‘Bibi’ bio leaves Israeli leader’s character tarnished

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a memorial ceremony honoring late Israeli presidents and prime ministers held at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, March 28, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

A question hangs over this exhaustively detailed book by Ben Caspit, a reporter for Ma’ariv: Is Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu good for Israel and, therefore, is he good for the Jews?

Caspit does not answer this question directly, despite the book’s length and often-tedious accounts of Netanyahu’s seemingly endless scheming and political machinations.

Still, a reader may come away with a definite sense that the prime minister has an exceptional ability to survive in the tough, blood-and-guts world of Israeli politics that he dominates. Whether that translates into ensuring Israel’s long-term survival is another matter.

Caspit spends plenty of time citing Netanyahu’s penchant for fine wine, excellent meals and other niceties that wealthy donors have given him over the years, which explains why a cloud of suspicion always seems to hang over him.


Certainly, Netanyahu has done little to resolve the conflict over the West Bank (Judea and Samaria and East Jerusalem) that may — or may not — put the issue to rest. Will his failure so far to settle those matters seal Israel’s fate? Only time and events will tell, which is not a satisfactory answer.

Caspit makes it clear, though, that Netanyahu has no viable vision for Israel’s future other than to ensure its military dominance in the Middle East. Security, security, security. 

What seems to fascinate Caspit are the endless intrigues Netanyahu creates and endures as he moves from one situation to another, from one crisis — frequently of his own making — to another.

Caspit piles up story upon story about how Israel’s longest-serving prime minister attained power as leader of the right-wing, conservative Likud bloc and how he has behaved in many situations, including his several sometimes poisonous encounters with then-President Barack Obama.

Anyone who blames the bad relationship on Obama, however, would be missing at least half the point: Netanyahu, quite insecure, was at first needy in his relationship with the American president.

Then, when he didn’t get the reassurances he sought, Netanyahu became suspicious, hostile and vindictive — and always insecure. He constantly wanted reassurances from Obama’s White House, and he reacted badly when he didn’t get the kind of warm, comfortable words from the American president he felt he deserved as the elected leader of the Israeli government.

Journalists’ accounts, leaks and assumptions regarding Obama and Netanyahu did much to poison the relationship early on.

“[Obama’s] words were taken out of context,” Caspit writes about an early meeting of the two leaders, “something that would happen throughout the years to come. This event was typical of dozens of similar clashes throughout that year: a tragedy of errors and misunderstandings, some deliberate and planned, spiced with a large pinch of prejudice. In Netanyahu’s world there was no hesitation about calling Obama a Muslim, black, lover of Arabs, and hater of Israel. In Obama’s circle, it was the flip side of the same sentiment: Netanyahu is a liar, a charlatan, unwilling to take risks and unable to make decisions. He understands only force.”

When the relationship between the two leaders was so fraught, it’s a wonder that the underlying relationship between the two countries — their shared common interests — has remained as strong as it has. 

Caspit delves deeply into the way foreign policy in the Obama administration and in Israel is made.

It’s no mystery, really. These are often flawed and often well-meaning individuals doing what they know how to do: contact their counterparts, trying to understand their intentions and plans and often running into distrust and a lack of candor, which is where the real damage can be done.

This is one of the strongest parts of Caspit’s book, though his gossipy details and endless unfamiliar names may leave some readers weary and confused.

Obama never reduced aid to Israel, Caspit writes. The bottom line: These two men obviously did not like each other at all. Obama refused to play Netanyahu’s game, refused to make him feel comfortable as his government continued to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Then there’s the Iran nuclear deal worked out by the Obama administration that put an effective cap on Iran’s development of deliverable nuclear weapons and was strenuously opposed by Netanyahu, which led to his futile speech to the U.S. Congress urging its opposition to the arrangement.

Caspit writes: “Netanyahu was furious about the interim agreement signed with Iran in Geneva on Nov. 24, 2013, which didn’t prevent him later from praising the fact that the Iran nuclear program was not only frozen but had suffered a setback. At a certain stage, those overseeing the process, including the United States, lost all interest in listening to Netanyahu. He had no influence among the world leaders involved in the negotiations, or close to zero….”

That’s a damning statement about the leader of a country that arguably has the most to lose regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Netanyahu had become irrelevant, Caspit tells us.

Caspit devotes the first 252 pages to Netanyahu’s formative years: his childhood, his years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and living in the United States, which explains his flawless English.

He takes the reader through Netanyahu’s first two marriages, then his marriage to Sara, his wife today whom he married when she was pregnant with their first child.

Sara Netanyahu is one of three people who have shaped Israel’s prime minister, Caspit believes. The other two were his father, Benzion Netanyahu, an ardent Zionist and follower of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and his late brother, Yonathan  “Yoni” Netayahu, who died in July 1976 leading Israeli commandos to free hostages on an Air France passenger jet that Palestinian terrorists were holding at the airport at Entebbe, Uganda.

Anyone wanting to understand the man who leads Israel today will want to pore over this book. Don’t be surprised, though, if you come away having learned so much that little respect remains for Bibi.

“The Netanyahu Years” by Ben Caspit, translated by Ora Cummings, Thomas Dunne Books, 506 pages, $29.99