World

The Bibi enigma

As peace falters, Israelis debate who their leader really is

STEPHANIE NOLEN May 18 1998
World

The Bibi enigma

As peace falters, Israelis debate who their leader really is

STEPHANIE NOLEN May 18 1998

The Bibi enigma

As peace falters, Israelis debate who their leader really is

World

STEPHANIE NOLEN

It was vintage Binyamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister flew to London last week for talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, part of a desperate British and American effort to revive the moribund Middle East peace process. But Netanyahu would not be pushed. He refused to agree to a new withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from the West Bank, declaring he will not turn over additional land to Arafat until he does more to stop attacks by Palestinian militants. Netanyahu did assent, in his characteristic smooth and considered tones, to attending more meetings in Washington this week, and once again insisted he is still committed to the peace process. But then he started hedging on whether he would go to Washington, and a frustrated .Arafat charged that Netanyahu was up to his “same old tricks.” Israelis, too, felt they had seen all this before.

In the two years since he was elected, Netanyahu has proved an enigma as complicated as the country he leads. He says that his goal is “a better peace, a more stable peace.” But many Israelis aren’t sure. Some portray “Bibi”—as he is known to both friend and foe— as the consummate practical politician, making all decisions with an eye to his own survival. They picture him walking a tightrope with the peace process he inherited, trying to hold his fractious coalition government together. But others see in Netanyahu a nationalist

committed to the point of zealotry, with an almost biblical vision of Israel. The basis of the Oslo peace agreement signed in 1993 was land for peace, but Netanyahu, the critics say, will never cede any of the territory he believes belongs to Israel. Ideologue? Pragmatist? Both? “He’s a minority of one,” says Ari Shavit, a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz who has long covered Netanyahu. “He is incredibly complex. And he’s completely lonely.”

In March, 1997, nine months after his election, Netanyahu stunned his right-wing supporters when he turned over most of the West Bank city of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority. They could not believe he would give back land, especially in one of the four holy Jewish cities. But that was just about the last time Netanyahu followed the Oslo plan. Since then, there have been failed talks, demands for more Palestinian compliance, expansion of Jewish settlements, and stalling. Uri Avneri, founder of the Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom, charges that it is all part of Netanyahu’s master plan for “the total destruction of the Oslo agreements.” The prime minister’s fervent belief in biblical Israel ensures he will not withdraw from any more territory, Avneri contends. “One square metre of Eretz Israel is to him immeasurably more important than such nonsensical ideas as peace and reconciliation,” he says.

That is one theory. But Ephraim Inbar, director of the BeginSadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, argues that Netanyahu is no ideologue. He will give back territory, Inbar believes, but at a painfully slow pace, so that Palestinian expectations are drastically lowered. “Netanyahu is willing to make concessions,” he says. “He knows he must make an agreement to get re-elected and his only clear goal is re-election.” Supporters such as Inbar take Netanyahu at his word, that he is willing to give Palestinians limited self-rule but will never permit a Palestinian state on Israeli borders.

Netanyahu was born in 1949, just a year after those borders were first drawn, and he comes from a line of men with fierce ideas about Israeli security. His grandfather was a famed Lithuanian rabbi, a fiery advocate of a Jewish state who brought his family to Palestine in 1920. Bibi’s father, Ben Zion Netanyahu, was a follower of the radical Jewish nationalist Vladimir Jabotinsky. Ben Zion, 88, is a medieval historian, now a widely recognized expert on the persecution of Jews in the Spanish Inquisition. But for years, he was not taken seriously by his peers in Israel. Denied tenure at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in the 1950s, he took his family to live in bitter, selfimposed exile in the United States. Bibi lived in the Philadelphia suburbs, studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, married twice—and might well have stayed. His older brother Yonatan was the one groomed by their father for a political career, and he rose quickly through the ranks of the Israeli army. But in 1976, Yoni was killed, the only Israeli to die in the daring commando raid to rescue hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda. An angry Binyamin re-

turned to Israel, founding an institute for the study of international terrorism, which he named for his revered older brother.

