‘Bibi’ Offers Close-Up Look at Israeli Politician in Family Context
Leader of Israeli opposition Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting with his Likud party in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 14, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Every Jewish American home library should have at least two books by authors named Netanyahu.
“Self-Portrait of a Hero,” the collection of letters by Jonathan Netanyahu, originally published in 1980, is a Zionist classic.
“The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain,” Benzion Netanyahu’s 1995 masterpiece, is one of the best works ever written about antisemitism.
What makes Benjamin Netanyahu’s new book “Bibi: My Story,” worthy of being added to the shelf in a place of honor alongside the other two is, strangely enough, precisely the light it sheds on how the author—Israel’s longest-serving prime minister—exists in relation to his older brother and father.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s challenge as an author is in some ways the same challenge he faced as a soldier and as a Zionist activist and leader: his older brother and his father got there earlier, and in such a profoundly excellent way, that their achievements are nearly impossible for Benjamin Netanyahu to top.
It’s worth remembering that due to Benjamin Netanyahu’s constant media spotlight, the other Netanyahus have receded. Jonathan Netanyahu died in 1976 after leading a successful Israeli military raid to liberate hostages held by terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda. Benzion Netanyahu died in 2012, and his activism—as opposed to his scholarship—took place in the 1930s and 1940s.
The genius of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new book, though, is the way it makes the other two Netanyahus, and their influence on him, come alive. Benjamin Netanyahu quotes his father warning in 1933 about “the Holocaust facing the Jewish people.” As Benjamin Netanyahu tells it, in the 1940s, his father figured out that “influencing Republican policy was the best way to influence Democratic Party.” Benzion Netanyahu briefed Senate Republican Leader Robert Taft on the case for a Jewish state, and in 1944, the Republicans adopted a platform “calling for unrestricted Jewish emigration to the Land of Israel and for the establishment of a Jewish state there.”
As for Jonathan Netanyahu, or Yoni, Benjamin served in the same elite special forces combat unit as his older brother. They both were educated in part in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The closest analogy in American history would be President Kennedy. JFK’s father was also a significant public figure. And Kennedy’s older brother and fellow Harvard graduate was killed in action in World War II, while JFK narrowly survived his own combat perils.
This is, in other words, not a standard, instantly forgettable, self-serving, score-settling campaign biography. It’s better than that, not only for its insight into what makes Netanyahu tick, but also for the insights into his policies. The account of how Israel’s GDP per capita grew to 19th in the world from 50th—surpassing Britain, France, Japan, Italy, and Spain—is a case study: tax cuts, welfare reform, deregulation, privatization. Netanyahu describes it as the transformation of Israel from a semisocialist country to a capitalist one.
It’s not a perfect book. There are more minor errors than there should be: a reference to the “diplomatic core,” to political consultant “David Shrum,” to lunching with Henry Kissinger at the “Four Seasons Hotel” (rather than the Four Seasons restaurant at which Kissinger was a regular). And while Netanyahu does own up to some tactical and political errors, I wish he’d have been a little less defensive, and a little more reflective, when it came to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
But those are quibbles. If Netanyahu emerges from Israel’s November 1 election as again the prime minister of Israel, the world will understand him and his country better as a result of this book. And if he remains in opposition, or retires from politics, at least he will have the satisfaction of having succeeded as an author alongside his late brother and father. He’s added his telling of his own story—unfinished, but remarkable nonetheless—to the narrative of the Jewish people.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.