Ben Caspit's indictment of the prime minister

In his new book ‘The Netanyahu Years,’ the Maariv columnist pulls no punches

In his new book ‘The Netanyahu Years,’ the ‘Maariv’ columnist Ben Caspit pulls no punches (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In his new book ‘The Netanyahu Years,’ the ‘Maariv’ columnist Ben Caspit pulls no punches
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit apparently remains several months away from deciding whether to accept police recommendations to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery and breach of trust.
Meanwhile, three books were being written about Netanyahu, each of which were expected to censure the prime minister in one way or another.
The most feared among Netanyahu’s inner circle was a book by Shaya Segal, who was at one point one of the closest advisers to Netanyahu and his wife Sara, and at other times close to Ariel Sharon when he was Netanyahu’s rival. But Segal died, and the book has yet to come out.
The book taken least seriously by Netanyahu, rightly or wrongly, was written by Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer. Netanyahu himself has belittled Pfeffer for not having enough knowledge about him to write such a book and his advisers have said that the writer’s association with a left-wing newspaper makes him lose credibility.
That leaves The Netanyahu Years by Ben Caspit of The Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew sister newspaper, Ma’ariv. The tome has recently come out in both Hebrew and an English version translated by Ora Cummings and published by St. Martin’s Press.
CASPIT WROTE the book too soon to decide his innocence or guilt in what have become known as Case 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 and 4,000, but the entire book can be seen as an indictment of Netanyahu on charges ranging from tremendous character flaws to preventing peace agreements from being made, from harming the US-Israel relationship to being “a Republican.”
However, the most serious charge Caspit levels repeatedly against Netanyahu in the book is that he is a man of inaction. Not only is he incapable of taking historic steps, Caspit charges, but he shuns them in favor of speeches, which the son of historian Benzion Netanyahu believes will actually matter more over the course of time.
“For these men, appearance is more important than action,” Caspit wrote of Netanyahu and his father. “Anyone who has ever worked for Netanyahu knows that preparations for a photo-op before a meeting are more important than the meeting itself. Netanyahu is more concerned with what is reported than what happens. Micro-tactics are not for him. He exists for the big strategy, an important speech in Congress or the UN, an important document – recognition and illusion. To him, the written word is the supreme value, the height of achievement.”
One of Netanyahu’s closest associates is quoted as saying that from Netanyahu’s perspective, he has already attacked Iran by speaking against the Islamic Republic in Congress and at the UN. Like others, Caspit compares Netanyahu negatively to Ariel Sharon, who was a man of action who loathed speeches.
“Netanyahu will never build or destroy,” Caspit writes. “He prefers to talk, to try to change history by way of the word, not with the sword and the plow.”
The book reveals that decades before Netanyahu accepted a Republican invitation to address Congress, his father tried to get American Jews to support the Republicans because Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not help save European Jewry. Benzion’s Zionist father, Rabbi Natan Mileikowsky, asked US Jews to lobby the Wilson administration to keep the US from entering World War I as part of a plan to try to get German Kaiser Wilhelm to pressure the Turkish sultan to grant a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.
In another hint at the future, Benzion Netanyahu signed a pronouncement in September 1947 opposing the UN’s plan for partition of Palestine, because he was unwilling to compromise and give up land.
Much of the book is a psychological profile of Netanyahu, who as the second of his parents’ children was intended to take a backseat role behind his older brother, Yoni, who was supposed to become a great leader. When Yoni died in the IDF commando operation in Entebbe, Uganda, which was later named for him, Netanyahu’s destiny changed from possibly staying in America and becoming a billionaire to leading Israel.
“There is no doubt that the death of his older brother was the hardest and most definitive event in Benjamin Netanyahu’s life,” Caspit writes decisively. “Now he was the torchbearer. Bibi transformed overnight into the family’s substitute big hope. Now that Yoni was no more, circumstances had turned him into the new ‘intended,’ to the one on whom all eyes are turned and in whom all hopes and aspirations are focused.”
There is a recurring theme in the book of Netanyahu’s troubled relationship with women, how he has had trouble with faithfulness but has never left a romantic partner.
Caspit recounts how Netanyahu cheated on his pregnant first wife, Micki – who he had been with since he was 16 – with the non-Jewish woman who later became his second wife, Fleur Cates. Since Netanyahu cheated on his third and current wife, Sara, in 1993, she has kept him on a short leash and dominated him, despite her being a political liability.
