Wednesday, July 12th, 2017...1:57 pm

The Netanyahu Years: Apocalyptic instincts

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The Netanyahu Years by Ben Caspit, translated by Ora Cummings, Thomas Dunne, 493 pages, $29.99

Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER

Whether you revile or revere Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, you’ll know him better after reading Ben Caspit’s smooth, detailed political biography of Israel’s longest continuously serving prime minister.

In The Netanyahu Years, Caspit, a journalist with the Israeli daily Ma’ariv who has followed Bibi since 1988, is deeply critical, yet his book is less a hatchet job than a calm recitation of facts, observations and opinions that, assuming accuracy, speak for themselves.

He acknowledges Bibi’s high intellect, with bachelor and master’s degrees from MIT; his pulling Israel out of a recession while finance minister in 2003; his superb oratorical skills in American English — he spent his adolescence here — as well as his closeness with billionaire donors; and his use of American campaign methods to leave competitors eating dust.

Caspit’s Bibi is: a man of great ability insufficiently used; a leader sometimes too cautious, cursed with a degree of paranoia and blessed with luck; a self-centered, insecure narcissist capable of shutting out friends and supporters; a superb actor able to fashion himself in whatever image will get him elected; and a politician willing to do almost anything to remain in power.

The last may explain his June 25 capitulation to his coalition’s black-hat Orthodox by freezing an agreement to improve Western Wall space for egalitarian services. How could the prime minister who knows America like none before not have anticipated the ensuing uproar?

“Netanyahu tends to believe his stories,” Caspit says. “The difference between fact and fiction is blurred in his mind and he often builds an alternate reality for himself, which he gradually convinces himself is true.”

Sound familiar?

But while Donald Trump seems ill-informed but wants big changes, very knowledgeable Netanyahu seeks to avoid changes.

The Netanyahu Years, with comfortable typography and an index, is long and detailed but a rapid read well worth its length.

The first half is a biography in chronological chapters, each identifying its years. We learn of Bibi’s enormous drive to excel at everything, his devastation at the death of his brother Yoni during the 1976 Entebbe rescue, his service in the army’s elite Sareyet Matkal, and of Bibi’s three marriages. The last marriage, Caspit says, came with a post-infidelity reconciliation agreement purportedly giving Sara Netanyahu near-controlling authority.

Caspit says Sayeret works more to deceive than to kill, and “everyone who completes a stint of service in Sayeret becomes pathologically suspicious, obsessive and inherently secretive.” Bibi, “an outstanding soldier” who was wounded, ended six years’ service as a captain.

A Bibi loyalist is quoted as saying: “The core of Netanyahu’s existence is his constant struggle for survival. He is forever sinking and rising up.” He is the first to identify a threat, the friend said, but also “the first to become alarmed, to exaggerate and create empty threats. He is the loneliest man I have ever encountered,” which may explain “his desperate attachment to Sara.” Caspit says the two have fused almost into one entity.

They’ve established themselves “as the first Israeli royal family of the modern age,” Caspit says. Their large living has led to an investigation alleging improper acceptance of gifts. Bibi claims innocence.

Part two, “Dangerous Relations,” examines Bibi’s troubled relationship with President Obama, irritated by Netanyahu acting as if “Israel was America’s patron instead of the other way around.” But exasperated as he was, Caspit says, Obama maintained support of Israel’s defense.

Part three is about Iran, which Caspit says activated Bibi’s “inherent apocalyptic instincts,” turning Israel “into the world’s barking and snarling guard dog.”

Part four, “The Palestinian Issue,” is a discouraging revelation of the times various emissaries worked out agreements only to have Bibi or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas get cold feet.

“Netanyahu and Abbas are weak leaders,” Caspit says. “They lack the courage to make historic decisions.” Caspit concludes: “Netanyahu’s story is one of miserable missed opportunity.” He “is a highly talented man … perceptive, intellectual and charismatic, with incomparable verbal abilities and the properties of a superb politician. Ultimately, all these were wasted by his propensity for treading water.”


Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.

(American Jewish World, 7.14.17)

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