One of the good tidings of great joy for the otherwise none too promising year of 2023 is that Benjamin Netanyahu, as of December 29, is prime minister of Israel for the third time. As Britain was blessed to have Margaret Thatcher, and the U.S. blessed to have Reagan and Trump, so Israel has been blessed to have this singular figure at the helm for so much of its short history. To explain why this is the case would take a substantial book. Fortunately, that book – Bibi: My Story, Netanyahu’s autobiography – has just been published. And it’s not only substantial but superlative – a first-rate account of one of the most influential lives of the past century.
Born a year after his country’s founding, Bibi, in the early pages of his book, offer a tantalizing glimpse of Israel in its infancy. There were giants in the earth then, and Bibi grew up surrounded by many of them. Among them was his father’s mentor, Joseph Klausner, who, Bibi tells us, “invented the modern Hebrew words for ‘shirt,’ ‘pencil,’ and many other terms” – a detail that underlines the remarkable extent to which Israel’s founding really was, at once, a matter of resurrecting an ancient civilization while at the same time creating a distinctive modern society from scratch.
Another one of Israel’s founding giants was Bibi’s father, Benzion, a brilliant scholar, historian, and editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica. In 1933, at age 23, Benzion had written an article warning of a coming “Holocaust” of the Jews – and been dismissed as “alarmist.” In the years before the establishment of Israel, Benzion played a major role in promoting Zionism in America and Europe. Bibi worshiped him. “The secret to the encyclopedia’s great success, my father said, was clarity,” Bibi recalls. “Eighth graders and doctoral students, he said, should be able to read and understand with equal ease complex entries made simple by his rigorous editing. And they did.” Bibi obviously learned his father’s lesson: this book is uncommonly well written, lucid, vivid, and consistently engaging.
Owing, first of all, to his father’s academic career (ending in a faculty position at Cornell) and, later, to his own education (at MIT), Bibi spent much of his early life in the U.S., hence his perfect, unaccented American English. Throughout this book, his affection and admiration for America are palpable. But Bibi is first and last an Israeli, a man who has devoted his life to his homeland’s preservation, peace, and prosperity.
And the same was true of Bibi’s older brother, Yoni, and his younger brother, Iddo, both of whom, like Bibi, served in Israel’s special forces. Iddo went on to be a radiologist and playwright; Yoni briefly attended Yale and Hebrew University in Jerusalem but quit to return to the IDF. In 2011, Elizabeth Gentieu, who had taught Yoni high-school English in the U.S., remembered how eager the teenager was to return to Israel. “But surely there must be some advantages to life here,” Gentieu said. Yoni replied: “Here in America my classmates don’t know what they are living for, but in Israel, we know.”
All three Netanyahu brothers were like that – preternaturally serious, deliberately preparing themselves from an early age to serve their country in whatever way might be required. Pursuing a wide range of studies – from philosophy to history to technology to military strategy – they grew up into young men of integrity, courage, and self-discipline, with a deep loyalty to friends, family, and homeland. Like their father, they were men of thought and men of action. The fledgling, fragile Israeli state required no less.
Even back then, alas, not all Israelis recognized, as the Netanyahu brothers did, the need for eternal vigilance on their country’s behalf. “I see with sorrow,” wrote Yoni in his 20s, “how a part of our people still cling to unrealistic hopes for peace. Common sense tells them that the Arabs haven’t abandoned their basic aims of destroying the state. But the self-delusion that has always plagued the Jews is at work again. They want to believe, so they believe.” It’s no exaggeration to say that Bibi has spent his whole career fighting against this self-delusion – not only on the part of Israelis, but also on the part of blinkered political leaders in America and elsewhere.
Even as a young man Bibi was viewed as promising. But he always lived in the shadow of Yoni, who even as a boy, by Bibi’s testimony, was almost universally recognized as someone who’d go on to play a leading role in shaping Israel’s destiny. So exceptional was Yoni’s military prowess that when terrorists hijacked an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris and landed it in Entebbe, the airport in Uganda, it was Yoni who was selected to head up the rescue mission.
The mission proved a remarkable success – a textbook example of strategic planning as well as of last-minute improvisation. All of the hijackers were killed; 102 of the 106 hostages were saved. But Yoni died – the only member of the Israeli force to be killed. He was the martyr of Entebbe. After his death, the family published Yoni’s Letters, a collection of his correspondence. In the foreword, novelist Herman Wouk (The Caine Mutiny) called it “possibly one of the great documents of our time….Yoni inspires and ennobles us, and he gives us hope.”
Yoni certainly inspired Bibi – both during his lifetime and afterwards. His brilliance, nobility, and patriotism hang over every page of Bibi; it’s clear that his sacrifice played a huge role in Bibi’s decision to enter politics. It’s moving to read that long after Yoni’s death, when Bibi was prime minister, it emerged that Yoni had predicted, years earlier, that Bibi would someday be elected to that office.
