The Age of Bibi

By David Brooks, NYT

METULA, Israel — If I were a political novelist, I’d try to write a novel about Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel.

The story would be partly Nixonian. Netanyahu is surpassingly brilliant, as even his opponents here concede. He knows the minute guts of Israeli politics and has read deeply into big history and grand strategy. He is also said to be suspicious, solitary and insular. It is hard to stay on good terms with him, whether you are on his staff, or his nation’s closest ally.

The story would be partly Kennedyesque. The Netanyahu clan was presided over by Benjamin’s brilliant father Benzion, the great medieval historian. The eldest brother Jonathan was the golden child. When Jonathan died in the raid on Entebbe in 1976, hopes shifted to Benjamin, who is known as Bibi. Political analysts have spent decades psychoanalyzing the family dynamic, with mixed results, but a novelist who studied Sophocles or Tolstoy might be able to make some sense of it.

The story would be partly Churchillian. Netanyahu sees himself in world historical terms, and admires Theodor Herzl and Winston Churchill — two men who saw dangers ahead of other people. Netanyahu obviously lacks many of Churchill’s qualities, like playful charm, but he has a profound nationalist passion and a consuming historical consciousness.

Like Churchill, he is wisest when things are going wrong. He has been a pessimist about the Arab world. As the Arab Spring has deteriorated, as Palestinian democracy led to Hamas, as run of the mill extremists have lost ground to the Islamic State, Bibi’s instincts have basically been proved correct.

The story would be part Shakespearean. Nearly every political leader has one close friend or spouse, often female, who is widely hated. People can’t blame the leader for slights, so they blame her. In Israel, the role is played by Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who has been the subject of fascination and scorn for decades: She is often described as Lady Macbeth. Few know her exact role, but, it is said, she exiles the disloyal, shapes his politics, mistreats servants and distracts him when he is supposed to be running the country. Obviously, any novel about Netanyahu and modern Israel would have to be told from her vantage point. The narrative voice would be electric.

The story would be part “Citizen Kane.” Netanyahu rose to fame via CNN. His rise and survival are intertwined with changes in media, with the decline of old newspapers that are generally hostile, and the rise of new cable networks and outlets that are often his allies. Ferociously tending his image, his wars with his foes in the Israeli press have been epic.

Finally, the story would be part Machiavelli. The great Renaissance philosopher argued that it is best to be both loved and feared, but if you have to choose one, it is better to be feared. Netanyahu is not loved, especially by those in his party. But he is feared and acknowledged, the way any large, effective object is feared and respected.

I’m visiting Israel for the 18th or 19th time (my son is currently a member of the Lone Soldiers Program, which allows people from around the world to serve in the Israeli military). I asked a couple of smart Israelis what their coming elections are about. They said that the elections are about one thing: What do you think of Netanyahu? Such is the outsized role he plays in the consciousness of this nation.

No one has a simple view of him. To some, he is a monster who has expanded the settlements on the West Bank, which are a moral stain and do calamitous damage to Israel’s efforts to win support around the world. To some, he is the necessary man in hard times, the vigilant guardian as the rest of the Middle East goes berserk.

Both viewpoints have some truth. To me, his caution is most fascinating. For all his soaring rhetoric and bellicosity, he has been a defensive leader. He seems to understand that, in his country’s situation, the lows are lower than the highs are high. The costs of a mistake are bigger than the benefits of an accomplishment. So he is loath to take risks. He doesn’t do some smart things, like improve life for Palestinians on the West Bank, but he doesn’t do unpredictable dumb things, like prematurely bomb Iran. He talks everything through, and his decisions shift and flip as the discussions evolve.

If you think trends in the Middle East will doom Israel unless it acts, then this defensiveness is a disaster. If you think, as I do, that Israel has to wait out the current spasm of Islamist radicalism, then this caution has its uses.

Israeli voters haven’t warmed to Netanyahu over the past quarter-century. But they have come to think more like him, accepting that this conflict will endure, digging in for a dogged struggle. For good and ill, he has refashioned the national mind.

January 3, 2015 | 10 Comments »

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  1. @ Bear Klein:
    They mean to tell us that while almost 50% of the voters having declared that they have not decided yet, the pollsters come to 0.1 seat accuracy on their forecasts?
    Truly amazing.
    But I notice that they are trying to combine in a strange way their data bases to make it sound more cumulative.
    I have no way to correlate with their Hertzog and Livni’s numbers. Way out in the proverbial left field… 🙂
    Lets wait and see as days go by.

