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Scion of Zion

The life of Benzion Netanyahu, Bibi's father, explains a lot about Israel's hawkish prime minister. But is he still fighting his dad's battles?

By , a Tel Aviv-based writer and analyst.

The death of Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was announced just before 8 a.m. on Monday, April 30, Israeli time. By nightfall, the elder Netanyahu was interred in the soil of Jerusalem, where the old man had lived in the same home in the Old Katamon quarter for the last 60 of his 102 years. "I never told you how proud I am that you are the man you are," Israel's premier eulogized, "and that I am your son."

The death of Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was announced just before 8 a.m. on Monday, April 30, Israeli time. By nightfall, the elder Netanyahu was interred in the soil of Jerusalem, where the old man had lived in the same home in the Old Katamon quarter for the last 60 of his 102 years. "I never told you how proud I am that you are the man you are," Israel’s premier eulogized, "and that I am your son."

In death, as in life, Benzion was a polarizing figure. Leftist Israelis bid good riddance to a man they scorned as an unrepentant militarist and bigot, while those on the right extolled the deceased’s erudition, ideological purity, and vital contributions to the Zionist project.

The real issue, though, is what Benzion means to Bibi. Received wisdom says that to understand the prime minister, you have to first understand his father — a view that Netanyahu has long dismissed as "psychobabble" and "psychoanalysis." But while nobody should expect the premier to transform into a dove now that he is clear of his father’s shadow, there is a grain of truth to the claim: Netanyahu’s political life has long been an attempt to find a balance between the unwavering ideals of his father and the need to reach a modus vivendi with rivals in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and, occasionally, Washington.

The fundamental ideological split within the Zionist movement defined the life of Benzion ("Son of Zion" in Hebrew). While a student in British Mandate Palestine, Benzion joined the Revisionists — secular, free market nationalists opposed to the predominant socialist Zionism led by the Labor movement of David Ben-Gurion, later Israel’s first prime minister. The Revisionists were followers of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the author and activist from Odessa who embraced Zionism after witnessing the infamous 1903 Kishinev pogroms. There, priests led a frenzied mob in killing 49 Jews and wounding some 500 over a blood libel — the ancient calumny that Jews had used gentile children’s blood in religious rites. "The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep," the New York Times reported at the time. "The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror."

To Jabotinsky, a Jewish home in Palestine was justified by events past and present. The Romans had expelled the Jews from their homeland two millennia prior, condemning them to an eternity of wandering and depending on the sufferance of other peoples. Virtually every inhabitable corner of the globe was populated by someone, he wrote, and the Jews had historical, spiritual, and emotional ties to one land alone.

"[S]elf-determination does not mean that if someone has seized a stretch of land it must remain in his possession for all time, and that he who was forcibly ejected from his land must always remain homeless," Jabotinsky wrote in his best-known work, the 1923 essay "The Iron Wall," which remains central to Revisionists’ ideas about Israeli defense policy to this day. "Self-determination means revision — such a revision of the distribution of the earth among the nations that those nations who have too much should have to give up some of it to those nations who have not enough or who have none, so that all should have some place on which to exercise their right of self-determination."

Jabotinsky predicted that the Arabs would overwhelmingly reject the Jewish state and actively work to destroy it, stopping only once they realized the Jewish state was an established fact that could not be undone. As for the Arabs of Palestine itself, he did not believe a Jewish state need result in their displacement; the Revisionists expected a large Arab minority in their future state, and the essay explicitly calls for equal rights for all.

Revisionist Zionists originally insisted all of the British Mandate of Palestine — including modern-day Jordan — be part of the Jewish home, both to accommodate the millions of Jews they anticipated would immigrate and to ensure the state had defensible boundaries. The demand for Jordan has faded into obscurity, but many latter-day Jabotinskyites still insist Jordan is the only permissible homeland for the Arabs of the area once known as Mandatory Palestine.

As Netanyahu is inescapably his father’s son, his father was Jabotinsky’s apt pupil. In 1939, Benzion persuaded the Revisionist leader to move from London to New York, and there Benzion served as Jabotinsky’s personal secretary until his mentor’s death the following year. The elder Netanyahu spent World War II shuttling between New York and Washington, alerting lawmakers to the dark reports emerging from Europe on the fate of the continent’s Jews and lobbying on the merits of the Jewish national idea. His efforts paid off: In 1944, the Republican Party added support for Zionism to its campaign platform, followed shortly after by the Democrats.

But Benzion and his colleagues would not win every battle. The Revisionists furiously opposed the U.N.-sponsored partition of the land west of the Jordan River into a Jewish state and an Arab state, holding out for the entire territory even at the risk of losing it all. Meanwhile, the mainstream Zionist leadership in Palestine accepted partition, reasoning that a small Jewish state with vulnerable borders was better than none at all. Arab leaders rejected partition outright — in the ensuing war, Transjordan seized most of the land allotted for an Arab state (dropping the "Trans" from its name and renaming its new territory the "West Bank"), while Israel and Egypt grabbed the rest.

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Netanyahu family returned to Jerusalem, and in 1949 their second son, Benjamin, was born. In the new State of Israel, however, Benzion felt the perpetual outsider. The country’s elites were preponderantly Labor Zionists, and Revisionists were regularly denied plum posts in government, the media, and the military.

Benzion, who during World War II had written a dissertation on medieval Spain at Philadelphia’s Dropsie College, despaired at finding work in Israeli universities. Through the 1950s and 1960s, he returned to the United States, doing teaching stints at Dropsie, the University of Denver, and Cornell University — and taking his young family along with him. If mainstream Israel’s exclusion of his father held any benefit for the Netanyahus, it was the edge it gave the young Bibi over peers back home: flawless American diction.

