The Curious Case of Benjamin Netanyahu

Will Israel’s prime minister turn out to be a great man, or just a great maneuverer?

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Gali Tibbon - Pool/Getty Images
Gali Tibbon - Pool/Getty Images
Gali Tibbon - Pool/Getty Images

For a look back at the long career of Israel’s polarizing prime minister, click here.

For a look back at the long career of Israel’s polarizing prime minister, click here.

James Baker temporarily banned him from the State Department. Madeleine Albright described him as an Israeli Newt Gingrich (and it wasn’t a compliment). Bill Clinton emerged from his first meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 (then serving his first term as prime minister) more than a little annoyed by his brash self-confidence. "Who’s the fucking superpower here?" Clinton exclaimed to aides.

Netanyahu is the first Israeli premier to trigger truly bipartisan recoil.

But love or hate him, we’d better get used to him. The youngest premier in Israel’s history when first elected in 1996, and only the third elected to nonconsecutive terms, he’s already emerged as a permanent fixture in Israeli politics. And now, presiding over the deepest governing coalition in Israel’s history, Netanyahu is here to stay. Indeed, depending on how things go this November, he could even outlast his latest rival, Barack Obama.

The question, of course, is what he’ll do with his newfound political clout and staying power.

Uncertainties abound. The Middle East is in turmoil. Wherever you look — Syria, Egypt, the dangerous political split among Palestinians, Iran and the bomb — there will be unknowns and dangers for the Israelis for some time to come.

And Israel has its own problems, and a leadership crisis, too. It is undergoing a political transition from a generation of founders who — whatever their imperfections — fashioned a remarkable country against extraordinarily grim odds. The era of David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ariel Sharon has given way to a younger generation of leaders who seem to lack the judgment, authenticity, and legitimacy of their predecessors.

Can Netanyahu become the connecting link? Is he a transformative leader who can lead Israel to peace with the Palestinians and out of the shadow of the Iranian bomb? In short, is he the right man at the right place at the right time to craft a bold strategy for Israel on peace, and perhaps war?

Unfortunately, the past doesn’t inspire much confidence about the future.

Bibi vs. Netanyahu

Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, revealed a risk-averse, deeply conservative politician hewing closely to his Likud Party’s line — a man not of history and vision, but instead a clever politician whose primary interest was in maintaining a tough-minded image as a defender of Israel’s security, one deeply suspicious and unsentimental about the Arabs.

In the wake of Rabin’s assassination and Peres’s unsuccessful bid to succeed him, Netanyahu emerged as a critic of the peace process begun at Oslo in 1993. He was deeply suspicious of Yasir Arafat and the Americans, and focused more on protecting settlements (indeed, expanding them), and fighting terror than on an expansive view of the peace process. His September 1996 decision to open the Hasmonean tunnel in Jerusalem sparked some of the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence since the Oslo process began.

And yet, paradoxically, it was that same tunnel crisis that triggered a diplomatic process that would produce two interim agreements between Arafat and Netanyahu (handshakes, too). This would make Bibi — Oslo’s worst critic — the first Likud prime minister to concede any West Bank territory. And to Netanyahu’s credit, by focusing on Palestinian security performance and accountability, there was a dramatic reduction in terror attacks during those years.

But unlike Rabin — also a tough negotiator, but one with a strategy — Netanyahu seemed to have no purpose other than maneuver and delay. He might be prepared to take one step forward by signing the Hebron agreement with the Palestinians in early 1997, but then he would take a step back a month later to compensate his political base by moving ahead with settlement construction in the controversial Har Homa neighborhood in Jerusalem.

It was during these years that several Clinton administration officials who would later serve with Obama — including Rahm Emanuel and Hillary Clinton — got their first impressions of Bibi. And they no doubt helped shape the new president’s view of the prime minister as something of a con man. Obama’s wrong-headed decision to push for a freeze on settlement construction (from which he would later back down) may well have been a result of their message: You can’t work with this guy; you need to confront him.

And yet, Netanyahu’s first term as premier (and part of his second) also revealed that he could be moved. His career is full of strategic retreats: He said he wouldn’t sign an agreement with Arafat, but he did. He said wouldn’t give back West Bank land, but he did. He said wouldn’t agree to the concept of a Palestinian state even on paper, but he has. And he said he’d never agree to a settlement freeze, even a de facto one — but then he did for 10 months (though only outside of Jerusalem).

In a sense, Bibi, the tough-talking Likud pol, is at war with Netanyahu, the man who aspires to be a great Israeli prime minister. And this tension leaves him open to compromise but also to retrenchment.

Netanyahu’s brash exterior masks a more uncertain, unsure, and conflicted interior. He desperately wants to succeed — and like most politicians, wants to be loved. He knows he’ll have to take risks to succeed, but he’s not conditioned by either nature or ideology to accept them — particularly when it comes to deals with the Palestinians. So his mode is to take a step forward and then a step or two back.

The truth is Bibi has never been tested as prime minister with either a huge diplomatic opportunity or a national security crisis that forced him to take real risks. And unlike Rabin, Peres, or his Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he has no real history of proactive risk-taking on the peace or national security side. One example — the attempted assassination of Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal in Amman in 1997 — ended disastrously.

On the two critical foreign-policy issues facing Israel today — Iran and the Palestinians — it stands to reason that Netanyahu would be more inclined to take risks on the former and avoid them on the latter. Indeed, the peace process is well out of Netanyahu’s comfort zone precisely because it bumps up against his own mistrust of the Arabs, his ideology, and party politics. Countering the Iranian nuclear threat, on the other hand, is much more in line with Bibi’s view of the kind of heroic action consistent with his self-image.