Netanyahu’s work soon brought him to the attention of Israeli leaders, and he was sent back to the United States, first as deputy head of mission in Washington and then as ambassador to the United Nations. His fluent, familiar English, quick wit, and skill with a sound bite quickly made him a fixture on American television, especially during the 1991 Gulf War. He also set out his hawkish ideas in depth. In A Place Among the Nations, published in 1993, Netanyahu argues that Israel is a tiny country besieged by hostile Arab neighbors that needs to hold on to all the territory it occupied in 1967 for its own survival—echoing his father’s belief that the tough Israeli must replace the Jewish victim of the past. “I don’t know another Israeli politician who could have written that book, who knows so much about Zionism,” Shavit says.

With little previous political experience, Netanyahu won the leadership of the right-wing Likud party in 1993 and became the most outspoken critic of the Labour government’s peace deal with the

Palestinians. At the 1995 funeral of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo pact, his widow Leah refused to shake Netanyahu’s hand, blaming him for the atmosphere that led to Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish extremist. But after a series of suicide bombings derailed the peace process in the early spring of 1996, Netanyahu found a new audience for his promise of “peace with security” and he won the election (though by only one per cent). “I voted for him because he looks out for us,” says Tal Ilit, 28, a Jerusalem real estate agent. “I thought he would continue the peace process, just more slowly, more safely.”

Political scientist Inbar also voted for Netanyahu two years ago, and still thinks he is doing a good job—but that does not mean Inbar likes him. He calls Netanyahu arrogant, a narcissist, a liar, and “an adolescent in his sexual behavior.” (In 1993, in one of the mostwatched moments of Israeli television history, Netanyahu publicly confessed to cheating on Sara, his third wife.) Daniel Ben Simon, author of The Other Israel, an evenhanded 1997 book about Ne tanyahu’s rise, says Bibi has a huge ego, runs his government by himself “and appoints the worst people to the highest positions.” Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, he is popular. “He has a borderline personality,” Ben Simon says. “He suits the Israeli mood, living between war and peace.”

Love him or hate him, Israelis have been stunned by the string of scandals that have plagued Netanyahu since he took office—and have watched astonished as he survived them all. He narrowly es-

caped criminal charges for influence peddling in the appointment of an attorney general. Last September, he sent Mossad agents—equipped with false Canadian passports—to assassinate a prominent Palestinian militant in Jordan. Most recently, Israelis have been outraged to find they are footing the bill for Netanyahu’s children’s diapers, and his love of expensive cigars. Tabloids also regularly play up spending excesses by Sara, who maintains her own office adjacent to her husband’s. “The temptation is to say he is stupid, because of the scandals,” says reporter Shavit.

“That is simplistic and dangerous and wrong.” Ben Simon believes Netanyahu would win another election tomorrow. “He is not an isolated incident,” he says. “He is transforming Israeli society from the top to the bottom. He has a clear agenda for how he thinks Israel should look. And it’s not the Israel the Zionists had in mind.” Netanyahu has pitched himself in polar opposition to the traditional elite in Israeli society—leftleaning, secular Jews of European origin—and courted the ultrareligious, the ultranationalists, and the Sephardic Jews from Arab countries. “The people are still behind him,” Ben Simon says. “He’s one of theirs. Yes, he stumbles, but

he says: ‘What I’m doing, even if it’s wrong, is for you, it’s for the Jews.’ ”

Netanyahu also knows that standing up to the Americans plays well among his followers. Last weekend, he was still holding out against U.S. pressure for a meeting in Washington, in an atmosphere clouded by an unexpected remark by First Lady Hillary Clinton supporting a Palestinian state. White House officials insisted it was her personal opinion, not a pressure tactic, but Netanyahu was only too aware that Washington had suggested it would “re-examine” its approach to the peace process if the meeting did not come off.

In such a high-stakes game, the truth to the mystery of Netanyahu likely lies somewhere in the middle of the competing theories about him. Yes, he is an ideologue: “His agenda is 2000 years old, his context is as old as Abraham,” Ben Simon observes. On the other hand, he says, Netanyahu knows that the peace process he inherited is a political reality, and is determined to find a way to make it work with his convictions. “It’s the only way he can be prime minister,” says Ben Simon. The big question is which Netanyahu will next sit down with Arafat—the Zionist hardliner or the practical politician. □