As a historian, Benzion Netanyahu’s magnum opus is The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, a revolutionary — indeed, revisionist — tome that since its 1995 publication has become a standard in the rarefied field of Inquisition studies. "[T]his book is easily the finest study of the Inquisition to appear in this, or arguably any, century," wrote the late Benedictine monk and Georgetown University scholar Bennett Hill. Jason Epstein, a dovish publisher and co-founder of the New York Review of Bookshailed its release as "one [of] the proudest moments" of his career.

The book defies the traditional understanding that the Inquisition was motivated by suspicions within the Catholic Church that Jews forcibly converted to Christianity were continuing to practice Judaism in secret. Instead, the author maintained, most of Spain’s converted Jews were willing and even enthusiastic practitioners of their new faith. The Inquisition, he wrote, was mainly inspired by jealousy at the Jews’ newfound power in the church, royal court, and economy, and fear that the Jewish race would contaminate Spain’s limpieza de sangre, or "purity of blood."

For Benzion, the Inquisition, and more recently the Holocaust, were just the goriest episodes in a Jewish history marked by near-constant hatred — usually racial, not cultural or religious — predating Christianity and stretching back as far as ancient Egypt. "Jewish history is a history of holocausts," he told New Yorker editor David Remnick in a rare 1998 interview.

It’s a conviction he maintained until the end. "We are in danger of extermination," he told Israel’s Channel 2 in 2009. "We’re not just in an existential danger but in danger of extermination. Some think this extermination — namely, the Holocaust — is over, but it isn’t. It continues all the time."

To Benzion, the Arabs were not just the latest enemies sworn to the Jews’ destruction — they were also the most implacable. "The tendency toward conflict is in the essence of the Arab," he told Maariv newspaper. "He is an enemy by essence. His personality won’t allow him any compromise or agreement. It doesn’t matter what kind of resistance he will meet, what price he will pay. His existence is one of perpetual war."

Benzion believed that the only way to contain Israel’s Arab adversaries was to vigilantly guard Jabotinsky’s iron wall. Netanyahu the Younger, however, came of age in a political environment where powerful international actors, as well as significant segments of the Israeli electorate, were pushing for a political accommodation with the Palestinians.

The current Israeli debate over a Palestinian state is, in a way, a re-emergence of the pre-1948 disagreement on partition — controversies in which both the older and younger Netanyahu have played crucial roles. After Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, successive governments — first Labor, then Likud — dotted the territory with settlements and grappled with the question of how to adapt to Israel’s rapid transformation from a nation besieged from all sides to the most powerful state in the region. Only with the 1993 Oslo Accords — when Yasir Arafat’s PLO recognized Israel along its pre-1967 lines — did most Israelis again seriously consider the question of splitting the land. These old Revisionist debates (and the elder Netanyahu’s legacy in them) echo in the current Israeli premier’s strategic thinking even today.

Bibi initially denounced the Oslo Accords, both because of a general Revisionist reluctance to cede Israeli land (his father had even opposed Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s peace deal with Egypt) and because he viewed the agreement as an unjust reward for years of PLO terrorism. In addition, he thought it dangerous that Oslo left some of the most intractable issues — chiefly, control over Israel’s contested capital, Jerusalem — for an unspecified future date, practically inviting a conflagration should those issues remain unresolved. In the years immediately following Oslo, the dismal regularity of suicide bombings — first by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, soon joined by Arafat’s Fatah faction — lent Netanyahu an air of grim vindication.

Still, Netanyahu rarely matched his father’s dogmatism. In his first election campaign in 1996, he broke with the Likud consensus by affirming his commitment to Oslo. He then went further — signing a protocol granting the PLO partial control over the flashpoint city of Hebron and later giving it jurisdiction over larger portions of the West Bank. To Benzion, who had denounced the Oslo Accords as "the beginning of the end of the Jewish state," each move was a betrayal.

In 2009, shortly after his second election to office, Bibi delivered an address at Bar-Ilan University that included his first public backing, and the first by a Likud leader, of a Palestinian state. The endorsement was unprecedented, but contained deep caveats: Netanyahu remained ambiguous on the borders of the prospective state, which would be demilitarized and without control of its airspace, and Israel would not accept the "right of return" of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Jerusalem, he said, would remain fully Israeli.

But Benzion said that even that limited endorsement was a bluff. "He doesn’t support [a Palestinian state]. He would support it under terms they would never accept," he told a Channel 2 reporter in a phone conversation. "That’s what I heard from him.… Those conditions — they would never accept even one of them," he said. The prime minister condemned the interview as unauthorized, and in a statement denounced it as a "shameful … trap set on a 100-year-old man."

In an obituary, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit wrote that Benzion was a man steeped in the past but with an uncanny ability to foretell the future. The original Hebrew column contains two paragraphs not translated into English, and they are the most telling. "Benjamin isn’t Benzion. He’s much more moderate than his father, much more of a compromiser and a bit less pessimistic," Shavit wrote. "[T]he son’s life is an ongoing negotiation between the principled core of his father and a changing reality."

That principled core may be distilled into three words — peace through strength. The changing reality, however, is one in which a majority of Israelis have adopted the view — once the sole preserve of the left — that a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River is inevitable to preserve a Jewish, democratic Israel, even though many suspect that state’s creation may not spell the end of the conflict.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s challenge is to find an equilibrium between Benzion’s icy pragmatism and the stated ideals of those who, for the better part of a century, kept him out in the cold.

Oren Kessler is a Tel Aviv-based writer and analyst, and the former deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. His first book, “Fire Before Dawn: The First Palestinian Revolt and the Struggle for the Holy Land,” is forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield.

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