The Netanyahu Paradox
By David Margolick
A nuclear Iran threatens. The Palestinian conflict smolders. Meanwhile, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has largely vanquished his domestic foes—the Israeli media, the political opposition—in a battle backed by two U.S. billionaires and reportedly fueled by his wife, Sara. Interviewing the 62-year-old leader, David Margolick explores why “Bibi” is in control of his country, but not of its destiny.
At one point or another for an entire week last November, most of the Israeli establishment showed up at the Bauhaus home in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem: members of the Cabinet and Knesset, security officials, rabbis, businessmen, journalists, supplicants of all stripes, “everyone who didn’t want to get in any trouble,” as one participant put it. They stood solemnly around the small stone courtyard with a tent on top, officially mourning, but also studying who else was there, who was whispering to whom. Ehud Barak, the defense minister and, by many accounts, the most vigorous proponent of an Israeli strike against Iran, was there. So was Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, who then held the key to the current government’s survival. Even an Arab member of the Knesset, Ahmad Tibi, came by later on. The guest registry also included Sheldon Adelson, the ubiquitous gambling magnate, and Ronald Lauder, an heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune—a pair of American billionaires who, improbably, have also become major Israeli media moguls.
The occasion was the shivah, or memorial observance, for a man named Shmuel Ben-Artzi, who had just died at the age of 97. Luminaries like this wouldn’t normally show up to honor a beloved but relatively obscure Israeli poet and educator like Ben-Artzi; few of the guests had even met him. They were there more for his son-in-law: Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel. They had come to the prime minister’s official residence less out of friendship and respect—for Netanyahu is something of a loner, someone who antagonizes even his allies—than for reasons of realpolitik: even back then, before the shakeup that has left him with one of the largest majorities in Israeli history, Netanyahu was all-powerful. Attention had to be paid.
But, as is often the case in Israeli politics, it was even more complicated than that: many of the guests had come primarily for Sara Netanyahu, Ben-Artzi’s daughter and Bibi’s wife. Here, too, it was not so much out of love or respect, but fear. Even Bibi couldn’t stray very far, though he had other pressing business—like a memorial service commemorating the 1995 assassination of the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. So, there he was, at his wife’s insistence, sticking around for the whole week, periodically reading her late father’s poetry aloud to the mourners in a way that elicited pity even from his detractors. “I have no choice,” lamented one tycoon about his reasons for coming. “She’s running the show here in Israel. She can make or break anyone.”
It is the paradox of Israel that in Benjamin Netanyahu, 62 years old, now entering his seventh year in office, the country has both its strongest and its weakest leader in memory—and, as things now look, will have both sides of him for many years to come.
As of early May, when his coalition suddenly and surprisingly swallowed up the largest opposition party, Kadima, Netanyahu now controls 94 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. An Iranian atom bomb may be some time off, but as Yossi Verter writing in Israel’s liberal daily, Haaretz, put it, an atom bomb has fallen on Israeli politics. Until elections in the fall of 2013, Netanyahu can now do pretty much what he wants. The question is just what that is, and whether even he knows, for he’s proven better at holding power than wielding it.
Sometime this year, the Jewish population in Israel will hit a macabre magic number: six million, as many as the Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust. And now, in contrast to Hitler’s day, they’re all concentrated in one small place, sitting ducks for an Iranian bomb. Other Israeli leaders have long warned about the danger, but Netanyahu has made the issue his own, and forced a reluctant world to reckon with it. And as self-serving and hysterical and diversionary and even counter-productive as some consider his warnings to have been, he may finally be right: cry wolf long enough, and a wolf may actually be at your door.
The Iranian threat has made Bibi even more politically formidable: a supreme leader in Tehran has helped create a semi-supreme leader in Jerusalem. Not that it has rescued him from his insatiable critics. “For some Israelis, Israel is confronting two main problems: one is Iran and the second is Bibi Netanyahu—and not necessarily in that order,” Gonen Ginat, of Israel Hayom, the free daily newspaper many believe Adelson essentially created for Netanyahu, told me. The paper’s very existence reflects Netanyahu’s conviction that, at their core, many problems, both his and Israel’s, are really matters of hasbara: Hebrew for public relations.
