THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF BENJAMIN NETANYAHU by Neill Lochery

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(Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu)

A few days ago the United States withheld its veto of a resolution in the United Nations Security Council demanding that Israel end its settlement expansion in occupied Palestinian territory.  Reflecting the Obama administration’s frustration with Israeli settlement policy it broke with the long tradition of Washington shielding Israel from UN condemnation.  It further points to President Obama’s final “shot” at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a man that the administration has been at “diplomatic war” the last few years be it over the Iranian Treaty or settlement policy.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has let it be known that he is looking forward to the inauguration of Donald Trump and smoother relations with the United States.  The situation in the Middle East has put Netanyahu in the news a great of late and it is propitious that Neill Lochery, a Professor of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Studies at University College London has published his new book, THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF BENJAMIN NETANYAHU at this time.  The work is not a traditional biography, though the most salient aspects of his family background and the course of his life is presented.  Instead of a chronological approach Lochery presents his subject by a series of nine of the most decisive moments in Netanyahu’s career to tell his life’s story.

The key theme that Lochery develops is that Netanyahu has been “more American” and “less Israeli” throughout his life.  Lochery points out that Netanyahu did not fit “into the notorious closed and business elites in Israel,” a country that remains wary of outsiders, and many see the current Prime Minister as a stranger, even after all of these years.  It is difficult in assessing Netanyahu’s career because I wonder what the man stands for other than his own political survival.  Lochery understands this dilemma and does his best to deal with it as Netanyahu places numerous roadblocks in the path of diplomacy, doing his best to retain the status quo.  However, if Netanyahu survives the next two years in office he will become Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, even surpassing, David Ben-Gurion, with his negative attitude toward the rest of the Middle East, the Palestinians, and at times, the United States.

The arrival of Netanyahu on the Israeli political scene in 1990 was part of a wider cultural revolution in Israel that ushered in the “Americanization” of Israeli politics, media, and business.  The key to Netanyahu’s rapid rise was his telegenic face and oratory style.  As the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1 was ushered into our living rooms on CNN with its 24 hour news cycle, Netanyahu began to appear regularly as Israel’s chief spokesperson during the war.  As his popularity rose outside of Israel, the elites in the Jewish state did not take him seriously which contributed to his rapid rise.  Lochery points out that the Bush administration was growing tired of the hawkish Shamir government in Israel, so Netanyahu’s arrival came at a critical time as the war made him a political star, particularly after the 1991 Madrid Conference.

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(Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barak Obama in May, 2009)

Netanyahu’s rise was assisted by changes in the Israeli political process which began to mimick that of the United States.  The institution of primary elections allowed the “Likud Princes,” (young Likud politicians like Netanyahu who had links to Revisionist Zionism) to leap ahead of others on Likud political lists and move toward party leadership quickly.  Another change was the move toward the direct election of the Prime Minister which would greatly assist in Netanyahu’s victory and assumption of the Prime Ministership in 1996.  In part Netanyahu modeled himself after President Clinton in 1992 when he publicly admitted an affair and placed his wife Sara out front in his political campaign.  Further, in what was known as “Bibigate,” (Netanyahu’s nickname was Bibi) which he viewed it as a conspiracy against him.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was a political disaster for Netanyahu.  Lochery correctly points out that Netanyahu’s virulent public opposition and bombastic accusations against Rabin’s Oslo Accords Agreement with Yasir Arafat had in part been responsible for the assassination.  Netanyahu’s rhetoric had energized right wing extremists who opposed Oslo and one of them, an Israeli student, Yigal Amir shot Rabin.  Netanyahu had compared Rabin’s actions to Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Hitler and opponents to Oslo carried signs accusing Rabin of being a “Nazi devil.”

Lochery does an excellent job explaining the factionalism that existed and still exists in Israeli politics that was based on forming coalition governments as ruling parties never seem to be able to gain a direct ruling majority.  This leads to deal making with lesser parties, particularly religious and immigrant factions that the ruling party is then beholden to.  The internal schisms within the party are also developed with an excellent example being the rivalry between Netanyahu who at times appears as an ideologue, and Ariel Sharon’s development into a pragmatic politician.

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(Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin)

With the increase in terror attacks in Israel after Rabin’s assassination, Netanyahu was able to base his campaigns on fear to increase support.  With the first suicide bombing on October 19, 1994 at a bus station that killed 22 and injured well over 100, Netanyahu’s support was energized beyond his right wing base.  Netanyahu was first elected Prime Minister very narrowly (50.4% to 49.5%) over Shimon Peres on May 29, 1996.  Netanyahu’s election campaign was run by Arthur J. Finkelstein, an American political consultant and was funded by a number of rich American contributors, a pattern that would dominate future elections.  Netanyahu outspent Peres on television ads, campaign paraphernalia, and pursued the JFK v. Nixon strategy in their own television debate.  Apart from his media strategy Netanyahu zeroed in on the religious and Russian immigrant vote to win.

