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.

Generals and Prime Ministers in Israel

TroisTenors
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.