Skip to main content
Ex: Europe, Middle East, Education

Portrait of Benjamin Netanyahu - Prime minister of Israel

BLOG - 21 December 2018

Who is Benjamin Netanyahu? To what extent do some of his political positions bring him closer to neo-authoritarians? Here are some answers provided by a great Israeli journalist, Anshel Pfeffer, author of a recent biography of the Prime Minister ("Bibi : The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu", Basic Books, 2018) which has attracted attention. 

Michel Duclos, Special Advisor, editor of this series
 

Shortly after the election of Japan’s nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe in late 2012, he met Benjamin Netanyahu. According to one of the Israeli diplomats present, it was a refreshing experience for the Israeli prime minister.

"They spent an hour talking about trade, technology and security. Towards the end, one of the Japanese diplomats coughed and put a piece of paper in front of Abe, who read from it a brief condemnation of Israel’s settlement policies and Japan’s commitment to the two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. It was clear Abe wasn’t interested in what he was reading and when he finished, he looked at Netanyahu and asked if he wanted to respond. Netanyahu said 'no' and Abe, relieved, said 'let’s have lunch'."

In White House, Netanyahu tried to focus their conversation on the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, US President Barack Obama demanded Israel make concessions to the Palestinians instead.

Six years ago, that kind of meeting with the leader of a major nation was a rare experience for Netanyahu. He was used to being lectured by his foreign counterparts on the Palestinian issue and pressured for answers on how Israel planned to proceed in the diplomatic process. The Israel-Palestine issue was still high on the global agenda and the diplomatic orthodoxy was that solving the conflict was key to achieving stability in the MIddle East. 

These leaders were tired with Netanyahu’s excuses. In stormy meetings at the White House, as Netanyahu tried to focus their conversation on the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, US President Barack Obama demanded Israel make concessions to the Palestinians instead. Under pressure, Netanyahu in 2009 announced that he accepted the two-state solution and even agreed to a limited "freeze" on settlement building, for ten months. But no serious progress with the Palestinians was achieved.

In 2011, Obama and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy were overheard discussing Netanyahu at a G20 summit. "I cannot bear him, he’s a liar" complained Sarkozy. "You’re fed up with him?" answered Obama. "I have to deal with him every day."

That was the attitude towards Netanyahu among world leaders in those days. But change was coming.

The chain of events that began in January 2011 in Tunisia and would be known, for a few months at least, as the "Arab Spring" not only sparked off revolutions and war across the Arab world, but pushed the Palestinian issue to the bottom of the international agenda. Even the most ardent supporter of the Palestinians could not say anymore, with Syria, Yemen and Libya all being torn apart by war, and with ISIS rising, that the key to solving these problems was establishing a Palestinian state.

Abdelfatta al-Sisi and Mohammed bin Salman who were willing to see in Israel an ally against Iran, rather than the oppressor of the Palestinians.

Another development of this period was the exacerbation of the Sunni-Shia divide in the region and the emergence of new Arab leaders like President Abdelfatta al-Sisi in Egypt and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who were willing to see in Israel an ally against Iran, rather than the oppressor of the Palestinians. Netanyahu was quick to capitalize on these regional changes and discreetly built his ties to these rulers.
 
Meanwhile, on the wider global stage, another generational shift was taking place. Slowly, the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis, the backlash against globalization and the deeper national-identity crises of the post-Cold War period were beginning to effect political systems - bringing to the fore in many countries across the world leaders who were more to Netanyahu’s liking. The kind of leaders who wouldn’t pressure him on the Palestinian issue.

Benjamin Netanyahu was born in October 23, 1949, in Tel Aviv. Of the eleven men and one woman who have served as Prime Minister of Israel, he is still the only one to have been born after Israel’s independence. At sixty-nine, he shows no intention of leaving the political stage voluntarily. It seems so long ago, but he was once also Israel’s youngest-ever prime minister, first elected in 1996 at the age of 46.

