'The Netanyahu Years' portrays a divisive, oddly compelling world leader

This is the kind of caustic and extremely topical biography that readers would expect to come from a working journalist rather than a professional historian.

The Netanyahu Years By Ben Caspit St. Martin's Press 512 pp.

Ben Caspit, veteran journalist and columnist for the newspaper Ma'ariv, has been writing about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for years, in all the seasons of that veteran politician's life and career, and Caspit's new book, The Netanyahu Years, now published by St. Martin's in an English-language translation by Ora Cummings, takes a rambling, wide-angle view of Netanyahu's life and times. 

Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, reached the rank of captain in the Israeli Defense Forces, and attended MIT in the1970s, acquiring both a fine American accent and an at-times grudging intuitive understanding of America. He returned to Israel in 1988 and leapt into politics, but as inevitable as that path seems to us in hindsight, Caspit reminds his readers that it need not have been so. “By definition Netanyahu is a classic republican, both in his world view and in his values,” he writes. “Had he not returned to Israel after completing his studies, the young Netanyahu – who went by the name of Ben Nitai – would have stayed on in the United States, and would almost certainly have become a successful, conservative Republican politician.”

Certainly in Caspit's telling, he shows similarities to the common run of successful conservative Republican politicians in America. Caspit makes reference to the “Bibi Spirit” – “a spirit of resolve, the refusal to quit, the code of the last man standing,” and this “spirit” was coeval with a stolid, unblinking drive to dominate. “Bibi had no sense of humor and never played practical jokes, nor did he ever dance or sing in public,” Caspit writes of Netanyahu's time working at a kibbutz. “His speciality was his ability to win.”

The long career Caspit describes is that of a professional politician on a hard-won and impressive winning streak. Netanyahu was Israel's youngest prime minister ever when he was elected in 1996 and he was elected to his fourth term in 2015. His slogan for a great deal of that time has been “Strong Against Hamas,” a nod to one of the persistent besetting challenges of his long time in office. For decades, Netanyahu has spoken in front of cameras about being open to talking about solutions to the Palestinian problem while simultaneously ordering enormous expansions of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. In one of his book's most cutting moments, Caspit seems to attribute some of this dichotomy to the  “messianic conception” Netanyahu felt along with his third wife Sara – a conception that fed its own persecution complex. “They are amazed by criticism of trivialities like the massive expenses incurred by the prime minister's residence, their luxurious lifestyle, and their hedonistic extravagances,” Caspit writes. “Netanyahu believes that had he not chosen to devote his life to his country, he would have been an American billionaire, living like his rich friends.”

Caspit's flair for drama is at its strongest in the set-piece moments he scatters liberally throughout his book. These moments catch his large cast of characters in their more human aspects, and they're unfailingly interesting, particularly when they throw light on the more complicated parts of Netanyahu's long tenure in office. For instance, something of his thorny relationship with President Obama is illuminated in a moment Caspit captures from Obama's 2013 visit to Israel. The two leaders are walking together in the brutal heat, and Obama decides to take off his jacket and sling it over his shoulder (“He is the coolest president in American history, and he sauntered casually over the runway”). Netanyahu's aides quickly urge him to do likewise, but the gesture doesn't come naturally to the jowly, heavyset prime minister: “Netanyahu was more uptight, tightening his belt under his belly, not quite knowing how to hold his jacket over his shoulder.” That combination of hard observation and grudging sympathy runs throughout the book, which grants Netanyahu the hangdog charisma that has made him “King Bibi” among large segments of the Israeli population but also tasks him severely for his volcanic temper, his touchy vanity, his pouting egotism, and almost preternatural capacity for political survival. 

That last is now under fire. Netanyahu is facing government inquiries for substantial corruption, and whether indictments are issued or not, he will enter the 2019 election contest under a cloud of criticism. Likewise, his bumpy relationship with then-President Obama vividly underscores the thin line all Israeli prime ministers must walk, defying US and worldwide condemnation of their Palestinian expansions while at the same time guaranteeing the continued flow of billions of dollars every year in the form of US financial aid. 

"The Netanyahu Years" is a passionate, impressionistic account of this divisive, oddly compelling world leader; the book is the kind of caustic and extremely topical account that readers would expect to come from a working journalist rather than a professional historian. Caspit writes that history will hand down its verdict on Netanyahu in its own time; this book will be indispensable in that process – but it's not the final word.

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