‘Only the Strong Survive.’ How Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu Is Testing the Limits of Power
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pacing the stage at a cyberconference in Tel Aviv, and he is not happy. For the past seven minutes, he’s been making the case that his policies have launched a booming tech industry in Israel and enabled the tiny country that once fought for its existence to become a security force around the globe. He’s holding his shoulders up and back, a stage tip he got from Sean Connery. His red tie, white shirt and dark suit mirror a certain American President who has emerged as a massive Netanyahu ally.
But there’s a problem. Graphics on the giant screen behind him keep popping up at the wrong time. “Who’s dealing with the slides? Get that person out of there,” Netanyahu says, with the sweep of an arm. He makes his next point, then orders: “Now show a slide.” Pause. Nothing. “God, I’ve never had this happen before. This will require debriefing.”
In mid-July, Netanyahu will surpass David Ben-Gurion, the closest thing Israel has to a founding father, to become the longest-serving Prime Minister in the country’s history. Bibi, as he is universally known here, has won five elections and cultivated a U.S. President who appears intent on fulfilling Netanyahu’s every desire. So why isn’t he in a better mood?
Alex Majoli—Magnum Photos for TIME
The unpleasant reality is that Netanyahu approaches the career summit with his personal power arguably at its greatest risk. Prosecutors have threatened indictments on corruption charges. And he has failed to form a government following his most recent election victory, in April. Instead of spending the summer handing out ministries to allies, Bibi is preparing for yet another campaign, a September do-over election that will test yet again whether the Israel that has grown to resemble its Prime Minister—prosperous, powerful and resilient, yet insecure—still wants him.
The centerpiece slide pops up without a hitch. It’s a black-and-white photograph showing Israeli commandos in white coveralls standing on the wing of Sabena Flight 571, a jetliner taken over by four Palestinian terrorists in 1972. “That’s me up there, I think,” Netanyahu says, pointing to the commandos storming the plane disguised as technicians. “That’s 50% me, because I don’t remember if I was on the left wing or the right wing of this Sabena airline. Anyway it was hijacked, and the way we stopped the hijacking then was to burst through the doors and do whatever we did.” The team of 16 Israeli commandos, led that day by Netanyahu’s eventual political rival Ehud Barak, rushed the cabin, killing two of the four hijackers and rescuing some 100 passengers and crew. Of the three passengers wounded in the cross fire, one later died.
Netanyahu, who took a bullet in his biceps, tells the audience that Israel today has a more effective way of stopping attacks against planes: hacking into the communications of terrorist cells before an attack is launched. He flips to a photo of an Etihad Airways plane similar to one he says the Islamic State planned to blow up in midair between Sydney and Abu Dhabi in 2017. “We used our cyber-tools to discover that ISIS was going to do this. So we alerted Australian police, and they stopped this before it happened,” Netanyahu says. “Multiply that 50 times, that will give you an idea of the contribution that Israel has made to prevent major terrorist operations,” he says. “This affects every country in the world, it affects every person in the world.”
It’s an intentionally dramatic claim, directed not only to Israeli voters but also to the U.S., Europe and even some Arab states that were once enemies. And it is an argument that has animated his entire political career. By advancing Israel’s military prowess, Netanyahu believes, a country about the size of New Jersey with a population roughly the size of New York City has secured a unique place in history. A strong and innovative military, he argues, combined with an embrace of capitalism, has translated into globe-spanning success in technology, business and diplomacy. It’s a major achievement, in Netanyahu’s telling, worth the considerable costs. “I don’t look at my survival,” he tells TIME. “I look at the survival of the country, its durability, its future.”
That future, however, remains mortgaged to Netanyahu’s approach to power.
He has built Israel’s strength in part at the expense of nearly 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the effective blockade of an additional 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant group Hamas. The human cost of that approach is well documented. Last spring, for example, when Palestinians in Gaza repeatedly and at times violently neared the border wall with Israel, only one Israeli was killed, but its forces killed 189 and wounded 9,204, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In the run-up to Israel’s April elections, Netanyahu turned up tensions between Jews and Palestinians living inside Israel, sometimes called Israeli Arabs, by saying that Israel is “not a state of all its citizens” and that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people—and them alone.”
Netanyahu meets with U.S., Russian and Israeli national-security officials in Jerusalem.
Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
In an Israeli electorate shifting steadily to the right, the rhetoric did Netanyahu no great harm, and he won the election. But his tolerance for extremes—he brokered an electoral agreement involving a party associated with anti-Arab militant Meir Kahane into his last electoral coalition—further reduced common ground with Israel’s supporters abroad, including the roughly 40% of the world’s Jewish population that resides in the U.S. The tensions with American Jews, 52% of whom are Democrats, according to a recent Gallup poll, had already been aggravated by Netanyahu’s strategy of conspicuously aligning Israel with the Republican Party, straining a long tradition of making U.S. support for Israel a nonpartisan issue. A Pew poll in April found only 26% of Democrats and those who lean toward Democrats have a favorable view of the Israeli government—less than half the number expressing support for Israel’s people.