Is Benjamin Netanyahu a populist leader inclined to authoritarianism?

There is no simple answer to that question. His father, Professor of history Benzion Netanyahu brought him up to be a member of the intellectual elite. He graduated from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a degree in architecture and masters in business. He was in the process of writing a PhD in political science at Harvard. He is a voracious reader, whiling away hours during Knesset debates with books on history, philosophy and economics.

But as a politician, not only is Netanyahu’s natural constituency made up of largely low-income, traditional and religious voters, most of whom have not gone to university, but he is adept at using the crudest populist and nationalist, often borderline racist, tactics to rally their support. In many ways he personifies the two different, contradictory strands of the Revisionist movement - of which today’s Likud party is the descendant.

When Zeev Jabotinsky, a Russian Zionist journalist, writer and poet, founded the Revisionist movement in 1925, it quickly established itself in opposition to three other prominent streams within Zionism. There were those on the left who believed that the Jews could return to their homeland and rebuild it alongside the current Arab majority. Mainstream, or political Zionists, didn’t believe in a binational state together with the local Arabs, but thought the best way to achieve Jewish statehood would be through international diplomacy. And there were "practical Zionists", who believed in creating “facts on the ground” through pioneering agricultural settlements, mainly Kibbutzim, in what was then Palestine.

The young Netanyahu was brought up in a secular, intellectual and ultra-nationalist environment where the name of Begin was synonymous with weakness and defeatism and the socialist-Zionists were routinely called "Bolsheviks".

In some ways, Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism was similar to the practical stream. But while most practical Zionists were also socialists who believed that creating workers unions and a collectivized economy was the key to building a Jewish state, Jabotinsky abhorred socialism, preferring the European nationalism of Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi and Poland’s Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. The Zionist-socialists, led by David Ben Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister believed in building a state through agriculture and industry. The Revisionists were more military-minded and tended to wear uniforms. Jabotinsky believed that only by forming an army could the Jews achieve statehood.

Jabotinsky was a man of many contradictions, who embraced radical politics, and initially also fascism, though he would soon turn against it. At the same time, he preached his young followers "decorum" and "dignity". He believed that to survive the Jewish state would need to build an "Iron Wall of Jewish bayonets" and at the same time wrote of a state where "there shall prosper the Arab, the Christian and the Jew." He died in 1940, before Israel became a reality and his right-wing movement continued to hold two contradictory streams.

When Israel was founded in 1948, by the socialists, there were leading figures within the Revisionist movement who called for a military coup. But Menachem Begin, who had emerged as the movement’s main leader after Jabotinsky, accepted the rules of democracy and formed the Herut party (which in 1973, was joined by other center-right parties to become Likud). As party leader, Begin lost eight consecutive elections to the socialists, until finally winning and becoming prime minister in 1977.
 
But despite Begin’s nearly undisputed leadership of the movement, there were those among the Revisionists who had never seen him as a worthy successor to Jabotinsky. Those who felt he lacked both the intellectual depth and the ideological rigor and even after he became prime minister, they believed he was too weak to rule as a proper nationalist leader. He had kept too many of the old socialist officials in office and then did the unforgivable, by relinquishing the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, as the price of the Camp David peace accords.
 
Benzion Netanyahu belonged to the anti-Begin faction. As a young man, he was deeply involved in Revisionist politics, editing the movement’s newspapers and during the 1940s, heading the movement’s office in New York. But after independence he failed to gain a political position and would immerse himself for the rest of his life in his historical research of the Jews of Spain during the period of the Inquisition.
 
The young Bibi Netanyahu was brought up in a secular, intellectual and ultra-nationalist environment where the name of Begin was synonymous with weakness and defeatism and the socialist-Zionists were routinely called "Bolsheviks". It is unclear how much of that formed his current worldview. 
 
