What you need to know:
- He may have been pushed out of power in Israel recently but Netanyahu’s legacy will shadow the country for very many years.
- Indeed, in the book’s prologue, Pfeffer explains why it is important to know who Bibi is.
For some reason, a strange coalition managed to throw Bibi (as Benjamin Netanyahu is commonly known) out of power. That coalition must have spent an enormous amount of time crafting the scheme with which to out Bibi. For the now former (you can’t be sure that he won’t be back) Prime Minister of Israel was the master of political survival. He was the chief schemer of political arrangements. He was the political cat with the nine lives.
In the recent past, it was impossible to imagine Israel minus Bibi and Bibi not as the Prime Minister of Israel. One suspects that even with him out of power, he is making a comeback plan.
Reading Anshel Pfeffer’s biography of Benjamin Netanyahu, Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu (Hurst & Company, 2018) leaves one in no doubt that even out of power, he is hovering over Israeli politics.
Indeed, in the book’s prologue, Pfeffer explains why it is important to know who Bibi is.
He writes, “Netanyahu’s Israel enjoys an American-style standard of living while keeping its immediate neighbours under military occupation, shutting out the Middle East behind high walls and communicating with its soulmate six thousand miles away. It is a hybrid society of ancient phobias and high-tech hope, a combination of tribalism and globalism – just like Netanyahu himself. It is impossible to understand Israel without first understanding the man who leads it.”
He may no longer be calling shots in Tel Aviv right now but his legacy will shadow Israel for some time to come.
In Bibi, the reader meets the protagonist in many shades. These shades raise questions about how he has dealt with different situations/events, individuals or countries. For instance, how did Bibi manage to survive the sometimes strained relationship with America, especially during the Obama years? Is it because he was an American, having studied there and worked in the US in the diplomatic corps? Did he understand the American psyche and their guilt about the Holocaust? Did he understand that Americans would forever remain loyal to and protective of their Israelis, who they support financially and militarily every year? Reading Bibi one gets the sense that the attitude of the former Prime Minister towards the Americans, especially Obama, also had something to do with the fact that he probably knew – considering Israel’s coalition-driven politics – he could outlast the four or eight years that any American president he disagreed with was guaranteed in power.
What then informed his belligerence and willingness to go to war, as recently witnessed in the bombing of Palestine? There is no doubt that Israel-Palestine conflict is not going away any time soon. Indeed, it is what defines the regime of any Israel government. Many of them have crumbled depending on the direction that they have taken – make peace or have war with the Arab neighbors; recognize Palestine or continue to occupy parts of its territory? During the two periods when Bibi has been in power, Israel can hardly be said to have been a dove. It has been more of a hawk, threatening endless wars with Hamas, even though Pfeffer notes that he “… is no warmonger”. Threats of war with Iran have often been delivered robustly.
Well, again, Bibi knew that his has the backing of the Americans and Europeans. Any war against the Israelis would be more or less a world war. Who would want that? Also, Israel has a thriving weapons industry. Knowing that Israelis, whether on the left, right or moderates understand the mortal danger that Hamas and its supporters and Iran pose, Bibi knew how to play the card of fear, always reminding his countrywomen and men that only him and his party could guarantee them security, peace and the quality of life they led. For a man who had fought to defend his country; for a brother to a soldier who had died in Entebbe, fighting to rescue Israeli hostages, Bibi knew what war was about – it is definitely destructive but it can also be a source of everlasting political power.
Some commentators argue that Netanyahu’s endurance in Israeli politics is due to having turned the economy around since when he was the Minister of Finance. In his last term, Netanyahu wasn’t shy to proclaim the success of Israel as a leader in the tech sector. Its innovations in biomedicine and high tech rank it in some cases just behind America. The industries sprouting from these innovations have immensely raised the standards of living, which in some sense have guaranteed the government in power a degree of safety from internal discontent. For a man who earned a Master’s degree in management and worked at the Boston Consulting Group before returning to Israel, Bibi, must have been aware of the significance of economic stability for any modern leader. This is one of the major reasons for Bibi having stayed in power longer than any other previous Israeli leader.
But Pfeffer concludes, and probably this is why he is now the leader of opposition, that Netanyahu policies were more to do with “… his daily political preservation and inspired only by a bleak view of Jewish history.” The author suggests that Bibi didn’t really have a plan to deal with the question of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the endless outbreaks of confrontation with Hamas, which, he argues, “… is eroding Israeli democracy and human rights at an alarming rate.” Pfeffer’s prophecy is that Bibi’s legacy won’t be a safer Israel “… but a deeply fractured Israeli society, living behind walls.”
Bibi is out of power, but really quite near it. He is the leader of the opposition. The current political arrangement that got him out of office might not last long. He may have court cases haunting him. But this is a man who can be described as master at forging political coalitions. He has been out of power before. When he regained it, he ruled for 12 years. At 72 years, what other career might he pursue if not politics that he is familiar with? To use a cliché, love him or hate him, there are lessons to learn from Bibi’s enduring political career in the topsy-turvy Israeli political arena.
The writer teaches literature at the university of Nairobi. [email protected]