When we spoke in late spring, Netanyahu painted himself as a kind of prisoner, his life reduced to the narrow orbit between home and office. He’d projected similar Weltschmerz two years ago at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York. “When you get to be at my advanced age, you don’t come back to spend time in office,” he’d said. “It’s not that pleasant anyway. You come back to do something.” That was code for peace with the Palestinians; on that, he declared, he planned “to confound the critics and the skeptics.”
Those critics and skeptics remain completely unconfounded. But far from feeling put-upon, Netanyahu clearly revels in the job he has spent two decades coveting, obtaining, squandering, regaining, consolidating. He has few outside interests. For all his country’s successes in high tech, he doesn’t much use a computer, or surf the Web, or text; in his spare time he reads McKinsey reports and books on Jewish history or biographies—say, of Napoleon and Churchill. Netanyahu’s job is his life—he’d surely be lost without it.
Tending, at least until recent weeks, simultaneously to his fragile conservative coalition and demands from Washington, Netanyahu tacks left and right, freezing West Bank settlements for a time, then approving them, talking peace with the Palestinians but doing little to advance it. Mindful of his truncated first term in the late 1990s, he has become compulsively cautious: despite all his bellicose rhetoric, for instance, there have been no military adventures on this watch. An Israeli strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities gone awry may pose the single greatest peril to his political future, which may be the biggest guarantee—more than American opposition to any move or the effectiveness of sanctions—that it won’t happen. If there’s one thing Netanyahu has mastered, it is the fine art of holding on—of moving forward by standing still.
Arguably, his sole accomplishment this time around has been to trade 1,027 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel for the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas for five years in Gaza. He built his career decrying negotiations with terrorists, and to both the hawks and settlers who back him and the centrists and leftists who don’t, the move last October underscored how easily Netanyahu can be pressured. (It’s a source of despair and disgust to the former, and of encouragement to the latter.) But Netanyahu manages never to alienate his right-wing base nor completely turn off at least some on the left who, in a Nixon-in-China kind of way, still see him as the sole surviving shot at a peace deal. And, besides, the Shalit swap enjoyed overwhelming popular support. And Sara wanted it.
As the populace—disillusioned with grandiose peace plans, exhausted by the Palestinians, increasingly controlled by Orthodox Jews and émigrés from the former Soviet Union and Arab countries who share his politics and resentment of Israel’s liberal elites—has moved right, Netanyahu has been able to stay in one place: his country has come to him. The economy hums along, and, for the time being at least, buses aren’t being blown up. Still, leaving nothing to chance, Netanyahu has further solidified his position by using allies like Adelson and Lauder to reshape an unremittingly hostile Israeli media. These days, Netanyahu and Israel are peculiarly in sync. Few Israelis love him, but they’ve gotten used to him, or, as Israel’s foremost political commentator, Nahum Barnea, of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, puts it, “His ass fits the chair.” For a majority of Israelis, Netanyahu is good enough, and surely better than anyone else.
For a couple of days in May, it looked as if Netanyahu would move up elections to this September. That was before the breathtaking late-night deal to accept Kadima and its 28 members into the coalition. Kadima’s head, a former army chief and defense minister named Shaul Mofaz, had recently called Netanyahu a liar and vowed not to join with him. But with his party facing annihilation at the polls, it sold itself cheap. Netanyahu is a big man—his doctor worries a bit about his weight—but as he and Mofaz stood at adjacent lecterns to announce the agreement, one sensed that the difference in their stature was more than purely physical.
Mofaz has counseled caution on Iran, but by fortifying the government’s military credentials—he is the third former army chief in Bibi’s Cabinet—he could actually ease any decision to bomb its nuclear facilities. And by giving the government a more secular, centrist cast, the move lets Netanyahu tackle festering domestic issues like illegal settlements, drafting Orthodox Jews into national service, and reforming Israeli electoral laws.
