How King Bibi Conquered the Throne

CoverBibi2In May 2007, I had the privilege of meeting with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then leader of the opposition in the Knesset.

During the conversation, I mentioned to the soon-to-be longest serving Prime Minister of Israel that I had recently penned an op-ed comparing him with his hero Winston Churchill and predicting his return to power eventually.

“Keep that article preciously, because I will indeed come back and I will prove you right”, he said with his legendary deep voice.

2 years later he was back at the helm of the country.

Three days ago, on April 9th, “Bibi” contradicted those who were already drafting his political necrology by winning a fifth term.

I was personally not surprised at all with this result and, in all honesty, I was happy with the outcome because I always admired the statesman who is now called “King Bibi” by many commentators.

I followed every campaign led by Benjamin Netanyahu (since 1996) with tremendous interest and the last one was no exception. And the best companion during the last couple of weeks was the excellent biography Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu by Anshel Pfeffer.

Through this real page-turner, Pfeffer offers the key to understand Netanyahu.

In a nutshell, the leader of the Likud comes from a family of political outsider, people who were outsiders not only in the Revisionist family (you can call them the conservatives), but also in Israeli political life in general. Benjamin Netanyahu’s greatest achievement was to have “[…] transformed his father’s ideology into political capital.”

Throughout the years, the young Netanyahu spared no effort to master the art of public relations, networking and political maneuvering to reach the top of the greasy pole. And the ride was everything but smooth, if only because he had to confront and vanquish those we call “the princes” – the sons of the Herut-Likud establishment, of which Netanyahu was never a part. Their importance on the political chessboard was such that Anshel Pfeffer refers to them frequently in his book. But that does not change that fact that, even if Ehud Olmert, Dan Meridor, Ronny Milo, Benny Begin and even Tzipi Livni were all once key figures in Israeli politics, they’re now a footnote in history. Netanyahu outsmarted them all and his name can still be read in the headlines.

Right from the start, Bibi learnt to swim against the current and how to rebel against authority. From his “defiant opposition” to his father – with whom he had a particular relationship and who was against his decision to do his military service – to being yelled at on the phone by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and navigating in the cut-throat and unpredictable environment of the Likud, where today’s friend is tomorrow’s nemesis, Netanyahu conquered the iron throne of Israeli politics and cut himself a place as a dominant figure on the world’s scene, from the Halls of the Kremlin to the Oval Office passing by an official visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

I’m realistic enough to know that Bibi’s reign will come to an end one day – even though I will be among those who will be sorry to see him go. No one, after all, is immortal. But if one has to learn only one lesson from last Tuesday’s election, it is that “King Bibi” does not intend to let any prince touch his crown.

Long after the famous HBO legendary series will have ended, the game of thrones of Israeli politics will continue. It will be fascinating to observe and I’m sure we’re in for many surprises.

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Anshel Pfeffer, Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, Toronto, Signal, 2018, 432 pages.

Les premiers héros du Mossad

Espions-de-nulle-partJ’ai toujours été fasciné par l’histoire du Mossad. Durant mes années universitaires, je parcourais jusqu’aux petites heures du matin les ouvrages relatant les exploits des hommes et femmes qui ont écrit les grandes pages de cette institution légendaire

Vous ne serez donc pas étonnés si je vous dis que je me délecte actuellement des épisodes de la série Mossad 101 sur Netflix.

Quelques jours avant d’être rivé au petit écran pour suivre les péripéties de Yona, Abigail et les autres, j’avais eu le bonheur de dévorer Espions de nulle part : l’avant-Mossad de Matti Friedman.

Fascinant à plus d’un égard, ce livre se veut également novateur dans le sens où il nous plonge dans les péripéties qui se sont déroulées avec la création officielle de l’ « Institut ». L’auteur nous permet donc de remonter dans la généalogie de l’histoire du renseignement israélien et la trame de son récit se concentre sur quatre individus, des Juifs qui passaient pour des Arabes (puisque « […] nés dans le monde arabe [et] aussi autochtones que les Arabes ») et dont la contribution s’est avérée inestimable durant les vingt mois les plus cruciaux qui ont permis la naissance de l’État d’Israël. Le qualificatif « cruciaux » prend ici tout son sens, si on prend en considération le fait que « […] la Section [arabe] [dont ils faisaient partie] fut l’un des seuls outils efficaces du renseignement dont disposèrent les Juifs pendant la guerre de 1948. »

