Saturday, 11 April 2009

Where's Bibi?

Binyamin Netanyahu (incidentally, did you know that his surname means, literally, God-Given?) has been uncharacteristically quiet since his ascension to the throne. Possibly, now that he has his hands on the glittering prize once again, he isn't entirely sure what he wants to to with it. Or what he'd be allowed to do with it.

Of course, the possibility is that with the most unwieldy coalition in the history of of unruly Israeli governments, he isn't entirely sure how to proceed without precipitating a collapse of the unlikely arrangement he has constructed around himself.

In a sense, one feels compelled - albeit not for very long - to feel sorry for him. After expending time, energy and his repotoire of dirty tricks to kick Moshe Feiglin and his Jewish Leadership faction of Likud into the long grass, he has actually run out of steam early, way too early.

Anyway, since Bibi seems to have little to say about what's going on inside his head at the moment, the next best thing for the enterprising journalist is to try and guess - a psychological assessment of the Man Who Would Be King, if you like.

One popular theory appears to be that to understand the man, one needs to know the father - in this case, the imposing figure of Professor Ben-Zion Netanyahu, 99 years old and still presumed to be the dominant - domineering, even - figure in his son's emotional hinterland.

There was an entertaining mini-spat last week when Netanyahu pere - surprisingly, and I'll come back to this in a bit - granted a lengthy interview to the daily Ma'ariv. The main problem was that it hadn't been cleared with the Prime Minister's Office; they tried rather hard to, if not actually sit on it, have final copy approval. I can't find a comprehensive translation of the interview in English, but some of the highlights are featured on the excellent Promised Land blog.

It wasn't that Professor Netanyahu said anything new or strange - he has advocated using the strong hand against the Arabs etc etc since time immemorial, more or less - but that even relatively trivial matters like this can upset the delicate centre right political balance one presumes that he is trying to achieve at the moment (i.e. the difference between sitting on one's hands and doing nothing, rather than ranting and raving and eventually being forced into doing something stupid)

On the Global Post website, there's an interesting write up by Matt Benyon Rees (writing with his journalist's hat on): "Netanyahu has crawled out all the way along the limb with his new coalition. If he can’t master his own psychological demons as Prime Minister this time, he won’t be the only one to take a fall."

This reminded me of a profile of Bibi in the New Yorker, from 1998. Given that I have nothing to do this week except eat and sleep, I decided to re-read it. Written by David Remnick - now the Editor - it is both entertaining and at times remarkably prescient. A few highlights:

According to Professor Netanyhu, much of the press in Israel is worse than Pravda, because in the old Soviet Union at least readers understood that the press was frequently lying. (Incidentally, Remnick refers to the press in Israel as being almost uiformly pro-Avoda, pro Labour Party. How sweet. I'm guessing that if I read this profile again ten years hence, the Israeli press won't remember that there was once a party called Avoda.)

"After his son makes a speech, Ben-Zion sometimes calls to correct a grammatical mistake. 'Bibi's Hebrew has gotten far better in recent years,' he allows."

"What Bibi has inherited from his father is a keen notion of Us versus Them..."

For a while in the 1970s, Bibi went by the name Ben Nitay (This was furiously denied at the time. Of course, with Youtube nothing is hidden these days: the Jpost managed to unearth some archive film of 'Nitay' a couple of weeks ago).


Several references were made in the article to Bibi's brother, Yoni, who was killed during the raid on Entebbe in 1976. Back in the day when army service actually stood for something in this country - as opposed to, for instance, Ha'Ah Ha'Gadol (Big Brother) - Yoni was something of a secular hero. These days, I doubt if many people remember him. When I asked Mrs Goy to buy me a few books that could give me a sense of what modern Israel was like, his edited volume of letters was the first she gave me.

Bibi comes across, time and time again, as a loner, albeit one without sufficient emotional courage to back up his deepest convictions. The most interesting line in the Remnick profile concerns Yoni, and comes from Ari Shavit of Ha'aretz : "The brother was the one person he really loved. This is crucial, and underlies his loneliness..."

I think I'll read the book again when I get back home next week. If nothing else, it will make for interesting revisionist thinking (on my part, that is) a decade down the line...

Good night, and good luck.

1 comment:

Mo-ha-med said...

Very interesting indeed.
I recently learned about Netanyahu the father's opinions (and had a short post on it, here).
It does seem to me that Netanyahu may have indeed run out of steam. Or maybe he's just rethinking how he'll have to reshuffle the alliances within his government. For instance a couple of days back, the Egyptian envoy met him and Lieberman - and then extended an invitation to Bibi and Barak to visit Egypt. (Lieberman is obviously not welcome, after saying that 'the egyptian president can go to hell' last year).
So bibi has a lot to manage. And frankly, I doubt he will succeed.