If all goes as expected, Netanyahu will seek, and win, another four years in October 2013. Should he complete that term, only Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, will have served longer. “Putinyahu,” a columnist for Haaretz recently called him. But invincibility cuts both ways: with settlers and other right-wingers at his side, Netanyahu has always had an excuse to do nothing with the Palestinians. The handicapping is that he still won’t, his new partners notwithstanding. But his days as a cipher may be numbered. Having shown—yet again—his paramount political skills, he may now have to reveal who he really is.
A Tale of Two Bibis
‘Psychobabble,” he calls it. Surely no Israeli prime minister has been placed on the couch as much as Netanyahu. People talk about the enduring influence of his father, Benzion, who died in late April at the age of 102, and his implacable, uncompromising, anti- Arab strain of right-wing Zionism, which led him for a time to take his family into American exile and gave Bibi one of his most formidable political gifts: his mellifluous Americanized English. Then there’s the ever present shadow of Netanyahu’s older brother, Yonathon—the only Israeli soldier killed in the 1976 rescue of Jewish hostages at Entebbe. It was the courageous, sensitive, tormented Yoni, whose handsome face every Israeli schoolchild comes to know, who paved Bibi’s political path. “Benjamin Netanyahu will be a bright star in the sky of Israeli politics as long as Yoni Netanyahu is dead,” the Israeli journalist Amnon Abramovich predicted after Bibi took over the right-wing Likud Party in 1993.
The pop psychoanalysis continues with the schizophrenic Bibi. Many analyses split him in two, then pit those halves against each other.
First, there’s Bibi the statesman, the Israeli Churchill, seeking immortality, versus Bibi the politician, seeking survival. Then there’s the American Bibi versus the Israeli Bibi. The American Bibi is articulate, confident, charismatic. He spoke before a rapturous joint session of Congress last year; had he read from the Tel Aviv telephone book, Senator Joseph Lieberman said afterward, he’d still have gotten all those standing ovations. (In fact, there seemed to be no sitting ovations.) He also appeared at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or aipac, this past March, where the adulation was something Soviet émigrés in Israel would have recognized—reminiscent of the Politburo, or Pavlov: 13,000 people, all conveniently out of harm’s way, cheering as one for war against Iran. The American Bibi appeals not only to American Jews; in fact, evangelical Christians like him even more, and certainly far more uncritically. Visiting Jerusalem in March, Pastor James Hagee, of Christians United for Israel, compared him to Moses, King David, and, not entirely facetiously, even to the Messiah.
The Israeli Bibi, by contrast, can be accident-prone, panicky, deceptive, disloyal, and, as his own father—who found frequent fault with him—noted, indecisive. He governs by improvisation, picks people poorly, goes through them fast. And he’s suggestible: an inordinate number of people say he tends to agree with the last person he has met.
Sometimes that’s Sheldon Adelson; critics charge that Netanyahu has subcontracted aspects of his foreign policy to the American billionaire, who implacably opposes a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Or it’s Ehud Barak, who, seeking to relive his past military glories and redeem his disastrous political career, is, critics charge, exploiting his unique hold on Netanyahu—Bibi served in an elite army unit under him—to maneuver him into war. “Barak symbolizes Yoni for him—the adored, legendary commander, the older brother,” said Isaac Herzog, a former minister in several governments and head of the Labor Party’s faction in the Knesset. (Notably, Barak was one of the people privy to the top-secret coalition talks.)
Then there’s the last person Bibi sees every night: Sara. Seconds into any conversation about Netanyahu, the subject of Sara, whom he married in 1991, invariably comes up. It’s amazing how many otherwise sane Israelis see her Lady Macbeth–like hand in every corner of her husband’s life and work—whom he hires, what he does and doesn’t do, whom he can and cannot see. One hears constantly that Sara “has something” on her husband, stemming from her decision to stick by him after the highly publicized affair to which he admitted early in their marriage when his political career hung in the balance. One also hears of a supposed contract between the two of them, said to have been drafted by a former attorney general of Israel, squirreled away in some safe. Or of Bibi cowering in the bathroom, calling the childhood friends of his whom she has excommunicated.