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(Yonatan Netanyahu, Benjamin’s older brother killed at Entebbe)

Lochery does a good job developing Netanyahu’s family background and his relationship with his brother.  If there is a criticism to be made, the author does not provide a detailed history of Netanyahu’s family background, particularly his father’s bitterness against Israel and the United States, the impact of his views on Benjamin, and the role he played in early Israeli politics until half way through the narrative.   Benzion was a scholar of Jewish history and the Zionist political movement, and he and Yonatan, his older brother one of Israel’s most decorated soldiers had a profound influence on Benjamin, especially their hawkish views concerning the Arabs. In growing up in the United States Benjamin was greatly influenced by the American political culture.  Unlike his father who was an ideologue, Benjamin saw how pragmatism worked in the American political process and pursued that strategy throughout his political career.  Central to Benzion’s scholarly work was the traditional Zionist ideology of Ze’ev Jabotinsky which rested on the belief that Jews faced racial discrimination and any attempts to reach a compromise with the Arabs was futile.  Yonatan Netanyahu was being groomed as the star of the family.  First, a career in the Israel Defense Force, reach the rank of general, retire to assume a career in politics and eventually become Prime Minister.  Yonatan a hero in the 1973 Yom Kippur War stationed in the Golan Heights was well on his way to fulfilling his father’s dreams when he was the only Israeli soldier killed in the successful Entebbe Raid in Uganda.  Yonatan death was a life changing event for Netanyahu.  His brother had believed that it was better to continuously live by the sword, then lose the state of Israel.  Netanyahu vowed he would achieve everything his brother had hoped to, protect his brother’s legacy, in addition to ingratiating himself with his hard to please father, a man who never showed any emotion.

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(Benjamin and Yonatan Netanyahu)

Another area that Lochery should develop more was Netanyahu’s life in the United States.  He continuously points to America’s influence, but other than a few lines about his business education, connections in America, serving as the Diplomatic Head of Mission to the United States, and Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations between 1982 and 1988, he offers little.

Lochery does a much better job narrating and analyzing Netanyahu’s performance as Prime Minister in dealing with Yasir Arafat and negotiations on the Interim Agreements fostered by Oslo under Rabin.  Netanyahu is a cagy politician who brings in Ariel Sharon as Foreign Minister in order to deal with Likud members who oppose any further negotiations.  Netanyahu realized that President Clinton facing impeachment and the Lewinsky scandal needed a deal at the Wye River Conference resulting in a diplomatic framework that only cost Israel an eight month hold on settlements and the release of 750 Palestinian prisoners.  Lochery’s coverage of the 1999 election is perceptive and he points out that his loss to Ehud Barak and his subsequent resignation of his Likud held seat in the Knesset was a grave error because it allowed Sharon to reorient the party in a direction away from Netanyahu’s approach to governing.  It would take him six years to recover and almost made himself politically irrelevant.

Most of Netanyahu’s problems center on his ego and his belief that only he could effectively rule Israel and that the public trusted him more than any other Israeli politician.  Lochery is correct in arguing that Netanyahu would later unseat Sharon as leader of the Likud coalition by moving further to the right on the Israeli political spectrum as the former war hero had moved to the center.  The campaign began with Netanyahu’s withdrawal from Sharon’s cabinet in 2005 in opposition to complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.  Sharon’s response was to withdraw from Likud and create a new political party, Kadima.  Once Sharon had a stroke, Ehud Olmert replaced him and was elected Prime Minister in 2006, leaving Netanyahu the task of rebuilding a Likud Party that won only 12 seats in the Knesset. Netanyahu’s machinations behind the scene in opposition in the Knesset, the scandals that engulfed Olmert, and other events resulted in new elections in 2009.

Lochery’s analysis of the Israeli electorate throughout the narrative allows the reader to experience the ebb and flow of Israeli politics with great understanding, particularly in 2009, the election that returned Netanyahu to power.  The election coincided with the assumption of Barak Obama as president of the United States, thus beginning their eight year testy and sometimes controversial relationship.  Once in power Netanyahu focused on remaking the Middle East which brought him into conflict with Obama, especially in relation to Iran and its nuclear program.  One of Netanyahu’s defining moments came when he accepted a Republican Party invitation to address Congress on March 3, 2015, a speech that angered many supporters of Israel.  Lochery examines the speech in detail and correctly points out that it was vintage Netanyahu as he presents a problem, emphasizes the historical nature of the problem, and then does not offer any viable alternatives in solving the problem.  This was Netanyahu’s modus operandi throughout his career whether dealing with Israeli domestic issues or its foreign policy.  Whether it was Iran or the Palestinian peace process, Lochery is dead on, the Israeli Prime Minister would obfuscate, stall, and in the end the status quo would remain essentially the same, a strategy defined by conflict management, not conflict resolution.  The arrival of the Arab Spring in 2010 further solidified Netanyahu’s power in Israel and heightened tension with Obama.  The Israeli public saw the Arab Spring as a threat, so it leaned further toward the right thereby increasing Netanyahu’s political support.  Obama saw it as an opportunity, but the two sides could never bridge that gap.  Lochery is accurate in his conclusions concerning the distaste that each had for the other, to the point that he wonders if Netanyahu would have made a better candidate for Republicans in 2012 than Mitt Romney in opposing Obama.

When reading Lochery’s narrative one can get the feeling that he concentrates mostly on foreign policy and internal political issues.  To his credit he does explore Netanyahu’s role in turning Israel away from what he calls the “inefficient Zionist model” to a market driven economy.  He presents Netanyahu as a “Thatcherite” and credits Netanyahu’s reforms as Finance Minister as laying the foundation of bringing the Israeli economy into line with other Western capitalist ones.  Netanyahu moved in this direction according to Lochery because he saw no alternative in securing Israel’s future, but it created tremendous political problems as the poor and lower classes suffered the most from these reforms, but at the same time, he needed their political support to be reelected.

No matter what area of Netayahu’s life or policy Lochery delves into the reader will gain an interesting perspective of what drives the man.  This is important as we pick up the newspaper each day and we learn the latest machinations of the Israeli government, i.e., this morning we learn that Israel is about to defy the United Nations and build more settlements.  A direct strike against President Obama, and a belief in Tel Aviv that Donald Trump will view this action more favorably.

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