Sans ces individus, que je qualifierais sans hésitation de héros, on n’ose à peine imaginer quelle aurait été la suite des choses au pays du miel et du lait. Tristement, cette contribution est cependant peu connue puisqu’elle se perd en quelque sorte dans le fossé qui existe historiquement entre les Juifs du monde islamique (Mizrahim) et les Juifs du monde chrétien (Ashkénazes), les seconds dominant largement les premiers dans le récit national. L’un des nombreux mérites du livre de Matti Friedman est de rendre justice aux premiers pour avoir formé « […] l’embryon de l’un des services de renseignement les plus extraordinaires au monde […]. »

Chaque page du livre de Matti Friedman relate le parcours et les sacrifices à donner des frissons (je pense ici principalement au risque constant d’être démasqué en territoire ennemi au péril de sa vie) de ces héros pratiquement anonymes dont les exploits auraient facilement pu inspirer la célèbre création littéraire de Ian Flemming.

Dans la bibliothèque de tous ceux et celles qui s’intéressent à l’histoire d’Israël, Gamliel, Isaac, Havakuk et Yakuba font désormais partie de ces « […] sionistes [qui] avaient l’art de changer l’humiliation en idéal. »

Pour comprendre l’ethos d’Israël et pourquoi ce pays – la première ligne de défense de l’Occident comme me le déclarait l’ancien et futur Premier ministre Benjamin Netanyahu (il était alors chef de l’opposition) – ne pourra jamais se payer le luxe de la faiblesse devant des adversaires qui représentent autant de menaces existentielles à sa survie, il faut absolument lire Matti Friedman. Vous ne le regretterez pas.

Sous une plume alerte et sensible, c’est le genre de livre captivant qu’on souhaiterait avoir toujours sous la main.

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Matti Friedman, Espions de nulle part : l’avant Mossad, Paris, Éditions Liana Levi, 2019, 312 pages. Continue reading

Why the IDF prevails

MosheDayanQuoteMy understanding of history and my numerous visits in Israel nourished my conviction that – confronted with continuous and lethal threats since its rebirth in 1948 – this country would not have survived without the capacities of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

A recent article by Raphael D. Marcus in the Journal of Strategic Studies has brought yet another proof to support this assertion.

In July 2014, Israel was forced to launch Operation “Protective Edge” to counter Hamas murderous attacks on Israel from Gaza. Along the way, IDF would have to turn on a dime, since “[…] Hamas had developed an extensive network of tunnels, with some designed to infiltrate large numbers of fighters into Israel to kill or kidnap soldiers and civilians.”

If it was to be victorious, IDF needed to cope with the new reality. And, based on a “[…] leadership style that is open and dynamic [and] which improves its ability to learn and adapt” – in the pure German military tradition of Auftragstaktik – it did just that, relying on the autonomy, creativity and audacity of its human capital – its boots on the ground.

The Yahalom Unit (the main unit with expertise in underground warfare) was therefore tasked with the development of the operational response to Hamas tunnel warfare and to share its expertise with other units on the ground. The forces active on the theater of operations could then implement the lessons learnt and improvise the actions to be taken to destroy the tunnels and neutralize the enemy.

At the end of the day, the unconventional mindset of the IDF was the best asset to prevail over an irregular enemy that will never stop seeking to hurt Israel. In the words of a former Bridage Commander involved in the 2014 war: “Surprises are part of war. The question is who recovers first.”

I just loved every page of that excellent article, which I recommend to anyone interested in learning how the best military minds craft victories.

Commemorating the Victory of 1967

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King and Country figurines IDF006 (Radio Operator), IDF001 (General Moshe Dayan) and IDF004 (Officer w/UZI) pictured on a flag of Israel.

Some time ago, I was thrilled to learn that King and Country was about to release the very first IDF (Israel Defense Forces) figurines of its fantastic collection, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War in June 1967.

To quote from the text accompanying this collection:

“This dramatic new postwar military series of figures and fighting vehicles will tell, in miniature, just why Israel had to do what it did and how with a relatively small regular and part-time army it fought and defeated some of its most numerous, best equipped and belligerent neighbors.”

That says it all and I’m very happy that King & Country has decided to honour the sacrifice of these men and women at a time of great peril for their homeland – the State of Israel.

At the same time, we have to be lucid enough to recognize all the courage it took for this company to make such a bold decision and go forward. In a world where Israel’s enemies are always prone to deny it any quality and even its basic right to exist, it’s imperative to salute those who are not afraid to row against the current. The brave men and women who serve Israel in its armed forces deserve it. Fully.

Who was responsible for the Kippur War?

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Ariel Sharon (in the middle) and Moshe Dayan (on the right) during the Kippur War.

I have always been interested in the origins, the conduct and the military actors who participated in the 1973 Kippur War, which was launched against Israel by Egypt and Syria.

I was therefore very pleased to find this recent article written by David Tal and published in the pages of Middle Eastern Studies recently.