"Men make history, but rarely as they please"

Karl Marx, while wrong about so many things, was dead-on accurate when he uttered the quote above.

We have a cardboard cutout version of leadership: Leader A confronts Situation B and then, through sheer will, creates Transformation C. But life doesn’t work that way, and success in politics certainly doesn’t.

Transformative change is an interaction between human agency and circumstances often beyond the leader’s control. Teddy Roosevelt, lamenting his own missing crisis, once said that no one would have known Abraham Lincoln’s name had there been no civil war. Only with a crisis at hand can leaders — assuming they are blessed with the right character and capacity — exploit and help shape what they inherit.

There are clearly crises galore in Israel’s neighborhood. But given the sheer number of uncertainties, whether any Israeli leader can exploit them is another matter. Even under somewhat normal circumstances, Netanyahu just hasn’t proved to be a risk taker — at least on the peace issue. And in a region where the margin for error is slim to none, the odds that Netanyahu will risk much on the Palestinians are slim. Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul general in New York and a former advisor to both Peres and Barak, believes that that Netanyahu sees two fundamental threats to the existence of Israel: a nuclear Iran and a settlement with the Palestinians that takes Israel back to the June 1967 borders.

I’ve heard all the counterarguments: The best bet for Israel is to make peace now. Iran will be weakened, Arabs democrats strengthened, the demographic pressures on Israel defused, and so on.

These arguments are all compelling. But there’s one man they haven’t convinced: Bibi Netanyahu. In any case, a breakthrough in the negotiations would require a risk-ready, courageous Israeli leader who knew his own mind and a Palestinian partner with the full backing of Arab leaders. You’d need to stage-manage and orchestrate a diplomatic process with coordinated and dramatic gestures to sustain an agreement in an environment where Arab leaders are either missing, besieged, or hostage to publics increasingly vocal about their anti-Israeli sentiments.

Netanyahu fears many things. But his fear of being played the fool, being humiliated or weakened politically, and taking risks without guaranteed reward is his most pronounced fear of all. He’s not nearly as self-confident or willful as his right-wing predecessors Begin and Sharon. Nor, despite his huge governing coalition, is he nearly as universally respected in Israel. To achieve great things means risking great failure. And this requires a truly historic figure.

Bibi: Man of history or man of the past?

Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister born after the creation of the state of Israel. And yet, modern as he is when it comes to so many matters — technology and economic reform, for example — he’s deeply mired in the past. The Holocaust and his late father’s writings on the Spanish Inquisition shaped him, and continue to weigh heavily. Rabin would never have used Holocaust imagery to describe Israel’s security predicament, and yet Bibi frequently uses analogies from the 1930s when he describes the Iranian threat.

And it’s not an act. For Netanyahu, the Jewish people are at risk. It’s deeply ingrained in his approach to the world. To be sure, Jews worry for a living — their dark history compels them do to so. But Bibi worries about everything, including the Americans, whom he believes (perhaps rightly at times) don’t understand Israel’s situation. You live in Chevy Chase, he once told me — we don’t have any margin for error in our neighborhood.

Ehud Olmert used to say that Israeli prime ministers sleep with one eye open. Bibi sleeps with two open. He’s constantly on guard.

The paradox of the deep bench

A number of very smart columnists have been making the argument lately that Netanyahu’s deep coalition now gives him a chance to lead, and no excuses not to. But some of the boldest Israeli steps have been taken under very different circumstances: Rabin signed Oslo with a narrow coalition, and Barak attempted to push through Camp David with essentially no government. There’s no doubt that if Netanyahu wanted to make peace with the Palestinians, he’d be better positioned now with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz at his side. But the unity government with Kadima is more a coalition designed to ensure domestic peace and tranquility than to forge a deal with the Palestinians.

Think about it. The unity government insulates Bibi from the pressures of the right wing, improves Israel’s global image (if only slightly), defers the chances of elections for at least a year, positions him as a unity prime minister if Israel strikes Iran, and makes an internal challenge on the peace process almost impossible, as Mofaz has agreed to abide by Bibi’s rules.

It also protects Bibi against the prospects of a reelected Obama coming after him on the Palestinian issue. At least for the next year or so, the existing government guidelines prevail — guidelines that make a deal with any Palestinian partner unlikely. To alter this situation, an American president would have to line up the Palestinians, the Arabs, and the international community to make an offer that even Netanyahu couldn’t refuse, except at the cost of undermining his own political future. And that’s a tall — perhaps impossible — order.

Leaders are sometimes found, or perhaps created, in the most unexpected places. And the most intransigent among them can change — take Begin, Rabin, Sharon, and Olmert. Indeed, the history of peacemaking in Israel is not a history of the peaceniks, it’s one of transformed hawks — men of the right and center right who were changed by circumstance and by necessity, war, and diplomacy.

Can Benjamin Netanyahu be such a transformed hawk?

Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet and one of the most astute analysts of the region’s politics, told me recently that Netanyahu has the chance to do that and more. Theodor Herzl envisioned the idea of a Jewish state, and Ben Gurion helped to create and fashion it. Through peace with the Palestinians, Ayalon observed, Netanyahu now has an opportunity to secure its Jewish and democratic character.

I’d love to believe it. But I won’t be holding my breath.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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