The title of this political biography indicates its central premise – that the leadership of Israel’s ninth prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, could have been resisted or even avoided entirely. This is a rather odd starting point for an historian to examine the career of the country’s second-longest-serving leader, but Neill Lochery demonstrates that Netanyahu’s leadership position has not been marked by his successes, but rather by his survival. Furthermore, the author states that even as the country’s head, Netanyahu is more attuned to an American lifestyle than an Israeli one, making him at once the public face of Israel and an outsider in his own country. During his political career he has been a polarizing figure at home and abroad.
Nonetheless, Lochery concludes, whether due to a lack of credible alternatives or to his own political pragmatism, Netanyahu remains the leader that the Israeli electorate feels is their best choice — after all, they have elected him four times.
Since this is an examination of a political career, Lochery concentrates on the years from 1991 to today, between which Netanyahu was elected Likud leader in 1993 and prime minister in 1996. There are some references to the past — most notably the influence of Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, a Jewish history scholar and Revisionist Zionist; and to the death of Netanyahu’s older brother, Yoni, during the 1976 Entebbe raid. Speculations about the effects of Netanyahu’s father and brother on his policies, outlook, and actions are certainly valid in attempting to create what Lochery calls “a clear picture on this complex man,” yet in the end they remain just that — speculations.
By necessity, Lochery’s “clear picture” also includes a history of contemporary events as they related to Netanyahu, and he to them. During the 1980s Netanyahu mixed diplomacy and politics. Then he came to international attention in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War; wearing a gas mask during a television interview, offering viewers both reality and theatrics. Fluent in American English after years in the United States and holding degrees from MIT, Netanyahu quickly became Israel’s television spokesperson.
Netanyahu was again prominent later in 1991 when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir tapped him to attend the Madrid Peace Conference, leaving Foreign Minister (and Netanyahu rival) David Levy at home. Due at least in part to television, his political star was rising. But that star could — and did — crash and burn. Netanyahu, though, succeeded in rising from the ashes.
The 1990s were momentous years of crucial historical events including the Oslo Accords, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, suicide bombings, Netanyahu’s election, pressures from Washington, investigations into possible corruption, land trades and settlement-building, and the Wye Memorandum. Although Netanyahu was defeated in the 1999 election by Ehud Barak, he would eventually overcome this blow as well.
So what makes Bibi run? Neill Lochery, Professor of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Studies at University College London and the author of nine books, has spent a good part of 25 years researching and writing about Netanyahu’s career. In his view, that career, like the story of Israel, has been one of survival. As for the man himself? That’s another story.