A winner with the mentality of a loser

Ben Caspit’s new book shows how Benjamin Netanyahu brought impressive resources to the Prime Minister’s Office, but failed to capitalize on them.

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in November 2015. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in November 2015.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was exhausted and embattled in 2015, he still emerged triumphant in the snap national election. Such is the legacy of the long-serving leader whose life and leadership has been laid bare by journalist Ben Caspit in his new book, The Netanyahu Years.
The book starts close to the end, with the 2015 election that Netanyahu surprisingly won. He was 66 at the time and had just waged almost eight years of struggle against the Obama administration. He was “tired, burned out and sounded monotonous.”
But inner demons and external enemies had to be confronted. In 2012, a Haaretz article claimed that the prime minister admires the Carthaginian general Hannibal. Why? Because he got “the most out of very limited resources.”
When you admire Hannibal, you don’t just give up in an election, you fight for every last mandate. Netanyahu fought – and he won.
According to Caspit, Netanyahu has always been a winner with the mentality of a loser. Born on October 21, 1949, his life has spanned that of the young state.
His father, Benzion, was a professor, admirer of and secretary to Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Caspit fairly narrates the realities of 1950s Israel while also being critical of the Netanyahu family. He notes the Jewish state was a “one-party country,” not the egalitarian utopia some liberal Zionists would like us to believe existed back then. The Netanyahus came from the Right-leaning opposition, but they grew up in relative privilege, going back and forth to the United States. In 1967, Netanyahu, the middle of three brothers, completed his basic training with the paratroopers and entered the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit of the IDF. Dubbed “the unit” back then when it was still secret, it was responsible for intelligence gathering and penetration raids.
“Bibi excelled at almost everything,” writes Caspit. He was super competitive.
“He was an outstanding soldier. During the long, exhausting stretcher marches, he was the only one who never asked to be replaced.” Twice during his service he was almost killed in action, once crossing the Suez Canal and again during the raid on the hijacked Sabena airline in 1972.
In Boston, Netanyahu reinvented himself as “Ben Nitai,” but before he could enter the business world and disappear among the gray flannel suits, he was plucked by Israeli ambassador Moshe Arens to be his political attaché.
Back in Israel in 1988, he surprised the Likud as a “new force [who] had come to town, someone who didn’t resemble anyone else.” For the first but not last time, his “shortcomings in this, his first political baptism by fire, turned out to be advantages.”
Caspit is an expert storyteller and in this case the true stories sometimes have the ingredients of Greek or Shakespearean tragedies. There is the scandal of the nonexistent sex tape in the 1990s. The election night in 1996 when he scribbled notes from Arthur Finkelstein, a political consultant, and realized he might win.
He did win.
From becoming the youngest prime minister in Israel’s history to one of its longest serving, Netanyahu brought to office immense talents. But Caspit saw Netanyahu as obsessed with detail, one of the things that led to his testy relations with Barack Obama – which the author saw as a kind of farce.
“The Obama/Netanyahu relationship is riddled with incidents that began with a misunderstanding, escalated with tendentious leaks to the media and a great deal of bad blood,” he wrote. Caspit claims the Americans showed “duplicity” toward Netanyahu, disliking him privately, but publicly backing Israel. But this isn’t duplicity, it is proper policy. Personally Obama disliked Netanyahu, but as a country the US administration supported Israel. “Obama never made real use of the stick he held,” writes Caspit.
Although the book contains two small sections at the end on Netanyahu’s Iran policy and on the Palestinians, it lacks a discussion of the two Gaza wars (2012 and 2014) that Netanyahu presided over or the Mavi Marmara affair. Other issues seem to be lacking as well, such as Netanyahu’s relations with the Arab states in recent years, the assassination of Mahoud al-Mabouh, and the negotiations to get back Gilad Schalit. This is because Caspit prefers to focus on the US-Israel relationship, including long sections on relations with men like Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer. This isn’t due to Caspit’s inability to narrate what goes on in the inner sanctum of the security apparatus. He discusses Netanyahu’s attempts to put the country on alert in 2010 and expertly reminds us of Netanyahu spending time at Mossad headquarters, “which boasted a luxury private swimming pool and an excellent chef.”
One can almost enjoy the cigar smoke as we are reminded of “Bibi and Barack… enjoying a glass of whiskey or wine and leisurely smoking their cigars.”