In May 2007, I had the privilege of meeting with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then leader of the opposition in the Knesset.
During the conversation, I mentioned to the soon-to-be longest serving Prime Minister of Israel that I had recently penned an op-ed comparing him with his hero Winston Churchill and predicting his return to power eventually.
“Keep that article preciously, because I will indeed come back and I will prove you right”, he said with his legendary deep voice.
2 years later he was back at the helm of the country.
Three days ago, on April 9th, “Bibi” contradicted those who were already drafting his political necrology by winning a fifth term.
I was personally not surprised at all with this result and, in all honesty, I was happy with the outcome because I always admired the statesman who is now called “King Bibi” by many commentators.
I followed every campaign led by Benjamin Netanyahu (since 1996) with tremendous interest and the last one was no exception. And the best companion during the last couple of weeks was the excellent biography Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu by Anshel Pfeffer.
Through this real page-turner, Pfeffer offers the key to understand Netanyahu.
In a nutshell, the leader of the Likud comes from a family of political outsider, people who were outsiders not only in the Revisionist family (you can call them the conservatives), but also in Israeli political life in general. Benjamin Netanyahu’s greatest achievement was to have “[…] transformed his father’s ideology into political capital.”
Throughout the years, the young Netanyahu spared no effort to master the art of public relations, networking and political maneuvering to reach the top of the greasy pole. And the ride was everything but smooth, if only because he had to confront and vanquish those we call “the princes” – the sons of the Herut-Likud establishment, of which Netanyahu was never a part. Their importance on the political chessboard was such that Anshel Pfeffer refers to them frequently in his book. But that does not change that fact that, even if Ehud Olmert, Dan Meridor, Ronny Milo, Benny Begin and even Tzipi Livni were all once key figures in Israeli politics, they’re now a footnote in history. Netanyahu outsmarted them all and his name can still be read in the headlines.
Right from the start, Bibi learnt to swim against the current and how to rebel against authority. From his “defiant opposition” to his father – with whom he had a particular relationship and who was against his decision to do his military service – to being yelled at on the phone by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and navigating in the cut-throat and unpredictable environment of the Likud, where today’s friend is tomorrow’s nemesis, Netanyahu conquered the iron throne of Israeli politics and cut himself a place as a dominant figure on the world’s scene, from the Halls of the Kremlin to the Oval Office passing by an official visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
I’m realistic enough to know that Bibi’s reign will come to an end one day – even though I will be among those who will be sorry to see him go. No one, after all, is immortal. But if one has to learn only one lesson from last Tuesday’s election, it is that “King Bibi” does not intend to let any prince touch his crown.
Long after the famous HBO legendary series will have ended, the game of thrones of Israeli politics will continue. It will be fascinating to observe and I’m sure we’re in for many surprises.
Anshel Pfeffer, Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, Toronto, Signal, 2018, 432 pages.