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Biography paints a robust picture of Bibi

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Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu By Anshel Pfeffer Signal Press, McClelland & Stewart, 2018

Israel’s weekly cabinet meeting usually begins with a précis by the prime minister of the key agenda items to be covered. These remarks, in turn, set the tone for the conduct of the cabinet’s business.

The following excerpt from the remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the cabinet meeting earlier this month, on May 6, is a window into the security-related item that, according to Anshel Pfeffer, has obsessed Netanyahu throughout his tenure as prime minister.

“On Wednesday I will meet with Russian President (Vladimir) Putin in Moscow and will participate in the parade to mark Victory Day over Nazi Germany. Meetings with the Russian president are always important for the security of Israel and the co-ordination between the IDF and the Russian military. Israel maintains full freedom of action to defend itself. All of our meetings are important, but this week’s meeting is especially important in light of Iran’s increasing efforts to establish a military presence in Syria against Israel.

“We are determined to block Iran’s aggression against us even if this means a struggle. Better now than later. Nations that were unprepared to take timely action to counter murderous aggression against them paid much heavier prices afterwards. We do not want escalation, but we are prepared for any scenario.”

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In his excellent biography of Netanyahu Pfeffer explains: “For Netanyahu, the threat of Iran’s nuclear bomb was on a par with the extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust. As early as 1996, on a visit to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in Germany, he had spoken of Iran as a new incarnation of Nazi Germany.”

Pfeffer notes that as U.S. president,  Barack Obama erroneously believed that “Iran was Netanyahu’s excuse to avoid dealing with the Palestinians.” Pfeffer maintains that Obama was “only half-right. Netanyahu was desperate to avoid the Palestinian issue. But the Iranian threat was the core reason Netanyahu believed he was destined to lead Israel.”

This statement is a paradigm for the incisive writing that typifies this work.

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According to Pfeffer, it was Netanyahu’s belief that destiny, not ambition, brought him to the prime ministership. Pfeffer also compares the lack of urgency that Netanyahu attaches to resolving the matter of the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinians to the heightened sense of urgency Netanyahu feels is needed to resolve the multi-faceted menace emanating from Iran. Indeed, Pfeffer infuses the book with similarly penetrating observations about Netanyahu’s sometimes troubling, though seldom puzzling, approaches to all manner of domestic and foreign policy crises.

Throughout the nearly 400 pages of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, Pfeffer provides and then joins together the myriad, colourfully recorded dots that comprise this journalistically robust picture of the private and the public Netanyahu.

Bibi was born in 1949, one year after the State of Israel was created, into a home that was steeped in the ideology of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. With empathy and understanding toward his subject, Pfeffer tells us a great deal about that home, about the permanent impact on the developing character of the future prime minister shaped by his parents and by his two brothers, especially that of his older brother Yoni who was killed at Entebbe in 1976. Pfeffer continually refers to Bibi’s family as having been outsiders to the mainstream founding society of the country. That outsider status, in Pfeffer’s views, forever defined Netanyahu’s politics.

Netanyahu is described as having difficulty establishing and maintaining long-lasting personal relationships. His current marriage, to Sara, is his third. Pfeffer describes the peculiarities of Bibi’s life with Sara, his third and current wife, in a straightforward, frank manner. It is a relevant part of Bibi’s overall story, he explains, because of the manner in which Sara has influenced his method of governing. And of course, Sara’s behaviour has now also attracted the attention of the police and of the attorney general.

If Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu is an informative, smartly written portrait of the human being, it is also a compelling, page-turning electoral and political history of the country.

Pfeffer’s analysis covers the decades in which Netanyahu has been involved in politics and in which he competed in Israel’s problematic proportional electoral system. Pfeffer masterfully recreates the manoeuvrings that led to the formations of all of the various governing coalitions, after the elections in the 1970s until the most recent one in 2016.

He deftly describes the intrigues, deceptions, and duplicities that characterized the “negotiations” and bargaining between individuals and parties. Coalition deal making was and remains an exercise of expedience superceding principle, and personal agenda overriding national interest. Israel’s electoral system constantly spawns fractures within political parties or the formation of new party factions. The uninhibited, publicly expressed ambition of Israeli politicians, who look for ways to climb to the top of the ladder of power faster than others, generates cynicism on the part of the public and engenders mounting apathy and distrust of the political institutions of the country.

Pfeffer points to Netanyahu’s “subservience” to the haredi establishment as one such example of unseemly coalition horse-trading that brings the entire political system into disrepute. Pfeffer deftly depicts the grimy hyper-partisanship on all sides. Especially in discussing the Oslo Accords chapter in recent Israeli history, he describes the damage done to civil Israel society by the calamitous effects of blind loyalty to ideology over mutual respect and tolerance.

Pfeffer is an award-winning journalist for Haaretz, the daily Israeli paper known for its rigidly left-leaning politics. Though traces of Pfeffer’s politics peek through the book, he is generally fair toward his subject. For example, he points out the injustice of the inaccurate allegations hurled against Bibi by the left following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. It was that episode that left a lasting distrust and disdain in Netanyahu for the media.

Like the writer, the book has integrity of content and a neatness of journalistic style. Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu is an educational primer. In addition to providing myriad detail about the current prime minister’s formative years and experiences, it also explains the unique circumstances of Israel’s domestic and geopolitical circumstances that have yielded a prime minister such as Netanyahu.