By David Silverberg
Benjamin Netanyahu was a like a car with the brakes set—but with the pedal to the metal and the engine racing at 90 miles an hour.
He was in a chair in an office holding a sensible, civil conversation. He didn’t pace or raise his voice or become emotional.
But there was no doubting his intensity, his concentration, and his complete focus on what he was saying and thinking. I could see his mind was fully engaged, reflected in the uninterrupted, unaccented flow of his words. His gaze unwaveringly bore into my eyes as though he was trying to look through them and read something written on the back of my skull.
It was 1980 and I was sitting with the 31-year old Netanyahu in the offices of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the premier pro-Israel lobby in Washington, DC.
I was there to interview Netanyahu about a book he had compiled from his brother’s letters. At the time I was associate editor of The Baltimore Jewish Times. We discussed his brother, what he stood for, the background of the book and the challenge terrorism presented to Israel and the West.
I would encounter Netanyahu again from time to time in the years after that interview. But the whole world would get to know him well as he rose through Israeli politics to become the country’s prime minister six different times. It was hardly a smooth path or a pretty career.
“Bibi” Netanyahu, as he is universally known (and will be referred to in this article), is at the center of world history right now. On his shoulders rest questions of war and peace that reach far beyond Israel. President Joe Biden visited him to both show support and hold substantive talks. Biden has dealt with Bibi before and knows him well.
Tomorrow, Saturday, Shabbat, Oct. 21, is Netanyahu’s 74th birthday. Those 74 years were shaped by a reality and circumstances far from those experienced by Americans, whether in political leadership positions or in the street.
It might be helpful for Americans, whether in Southwest Florida or beyond, to know a few key things about the person leading Israel through one of its most trying moments—and whose decisions will affect America and the world.
Feeling terrorism’s toll
The author’s copy of Self-Portrait of a Hero.
Americans got a taste of the pain and loss inflicted by terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001. It was a big shock, it was hurtful and it was frightening—as terrorism intends to be.
But Netanyahu felt that loss much more directly and keenly long before then.
On June 27, 1976, terrorists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France flight and flew it to Entebbe, Uganda where they held 106 passengers and crew, intending to exchange them for prisoners held by Israel. They were aided in this by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. On July 4, 1976, Israel flew commandos to Entebbe, tricked the Ugandan guards, killed all the terrorists and rescued the hostages.
Only one Israeli soldier was killed in action: the commander of the assault team, Col. Jonathan (Yonaton, in Hebrew) Netanyahu, Benjamin’s older brother.
Afterwards, Benjamin collected his brother’s letters and compiled them in a book titled Self-Portrait of a Hero, published in 1977.
It was this book that prompted me to head down to Washington and interview Netanyahu, at the suggestion of AIPAC’s director of information and research, Leonard “Lenny” Davis.
Our interview covered the facts of his brother’s death, the book and the importance of Jonathan’s memory and work. Benjamin made a particular point of emphasizing Jonathon’s fight against terrorism and the need for the world to be part of that fight.
But Bibi didn’t just honor his brother’s memory with a book. In 1978 he founded the Yonatan Netanyahu Anti-Terror Institute (later shortened to The Jonathan Institute) to study terrorism and promote a response to it. He evangelized the need to confront and defeat terrorism and understand its implications and he especially made the point that Israel’s fight against terrorism also represented the West’s fight for its democratic values and freedom.
Bibi headed the Institute from 1978 to 1980 but remained active on the anti-terrorism front, editing two books, International Terrorism: Challenge and Response and Terrorism: How the West Can Win and organizing two conferences, one in Jerusalem and one in Washington, DC in 1984.
I had the good fortune to cover the second conference when Bibi spoke, bringing his characteristic intensity to the topic. In the audience were high-level politicians, intellectuals and officials in the administration of President Ronald Reagan. They didn’t really need any urging to oppose terrorism and the extreme anti-Western movements of the Middle East. But the conference laid an intellectual framework for the counter-terrorism movement and the seeds Bibi planted would bear a second fruit in the American response after 9/11 in the administration of President George W. Bush.
The man now determined to destroy Hamas knows terrorism and terrorists and their movements very well. It’s not something that swam suddenly into focus from the periphery of his vision—for over 40 years it has been at the core of his being and consciousness. When it comes to terrorism and its antidote, he knows whereof he speaks and he is absolutely committed to the cause of defeating it.
