Where Is Bibi Netanyahu Taking Israel?

Why the Israeli prime minster befriends anti-Semites and ignores the Palestinians—and what that means for his country’s future.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the inauguration ceremony of the Guatemalan Embassy in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the inauguration ceremony of the Guatemalan Embassy in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images.

This week, amid protests in Gaza during which Israel has killed at least 60 Palestinians, some of them trying to breach the border fence separating the territory from Israel, the Jewish state is celebrating its 70th birthday. The country is led by Benjamin Netanyahu, arguably the most conservative prime minister in Israeli history, and a close ally of President Trump. Netanyahu’s political success in Israel has been remarkable; he has been prime minister since 2009 and also served in the position for three years in the 1990s. But his long tenure only raises the question of how he envisions Israel’s future—in particular, its relationship to a Palestinian population that still does not have its own state—and in which direction he is steering the country. Meanwhile, his hold on power is threatened by several corruption investigations.

To talk about Netanyahu’s career and where it is leading Israel, I spoke by phone with Anshel Pfeffer, a senior correspondent and columnist for Haaretz and the author of the new book Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Netanyahu has and hasn’t changed over the years, how he defends cozying up to anti-Semitic world leaders, and why he sees the Palestinian issue as a “sideshow.”

Isaac Chotiner: Do you view Benjamin Netanyahu as an ideologue? Is that a helpful prism through which to analyze him?

Anshel Pfeffer: I think that he is first and foremost an ideologue, yes. He is the rare politician that you can go back 25 years to read a book he wrote that was published in the U.S. in 1993 and you can see how he set his program then. And you can see, in the period in which he was prime minister, him basically fulfilling the program he set out in his book. And even though as a politician he has had to occasionally make compromises and pragmatic moves, and in some cases was not faithful to what he expressed in that book, in the overall picture he has been very faithful in carrying out his ideology.

What is that ideology?

His ideology is a very basic and bleak understanding of Jewish history. His historical thinking goes back to the destruction of the last Jewish sovereign nation, the Maccabean kingdom at the end of the Second Temple era 2,000 years ago. It was a period of history when Jews failed in their diplomacy with the Roman Empire, and their lack of leadership, lack of cohesion, doomed Jewish sovereignty then. And he sees that as a lesson for today in which the Jews should never be conquered, and should never feel they should make concessions, and should always be very tough in their dealings with neighbors and very canny in their dealings with superpowers. That’s how he sees Israel today.

You write in the book, “The only peace he has been willing to consider is one where Israel bullies the Palestinians into submission. Until that happens, he will continue building walls.” Is that the lens through which you view Israel’s actions this week on the border with Gaza?

Certainly. Netanyahu doesn’t think that the Palestinian issue is the major threat or challenge facing Israel. He thinks it is a sideshow of a much larger conflict and confrontation that Israel has been having since the birth of Zionism and the foundation of the state of Israel with the Arab world and with radical Islam. He sees the Palestinians as a cudgel Arabs have been using to beat Israelis over their heads, but not as the core conflict. And he believes that if Israel continues standing tough against the Palestinians, and not conceding any major issues with them, the rest of the world—including the Arab world—will finally grow tired of the Palestinians. And you have to say, now that the Saudis and the Egyptians seemed to have ditched the Palestinian cause and are preferring to make common cause with Israel against Iran, his vision seems to be coming to fruition. What we are seeing now in Gaza is that some of the Palestinians understand what has been happening and are trying to grab back the world’s attention. But the world largely has grown tired of the conflict.

You said that Netanyahu views the real threat as being radical Islam and the Arab world. And yet Iran, which seems to be Netanyahu’s main concern, is not an Arab country; we also tend to think of radical Islam as being primarily a Sunni-driven thing, and Iran is a Shiite country that has been horrible in Syria and elsewhere but is also fighting groups like ISIS. And we know radical Sunni groups get funding from places like Saudi Arabia, which Netanyahu has no problem allying with. Are there a lot of contradictions here?