Menachem Begin’s Likud continued to contain the contradictions - on the one hand "decorum" - a respect for democracy and the rule of law. On the other, a rabble-rousing populist sentiment. Under Benjamin Netanyahu, the dignified wing of Likud, personified by the old followers of Begin, such President Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu’s former political patron Moshe Arens and Begin’s son, Benny, has been pushed to the sidelines.

Today, is Netanyahu’s Likud not a party of low-brow opportunists and unabashed racists? It’s Knesset members advocate for laws limiting civil rights and curtailing the powers of the Supreme Court. Most of these laws do not make it through the stages of legislation and Netanyahu himself seems to be playing a double-game by giving them his public support, but usually allowing them to die in the committee stage. While indulging his party rabble, on international stages he extols the virtues of Israel’s democracy, its legal system (which is currently investigating him for corruption) and its free and fierce media (which is constantly attacking him). 

Who is the real Netanyahu? Is he the man who cynically exploits racism and populism to win elections or the more urbane and liberal-minded leader he wants the international audience to believe he is?

Perhaps the world leaders he has been relating to can give us a clue.

Since his reelection in 2015, Netanyahu has also held the post of foreign minister. In the years since he has averaged at least one foreign visit a month, often two. While some of the visits are the routine stops on the diplomatic circuit – the White House in Washington, the United Nations in New York, Paris, Berlin, London, he has also taken to visiting less routine countries for an Israeli prime minister.

Netanyahu has always enjoyed traveling and has projected the image of a master-statesman for his entire political career, which he launched as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

In September 2017 he became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Latin America. Often he tries to fit in three or four countries in to one trip, or joins regional summits in West Africa, Central and Eastern Europe – so he can meet with a number of world leaders in one go. Netanyahu has always enjoyed traveling and has projected the image of a master-statesman for his entire political career, which he launched as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. But in recent years he has found a particular affinity with the current crop of authoritarian-minded populist leaders.
 
He developed a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which included regular phone-calls and a meeting every few months. Despite American urging, Israel remained silent when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. This helped Israel when it received a free rein from Russia to operate against Iranian targets in Syria. On May 9, Netanyahu was invited as Putin’s guest of honor at the annual Victory Day paraded in Moscow.
 
With India’s nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi, Netanyahu has a full-on "bromance". During Modi’s visit to Israel, in July 2017, the two men took of their shoes and walked in to the sea together. Six months later, when Netanyahu arrived in India, Modi cleared his diary for three days to take him around the country.
 
One of the targets of Netanyahu’s diplomacy in recent years have been the more wayward members of the European Union. He believes that the EU is the last bastion of "anti-Israel" policy, still pressuring him to make concessions to the Palestinians and trying to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive. In the hope of disrupting EU foreign policy.

In this cause he has courted the Visegrad Group of Central European nations, participating in their summit and offering to host it in Jerusalem. Netanyahu is relying on them block condemnations of Israeli settlement policy in Brussels, particularly on the most controversial member of the group, his ally, Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Many have been scandalized by other budding friendships of Netanyahu with figures like Duterte and Bolsonaro. But the most controversial of these relationships has been with Donald Trump.

Netanyahu not only shares nationalist beliefs with Orban, and the two have even used in their election campaigns the same advisors. Orban has received support from Netanyahu when the local Hungarian Jewish community criticized the anti-Semitic tone of the Orban government’s campaign against liberal Jewish financier George Soros. Netanyahu rescinded the statement of Israel’s ambassador in Budapest, I support of the Jewish community and joined the attacks on Soros himself. 

Netanyahu has said in the past that he speaks on behalf of the entire Jewish people, but many Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora were enraged by his statements visiting other European allies, Poland and Lithuania, which seemed to be whitewashing the records of those countries who collaborated with the Germans in deporting Jews to extermination camps during the Holocaust.
 
Many have been scandalized by other budding friendships of Netanyahu with figures like the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte who likened himself to Hitler and the new far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. But the most controversial of these relationships has been with Donald Trump.
 