Netanyahu during his special operations service.
Bibi knows what Israeli ground forces will be facing when they enter the rubble, the alleys and the streets of Gaza. He’s a combat veteran and, as Israelis say, has looked the Angel of Death in the face many times.
His brother Jonathan served in the Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli general staff’s reconnaissance unit and the most elite of Israel’s special operations commando units. It was Sayeret Matkal that conducted the Entebbe raid.
Benjamin followed in his brother’s footsteps, also joining the unit and reportedly being involved in numerous operations on Israel’s borders and beyond, including the assault on a hijacked Sabena airliner, during which he was wounded in the shoulder.
“He was incredibly motivated, really in an extraordinary way,” Doron Salzberg, a former fellow commando recalled of Netanyahu to The Times of Israel in a 2012 article, “Saving Sergeant Netanyahu.”
“He was very strong, too, wouldn’t ever let anyone switch him when carrying the stretcher,” Salzberg added. Another teammate recalled him being “a bit of a nerd,” very straight-laced and uncompromising.
On his first operation in December 1969 Netanyahu nearly drowned in the Suez Canal when his unit was ambushed by Egyptian soldiers while crossing the waterway at night in assault rafts.
When the Egyptians opened fire, the commandos in Bibi’s boat retreated to the raft’s stern. The weight made the boat pitch upward, dumping them into the water. Bibi was loaded with ammunition and a heavy machine gun. He had a life jacket but it didn’t fully inflate.
Another commando, still in the boat, could only see the ripple where Bibi had gone under. He reached into the water, felt Bibi’s hair and pulled him to the surface, ultimately getting him back to shore. Once there the commandos were still under fire and Bibi was blown into the air by a nearby blast from a rocket-propelled grenade. But he made it out alive.
He went on to fight in Lebanon and participated in numerous operations. He was discharged in 1972 but went back on active duty during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, participating in a still-classified raid deep in Syria.
He knows combat and its hazards in a way virtually no other American politician shares.
Books and bullets
Bibi comes from a family that traces its roots back to the Sephardic Jewish community in Spain prior to the expulsion of 1492. He also claims descent from a famous Lithuanian rabbinic scholar, the Gaon of Vilna.
His paternal grandfather, Nathan Mileikowsky, was a rabbi, Zionist activist and writer in what is now Poland. Bibi’s father, Benzion (“son of Zion”) immigrated to Palestine with his family at the age of 10 and hebraicized his name to Netanyahu, which means “gift from God.”
Benzion was a scholar of the Spanish Inquisition’s persecution of the Jews, arguing both that the Inquisition was not unique to Spain and was the origin of all modern anti-Semitism, a very controversial premise in historical circles. His academic career took him to numerous schools, some in the United States.
Bibi was born in Tel Aviv a year after Israeli independence and received his primary schooling in Jerusalem. He traveled to the United States with his family when his father took a position at Dropsie College in Pennsylvania and he attended high school in Cheltenham Township, a suburb of Philadelphia.
In 1967 he returned to Israel to enlist in the IDF, trained, and served in Sayeret Matkal but after his service was over, he came back to the United States in 1972. He enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a bachelor degree in architecture. Following that he pursued a master’s degree from MIT’s Sloan School of Management while also taking political science courses at Harvard University, where he completed a separate master’s degree in two and a half years. That degree would normally take four. He graduated near the top of his class at Sloan.
“He made it clear that he didn’t have four years to get an undergraduate degree,” Leon Groisser, his professor at the Architecture Department recalled in a 1996 interview. “He didn’t say it with bravado. He said it as fact. He proceeded to overload and he did very well.”
The professor continued: “”He did superbly. He was very bright. Organized. Strong. Powerful. He knew what he wanted to do and how to get it done.”
His academic achievements were even more remarkable given that his studies were interrupted by the Yom Kippur War, when he returned to active service in Israel.
Jonathan’s death in 1976 ended Bibi’s academic career. He briefly worked as a management consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, where he formed a friendship with another up and coming young consultant named Mitt Romney.
The Bible frequently refers to the Jews as a stubborn, “stiff-necked” people. Of those people Bibi is the most stiff-necked—and that’s really saying something.