  2. @ SHmuel HaLevi 2:

    Category: Polls

    Knesset Jeremy Poll of Polls – Weekly Average #5: Labor-Livni 23.6, Likud 23.2, Bayit Yehudi 16.0, Yesh Atid 9.1, Koolanu 9.0, UTJ 7.5
    Filed under: Daily Updates, Knesset, Polls — 7 Comments
    January 4, 2015

    Knesset Jeremy’s Weekly Average – The Israeli Poll of Polls

    Knesset Jeremy Weekly Average #5 (week of Dec 28-Jan 3 2014) of 8 polls from 6 polling companies (2 Panels, 2 Smith, 1 Dialog, 1 Teleseker, 1 Midgam, 1 Maagar Mochot, 0 Geocartography, Sarid, TRI, New Wave)

    (Last Week in brackets), current Knesset seats in [brackets]

    1st 23.6 (23.2) [21] Labor+Livni

    2nd 23.2 (22.6) [18] Likud

    3rd 16.0 (15.7) [11] Bayit Yehudi

    4th 09.1 (09.5) [19] Yesh Atid

    5th 09.0 (08.8) [–] Koolanu

    6th 07.5 (06.8) [07] Yahadut Hatorah/UTJ

    7th 06.7 (08.0) [13] Yisrael Beitenu

    8th 06.5 (06.5) [06] Meretz

    9th 05.8 (05.3) [10] Shas

    10th 3.3 (03.6) [02] Ha’am Itanu (Yishai+Chetboun)

    11th 11.0 (10.7) [11] Hadash, Ra’am-Ta’al & Balad (not all polls have them united)

    12th 00.1 (00.0) [02] Kadima

    69.6 (70.0) [61] Right-Religious (Parties that have not ruled out a BB coalition)

    50.3 (50.0) [59] Center-Left-Arab (Parties that have ruled out a BB coalition)

    Changes from week 4 to week 5:

    UTJ moves up to 6th, Yisrael Beitenu drops to 7th.

    Largest Gains: UTJ gained .7, Likud gained .6 and Shas gained .5.

    Biggest Losses: Yisrael Beitenu dropped 1.3 seats, Yesh Atid lost 0.4, Ha’am Itanu dropped 0.3.

  3. @ Bear Klein:
    Without clearly reporting up front the response ratio and precise questions asked, polls cannot be but either prepacked or highly compromised using contorted mathematical gymnastics.
    Indeed the results shown are extracted from data provided by Northern residents only. Being a relatively new format I cannot ascertain how the results can be used elsewhere.
    Colleagues of mine have seen this and informed me they would like to do the same including the vastly more populated central region. Lets hope they can organize such undertaking.

  4. @ SHmuel HaLevi 2:Since there are different voting patterns in different part of the country this poll may not be valid. It is interesting anyway as what may be valid in the North. Circumstances have changed (e.g. parties, political situations, peoples opinions) since November so that also reflects on its validity since most polls normally are done over a short period of time to reflect view over that period of time.

    It is interesting anyway thanks for sharing.

  5. To finish his novel, he has to wait until late March, to see how Bibi handles being ousted as PM by Naftali Bennett. 🙂

  6. @ Ted Belman:
    It is random as the people polled are not selected beforehand.
    It is extracted in the North.
    More representative than the polls sampling minute numbers of individuals. No matter how that is massaged those polls are based on minute amounts of hard data.
    We report that only 58% responded. Other polls do not report them being biased by just as much or more.

  7. It is as good a time as any.
    This is the third election time that a group of young people, mostly High School Seniors, perform an ongoing, that is, cumulative POLL to try to ascertain the possible outcome of the elections. The data is collected at bus stations, supermarkets, games, sports events, train stations, etc, in the North only.
    The POLL is cumulative to minimize the effects of momentary influences. That was my suggestion to them
    The total persons polled to date since November is 13684.

    The symbols – or + indicate the trend shown in the latest poll section
    Of those approached 58% responded, the rest declared to be undecided.
    LIKUD 23 –
    Jewish Home 19 +
    Hertzog & Livni 16
    Islamic block 11
    Kohalon 9 –
    Lapid 8
    Lieberman 8 –
    Torah 7 +
    meretz 7 +
    Power to Israel 4 +
    Ishay 4
    Shas 4

    NOTE: ONLY 58% of the questioned were willing to give a response.

  8. “Prematurely” bombing Iran? This will be seen as a historical mistake, caused by Obama’s threats. I suppose Iiberals would like to wait until Tel Aviv is gone.

  9. This is RINO-rationalization.

    “It is hard to stay on good terms with him, whether you are on his staff, or his nation’s closest ally.”

    This can only refer to BB’s justifiable distrust of BHO; it’s composed as if BB has any control over the misconception that the War against Israel by the Arabs is more important to settle than confronting Iranian Nukes.

    “He doesn’t do some smart things, like improve life for Palestinians on the West Bank”

    Again, spoken like a guy who would subsume security concerns within a liberal mindset.

    This article reflects the intellectual bankruptcy of the libs, on both sides of the “pond.”