Like General Norman Schwarzkopf or CNN's Peter Arnett, he became one of the Gulf war's instant superstars. Many American television viewers will probably have no problem recognizing his boyish smile and accented English, although they might confuse him with either a character on a commercial or a member of a soap-opera cast. The Washington Times suggested that if any Emmy Award had been given for the Gulf war's best television performance, Benjamin Netanyahu, in all certainty, would have received it.
Indeed, the deputy Israeli foreign minister, known as "Bibi" to such buddies as Bill Safire of The New York Times, became during the war, for all intents and purposes, the Cable News Network's bureau chief in Jerusalem. With Peter Arnett, CNN's official Israel correspondent, spending the war in Baghdad, Netanyahu was able to dominate that network's airtime from Israel with Likud-oriented news-bites.
According to a March 1991 story in the Washingtonian, a Palestine Liberation Organization official phoned CNN's headquarters in Atlanta during the first week of the war. "This Israeli has been on the air for more than half an hour," he fumed, referring to Netanyahu. "CNN is becoming a propagandist for the Israelis."
Ironically, only a year ago, in the midst of the Palestinian uprising, the Likud government launched a dirty and successful campaign against CNN, accusing two of its former staff members in Israel, Jerusalem Bureau Chief Robert Weiner and correspondent Michael Greenspan, of "anti-Israel" news coverage of the intifada. The anti-CNN campaign, during which Weiner and Greenspan were branded as "self-hating Jews," was joined by several American Jewish organizations, led by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. It resulted in the firing of Greenspan and the reassignment of Weiner. "The hostile journalists of CNN are finally going home," announced a bold headline in Israel's daily, Yediot Aharonot.
As the Iraqi Scuds hit Israel, the tamed CNN reporters seemed to be on the Likud's payroll. With screaming sirens and explosions in the sky providing the sound and lights, Netanyahu's CNN appearances were a Hollywood producer's dream. Occasionally wearing a gas mask to heighten the drama, "Bibi" did not miss an opportunity to chastise the PLO and its ties with Saddam, to explain why the Scud attacks demonstrated that Israel would have to remain in the West Bank and Gaza, and to celebrate the American-Israeli "strategic alliance."
With Netanyahu, the American television viewer was provided with someone who looks and sounds "like us," and who markets a tried-and-true product: Israel, the American ally, securing Washington's interests in the Middle East against radical Soviet-Arab-Muslim terrorist bogeymen. Indeed, to those familiar with the lying pitchman in the Japanese car maker's television commercial, Netanyahu has become the Joe Isuzu of the Middle Eastern media wars.
Familiar with television's need for "good copy" and with American cultural codes, Netanyahu constructed a contradiction in terms: a Likud with a human face. The American television viewer does not have to face such realities of the Likud policies as the violent suppression of the Palestinian population and the long-term plans of annexing the Arab territories and expelling their population to the "Palestinian state" of Jordan. With a few simplistic slogans, Netanyahu suggests that happy days are here again, as far as the American-Israeli relationship is concerned. The Soviet menace has disappeared, but there are, thank God, new villains that, together, Israel and the United States can contain, such as Islamic fundamentalism and Saddam Hussain.
Since CNN's signals can be received in offices and apartment buildings in Israel, a side effect of Netanyahu's appearances was the raising of his popularity in Israel and of his political fortunes in the Likud Party. After all, as many Israeli politicians have found out, the road to the Israeli prime minister's office runs through New York and Washington. Winning the hearts, minds, and financial support of the American public helps to secure the support of Israeli voters, for most of whom the ability to "deliver America" is one of the standards with which to measure a politician's performance.
Netanyahu has emerged, therefore, in the second tier of the Likud leadership as a serious contender for that party's leadership. Hanan Kristal, a political commentator for the Israeli newspaper Hadashot, predicted that Netanyahu might run for the Israeli prime minister's office sometime in the next five years. So those who missed the charm and wit of "Bibi" after the cease-fire and the Kurdish tragedy shifted attention away from Jerusalem need not worry. He'll be back!