Friend and foe alike have stories about Sara—about a tantrum or feud or some abuse of the household help—or some illustration of her vanity, like the time when, dissatisfied with the picture of her that Yediot Aharonot was about to run, she had her husband call the paper’s famously private owner, Noni Mozes, from Washington, demanding it be changed. People offer medical or psychological diagnoses, and speculate, without any apparent knowledge, about the medications she might be on. Her every misstep or peccadillo is covered minutely in the Israeli press (at least that portion Adelson doesn’t own), particularly her repeated run-ins with the help, several of which have led to lawsuits. Since ordering employees to call her “Ha Giveret” (“The Lady”)—an act of colossal hubris in a country rooted in unpretentious egalitarianism—it’s what she’s routinely and derisively called.
Numerous former staffers say her imbroglios periodically bring governance to a halt, forcing her husband to leave key meetings to tend to trivial matters or simply to calm her down. No one seriously contends that she will determine what happens with Iran. But many think she denies Netanyahu the serenity a man in his position needs. “She is a clear and present danger to the national security of the state of Israel,” one of Netanyahu’s prime critics, Ben Caspit, of the Israeli tabloid Maariv, told me. Just how, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman is said to have asked, can a man control a government when he can’t control his wife? (Already hobbled by a pending corruption investigation, Lieberman, who heads the party of former Soviet immigrants, is considered a big loser in the recent political machinations. So too are Yair Lapid, a former anchorman who’d recently launched his own party, and Shelly Yachimovich, whose Labor Party stood to regain some seats—and at least some of its historic influence—in a new vote.)
For all his political pre-eminence, Netanyahu, still convinced Israeli liberal elites consider him a “usurper,” remains highly suspicious, even paranoid. “In every criticism, Bibi sees an attempt to bring him down,” Uzi Arad, his former national-security adviser and one of many people with whom he has had a falling-out, told Yediot Aharonot in March. So he’s insular: his principal lawyer—David Shimron, who handles the numerous lawsuits Bibi and Sara have brought against their household employees and the press—is his cousin; a cousin-in-law, Yitzhak Molcho, is his most important diplomat, marginalizing both Lieberman (at least as foreign minister) and Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren; Netanyahu’s long-time chief of staff, Natan Eshel, forced to resign earlier this year in a sexual-harassment scandal, never really went away and handled the recent negotiations with Kadima. Shimon Shiffer of Yediot Aharonot says that Netanyahu once told him that he has no friends, something Netanyahu denies saying. One often hears—and not just from Netanyahu’s detractors—“Bibi has two types of friends: those he has betrayed, and those he will betray.”
Netanyahu was recently quoted by Steve Linde of The Jerusalem Post as saying that Israel’s most formidable foes were The New York Times and Haaretz, the newspaper of Israel’s intelligentsia. (He denies saying or believing this, and Linde subsequently published a clarification.) But Netanyahu has feuded with the Times and, one former aide tells me, considers Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a frequent critic, to be a mouthpiece of the Obama administration. That battle pales, though, next to Netanyahu’s wars with the Israeli press, which pilloried him during his first term. Like many Israelis on the left, it never forgave Netanyahu for Rabin’s assassination, which it believed his inflammatory language helped foment.
Netanyahu has expended vastly more energy—and enjoyed far greater success—reshaping the Israeli media than seeking peace with the Palestinians. As one observer puts it, he is less Israel’s prime minister than its editor in chief. “Netanyahu’s main lesson from his first term in office was ‘If you can’t beat them, control them,' "says Lior Averbach, of Globes, the Israeli business magazine. By appointment, intimidation, and infiltration, his tentacles have reached into every corner of Israel’s tiny, fragile journalistic eco-system. In the process, Adelson has displaced Lauder as Netanyahu’s most munificent backer and closest American protégé. In fact, Lauder, whose friendship with Netanyahu goes back decades—to encourage Random House to give Netanyahu a hefty book advance, he reportedly offered to buy up every unsold copy—has seen his efforts to help Bibi end in tears.