You can look at it in two ways. You can accuse him of being cynical, and if you look at his speeches and things he wrote over the last 30 years or more, you can see that in the 1980s he spoke mainly about an axis between the Soviet Union and terror organizations and radical Muslim countries. Then after the Soviet Union disintegrated, he was talking more about Iraq, and then after the Iraq war in 2003, when Iraq was no longer a credible military threat, he began talking much more about Iran. You could say it is just Netanyahu’s cynical way of trying to divert attention away from the Palestinian issue and from Israel’s role, and trying to make this always something about the West against some big Islamic enemy. Whether it’s Sunni or Shiite or Arab or Persian, it’s all the same thing.

Netanyahu and his supporters would argue that the threat may sometimes change its form, but it has always remained an existential threat to Israel.

Do you buy that?

I don’t buy that because I think the world is much more complex than that. As you said, there are so many different alliances and considerations within the Arab world, within the Muslim world. Israel used to be a strategic ally of Iran until the Islamic Revolution. Now Iran is its biggest enemy. The alliances Israel is now forming with the Saudis and the Egyptians could also change over the years and decades. To build Israel’s strategy on changing alliances is shortsighted, especially when Israel still has 5 million Palestinians living alongside Israelis. And that is an immediate problem for Israel, which Netanyahu insists on marginalizing, while the fact that Israel is keeping most of those Palestinians under military occupation is brutalizing Israeli society and eroding Israeli democracy.

Netanyahu seems very comfortable with illiberal leaders, whether they be President Trump or Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán of Hungary, regardless of whether they are anti-Semitic. Is that because he is actually a fundamentally illiberal leader and doesn’t have great respect for democratic norms and institutions?

This is where his ideology and his pragmatism sort of meet. I don’t think that fundamentally he is an illiberal democrat like Viktor Orbán is. Orbán has a whole worldview of illiberal democracy. I think Netanyahu actually prefers a more liberal democracy of the kind that exists, or you could say existed, in the United States.

Now now, we are doing great.

Netanyahu’s priority is Jewish survival, which he sees as survival of the state of Israel, which means that if a leader shares his worldview, if a leader is prepared to support Israel in its current form, then it doesn’t matter that much whether that leader is tainted with anti-Semitism. Viktor Orbán has launched an anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros, and the Jewish community in Hungary appealed to the Israeli government to condemn it, and Netanyahu overruled the Israeli ambassador in Hungary when the ambassador issued a condemnation. He demanded the condemnation be rescinded because he values Viktor Orbán as an ally more than he values Jewish leadership in Hungary.

The same is true of the way Netanyahu has never criticized Donald Trump for ignoring or encouraging white supremacy in the United States, and the same way Netanyahu has endorsed Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, despite the fact that Kurz’s coalition includes the Freedom Party, which is a barely reformed and barely concealed neo-Nazi party, to the consternation of the Jewish leadership in Vienna. This is a total reversal of what was Israeli policy until very recently. Until recently, when the issue was how to address parties in government tainted by anti-Semitism, the Israeli government always took the lead from the local Jewish community and wouldn’t second-guess them. But we are seeing now in Austria, in Hungary, and in some ways the United States, we are seeing that Netanyahu doesn’t care anymore what the Jews think. He is just thinking what is best for his own government.

How much has a green light from the Trump administration changed his behavior?

I don’t think it has changed his behavior at all. We saw already under Obama that he pursued the policy he wanted to pursue. He openly confronted the Obama administration and may have paid some sort of price for it, but Obama let him get away with it and even signed a greatly improved military assistance program at the end of his administration.

The green light he is getting now from Trump is mainly useful for him in the domestic sphere to show Israeli voters he gets along well with Washington. I don’t see any specific policy that Israel has been doing now since Trump’s election that he wasn’t doing before. The ideological right wing, which is to the right of Netanyahu—Netanyahu is an ally of the settler camp but he doesn’t share certain parts of their ideology—has been calling on him since Trump was elected to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank. Netanyahu doesn’t want to do that because he is a status quo guy. He doesn’t want to make peace with the Palestinians but he doesn’t want to rock the boat too much either. This green light hasn’t really changed his policy.