According to Professor Tal, the responsibility of the Kippur War lies at Egyptian president Anwar Sadat doorstep.

Contrary to the school of thought supporting the assumption that “[…] the 1973 October war could have been avoided if Israel had responded positively to Sadat’s peace offers during 1971-1973”, David Tal goes in detail to demonstrate that Egypt did everything to arrive at a settlement through the battlefield, advancing proposals that were unacceptable to Israel and refusing to move an inch on its demands.

But why was that?

“[…] Sadat was offended by the Egyptian military defeat in 1967”, Egypt’s pride was damaged by this outcome and the only way to repair the situation would be either through “[…] regaining the territories without having to negotiate with Israel, or by going to war.”

Sadat’s war aims were nevertheless very modest. A symbolic gain of territory would permit Egypt to proclaim a victory and wash its humiliation.

Everyone knows that Israel won the war, but less known is the fact that the terms accepted by Sadat within the Camp David Agreement framework were those espoused by Israel before the October war and rejected by the Egyptian president.

This war of choice solely happened for Sadat to claim a symbolic victory allowing him to don the mantle of peacemaker few years later.

For anyone interested in the contemporary history of the Middle East and Israel, David Tal’s work is great food for thought.

Towards a closer Turkish-Israeli military collaboration?

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Israeli M60 tank

Defense News informed its readers yesterday that Turkish officials are considering the options about the upgrade of “hundreds of German-made Leopard 2 and U.S.-made M60 main battle tanks.

Of particular interest in these news is the fact that the M60’s upgrade would be realized using Israeli expertise, marking “the first Turkish-Israeli defense deal after the two former allies froze their diplomatic ties in 2010 but agreed on détente recently.” But it would not be a first, since a previous upgrade realized by Israeli Military Industries occurred in the 1990s.

Those who follow military affairs and the Middle East will also remember that, last April, a Turkish M60T tank – “[…] a version of the US-made tank upgraded by Israeli Military Industries (IMI)” – survived an anti-tank attack launched by soldiers of the Islamic State using a 9K129 Kornet ATGW.

It goes without saying that Ankara’s decision to use Israeli military expertise in its upgrading of the Armed forces is not only savvy to contribute to a better political climate in the region but also wise in terms of providing its troops with the best possible equipment.

Generals and Prime Ministers in Israel

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Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

In his seminal book about the history of Israel’s armed forces, Tsahal, military historian Pierre Razoux writes:

“Even though its influence tends to diminish, the army still occupies a central role in Israeli society. To better understand its importance, we must reiterate that more than 10% of the Jewish population either serves in the army or regularly serves in the army reserves, which makes Israel the most militarized country in the Middle East. (my translation)” (p. 8).

For that reason, many important military figures also played a dominant role in public life. The names of Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon are the better known in that category and easily come to mind in any discussion on that topic. All in all, few other countries can count on so many military figures in key civil leadership positions.

Which inevitably brings us to politics. Commenting on the results of the recent legislative elections for the Israeli left, Arik Henig perceptively wrote: “Since the 1977 political upheaval, Labor won the elections only twice, when it was headed by two former IDF chiefs of staff: Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999. […] When will [the people of the Labor party] they learn that the Israeli public prefers to be led by chiefs of staff?”

In other words, the Israel left needs a former IDF chief of staff if it wants to expect to return to success on the electoral battlefield.

Many will be tempted to perceive this observation as military fetishism. But it’s not the case. In a post-election analysis, Daniel Kurtzer, an academic who served as US Ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, summarized the three challenges that must be met by the Labor party, if it wants to leave the opposition benches in the near future:

“First, it must persuade Israeli voters, especially those of Russian origin, that it can handle Israel’s security challenges at least as well as, if not better than, the right. (Former military intelligence director Amos Yadlin was recruited by Herzog’s party to be its security face, but his voice was almost inaudible during the campaign.) Second, the left must induce the Sephardim to put past grievances behind and to vote with their pocketbooks. And, third, it must overcome the perception that support for peace with the Palestinians is akin to appeasement and therefore endangers Israel.”

The Prime ministership of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu will not last forever and the opposition will inevitably become tired enough with loosing elections that they will decide to introduce a new figure whose presence, values and positions will fill the gap between the expectations of Israelis and the Labor party.

Much like Catholics like to observe various Cardinals to try to find out who might become the next Pope, anybody who’s minimally interested in Israeli politics and its future would be well-advised to keep an eye in the ranks of former IDF chiefs of staff to spot who might trade the image of the olive green military outfit general for the statesman persona.

Tsahal has always been an integral part of Israel’s history. And it will continue to play a determinant role in its future.