All About the Benjamin

REVIEW: ‘Bibi: My Story’ by Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu / Getty Images
April 16, 2023

There are few world leaders these days who have served in their country’s military, fewer still who have seen active service, and, as far as I am aware, just one who has taken part in a successful operation to free a planeload of hostages from a band of terrorists, getting himself shot in the arm in the process.

In case you didn’t know that, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, makes sure you’re apprised in the very first pages of Bibi: My Story, his compellingly told memoir of a lifetime in politics, business, diplomacy, and a lot of shooting wars.

In 1972 he led a group of special forces soldiers in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit of the Israeli military in a raid on a hijacked Sabena plane that had been diverted to an airport outside Tel Aviv, Israel. He recounts with evident pride how he tussled with his older brother Yoni, also in the elite unit, who wanted to pull rank on him and lead the raid himself. Bibi resisted, and prevailed.

It’s easy to see why he begins with this story. It's kinetic and cinematic, freighted with daring rescues and fraternal rivalries. (Tragically, Yoni was killed four years later in another successful Israeli operation—the rescue of the hostages on board an Air France flight at Entebbe airport in Uganda.)

But the story is a proper beginning in another sense.

"To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was 20," Napoleon is supposed to have said. Netanyahu was 23 during the Sabena operation, but he had been serving in Israel’s military for more than three years; and you don't have to be a committed determinist to see his subsequent career as a long, steady unspooling of the tightly wound fiber of the young man in those early days of conflict. Here it all was: patriotism, courage, fierce competitiveness, cunning, a not-insignificant amount of headstrong, gung-ho, screw you impetuosity: a man with few doubts about his cause, passion for his allies, and pure enmity for his enemies.

Born a year after the founding of the state of Israel itself to a distinguished professor of history—his father Benzion Netanyahu was a scholar of the Spanish Inquisition (plenty more material there for the amateur psychologist to play with)—Bibi had an academic and practical education that would have equipped him well for whatever came next. Back and forth as a child with his family to the United States, military service during the Middle Eastern Wars of the late ’60s and ’70s, an undergraduate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and with stints in business and diplomacy, including terms as both Israel’s deputy ambassador in Washington and her envoy to the United Nations, he was unusually well placed to begin the ascent of the greasy pole of politics.

From his first term as prime minister in 1996 right up to the present day, Netanyahu’s uncompromising defense of Israel’s security against mortal enemies that surround it and his rejection of the worldwide pressure to accommodate Palestinian demands in order to secure peace and stability have been both his guiding principles and the source of repeated conflict with critics at home and abroad—including a succession of American presidents.

Bibi is full of these episodes, colorfully told. His early encounters with former president Bill Clinton in his first term revealed to him how wedded the United States was to what Netanyahu describes as the "Palestinian Centrality Theory"—the idea that addressing Palestinian grievances was the solution to achieving Middle East peace.

As Netanyahu tried to explain to Clinton in those early meetings, the problem with the theory was that it missed entirely the real objectives of the Palestinians. "Their grievances were directed against Israel’s very existence, in any territory. The inability of America’s diplomats to see this simple truth remains astonishing. But to face it they would have to chuck the sacred ‘territory for peace’ equation."

While critical of all his American interlocutors who failed to grasp this, Netanyahu praises former president Donald Trump, who, he says, came to understand the true reality: Instead of pursuing some version of the elusive two-state solution, Trump went with the Abraham Accords, a recognition that the route to genuine peace in the Middle East lay in bypassing the Palestinians and moving straight to diplomatic normalization deals between Israel and the Arab nations.

Netanyahu saves some of his harshest criticisms, as you’d expect, for former president Barack Obama, and recounts how, very early in his presidency, the U.S. leader made clear how he planned to handle him with a shockingly blunt warning to the Israeli leader (the details of which are not given) drawn from his days in the rough and tumble of Chicago politics.

"The message … was meant to intimidate me. The fact that the American president delivered such an offensive message in our first official meeting was highly disturbing. The prime minister of Israel was being treated as a minor thug in the neighborhood."

Netanyah notes with wry disdain the repeated attempts the Obama administration made to persuade him to sign onto a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinans. He recalls John Kerry, then Obama’s envoy, offering assurances that the United States would help train security forces to ensure there would be no terrorist threat to Israel from a Palestinian state. To drive home the point he proposed flying the Israeli prime minister secretly to Afghanistan to see how well the Americans had trained the Afghan Army to prepare them to take over the country when they left.

"'John,’ I said, ‘the minute you leave Afghanistan the Taliban will mop up the force you trained in no time," a judgment that would be proved sadly accurate when President Joe Biden pulled U.S. forces out several years later.

Netanyahu blames Obama’s conviction that Israel was just another modern-day colonialist power exploiting minorities for their rift. But he also argues that the 44th president’s fixation on a deal with Iran represented a potentially even larger existential threat to Israel, one Netanyahu spent years attempting to thwart. Once again, Trump—who tore up the Iran deal once in office—is presented as not just the better friend of Israel’s but also the wiser diplomat.

Netanyahu is keen to remind us that, before he became the bête noire of the progressive elites of the world, he was an economic reformer. In his first term as prime minister and then again as finance minister several years later, he attempted to transform Israel from what he described as essentially the "socialist state " it had been for most of its early years into a vibrant free market economy. Pursuing policies of deregulation, limiting the power of trade unions, and tax cuts, he also claims credit for creating the conditions for the birth of Israel's astonishingly successful modern tech sector.

"Technology without free markets does not produce wealth. Free markets without technology do. But technology and free markets are an unbeatable combination."

Netanyahu loves a fight, and as much as he clearly relishes clashing with unhelpful U.S. presidents, hostile Arab leaders, and the usual chorus of scathing critics of Israel in the Western media and cultural establishment, he also recounts the many battles with his domestic opponents. And for all his extraordinary political success—currently in his sixth term as prime minister—he also reminds us that, in over a quarter century at the pinnacle of Israeli politics, he has experienced the sting of defeat and the chill of the political wilderness on numerous occasions too.

As Netanyahu finds himself now in the heat of yet more domestic political strife, it would be foolish to think that the struggles chronicled in this book won’t equip him well for whatever comes next.

Bibi: My Story
by Benjamin Netanyahu
Simon & Schuster, 736 pp., $35

Gerard Baker is editor at large of the Wall Street Journal.