You started out by saying he is an ideologue, so are you saying his ideology is different than that of many settlers, or is it that he is looking at it through the prism of security?

It’s very much to do with security, and it’s very much to do with the way he sees Israel’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the wider region. Netanyahu doesn’t want to show weakness or be seen as compromising with the Palestinians or other neighbors, and he doesn’t feel Israel needs to do so. But the settlers, or at least the ideological religious settlers, see the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, the historical heartland of the Jewish people, and the fact that Israel has never extended its sovereignty farther than east Jerusalem is to them a national humiliation. They are ashamed Israel hasn’t done so. Netanyahu looks at it in a much more functional way. He wants Israel to control that area, both for security and force projection. The actual technicalities of whether Israel holds sovereignty or doesn’t hold sovereignty are less important to him. That’s not something he is rushing to do. He doesn’t want to deal with all the issues it would mean, like whether the Palestinians would get citizenship or how to deal with those rights. For him it’s a distraction from the bigger picture.

What do you think his long-term plan is for the region, both in regard to the Palestinians and the Iranians? Is it anything other than the status quo, which looks to many liberals in America like a deteriorating one?

Netanyahu would disagree with the word deterioration. He sees the situation as Israel’s standing in the region improving. He sees its military advantage over its neighbors increasing, and it has increased partly because Israel is continuing to improve its military technology and partly because the countries around Israel have been consumed by chaos. So there is no real military rival to Israel in the immediately surrounding Middle East, not including Iran. And its economy is growing at a record pace, and the prosperity of Israelis has increased. So he is not seeing a deterioration. And at the same time, he is seeing the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two main Arab nations, getting closer to Israel over their joint enmity and rivalry with Iran, and the fact that the Saudis and Egyptians are much more prepared to openly disregard the Palestinian issue. So as far as he is concerned, the status quo is improving, and all us liberals and leftists who have been saying for 51 years that the occupation was unsustainable are being proved wrong because it is eminently sustainable. He doesn’t address the situation of Palestinian rights or the issue of what it is doing to Israeli society and democracy being a nation that holds another nation in subjugation. Those matters don’t really concern him.

Occasionally he has to deal with something that happens in Gaza, but he believes they are passing episodes where the world will be angry for a few days and then go on to other things.

His long-term plan is to get peace through deterrence, not a peace through compromise, and he believes the Palestinians will tire of demanding their full rights and will accept some very watered-down form of statehood in Gaza and the West Bank.

How big a threat do you believe the corruption allegations are, and how much do you attribute Netanyahu’s behavior to the corruption allegations?

I think they are a major threat because the police have gathered, and are still gathering, evidence, a great deal of evidence of very dubious dealings he has had with tycoons and media owners, and he is aware that the current chief of police has surprised him by being a very forensic and determined investigator of his financial dealings. And there is the second threat of whether the attorney general will decide to press charges, and that is a question that is down to the attorney general. We can’t predict what he will decide, but it will be very difficult to dismiss the police recommendations. And the question is at that point whether some of his political allies will decide they will not sit in the coalition with the prime minister if he is indicted and hauled into court. So it’s a major threat.

The much more difficult question is whether this is affecting Netanyahu’s policies. I can’t see any proof it is affecting his policy in security matters. The Israeli campaign against the Iranian presence in Syria and the recent airstrikes is a policy that has been going on for several years and has recently come out into the open in part because the Iranians are doing it more openly and more blatantly. And the same thing goes for the Palestinians. He hasn’t budged on the Palestinians for years. He is not suddenly proving intransigent where in the past he was flexible.

The one issue where I would say he has probably changed his policy to appeal more to his right-wing base, because he needs them more now that he is under investigation, is the issue of the deportation of African refugees. Netanyahu had already agreed to a very good deal with the U.N. refugee agency, whereby a large portion of the African refugees in Israel would be resettled in other countries and Israel would have to absorb about 60 percent of them. And he unveiled that deal about a month and a half ago, and there was such a backlash from the right wing that after just a few hours he folded and said he wouldn’t go through with the deal and will still try to deport the lot of them. I think that is a sign of him being under pressure with his right-wing base.