Likud Is in His Blood
For many Americans, Netanyahu's fluency in English is probably perceived as the successful mastering of a foreign language by an Israeli. Actually, the 42-year-old diplomat's linguistic ability is a result of his American upbringing. Netanyahu has spent most of his life in the US, including several years as Israel's UN ambassador.
When, after much hesitation, Netanyahu finally decided to return to Israel, Akiva Eldar, a political columnist for the daily Ha'aretz, raised questions about the qualifications for political office in Israel of a "Yored." (This is the disparaging Hebrew term, "he who descended," Israelis use to characterize their own emigrants, including the more than half million Israelis who live in North America.) In fact, Netanyahu's British-born second wife, Fleur, declined to leave behind the sweet life of a successful investment banker in Manhattan, and did not return with him to Israel. They subsequently were divorced.
Netanyahu's stay in the United States was not always subsidized by the Israeli taxpayer. His father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, was one of the main intellectual figures in the terrorist Irgun Zvai Leumi organization led by Menachem Begin during the British Mandate period and, after the establishment of Israel in 1948, in the militant Zionist "Herut" party. Netanyahu senior, an historian specializing in Jewish studies, had problems finding an academic job in Israel, however, which he blamed on "political persecution" by the leaders of the then-ruling Labor movement. He moved with his family to Philadelphia, where he taught at a local college until his recent death.
Benjamin and his brother Jonathan ("Yoni") both decided, upon turning 18, to return to Israel and join the Israeli Defense Forces, where they served in a super-secret elite military commando unit ("Sayeret Matkal"). After a short and unimpressive career as a manager of a furniture company in Jerusalem and a failed marriage, "Bibi" returned to the United States to pursue an MBA degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His brother Jonathan was studying at the same time at Harvard.
"Yoni," who went through a personal crisis, did not finish his studies and instead returned to Israel, where he re-enlisted in the IDF and decided to pursue a military career. In 1976 he was killed while leading the Israeli Entebbe rescue mission. That event, as well as the Reagan years' vogue for made-in-Israel "terrorism specialists," helped launch the political career of his brother "Bibi."
In the late '70s, Netanyahu served as the head of the Israeli Student Union in the Massachusetts area. In this capacity he hosted Moshe Arens, who was Israel's ambassador in Washington and who, like Netanyahu, was raised in the United States, when Arens came to Boston to address pro-Israeli groups. A personal and political chemistry developed between the two rightwing Israeli Americans and Arens offered Netanyahu a position as minister of information at Israel's embassy in Washington.
From this key position, Netanyahu quickly absorbed the Zeitgeist of the Reagan years, including the Cold War mentality, the anti-Third World attitudes and the obsession with "international terrorism.''
"Bibi" the "Terrorism Expert"
To exploit personally these Israel-inspired foreign policy orientations, Netanyahu launched in 1979 the "Jonathan Institute." Named after his late brother, and masked as an academic "think tank," the institute opened offices in Washington, New York and Jerusalem, with the goal of influencing US and other Western opinion makers. According to Edward Herman and Gerry O'Sullivan, writing in their study, The "Terrorism" Industry, the institute serves as a "virtual arm of the Israeli state." Its "main activity from its birth was the organization of conferences, carefully designed to bring sympathetic leaders, experts and journalists to get across the message: the PLO is a terrorist organization, and the Soviet Union is its parent and supporter."
Two conferences organized by the Jonathan Institute (JI), in Jerusalem in July 1979 and in Washington, DC in June 1984, were major events and highly effective in attracting media coverage to the "Soviet-PLO terrorism network."
The 1979 conference in Jerusalem was attended by, among others, Vice President George Bush and columnist George Will and was addressed by Prime Minister Begin. The 1984 conference in Washington, at the height of the Reagan years, was addressed by such figures as US Secretary of State George Shultz, UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, journalist Ted Koppel, and several senior members of the Reagan administration and of Congress. It not only produced headlines in The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as prime-time television network news-bites, it also led to the publication of a widely reviewed and broadly distributed book edited by Netanyahu, and based on the conference's proceedings, Terrorism: How the West Can Win.
