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Gravedigger of Israeli Democracy?

Gravedigger of Israeli Democracy?

Benjamin Netanyahu has cast a dark shadow over his own accomplishments. His memoir offers a chance to weigh them in balance.

Gabriel Schoenfeld
Bibi: My Story
by Benjamin Netanyahu (Threshold Editions, 736 pp., $18.07)

It is discomfiting to write about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the one hand, with his proposal to neuter Israel’s Supreme Court, he has plunged Israel into the worst internal crisis in its history. He has formed a governing alliance with some of the most extreme—and despicable—figures on the Israeli right. By attempting to tilt the balance of power heavily toward Israel’s legislative-executive branch, which his governing coalition controls, he seems to be steering the Jewish state in the direction of Hungary’s soft authoritarianism, joining a disreputable club in which Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, India’s Narendra Modi, and (until recently) Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have been charter members.

But on the other hand, Netanyahu has been an extraordinary leader—the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history—with many accomplishments to his name. With his recent actions, he has cast a dark shadow over his achievements, but they should not be scanted. His memoir, Bibi: My Story, offers a chance to weigh them in the balance.

Given his lineage, Netanyahu’s path to the apex of Israel’s government was almost overdetermined. His father, Benzion Netanyahu, was an outstanding historian. A close disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the brilliant Revisionist Zionist thinker, he was the editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica and the author of deeply learned works on the Spanish Inquisition. Netanyahu’s older brother, Jonathan, was the leader and tragic national hero of Israel’s July 4, 1976, rescue raid on the Entebbe airport in Uganda, saving more than a hundred hostages from murder by German and Arab terrorists. He was the only Israeli military fatality suffered in the action, a crushing blow to Benjamin and his parents.

“Bibi,” as he has been known since childhood, was born in Israel in 1949. Educated partially in the United States, he became a fluent English speaker from an early age and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Along the way, he was selected to enroll in the same elite military outfit as his brother, the Sayeret Matkal, also known simply as “the Unit.”

A good portion of the memoir is devoted to his own military exploits, which include combat in Israel’s war of attrition with Egypt and then the Yom Kippur War. Among other feats, he participated in a successful operation to free hostages aboard a hijacked Sabena airliner and took a bullet in his left arm. The story of the rescue is the book’s opening chapter and it makes for gripping reading. Like his older brother, Netanyahu became an officer of the Sayeret Matkal, and is in his own right a military hero.

Netanyahu’s career in politics began, modestly, as a public speaker in the United States engaged in hasbara—public relations—for the state of Israel. His eloquence and swiftness on his feet, especially on television, led to a diplomatic appointment—deputy chief of mission—in the Israeli embassy in Washington. In a stint as acting ambassador, which afforded him appearances on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline,” Netanyahu’s public career took off. Not long after, he was appointed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to be ambassador to the United Nations.

At the end of his UN term, Netanyahu sought a position on the Likud party’s list for the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and, with victory, was invited to become deputy foreign minister. Before long, he ran for Likud party leader and would seek to challenge Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin for Israel’s helm. But two years after signing the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Yasser Arafat, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli terrorist and Shimon Peres of the Labor party became the new prime minister. Netanyahu, running on a campaign against Palestinian terrorism—which had soared as the Oslo “peace process” got under way—defeated Peres in a squeaker of an election to become prime minister at age forty-six.

For sheer longevity in office, holding the prime ministership for three spells—from 1996 to 1999, then from 2009 to 2021, and yet again beginning in November 2022—Netanyahu stands out as a towering figure in modern Israeli history. His memoir records his interactions with four American Presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. As Netanyahu recounts, the first three of these placed Israel under intense pressure to make territorial concessions; the fourth, with the help of Netanyahu’s adroit flattery and open embrace, gave Israel almost everything it wanted, including recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel (a planned new community in the Golan was named Ramat Trump) and the placement of the U.S. embassy in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem.

One throughline of his three tenures in the prime minister’s seat has been steadfast resistance to what Netanyahu calls the “Palestinian Centrality Theory,” the conviction, forcefully insisted upon by a long succession of American administrations, that, in Netanyahu’ words, “Palestinian grievances were the heart of the ‘Middle East conflict,’” and that those grievances could not be assuaged without Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and the West Bank of the Jordan River.

The theory was put to a major empirical test by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who uprooted Israeli settlements in Gaza in 2004 to turn the strip over to Palestinian rule, a step Netanyahu—then serving as finance minister—opposed. Instead of peace, the costly withdrawal led to thousands of rockets raining on Israel from an enclave ruled by the Islamic fundamentalist movement Hamas, and a series of bloody battles that Israel has undertaken to suppress the incessant terror.