Inside the country, many Israelis have been alarmed by Netanyahu’s efforts to remain in power. Israel’s Attorney General has said he plans to indict Netanyahu after a hearing in October. The fraud, bribery and breach-of-trust allegations assert the Prime Minister made deals with newspaper publishers and a telecom company for better press coverage and illegally took expensive gifts from a Hollywood producer.
Netanyahu rejects the charges, but since the last election, his allies have floated plans for legislation that would provide him immunity from prosecution and bar Israel’s Supreme Court from revoking it.
The moves compound the impression, already articulated by critics, that Israel’s Prime Minister has embraced the same populist authoritarianism rising elsewhere around the world. “Netanyahu has opened the door for fascist elements within the Israeli society and undermined democratic principles,” says Avner Gvaryahu, a former head of an Israeli sniper team who is the executive director of Breaking the Silence, a veterans’ organization devoted to directing the attention of the Israeli public to “normalization” of its occupation of Palestinian territories.
On the same day that Netanyahu spoke at the cyberconference, Barak, his longtime political rival, announced he would also be running in September. He criticized what he says are Netanyahu’s “repeated attempts to disrupt democratic processes,” saying the Prime Minister has allied himself with extreme elements that want to undermine the judicial system, curb the freedom of the press and erode the military’s ethical code.
“These are dark days the likes of which we have not known before,” Barak said. “The Netanyahu regime must be toppled.”
Netanyahu opens an exhibit on the Israel Defense Forces, a driver behind the nation’s booming tech sector.
Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Ben-Gurion’s Israel had a utopian quality. It built communes (the kibbutz), a socialist economy and a “new Jew”—strapping, self-reliant, nobody’s victim. Ben-Gurion was an atheist. His party, eventually known as Labor, dominated the first three decades of Israel as Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud has largely dominated the next four.
Netanyahu’s Israel is more of a going concern. It is reliant on the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, which defines Israel’s society: Netanyahu’s coalition talks fell apart over the question of whether ultra-Orthodox Jews would be required to serve in uniform; few do. But the IDF also propels much of Israel’s economy, as former cyberwarriors create startups that loom large in the world of digital security, health and R&D.
On the day TIME spent with Netanyahu, one of his stops was to cut the ribbon on a history exhibit about the Israeli military. The exhibit dwelled on the country’s David vs. Goliath past, including a 1976 commando raid to rescue more than 100 hostages from a hijacked plane at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, partly led by Netanyahu’s older brother Yonaton “Yoni” Netanyahu, the only Israeli commando killed in the operation. As tends to happen in a very small country, history is personal. “It changed my life completely, and it directed it to its current course because Yoni died in the battle against terrorism,” Netanyahu says.
But it is history. Forty-three years later, Israel is the regional Goliath. The U.S. gives Israel more military aid than any other country, with a promise, mandated by U.S. legislation, that it will be assured a “qualitative military edge” over any other country in the Middle East. Netanyahu celebrates that advantage at every turn in his busy day. Before cutting the ribbon at the IDF exhibit, he was a few blocks away in Jerusalem hosting U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Bolton’s Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev. The subject of the meeting was Iran, and the troops it has in Syria, which Israel borders.
After Israel’s economy, the Islamic Republic of Iran may be Netanyahu’s favorite topic. There are many reasons Tehran is the major preoccupation of the Middle East, including its destabilizing role in postwar Iraq, the sectarian tensions that flowed from the Arab Spring uprisings and the mullahs’ appetite for nuclear arms. And the more attention paid to Iran, the less attention paid to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. “For so many years, people first of all believed that the cause of all the conflicts in the Middle East was the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Netanyahu says. “Well, that’s gone.”
Israel has made common cause with Sunni Arab royals, notably in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who regard Iran as an implacable foe. Israel has been sharing intelligence and made what Netanyahu described to TIME as “informal peace” with Arab states. That has helped move some in those kingdoms past their historic antipathy to Israel’s existence. “Once you eliminate the idea of eliminating Israel, you can solve the problem” of peace with Israel’s neighbors, Netanyahu says. “In many ways, the Arab governments around us have already moved.”
The IDF exhibit in Jerusalem dwelled on the country’s David vs. Goliath past.
Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
The election of Donald Trump greatly helped Netanyahu’s effort to highlight Iran and downplay Israeli conflict with the Palestinians. Trump campaigned against the Iran nuclear deal that had been negotiated under President Obama, and last year Trump withdrew from it. “Obviously I agree with him completely, and I appreciate the fact that he acted on this,” Netanyahu says. Some members of Israeli security services, along with every other major world power that signed the deal, see things differently, pointing out that the agreement prevented Iran from doing what it has resumed doing in the past two months: enriching uranium at rates that bring a nuclear weapon back onto the horizon. The U.S. has also accused Iran of attacking shipping near the Strait of Hormuz. And Iran acknowledged shooting down a U.S. drone.