I can remember Lenny Davis coming back to the offices of AIPAC from an evening’s discussion with Bibi, shaking his head. “I just wish he wasn’t so stubborn,” he’d say. At that point, Bibi was serving as the deputy chief of mission, the number two position at the Israeli embassy in Washington. (At that point too, I was working as assistant editor of Near East Report, the newsletter of AIPAC, which I joined in 1981.)
Bibi is an infuriating negotiator, according to all accounts, both personal and public. On top of what Henry Kissinger once referred to as the Israeli “Talmudic” style of negotiating, full of arcana and arguments, Bibi will remain incredibly fixed on the risks inherent in any deal to the exclusion of its possible benefits especially when some kind of leap of faith or trust is required. Put another way, he can read deeply into the downsides but only perceives upsides with difficulty. He can be budged but it’s almost superhumanly difficult.
Then, when negotiations seem to be wrapped up and a deal done, he’ll always come in with one more issue or demand, sometimes completely unrelated to the matter at hand that throws all progress into confusion.
Partially that’s just Bibi. But it’s also the result of the Israeli experience. Israeli politics is a sharp-elbowed, bruising battle in a league of its own. It plays out in an unforgiving and relentlessly pressured environment that makes American politics seem like an afternoon tea party.
And that’s just domestic politics—Israel is in a region full of murderous enemies who have repeatedly tried to destroy the state. In America if leaders make a decision and it doesn’t work out, they can try a “Plan B.” In Israel there’s no “Plan Bet.” There’s always the looming possibility that a bad decision won’t just be wrong, it will be fatal—for the politician, the country and the Jewish people.
As Biden recounted it during his speech on Oct. 10, in a 1973 meeting he had with then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Biden said she told him: “’We have a secret weapon here in Israel’ — my word this is what she said — ‘We have no place else to go. We have no place else to go.’”
Those kinds of pressures make for a thick-hided, extremely determined, unforgiving and, yes, stiff-necked people. It has certainly reinforced Bibi’s sometimes seemingly intransigent and often unfruitful stubbornness.
But if Bibi sometimes can’t bring himself to make a leap of faith to seize an opportunity and he is eternally seeing the worst possibilities in any course of action, he also has some history on his side.
Some of this goes back to foundations of Likud, the political party he heads. In the 1930s its founder, writer and activist Zeev Jabotinsky, could see clearly where Nazism was headed and what it ultimately intended. He tried to warn other Jewish leaders and was dismissed as a kook and alarmist—but he was proven right.
Like Jabotinsky—and Winston Churchill, for that matter—who were both dismissed when they warned of the extreme dangers of their time, Bibi has warned of Hamas as a threat to Israel since its founding in 1987. In 1997 he approved a Mossad operation to assassinate a Hamas leader in Jordan, which failed. He opposed Israel’s withdrawal from occupation of the Gaza Strip in 2005. He opposed repeated cease-fires after clashes with Hamas and warned repeatedly that Hamas was using the truces to re-arm. If he sees an intractable, determined enemy in Hamas and other regional actors, it’s because they are indeed intractable, determined enemies bent on the destruction of Israel and Jewish extermination.
That is not to say that Bibi can’t bow to greater forces—after all, he’s had to relinquish the premiership five times in the face of Israeli elections—or that he cannot strike a deal. Not only has he formed ruling Israeli coalitions, he dealt directly with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat, reaching an accommodation in 1996 and he signed the Hebron Protocol in 1997 with the Palestine Authority. In fact, he was attacked by the Israeli right for being too accommodating.
Then, though, Bibi wasn’t responding to an attack that slaughtered Israeli civilians and butchered Israeli babies. If Bibi and the Israelis seem deadly and relentless now, it’s because Hamas was deadly and relentless first.
Bibi’s implacability in pursuing his goals and visions for Israel has led to extreme controversy and deep divisions in Israeli society.
On the eve of the Hamas attacks Bibi’s coalition of extreme right-wing and ultra-orthodox religious parties had fractured the country, to the point where even reservists were threatening to refuse service in protest. The coalition was seeking to reduce the authority of the country’s Supreme Court, causing concerns that they were trying to turn the country into a dictatorial theocracy with Bibi at its head.
The greatest hatred of Bibi that I ever saw personally came after a trip I made to Israel after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Rabin was an Israeli hero, a brilliant general who planned the Six Day War and had led Israel through conflict and conciliation. He was promoting the Oslo peace accords at a rally in Tel Aviv on Nov. 4, 1995 when he was shot by an ultranationalist Israeli opposed to the deal.