THE FIRST chapters of the nearly 500-page book are relatively positive about Netanyahu and how his American upbringing, methods and mind-set helped him rise to prominence.
Caspit tells the story of how in the May 1988 Likud primary, all the so-called Likud princes sweated in the hot sun. But Netanyahu, running in his first election, stayed inside an air-conditioned caravan, periodically going out to the crowd for a few minutes and then returning to the caravan to change into one powder-blue shirt after another.
Netanyahu’s fellow young candidates recalled how they saw him practicing karate when he was about to go on television to raise his adrenaline levels. They caught him making the moves in the studio when he did not know he was being watched and later mocked him for it.
Caspit takes readers through his first premiership, revealing how the Israeli Left conspired with the Palestinians to trick the new prime minister into giving up land.
When his term came to an end, according to Caspit, Netanyahu decided that the keys to a successful comeback included making sure there would be media outlets in his favor, preventing generals from entering politics, and learning how to stand up to an American president. He learned lessons from his mistakes handling then-US president Bill Clinton, his defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, and the newspaper that became his nemesis, Yediot Aharonot.
“He swore [the media] would never overthrow him again,” Caspit writes. “He decided that in his next term as prime minister, he would have to weaken Israeli public opinion of the president of the United States, no matter what. It would have to be done at the very beginning. He could never again allow an American president to enjoy greater popularity in Israel than the prime minister.”
The rest of the book shows how Netanyahu implemented each of those lessons that he learned from his first term, with interesting consequences to each of the three. The epic confrontation between Netanyahu and US president Barack Obama is told from many different narratives, including Netanyahu and Obama advisers, as well as Caspit himself.
Leaving no stone unturned, the author spoke to 168 sources in three languages over three continents in more than three years of work. The result is a fascinating, balanced portrayal of a disastrous relationship between two men who could not be more different. Those who follow the news and regularly read Caspit’s columns can make educated guesses about the identity of each anonymous source.
Recounting the first meeting of the two future leaders in a Washington airport in 2007, Caspit says Netanyahu turned to his staff and predicted what no one else was saying at the time: “He can beat Hillary.” Due to his problems with the Clintons, Caspit suggests that Netanyahu initially hoped Obama would defeat her, which is interesting in retrospect.
Contrasting their personalities, Caspit describes Netanyahu as an alarmist and Obama as an eternal optimist and appeaser. Obama, he writes, “would always prefer dialogue to threats. Diplomacy over war.” Netanyahu is “Mr. Suspicion, with a grim view of the world, who ignores opportunity when it might upset the status quo. Netanyahu only sees danger and hostility.”
In three separate sections of the book, Caspit goes through what happened between the two on a general personal level, then exclusively and separately on the Iranian and Palestinian issues. While this writing tactic makes the book seem repetitive, it also reinforces the agony endured by everyone involved in the deterioration of the relationship.
PERHAPS THE highlight of the book is the surprising admissions of guilt and making mistakes by former Obama administration officials on everything from unwarranted pressure to stop building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem to Obama’s tactics with Netanyahu.
“Bibi managed to manipulate Obama,” a senior US administration official is quoted as saying. “He entered the lion’s den and came out in one piece. He began to understand that Obama’s bark is much worse than his bite, that there is no reason to fear him, and that it’s easy to beat him by stalling and using political tactics. Bibi began to understand that he could get himself out of any trap that Obama laid for him, and he stopped fearing him.”
For much of the book, Caspit manages to take himself and his views outside of his own narrative. But he makes clear who he likes (Shimon Peres, Tzipi Livni, Meir Dagan) and who he does not (Sara Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Ron Dermer). It is obvious that Caspit agrees with Dagan’s portrayal of Netanyahu as both a coward and a liar.
The section on the Palestinians is clearly written from the perspective of someone who favors territorial compromise and is upset that a final status agreement with the Palestinians has never been completed. This will undoubtedly turn off many readers.
There are two different endings to the book. The first is straightforward: “Netanyahu has won. History’s verdict will be handed down later.”
The second, in an epilogue that was clearly added later, is much more judgmental and frustrated and perhaps should have been left for readers to conclude on their own.
