Benjamin Netanyahu is fast on track to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister, but the road to political success is one far from smooth.
Whether dealing with the nuclear ambitions of Iran, settlements or war and peace in the Middle East, Netanyahu is a figure as divisive as he is controversial on the political scene, while scandal never seems too far away from his personal life.
In this extract from his riveting biography, Anshel Pfeffer analyses the relationship between this great political survivor and US President Donald Trump:
“Hillary Clinton was the last politician Netanyahu wanted to see in the Oval Office after the US election. As First Lady and then secretary of state, she had played key roles in both of the administrations he had clashed with over matters he considered vital to Israel’s security.
In an interview with CNN, Hillary Clinton had said, “I’ve known Bibi a long time. And I have a very good relationship with him, in part because we can yell at each other and we do. And I was often the designated yeller.” That wasn’t exactly what Bibi was looking for in a president.
Had Netanyahu not given up his US citizenship upon becoming an Israeli diplomat in 1982, he would have instinctively voted Republican. But this year’s candidate was no kind of Republican he had ever dealt with before. He wasn’t even a politician…
Like everyone else, he had gone to sleep on November 8 expecting four years of Hillary Clinton. Waking up to Trump, Netanyahu reflected that while this wasn’t exactly the GOP president he had dreamed of working with, after so many years of arguing with Democratic administrations, he did see some unique benefits in having a President Trump.
While other world leaders were still working out how to contact the president-elect, putting calls through to the Trump Tower switchboard, Netanyahu was the only one who was already personally acquainted with him.
Bibi and Donald had met back in the 1980s, during Netanyahu’s UN days—they had been introduced by Ronald Lauder, Bibi’s friend who was also an old friend of Trump’s…
In 2013, Trump had appeared in a YouTube clip, calling upon Israelis to “vote for Benjamin. Terrific guy, terrific leader. Great for Israel” (though it wasn’t part of the Likud campaign and had been made by one of Netanyahu’s American admirers on his own initiative)…
On the face of it, there seems to be little in common between the self-made diplomat and politician and Trump, the bumptious salesman.
Netanyahu is an intellectual and an ideologue, while Trump finds it difficult to remember any books he’s read, and his only dogma has ever been promoting his brand.
But there are similarities as well. Both men are fundamentally insecure, lacking in introspection, and have an uncanny ability to sense their rivals’ weak spots and sniff out their voters’ inner fears.
Netanyahu’s perpetual campaign mode also resembles the Trump presidential campaign, with its reliance on constantly stirring up resentment and divisions between parts of the electorate.
Shortly after the election, Netanyahu began daily urging his aides to “be like Trump.” One Trump trait that the Netanyahu team was quick to adopt was branding unfavorable reports in the media as “fake news.”
Trump, promising to build a wall on the US border with Mexico, had repeatedly mentioned Israel’s border fence as his model, saying, “Walls work. Just ask Israel.”
Netanyahu, trying to curry favor, Tweeted, “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea,” causing a diplomatic spat with Mexico and angry protests from the Mexican Jewish community…
After his election, Trump had called a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians “the ultimate deal” and said that “as a deal maker,” he wanted to seal “the deal that can’t be made. And do it for humanity’s sake.” But it quickly became clear that he had no idea how to go about doing it.
On February 15, 2017, Netanyahu arrived in Washington for his first White House meeting with a Republican president.
At their joint press conference, Trump was asked for his opinion on the two-state solution. Abandoning nearly two decades of American foreign policy, Trump answered, “I’m looking at two-state and at one-state and I like the one that both parties like.”
There was a more jarring note for Netanyahu when Trump, answering another question, turned to him and said, “Hold back on settlements for a little bit.”
But Netanyahu didn’t mind holding back on settlements for Trump. It wasn’t the total freeze that Obama had demanded in their first meeting, and besides, Netanyahu was happy to have an excuse to rein in his rival, the education minister Naftali Bennett, and the rest of his coalition’s far right wing, who were demanding a massive settlement-building drive, including even extending Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank…
Unlike Obama, who had waited five years to make his presidential visit, Israel was on the itinerary of President Trump’s very first international tour.
Arriving directly from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Trump stepped off of Air Force One in Ben Gurion Airport and told his hosts, “We just came from the Middle East.” Not to be outdone, Sara Netanyahu told the president and First Lady, “We’re just like you. The media hate us but the people love us.”
Trump spent twenty-four hours in Israel, making speeches that could have easily been written by Netanyahu. At one point Bibi even said, “I think we quote each other.”
On the peace process, Trump said he was “personally committed,” but that he had no plans. In the many speeches he made during his whirlwind visit, he barely mentioned the Palestinians, and never once a Palestinian state or the settlements…
Greenblatt and Kushner made a few more trips to the region, usually telling either side what they wanted to hear, but not proposing any new plans.
Meanwhile, in Washington, there were reports that Trump, beginning to realize how complicated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, had lost his initial enthusiasm for achieving the “ultimate deal.”
In August, Abbas met with a group of left-wing Israeli MKs in Ramallah. “I have met with Trump’s envoys about 20 times since the beginning of his term as president of the United States,” he reported wearily.
“Every time they repeatedly stressed how much they believe in and are committed to a two-state solution and a halt to construction in the settlements. I have pleaded with them to say the same thing to Netanyahu, but they refrained. They said they would consider it but then didn’t get back to me.”
Bibi: The Turbulent Life & Times of Benjamin Netanyahu by Anshel Pfeffer is published by Hurst, priced £20 (hardback). Available now.