Another nail in the coffin of the Palestinian Centrality Theory came in 2020 with the Abraham Accords, under which Israel, with shepherding by the Trump Administration, succeeded in establishing full diplomatic relations with such Arab countries as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco without any discernible improvement in the long-deadlocked Palestinian problem. The key to a broader peace in the Middle East, it seemed clear, did not lie exclusively on the road to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority.

Perhaps even more significant for Israel’s position in the Middle East have been the painful economic reforms Netanyahu launched in his first stint in office and subsequently deepened over the ensuing decade. As he records in a series of chapters, the hidebound, semi-socialist economy of Israel was a barrier to foreign investment and a significant drag on economic growth. Reform entailed repairing a bankrupt pension system, privatization of numerous state-held enterprises, and, in the face of dire warning about the economic consequences, elimination of Israel’s rigid currency controls to let the shekel float.

The long-term results of Netanyahu’s reforms speak for themselves. Israel’s economic growth rate since their enactment has been one of the fastest in the industrialized world. In 1999, GDP per capita in Israel was approximately $20,000. Over the ensuing twenty years it more than doubled and today outstrips that of Britain, France, Japan, Italy, and Spain. Israel has become a veritable powerhouse and global leader in the realm of high technology.

In explaining his successes in dealing with the United States, Netanyahu is unabashed about his ability to mobilize American constituencies in support of Israel’s objectives. Naturally this includes American Jewry, but also, as he explains in some depth here, Evangelical Christians, who regard the Jewish state as “the miraculous realization of Biblical prophecy” and who in the closing decades of the 20th century “furthered their status as Israel’s most ardent backers.”

It is impossible to fault perpetually isolated Israel for seeking political support in whatever quarter it can find it. But when Netanyahu writes, “I embraced evangelicals openly and wholeheartedly,” there is something repulsive about it; he names Pat Robertson, Robert Jeffress, John Hagee, and the late Jerry Falwell as among those that he especially appreciates for their “unstinting support.” In 2020, Robertson embraced the Big Lie that the U.S. election was stolen and claimed that “the Lord Himself” would intervene to ensure that Trump remained president. Jeffress, an ardent Trump supporter, has asserted that Jews face “an eternity of separation from God in hell.” Hagee, another Trump backer, has claimed that Adolf Hitler was “a half-breed Jew.” The late Falwell had asserted that the “Antichrist” would be a Jew.

However much such figures may help Israel in its diplomatic doings, an alliance with them comes at a cost. Support for Israel in the United States was once a wholly bipartisan endeavor. But increasingly there is an anti-Israel caucus within the Democratic Party that extends well beyond the “squad.” Netanyahu’s open embrace of Trump, of Rupert Murdoch (whom he calls here a “close friend”), and unsavory Evangelical leaders are part of the reason for the shift.

Netanyahu is not unaware of such criticism. “My father,” he writes,

was one of the de facto progenitors of America’s bipartisan support for the state of Israel and the first to bring it into practical fruition. It was ironic that decades later I would be falsely accused of not appreciating the importance of American bipartisan support for Israel.

This is both illogical and singularly unconvincing. Both Netanyahu and Trump together have helped to undermine critical American support by thrusting the tie with Israel into the culture wars.

Bibi: My Story was published (in English and Hebrew) just weeks before Israel’s November 2022 election, perhaps to serve as a kind of campaign closer. Oddly enough, Netanyahu says not a word in the book about Israel’s Supreme Court, which suggests that his objections to the place of the court in the Israeli political system were not, prior to the election, on the top of his mind. This raises the question of why, after his renewed ascension to the prime ministership, he so abruptly launched such an ominous and far-reaching proposal involving the judiciary.

Did Netanyahu succumb to the arrogance of power? Was it to save his own skin from the criminal corruption charges that have been leveled against him, a subject he explores in considerable detail in the memoir, dismissing them all as politically inspired? If so, the judicial reform he has been proposing certainly would open the door to having them waived away by virtue of the control it would grant the Knesset over the judiciary’s decision-making.

Of course, Netanyahu’s motivations can only be explored by means of speculation. And his criminal culpability is something that will have to be determined by Israel courts. But whatever the case may be, in the face of widespread protest Netanyahu has now called for a “pause” in the judicial reform he has been pushing. Is this merely a tactical retreat, or the beginning of a genuine reconsideration of a plan that has been tearing Israel asunder? The answer will determine how Netanyahu is remembered. Will his enduring reputation be that which he has lately been earning—gravedigger of Israel’s democracy—or will it be the one his long military and political career deserves, that of heroic defender of the Jewish state? One hopes, for his sake and for the sake of the State of Israel, it remains the latter.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.

Image: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. President Donald Trump during a visit to Jerusalem in May 2017. (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

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