The process began in 2003, when Lauder purchased a stake in Channel 10, a fledgling Israeli cable station. No one thought he relished the role of Israeli press baron: it was, rather, his way of helping Bibi claw his way out of political exile by building a beachhead in Israeli journalism. Since then, Lauder has pumped $80 million into the venture.
More than any other news outlet in Israel—where state ownership, cronyism, and scarce resources have long inhibited traditional investigative journalism—Channel 10 evolved into something scrappy and independent. On a couple of occasions, for instance, the station’s principal investigative reporter, Raviv Drucker, reported how, between his terms as prime minister, Netanyahu, a man with an unbecoming penchant for letting others pick up his tabs, traveled widely and extravagantly on the dollars—or pounds, or euros—of private donors. Sara Netanyahu lived well, too: on one trip, she is said to have brought dirty laundry along with her, the better to have it cleaned at the hotel on the other end. (The Netanyahus have denied both of these things in a libel lawsuit brought against Channel 10 and others.) Before the story—quickly dubbed “Bibi Tours”—aired last year, Netanyahu and his surrogates leaned on station officials to kill it. One large shareholder, Yossi Maiman, is said to have told a colleague later that when Netanyahu called him to squelch it Sara seized the phone and screamed so loudly—“Why do you lie? This is the man who will save Israel from another Holocaust!”—that Maiman put the call on speakerphone, then summoned his wife to listen. (Asked recently, Maiman says it never happened.)
Netanyahu also called Lauder, who, under Israeli law, was powerless to intervene. (Lauder recently denied ever having been asked.) After the program aired, the Netanyahus cut him off; to a number of people, including members of his staff, Lauder’s long friendship with Bibi, he complained, was over. He nonetheless attended the shivahs both for Sara’s father and Bibi’s (flying over immediately in his private jet). He still describes Netanyahu as his “steadfast friend.” “It’s O.K.” is how Netanyahu characterizes their relationship now. “We’ve had warmer periods and cooler periods. I respect him, and he respects me.”
Lauder’s problems as an Israeli media mogul, though, were not yet over: Channel 10 next tackled Sheldon Adelson. The gambling mogul, who is highly litigious, tried killing the story about himself beforehand, also without success. After it was broadcast, he said two of its assertions were false: that he owed $400,000 to a Las Vegas contractor (who said so on-camera), and that he had been given “extra considerations” when obtaining his Nevada gambling license. Unless he received an apology, Adelson warned, he’d sue, and in the United States, where a costly defense would bankrupt the cash-strapped station. Lauder’s aides related that he even threatened Lauder directly. (Adelson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
One might have anticipated a donnybrook: No. 8 on Forbes’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans versus No. 103. Instead, Lauder, the station’s only funder, requested that it broadcast an apology provided by Adelson himself—which it promptly did. Three key figures at Channel 10 resigned directly afterward. “There was absolutely nothing wrong with the story and no reason—apart from a purely economic one—to apologize,” says Avner Hofstein, the reporter who worked on the piece. Channel 10 remains deeply in debt; only the Netanyahu government, it seems, can save it. Few think it will try, notwithstanding Lauder’s hefty investment in it. At the station, people believe it’s Sara, still stinging over that dirty laundry, who really wants it dead. (A charge an adviser to the P.M. calls “ridiculous.”)
