows he definitely shouldn’t have taken 10-year-old Yair on a climb of Australia’s Ayers Rock, after a gust of wind nearly killed the boy—something for which he probably has never stopped apologizing to Sara.
He draws a veil of silence, however, over his personal misbehavior during his early political life, including his astounding confession in 1993 on live Israeli TV to an extra-marital affair. This was when, as a candidate for the Likud Party leadership, he accused supporters of his primary rival of trying to blackmail him with a video of the tryst. No such tape materialized and he survived the scandal. But it was just the beginning of his troubles with the media.
The decision to avoid recounting such embarrassing episodes makes sense. The work, above all, is a political biography and a Zionist polemic. In it, he seeks not so much to reveal personal information about himself as to place his life in the context of the history of the state.
Indeed, the book is only partly about Netanyahu, the individual, a magnet for controversy. The real subject is Netanyahu, the man with a clear and prescient vision for the security and prosperity of the Jewish state—a figure who has followed in the footsteps of the Jewish people’s greatest leaders of the last century.
And because history actually has vindicated the basic principles that have guided his political career, Bibi is, despite some clear literary shortcomings, an important book. Written as it was during what he rightly expected would be merely a break from the premiership, rather than the end of his career, it isn’t an exercise in introspection, but something of a campaign biography.
The Bibi we read about is a man who was right about most things to start with, and the passage of the years has only served to reinforce his conclusion that he’s still correct about almost everything.
This can be a bit off-putting at times, especially when he revises recent history to suit his purposes. One example is his portrayal of himself during the late 1990s and early 2000s as primarily focused on the threat from Iran, leaving out his ardent advocacy for what turned about to be the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq. The benefits of the demise of Saddam Hussein notwithstanding, the war wound up strengthening Tehran.
In his telling, he was interested in stopping Iran, while then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was indifferent. This flies in the face of the fact that Sharon privately opposed the Iraq war in conversations with the Bush administration for the above reason.
Another problem is the somewhat pedestrian prose style adopted in much of the book. Netanyahu is on firm ground when he writes about history and policy, and it is in those realms that his trademark eloquence shines through. He’s equally inspired when writing about his family and army service. He’s never more impassioned than when speaking of his parents and, above all, Yoni, the hero of Entebbe.
His depiction of life in “the unit” —Sayeret Matkal, the Israel Defense Forces’ most elite combat formation in which he and his brothers all served with distinction—also provides insight into his thinking about many things.
Unfortunately, the long passages describing much of his political career—the people he’s met, places he’s gone and ceremonies he’s attended—are deadly dull. Someone inclined to play a drinking game in which one must lift a glass whenever he speaks of how “deeply moved” he was about something, or whether his audiences laughed at his jokes, may not make it through some chapters sober.
This doesn’t detract from his emphasis on efforts to educate the world about Israel’s security dilemmas, or description of his mainly successful crusade to free the country’s economy from the shackles of its socialist origins.
At the heart of the hefty volume is his explanation for the bankruptcy of the Oslo peace process in which three successive U.S. administrations—those led by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama—were so heavily invested. Netanyahu was right that trying to trade land for peace with a terrorist-controlled Palestinian national movement that was unreconciled to the existence or legitimacy of a Jewish state would lead only to failure and bloodshed.
His accounts of his confrontations with the affable but misguided Clinton and the arrogant and even more wrongheaded Obama are the highlights of the book. He clinically dissects the misconceptions behind the obsession on the part of the American foreign-policy establishment with pressuring Israel to make concessions to achieve a peace that the Palestinians didn’t want. No one who understands these issues can read these passages without being moved to anger by Obama’s malevolence, and being reminded of the stubborn courage that Netanyahu showed during those years.
Regarding the account of his campaign to alert the world to the existential threat that a nuclear Iran poses to Israel: We are left wanting to learn more about his failure to convince Israel’s own security establishment to launch a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities early in his second term as prime minister, when it might have had far more of an impact than it would now.
But the recounting of his refusal to bend to Obama’s ill-considered appeasement policy and decision to flout tradition and address Congress to persuade it to oppose a sitting president’s policy is right on target.
Given the historic support Israel received from former President Donald Trump, some may be surprised by Netanyahu’s occasionally unflattering portrayal of him. Getting Trump to drop his foolish belief that he could bring about peace with the Palestinians was a heavy lift for the prime minister and the president’s coterie of pro-Israel Jewish aides. But he does give Trump his due for ultimately doing the right thing and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and brokering the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and four Arab and Muslim nations.
Though many Israelis are sick of Netanyahu’s ego, readers of Bibi can well understand his belief that no one is good enough to succeed him; that his family is treated unfairly; and that it is the longstanding vendetta of the country’s leftist establishment responsible for the attempt to bring him down by any means possible. (It’s the only explanation for the flimsy corruption charges on which he’s been standing trial for a couple of years, with no end in sight.)
Yet the autobiography also sheds light on why most Israelis still believe he’s the one man with the talent and the experience to lead their country. His clear-eyed vision on security, diplomacy and economics has not only been proven correct time and again. His ability to lead on all these issues is unmatched by any political rival or ally.
His next term as prime minister, slated soon to begin, will provide more of the same kind of dilemmas with respect to the Palestinians, Iran and the economy, as well as looming confrontations with a less-than-friendly American administration.
The efforts by both American and Israeli opponents to portray his new government as “extreme” are just a new version of the same biased and misguided policy perspectives that he’s been facing for the last 30 years. But if there’s one thing we can learn from his book, it’s that Netanyahu is as ready to fight and win these next battles as he was the ones that came before.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.