Benjamin Netanyahu: Survivor

Sergeant Benjamin Netanyahu, member of the Sayeret Matkal Unit of the IDF (source: The Times of Israel).

Israel went to the polls for a fourth time since 2019 yesterday. If the past is prologue, everything indicates that Benjamin Netanyahu will form another government in the coming weeks. Holding 59 seats with his right-wing allies (at the time of this writing), the leader of the Likud still holds the best cards in his hands to remain in power.

But how is it that, besieged with scandals, trials and the turmoil of political life in the heart of one of the most intense political arena in the world, the longest serving Prime Minister of Israel can still successfully navigate these tumultuous waters?

This might sound cliché, but the key to understand Netanyahu’s political longevity is to reach in the confines of his personality. So far, the best biography I have read about Bibi (the PM’s nickname) is the one written by Anshel Pfeffer, which I reviewed 2 years ago on this blog. I do not intend to repeat the argument I brought forward then (those who are interested can read it here), but there is one essential aspect which I did not refer to back then.

While the rigours of age and stress and the passing of time might erase the characteristics of previous periods of life, Netanyahu was a member of the Unit 269 (special reconnaissance unit) of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) during his youth. Many observers often refer to communication skills as being a dominant feature of his personality and it is true. But it does not account for everything.

Because, beneath the surface of the aging politician lies a former Special Ops soldier whose prowess were not unsimilar to the James Bond character. And what is 007’s main quality? He’s the ultimate survivor. No enemy can eliminate him. Much the same could be said about the legendary statesman.

For the sake of my argument, let me use one of the best quotes of Anshel Pfeffer’s book (p. 102):

“Sayeret Matkal left an indelible mark on Benjamin Netanyahu, beyond political posturing. […] He has remained for his entire career a “big picture” politician, with little patience for detail or consideration of obstacles. The small elite and secluded unit instilled in him a hostility to large organizations […].

In an interview in 1997, he declared that

The main thing you learn in the unit is to set a target and achieve it. … The entire work process is captive to achieving one specific mission. There’s no routine. There are missions defined by periods of time; months, sometimes even a year or two. And there is a certain destination which you home in on and dedicate all your mental resources and everything else to reaching. That destination is almost always reached and if it isn’t, you try again. … You learn what you can make of yourself. You learn the essential need of the people working around you to reach the destination. And afterwards, when you reach the goal, you say: here, I’ve reached my target, I’ll go on to the next thing.”

The legendary MI6 agent (and all his disciples in Special Forces around the world) would not think otherwise.

Those who wonder why and how Netanyahu is still on top of the game despite all that is happening to him, notably in light of yesterday’s elections and the very likely scenario of him forming another government in the coming weeks against all odds, Anshel Pfeffer’s biography is an excellent place to start. The author also has a very entertaining that makes this reading a very agreeable experience. I don’t agree with all his observations and conclusions, but he brings forward many notions to consider in relation with the extraordinary political survival skills of the Prime Minister of Israel.

In a nutshell, stay tuned. Because Bibi can still surprise you. My bet is he will.


Anshel Pfeffer, Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, Toronto, Signal, 2018, 432 pages.

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