Adelson, who reportedly first met Netanyahu in the 1990s, speaks no Hebrew and does not live in Israel, though his wife is Israeli. But, most likely with Netanyahu’s coaching, he came to believe that Israel’s three main newspapers did not represent the diverse Israeli public, and resolved to give Israelis what he called—borrowing Fox News’s slogan—a more “fair and balanced” alternative. At first he tried to buy Maariv. His pitch wasn’t subtle; he accused the paper’s owner, Ofer Nimrodi, of being a bad Zionist. (Nimrodi, his parents, and his two sons have all served in either Israeli intelligence or the Israeli Defense Forces.) Not surprisingly, a deal never happened. So, in 2007, Adelson launched a new paper, Israel Hayom (“Israel Today”). Instantly, understandably, it was dubbed “Bibiton”: “Bibi’s Newspaper” in Hebrew. Israeli journalists compare it half-facetiously to Pravda or Tishreen, the house organ of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Because its biases are so blatant, the conservative columnist Kalman Libeskind, of Maariv, recently wrote, he’d never thought it worth criticizing. But its “complete symbiosis” with Netanyahu and his interests, he complained, sometimes “really makes you want to puke.”
From its debut, Adelson’s paper—the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars he has dumped into it dwarfs the comparative pittance he invested in Newt Gingrich’s failed presidential bid—enjoyed two advantages: it’s free (even with home delivery) and ubiquitous, handed out everywhere. By leaching away readers and advertisers, it posed a mortal threat to Yediot Aharonot and Maariv. Maariv has already fallen into new, more Bibi-friendly hands. And after a period of all-out war with Netanyahu—in which, for instance, it plastered details of a maid’s lawsuit against the First Couple over several pages—Yediot Aharonot has recently toned things down. Many see that as evidence of a hudna, or truce, between Netanyahu and the paper, though who has conceded what isn’t clear.
“Almost the whole Israeli media is dependent upon Bibi,” says a former editor of Maariv, Amnon Dankner, “and while I won’t say they’re not criticizing him, the music has changed—to quieter, less vociferous tones.” But to Netanyahu, whom people credit with clearing Israel’s economy of its socialist cobwebs while he was Ariel Sharon’s finance minister, the Israeli media are finally being aerated. “I suppose that if it doesn’t lambaste me, if it’s not tendentious and hostile, it’s obviously tremendously biased,” he says of Israel Hayom. Adelson has no power over his decisions, Netanyahu says; the two disagree all the time. “My level of intervention in the press, trying to control stories, is zero,” he says. “Subzero.”
Letting Off Steam
I see Netanyahu late on a Friday afternoon in the spring. Arranging it all, escorting me in, is his most trusted aide, Ron Dermer, a personable man of 41. Dermer typifies many in Netanyahu’s entourage. He is originally American; both his father and brother were mayors of Miami Beach. And he is religious. Though Netanyahu remains secular, most of his key aides wear kippot, or skullcaps. Some say Netanyahu prefers their more conservative temperament, others that Sara likes having them around him: religious people, she feels, are less prone to tempt him into any more shenanigans. Still more think it’s a gesture to his religious supporters, until recently a crucial component in his coalition.
“I would not want him to be my daughter’s fiancé; basic human compassion is not on his agenda,” says Yossi Elituv, editor of the influential Orthodox weekly magazine Mishpacha. But alone among Israel’s leading politicians, Elituv goes on, Netanyahu respects Jewish history and tradition. “He doesn’t think Israel is just like Sweden only we happen to speak Hebrew, or that our history started only 60 years ago,” he says.
Netanyahu sits alone in the courtyard where the shivah for his father-in-law took place four months earlier. As illusory as it is—a group of young men with automatic weapons slung over their suit coats loiter just outside the stone fence—the scene seems serene, a refuge from the almost constant turbulence of Netanyahu’s life. Here, surrounded by miniature fruit trees and pots brimming with bright-pink flowers, he goes over the Bible every Shabbat with the younger of his two sons, winner of a national Bible competition. (Netanyahu also has a daughter from his first marriage, and is now a grandfather.) He meets here with Barak and Lieberman as well; pursuant to an edict from Sara, it’s the only place they can all smoke their cigars.