“Benjamin Netanyahu is a highly talented man,” Caspit writes. “He is perceptive, intellectual and charismatic, with incomparable verbal abilities and the properties of a superlative politician. Ultimately, all these were wasted by his propensity for treading water.”
Caspit declares reforms of his first term, economic steps and “maintaining a reasonable security situation” as Netanyahu’s only achievements and laments that from his perspective there are no more.
“Netanyahu could have gone down in history as a leader who influenced the future of his people, who brought Israel to a new place and burst through the cul-de-sac into which the Jewish state was forced in the seventh decade of its life. Instead, he made a stamp on the seventh decade of his own life, a decade which he spent in power, but left behind nothing at all.”
Regular readers of Ben Caspit would be surprised to hear him utter the words “Sara is right,” but that is what the frequent critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife says in an interview at a steak restaurant in Rishon Lezion.
Caspit agrees with Sara Netanyahu that had the prime minister been born in the United States, he could have made it to the White House.
“He has it, big time,” Caspit says. “He looks like a Republican senator, has amazing charisma, and all the qualities needed of an American politician. He’s a mix of House of Cards and Kennedy. Sara says all the time he would have been president, and this time I think she’s right.”
But while Caspit praises Netanyahu’s abilities as a politician and orator, he dismisses his personality. Caspit says Netanyahu “can’t do small-talk” and even suggests he has Asperger’s syndrome.
“He has a hard time building personal connections,” Caspit says. “The way he uses people when he needs them and later throws them away is not out of malice. It’s just how he is. If he wasn’t a politician, he’d be a Shakespearean actor who gets into his role and believes it’s him and can even pass a polygraph test.”
While in his book The Netanyahu Years Caspit dismisses the prime minister as a man of inaction, in the interview he admits recent alleged Israeli strikes in Syria have made him rethink Netanyahu.
“There is a new Netanyahu,” he says. “He is taking more risks and more action. He is more assertive and adventurous. It might be because he feels more comfortable with Donald Trump as US president. Or it could be it’s because his fate is no longer in his hands due to his probes. He could be trying to leave a legacy. This could be very good for him.”
While Caspit views the last month as the most terrific in Netanyahu’s political career, he cannot celebrate his triumphs in persuading Trump on the Iran and Jerusalem embassy issues without lamenting Netanyahu’s lack of success with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
“His success with Trump doesn’t change his failure with Obama,” Caspit says. “You have to be able to handle every president. Israel will suffer from his inability to work with Obama and missing the generous security deal Israel would have received if Netanyahu would faced reality sooner and not opposed Obama’s agreement with Iran so forcefully.”
CASPIT IS happy with the US embassy move and how Trump relates to Iran, but he has reservations.
“Having said all that, we don’t know how it will end,” he says. “I talk to security officials and it is too soon to say whether Trump’s pressure on Iran will expedite or slow the downfall of the ayatollahs. Almost all security officials thought the Iran deal really did push Iran back 10 years, and we don’t know where Trump’s move will push Iran.”
Caspit reveals that, so far, reaction to the book has been equally positive from the Right and Left in Israel. He says he wants American Jews to read the book and learn about what is going on behind the scenes in the Jewish state. While this is not in the book, he believes Netanyahu has written them off, citing closed conversations the prime minister is said to have had.
“I am worried about American Jews,” Caspit says. “Bibi says they’re doomed, and we only need Christian Evangelicals, as if Reform and Conservative Jews no longer exist. Bibi gave up on them. Who appointed him leader of the Jewish people? If he is, he should be fighting for every single one of them.”
Caspit’s prognosis for Netanyahu’s criminal investigations is not good. He believes an indictment is on the way, and then Netanyahu’s coalition partners will force him out.
“We are at the end of an era,” he says. “There is no way out, and I think he knows it. He knows there will be an indictment. His lawyers tell him his situation. He looks at [Ehud] Olmert, and thinks there’s a good chance he will follow him to jail. If I were him, knowing what I know, I would try to reach an agreement to leave politics forever in return for admitting breach of trust charges and avoiding jail time.”
Asked what happens after Netanyahu, Caspit says a new leader will get elected and make inevitable rookie mistakes just like Netanyahu did in his first term.
“I hope he goes, because society needs to heal and I want to see that,” he says. “Israel is stronger than its leader and it will go on despite the leadership vacuum.”