Netanyahu gradually turned into America's dean of "terrorism experts." Whether Americans turned on "Nightline," the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," the "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" or just their local news programs, there was "Bibi," discussing the mysterious relationships between Moscow, the PLO, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Colonel Qaddafi with the Sandinista regime in Managua, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the African National Congress. Using the usual mumbo-jumbo of the "terrorism experts," Netanyahu explained why Washington should strengthen the Israeli-American "strategic alliance" to deal with these omnipresent threats, whose invisibility within all 50 states only demonstrated their insidious power to undermine the union from within.
In 1982, thanks to his patron Arens, Netanyahu was selected to become Israel's ambassador to the United Nations. He used that international forum to amplify his propaganda campaign, and garnered enthusiastic support among the "neoconservative intellectuals" in New York, led by Netanyahu's counterpart at the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Netanyahu's Golden Hours
Those were Netanyahu's golden hours. A television and political star, the Likud's unyielding answer to the Israeli Labor Coalition's ever-reasonable Abba Eban, Netanyahu's anti-terrorism spins on Middle Eastern events gave him high visibility in the American media and were absorbed and repeated like broken records by the Reagan administration's top spokesmen.
Unfortunately for Netanyahu, political reality kept interfering with his terrorism paradigm. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, justified as part of an effort to destroy "Palestinian terrorism," drew Washington into a bloody quagmire in that country and resulted in a humiliating Israeli withdrawal.
In 1985 Netanyahu had to defend on his favorite television shows Israel's decision, which went against the make-no-concessions-to-terrorists policy he had so frequently extolled, to release more than 1,000 alleged terrorists in exchange for three Israeli soldiers held by the PLO. In the same year, and contrary to his own recommendation, the Israeli government ordered him to sign a secret deal with Secretary of State Shultz in which Israel promised to free 800 Lebanese Shi'i prisoners in exchange for the release of the passengers of TWA Flight 847.
Moreover, the Iran-Contra affair, engineered in large measure by Israel and its agents, was based on negotiations between the United States, Israel and Iran, the leader of the "state-sponsored terrorism" against which "Bibi" had so ardently inveighed. To top it all, the United States, to Netanyahu's chagrin, opened diplomatic relations in the last months of the Reagan administration with none other than the "terrorist organization," the PLO, after its leader, Yasser Arafat, "renounced" terrorism.
Netanyahu also found he was losing his credibility and his media access by defending Israel's brutal suppression of the intifada, and by seeking to link wounded and dead Palestinian children with the "Moscowinspired terrorism network."
With the arrival of George Bush, who was conspicuously less surrounded by neoconservative ideologues in the White House, and visibly cooler toward Israel, Netanyahu decided it was time to go home and start building a political base in Israel. After a tearful farewell party at Commentary magazine's offices and hugs and kisses from editor Norman Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter, Netanyahu was on his way to the promised land of unlimited political opportunities.
Netanyahu's American-style politicking and public relations patter are well-suited to winning a congressional seat in Maryland's Montgomery County, but do not impress the lower-middle-class Sephardic Jews who constitute the backbone of the Likud's electoral support. Although he holds a Knesset seat, Netanyahu faces many obstacles on his way to the prime minister's office. One is potentially tough competition from Likud "princes" like Ze'ev Begin, son of former Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Netanyahu's television performances during the Gulf war may have left him one up on his fellow princes. But French-speaking Sephardic David Levy, resentful of his deputy's US media prominence and Washington connections, limited Netanyahu's television appearances and emphasized that only the foreign minister is in charge of the US-Israeli relationship. Moreover, to everyone's surprise, Levy is emerging as something of a dove (in relative Likud terms) and has begun to challenge the more extreme positions of Netanyahu and other Likudists over the peace issue.
Undaunted, "Bibi" has taken for his third wife a young stewardess he met on one of his frequent flights to the United States. And, despite the lowered media profile imposed on him by Levy, Netanyahu still gets his news-bites on "Nightline," usually with something about connections between the Palestinians and Saddam Hussain. That may have to do until Likud needs someone to "deliver America," which may be sooner than most Israelis think.
Articles may be reprinted with proper attribution, except for photos and cartoons. Article copyright American Educational Trust.
Photograph (Benjamin Netanyahu)…