When he died it was as great a shock to Israelis as the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy were for Americans.
Bibi had led a personally vituperative campaign in opposition to the accords. Rabin was depicted in Nazi SS uniform and in a gun’s crosshairs. Anti-accord crowds chanted that Rabin was a murderer or a traitor and in July Bibi led a mock funeral procession with a coffin and hangman’s noose for Rabin (shades of the attempted lynching of US Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6, 2021!). Even when he was asked to moderate his rhetoric by the head of internal security, Bibi refused.
Leah Rabin, Yitzhak’s widow, publicly blamed Bibi for the ferocious atmosphere he whipped up against her husband. In letters she called Bibi a “nightmare” a “monstrosity,” and a “liar.”
During my visit, my host, a security and defense veteran, took me on a tour of the murder site and the route of the ambulance after Rabin was shot, analyzing the emergency and security failures that caused his death. I’ll never forget his bitterness and fury toward Bibi and his allies.
Right now Bibi and Israel are consumed by the needs and uncertainty of waging war and by the grief and anger caused by the attack. But when that moment passes—and it will—the questions about how it all happened and how the government, intelligence services and the army failed will rise to the top of the public agenda. The result will be ferocious and Bibi will be at the center of the storm once again.
By necessity, this essay barely scratches the surface of Bibi Netanyahu’s career and impact on Israeli politics. Unmentioned here are the investigations and prosecutions for alleged corruption and bribe-taking; the expansion of settlements despite international opposition; his relations with America and American presidents, particularly Donald Trump, and much, much more. After all, a lot happens in a 35-year political career in the public spotlight, especially in the Middle East.
Perhaps it’s most productive at this point to try to deduce what might happen next with Bibi in charge. What can we expect based on past performance?
A cease-fire is unlikely. In the past, Bibi has denounced cease-fires, specifically with Hamas, as when he said of one in 2008, “This is not a relaxation, it’s an Israeli agreement to the rearming of Hamas … What are we getting for this?”
World opinion is a factor but not a deciding one. Israel has always been criticized for any course of action it has taken. This time it will try to accommodate international conventions and respond to criticism but ultimately it will take whatever actions it deems necessary regardless of world reaction.
Israel is ready to make bold military moves. Remember that Bibi is a former commando, accustomed to taking big risks. The country’s military is already renowned for its daring. If Bibi feels that extreme measures are necessary he will authorize them, even very far from Israel’s borders.
Israelis are determined and never more so than now. As it is, Israelis are dogged in pursuit of a course of action once decided. Bibi is perhaps the most dogged and determined Israeli. The horrors of the Hamas attack and the Jewish historical experience inform the response this time and, as Bibi said in his war announcement, “We will exact a price that will be remembered by them and Israel’s enemies for decades to come.”
Bibi doesn’t trust and he will most certainly verify. Goodwill gestures, promises, pledges or any vague solution based on trust will not get very far. Any longer-lasting accommodation between Israel and its opponents will be exhaustively vetted and firmly verified. Bibi’s whole career has been based on skepticism of agreements and he—and other Israeli leaders—have often been proven right in their suspicions.
For Bibi and Israel, survival is at stake and they will act accordingly. For Israel, every military conflict holds within it the possibility of annihilation. In 1948, 1967, and 1973, the prospect of defeat brought the chance of extermination. The Oct. 7 onslaught revealed that Hamas’ rhetoric was serious about its stated intention to destroy Israel and kill Jews. This is an existential conflict—meaning that the losing party will cease to exist.
As Bibi enters his 75th year he is the leader of a country traumatized by the terrorism he has fought all his life. He and his country face immense dangers. He is facing hatred throughout the Middle East and it’s spreading. The anger and criticism he will face at home when the immediate crisis is over will likely end his political career.
Bibi has taken controversial actions all his life. He’s faced physical danger and political pressure that would have likely imploded an American politician. Even if his means and methods and goals have at times been divisive and damaging to himself and his country, his commitment to Israel and Jewish survival have never been questioned.
The current crisis is immense and the stakes are enormous. It will take every bit of the intensity and concentration that I saw in his eyes back in 1980 for him to get through this.
But as Golda Meir told President Biden, the Israelis have no place else to go and that is Israel’s—and Bibi’s—secret weapon.
Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published on October 20, 2023.