Bibi entered politics already imbued with immense wisdom about the way the world worked – and about what was required to ensure the survival of Israel in a hostile world. But not until he held elective office did he appreciate the depth of the naivete of so-called geopolitical experts. Unlike them, he had understood from an early age that, as he puts it, “Arab radicals didn’t hate the West because of Israel, they hated Israel because of the West.” In conversations with Arab delegates at the UN during his first term as prime minister, he “was shocked to discover a simple truth: They didn’t know even the most rudimentary facts about the history of our conflict or of our historic attachment to the contested land.”
Similarly, when Bibi met “the messianic diplomats in Washington” during the Clinton era, he was stunned by their failure to “understand that the PLO…would not abandon its goal of destroying Israel.” He discovered, moreover, that their “most fundamental misperception of the region was that Israel was the problem in the Middle East. It was the solution.” After 9/11, “elites in Israel and the West…believed that [Israeli] power would come from peace. I believed that peace would come from power.” Even other Israeli PMs – Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert – got that one wrong.
Netanyahu’s accomplishments as Prime Minister are, of course, at the center of this memoir. But his two years (2003-5) as Minister of Finance were also of crucial importance. At that point, its heavily socialist economy had – predictably – stagnated. Bibi, who discerned what was called for, instituted radical market reforms. It wasn’t easy. During the last year or so, as it happens, I’ve been fitfully reading Charles Moore’s excellent three-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher, in which he recounts in detail her struggle to privatize state-owned industries and enhance competition – an effort that was fiercely resisted by union bosses, leftist politicians, and journalists who painted her as a heartless hater of the poor. Bibi, in his campaign to bring prosperity to Israel, had to deal with precisely the same kinds of adversaries. Asked by a British journalist whether Thatcher or Reagan had been a more impressive economic reformer, Bibi said Thatcher. Why? “Because from its very beginning America was built right.”
As for more recent Western leaders, Bibi seems to do his best to be kind, but their cowardice, foolishness, and duplicity shine through. The most fascinating anecdotes concern Obama. Bibi recounts in considerable detail a dozen or so of their mostly maddening encounters. When Bibi urged Obama to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities – and thus forestall the development of weapons that could annihilate Israel – Obama replied, inanely: “Nobody likes Goliath. I don’t want to be an eight-hundred-pound gorilla strutting on the world stage.” Bibi’s reaction: under the circumstances, “I would want to be a 1,200-pound gorilla, not an 800-pound one.”
Routinely, when meeting with Bibi, Obama and his minions “waxed lyrical about the marvels of soft power. Culture, values, even Hollywood can do wonders to change the world, they said.” To which Bibi replied that soft power is good, but hard power is even better.” It’s one thing to be fully aware that American officials have such fatuous beliefs; it’s another to read about them expressing these beliefs with cockeyed confidence to a savvy customer like Bibi, who can’t afford to bathe in puerile illusions.
It’s also depressing to read that Obama’s first call from the White House to a foreign leader was to Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and that he had a chummy relationship with Turkish president Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, whom he respected for supposedly having turned Turkey into “a modern, successful, and democratic Islamic state.” Meanwhile he patronized Bibi. Obama, laments Bibi, “truly viewed himself as ‘a citizen of the world,’” saw Israelis as “neocolonials,” and as president sought “peace through understanding” rather than “peace through strength.” In the eyes of tyrants like Xi and Putin and the mullahs in Iran, needless to say, such a posture is, quite simply, a sign of weakness. A man like Bibi has known this since he was very young. A man like Obama may never get it.
Then again, Obama comes off better here than the doltish John Kerry, who in 2013 invited Bibi to travel to Afghanistan to see “what a great job we did there to prepare the Afghan army to take over the country once we leave.” To which Bibi replied that “the minute you leave Afghanistan the Taliban will mop up the force you trained in no time.” Of all the world’s diplomats, few were more certain than Kerry that, as he put it at a 2016 conference, there would never be a “separate peace between Israel and the Arab world” unless Israel made a satisfactory peace agreement with the Palestinians. Four years later, with Trump’s help, Israel had signed peace deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and Kosovo
Several other striking anecdotes here are new to me. After Bibi ended his first term as prime minister, his house was searched by police officers who were supposedly looking (in vain) for items he’d inappropriately taken with him – and who brought along a passel of journalists who’d been alerted in advance to the raid. Sound familiar? By contrast, when Sharon and Olmert, during their own terms as prime minister, took actions that deserved the harshest of criticisms, the Israeli media happily provided cover to both of them. Again, sound familiar?
Like Donald Trump’s life, Benjamin Netanyahu’s life reminds us that successful leadership of a free country requires a multitude of virtues – among them an extraordinary self-confidence, a deep love of country, a hard-headed grasp of how the world really works, a keen awareness of just who one’s allies and enemies (both foreign and domestic) are, high-level management ability, top-notch rhetorical skills, and, not least, a hide as tough as a rhino’s. Bibi has all that, and more. It’s taken him not once, not twice, but three times to the top. And it’s made an incalculably positive difference in the fortunes of Israel and – yes – the entire free world.