Netanyahu, characteristically, is dressed formally, at least by informal Israeli standards: blue blazer, white shirt open at the collar, woolen pants, black penny loafers. For all the talk of war, there is no sense of menace. The only siren to be heard is one proclaiming that sundown is half an hour away. Interviewing Netanyahu for this magazine 16 years ago, I found him wary and confrontational. Now he is calm and affable, almost jolly; so softly does he speak that twice I have to pull closer to him just to hear. Perhaps it’s the contentment that comes from invincibility and vindication. “I’ve been right more than I’ve been wrong,” he says.
Many people agree that Netanyahu has become less headstrong, more modest and empathetic, since his first term in office. He is a better listener, or at least seems to be. That he’s “considerably less polarizing,” he says, also stems from a calmer political climate: “A lot of the things that steamed up Israeli society, the steam has gone out.” Take the peace process: most Israelis now realize, even if the world doesn’t, that blame for the impasse lies elsewhere. “Some believed that I was the impediment to peace, but there were five other prime ministers since Oslo,” he says. “They did not make peace. Forget about the ‘two Bibis.’ I think about the single [Ehud] Olmert, the single Barak, the single Rabin. Why couldn’t they make peace?”
The tumult in the Arab world only highlights the perils. “People said I was a dinosaur because I asked some questions about the Arab Spring,” he says. “This is really going to be a shocker, but the region is a god-awful mess.” Then there’s Iran. For Netanyahu, it is not a new concern; a former chief of staff, Naftali Bennett, recalls Netanyahu grilling Bernard Lewis, the great scholar of Islam, about Iran and its leaders in a private dining room at the Knesset for an hour and a half six years ago. “He was incisive—he kept asking questions. He listened as never before,” recalls Bennett. “This was a man on a mission, to prevent a second Holocaust.” No one, Netanyahu tells me, “would be happier to see [the situation in Iran] resolved by sanctions or peaceful means.” He declines to speculate why so many prominent security officials—former heads of Mossad and Israeli Defense Forces among them—think he’s exaggerated the threat. But one charge clearly infuriates him: that Barak, a hugely unpopular figure in Israel whom Netanyahu has rescued from political oblivion, is driving him. “Oh, totally!” he scoffs. “He spins me on his little finger.”
Netanyahu is once reported to have said—he now denies it—that he “speaks English with a heavy Republican accent.” “Israel’s current prime minister is not just a friend, he’s an old friend,” Mitt Romney, with whom Netanyahu worked at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s, told aipac in March. (Romney, Netanyahu suggests, may have overstated the tie. “I remember him for sure, but I don’t think we had any particular connections,” he tells me. “I knew him and he knew me, I suppose.”)
Netanyahu’s encounters with President Obama have been marked by slights, misunderstandings, mutual suspicion, and downright distaste. One Obama aide says they keep hearing Netanyahu has evolved but have yet to see any signs of it. At home, Netanyahu scores points with his every slight of Obama, to whom the Israelis have never warmed. But Netanyahu insists his relationship with Obama is friendlier than it has been portrayed. They are, he tells me, “two people who appreciate the savviness and strength of the other.”
Netanyahu calls his reputation for coldness “a good joke.” It’s just one of many canards about him, he says, like that he’s cynical and opportunistic. “I’m not naturally manipulative,” he says. “I’m not a natural politician. I’m not consumed with political machinations.” He does have friends, he says, but they’re “unseen,” such as the members of his army unit—many of them left-wing kibbutzniks who don’t even vote for him—who last October helped him mark his birthday. “I’m not a glad-hander, I’m not a backslapper, but I’m not [this] icy presence,” he tells me. “My voters don’t relate that way to me. They relate very warmly to me. It’s not that there are ‘two Bibis.’ There are those who relate to me, who believe in me, and those who don’t, and there are more of the former or I wouldn’t be where I am.” Still, he knows the usual knocks well enough to anticipate them, and to keep returning to them with barely concealed irritation. “As you know, I’m humorless, friendless, controlled by my father’s hidden strings,” he volunteers. “And I’m twirling on Barak’s fingers.”