On the surface, no two people could be different than Netanyahu, a literate intellectual with a deep grasp of geopolitics and macroeconomics and Trump, the bumptious ignorant reality-television salesman. But when the world was shocked on November 9, 2016 with the election of the Republican candidate, Netanyahu had one unique advantage. He was the only world leader who had a previous acquaintance with the president-elect. They had known each other since Netanyahu’s days in New York when mutual friends had introduced the ambassador to the real estate tycoon. Netanyahu and his ambassador in the US Ron Dermer had close ties with members of Trump’s inner circle. During the election, Netanyahu had remained firmly on the fence, believing that Hilary Clinton would win, but the moment the results were in, he was quick to embrace Trump and has been in his arms since.
 
The intimacy between the two leaders has caused great consternation among the overwhelming majority of American Jews, who not only vote Democratic, but see Trump as having ushered in a new era of intolerance and racism in the US, which has also impacted violently on the Jews, in murderous anti-Semitic violence. But Netanyahu continues to give Trump cover from any accusations.

From Netanyahu’s perspective, supporting far-right and racist world leaders is sound policy. Not only has Trump as President pulled out of the Iran Deal and moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, it has indeed helped shift the international narrative over the Middle East and downgrade the Palestinian issue. Two, much more moderate European leaders, who have understood where the wind is blowing have taken note. British Prime Minister Theresa May, in the hope of gaining Trump’s favor, went against her government’s policy and publicly rejected a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. German Chancellor Angela Merkel who in the past had loud disagreements with Netanyahu over the settlements, toned down her criticism in her latest visit to Israel when she said that the eviction of Palestinian village Khan al-Akhmar, was an "internal Israeli issue". In June 2018, when Netanyahu decided to start boycotting the EU’s foreign affairs representative Federica Mogherini, none of the European leaders came to her defense.

But do these alliances, and the fact that the authoritarian leaders see him as one of their own, even a father-figure, give us a better idea of who Netanyahu really is?

As an ideologue, Netanyahu has always claimed to support tough security measures and no concessions to the Palestinians, but also liberal democracy. As a politician, he is a survivor who believes his electoral base is on the nationalist-right. Likud’s official title under him "a national liberal party", reflects this contradiction. He has allowed his party members to attack the Supreme Court but has rarely pushed through laws limiting its power. But in recent years, especially as he himself has become the target of multiple corruption investigations, he has increasingly taken to attacking the press and the law-enforcement agencies. Some of the investigations against him indeed focus on his attempts to enter allegedly illegal arrangements with media-owners. 

As an ideologue, Netanyahu has always claimed to support tough security measures and no concessions to the Palestinians, but also liberal democracy. As a politician, he is a survivor who believes his electoral base is on the nationalist-right.

Netanyahu has now been Israel’s prime minister for a total of nearly thirteen years and has no intention of relinquishing power. To win the election in 2015, he utilized racist rhetoric, warning that "the Arabs are moving in droves" to vote. In July 2018, he pushed his coalition to pass a controversial Nation-State Law, that marginalized the place of non-Jewish citizens in Israel, in a move that many saw as a signal to his hardcore political base.
 
In 2019, the polls predict that Netanyahu will win a fifth election and surpass the record of David Ben Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Under him Israel’s economy has been growing for a decade, its security has increased and the world is no longer pressuring him to solve the Palestinian issue. But he faces a grave personal challenge in the shape of potential criminal indictments for bribery and fraud. If despite the charges, he tries to hold on to power, as a prime minister on trial, he will provoke a constitutional crisis and finally solve the question-mark looming over him. He will prove himself to be a authoritarian leader.

Anshel Pfeffer is the author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, (Basic Books, 2018)

 

Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne.

 

See also

Add new comment

Commentaire

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type='1 A I'> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id='jump-*'> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Only images hosted on this site may be used in <img> tags.

Envoyer cette page par email

L'adresse email du destinataire n'est pas valide
Institut Montaigne
59, rue la Boétie 75008 Paris

© Institut Montaigne 2017