On one subject, Netanyahu is especially vehement, and voluble: his wife. “It’s a great injustice,” he says of her treatment in the Israeli press. Those who see her hand in everything are wrong, he says. People are shocked to meet her, and to discover she’s completely different from how she is depicted. Sara, he says, had made him more open with people, and, far from wreaking havoc around him, has given him the serenity he needs. (The benefits of having so supportive a spouse is something he says he shares with Obama; the two have even compared notes on it.) Quite the opposite of pulling him to the right, Sara’s views, he says, are “strongly, adamantly centrist.” The Israeli press attacks her, he suggests, only because it can’t lay a glove on him.
His Father’s Son
Tel Aviv’s cafés are crowded. Real-estate values—including those of the luxury condominiums rising near the Kirya, Israel’s Pentagon, surely ground zero for any prospective Iranian attack—are holding steady. A couple of weeks in Israel reveal that, while concerned about Iran, Israelis aren’t preoccupied with it. In the meantime, the real determinants of Netanyahu’s legacy, the Palestinians, remain. Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator of the Palestinian Authority, tells me that Netanyahu’s legacy has already been sealed, and it’s in fact even greater than Churchill’s: by setting terms that no Palestinian could accept—a point with which Netanyahu’s father agreed—he had destroyed the two-state solution. Had Netanyahu evolved since he first met him, nearly 25 years ago? “Yes, he is different,” Erekat replies. “He’s older, and a little fatter. Politically speaking, I haven’t seen any change.”
Amos Oz, the well-known Israeli novelist, recently wrote that most of Israel would happily line up behind Netanyahu and Barak if they withdrew from the West Bank but that they never will: they fear it would earn them what is in Hebrew the most insulting label of all: freyer, or sucker. Netanyahu professes not to care. His job, he suggests, is essentially defensive: safeguarding Israel’s future, avoiding “major pitfalls.” Shaul Mofaz has landed the thankless Palestinian portfolio, though Netanyahu will clearly call all shots. Can he, like Menachem Begin, Rabin, and Sharon before him, take bold and counter-intuitive steps for peace, or is he—as many believe, sometimes with surprising sympathy, as if he is indeed a prisoner of his own limitations—a kind of machine, quite beyond epiphanies? Suddenly a new but long-anticipated factor has entered the equation: the death of his beloved abba, or father.
In late April, as Netanyahu met with aides to discuss moving up the elections, he was hit by particularly pointed criticism from several sources, including the recently retired head of Israel’s state security service, Yuval Diskin, and former prime minister Ehud Olmert, each expressing doubts about his policies on Iran and the Palestinians. But when Benzion Netanyahu died in Jerusalem, early on the morning of April 30, the bricks suddenly stopped flying, at least until another shivah, this one at Benzion’s home, was complete. Within 12 hours of his death—Jerusalem traditionally buries its dead within a day—Netanyahu, his family, and much of the Israeli establishment had gathered in a special section of Har Hamenuchot cemetery reserved for the parents of fallen soldiers. Only a few feet away, outside that portion of the graveyard, Shmuel Ben-Artzi already lay.
Finally, the issue that has hung over Netanyahu seemingly forever—that “psychobabble” about whether his father’s death would liberate him from his demons and prejudices—will be answered. Standing at a lectern aligned to face the battery of television and still cameras behind the guests, pausing occasionally to compose himself, Netanyahu spoke of love, a word people had rarely, if ever, heard him utter before. He talked, too, of clairvoyance—specifically, his historian father’s ability not just to decipher the past but to discern the future, particularly the next catastrophe awaiting the Jews. In so doing, he seemed not to be distancing himself from his father, but to be re-dedicating himself to him.
“You always said that a critical skill for a living body—and a nation is a living body—is the ability to identify danger in time,” he declared. “You taught me, Abba, to look reality right in the eyes.”