The Palestinians are off the agenda. After campaigning on the idea of negotiating a lasting peace between them and Israel—“the ultimate deal is that deal”—Trump abandoned the traditional U.S. role as honest broker that had produced the Camp David agreement and helped seal the Oslo Accords. He moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Negotiations were delegated to Jason Greenblatt, an advocate for Israeli settlement on the West Bank, and to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, at whose family home Netanyahu had been an overnight guest. Kushner has grown close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who according to reports (denied by bin Salman) summoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh in 2017 and ordered him to accept a Kushner proposal. It turned out to be similar to a plan first put forward by Netanyahu, not for a Palestinian state but for investment in the West Bank and Gaza, dubbed “economic peace.”
Abbas is having none of it. But having forsworn violence in favor of negotiations—his security apparatus cooperates with Israel’s in suppressing any uprisings on the West Bank—he has no evident options. In Gaza, militants still hold sway, but the missiles they launch toward Israel are often shot out of the sky by the antimissile system known as Iron Dome, which the U.S. helped fund. “The Kushner and Trump team has no plan,” says Husam Zomlot, the Head of the Palestinian Mission to the U.K. “They only have a policy: to kill time for Israel to finish off the swallowing and annexing of the Palestinian occupied territories.”
The result is an Israeli security outlook that borders on triumphalist. This has reduced pressure on Netanyahu to change the status quo or make accommodations to the Palestinians. At the IDF exhibit, Netanyahu was shown a video-game version of the Iron Dome system, toggling the joystick as he stood before a wall-size screen with rockets barreling toward an Israeli city. Players are invited to shoot them down before they hit the buildings.
For the Palestinians, the result is precarious. Netanyahu’s critics say his accommodation of settlers and sidelining of the peace process has left the West Bank unstable. “We shall face violence,” says Ami Ayalon, a former director of Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet, and co-founder of Blue White Future, which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I see it written on the walls in Arabic, in Hebrew and in English. We just have to read it.”
Even though he has deepened a divide between U.S. and Israeli Jews, Netanyahu, born 69 years ago in Tel Aviv, spent his childhood moving back and forth between the two countries. His father Benzion was a forceful academic voice for an independent Jewish state who taught first at a college in Philadelphia, then at Cornell. Netanyahu recalls his mother Tzila—a U.S. citizen who was born in 1912 in the town of Petah Tikva east of modern-day Tel Aviv, and whose family settled in Minnesota by way of Lithuania—insisting that Netanyahu learn to speak with an American accent. She drilled him to press his tongue to his teeth when he said the.
If his locution came from his mother, some biographers find Netanyahu’s ideological roots in his father, a scholar of anti-Semitism who died in 2012 at 102. “Jewish history is a history of holocausts,” the elder Netanyahu once said, and his son has consistently projected a sense of looming menace facing Israel. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Netanyahu became an articulate and identifiable spokesman for a strong Israel on the ABC News program Nightline, where he appeared often in the years following the Iran hostage crisis. During the first Gulf War, he gave an interview to CNN while wearing a gas mask. “He seeds and spreads fears all over the place and then pops up around the corner and says, ‘Hey, if you are afraid, I have a solution for you,’” says Avraham Burg, a leftist former speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
That said, the menace is not imaginary, and over time, some elements of the threat to Israel have only grown. Iran still speaks of eliminating “the Zionist entity.” The Iranian proxy force, Hizballah, has tens of thousands of rockets trained on Israel across its northern border with Lebanon. Anti-Semitism rises around the world. Israelis believe they cannot depend on outsiders for their security. And the country has established itself as a regional powerhouse with global ambitions. That is partly thanks to Netanyahu’s response to the threats, which has not been limited to building up Israel’s military advantage in the region. He also cultivates the world’s only remaining superpower. In hopes of bending American political rhetoric to support Israel, Netanyahu has pursued an alignment between Likud and the Republican Party, especially with its evangelical loyalists, who are often more enthused than American Jews about Israel’s expansion into the West Bank. He has also embraced Trump as a vital ally. Netanyahu recalls first meeting Trump on the “New York scene” in the 1980s. The two have “an easy rapport,” Netanyahu says. The relationship is already paying dividends. On March 25, two weeks before the Israeli election, Trump announced that the U.S. recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel.
The downside, if there is one, might emerge with the election of a Democrat as President, though U.S. aid to Israel hit new heights under Obama.
Sara Netanyahu looks on as the Prime Minister stands for a portrait in their residence in Jerusalem.
Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
To some, Netanyahu is his own worst enemy. The September contest will pit the Prime Minister’s self-declared role as Israel’s protector, “indispensable Netanyahu,” against “Bibi fatigue,” says Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. Driving the “fatigue” are the three separate corruption investigations Netanyahu faces. One contends that he took gifts like cigars and bottles of sparkling wine from an Israeli Hollywood film producer and an Australian billionaire in exchange for political influence. The two other matters involve allegations that he tried to push through favorable government policies for companies in exchange for positive press coverage.
Netanyahu calls the allegations a “concoction.” “People by and large, my supporters, have been, if anything, energized by it,” he says.
Israel has an impressive track record of policing elected leaders. One Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, resigned and went to prison for bribery. A former President did time for rape. “There’s a perfectly good immunity law in Israel,” Netanyahu tells TIME, of his options. “Whether I’ll need it or not, first let’s see what happens in the hearing.”
Yet a growing chorus of critics condemn Netanyahu not for any personal indulgences but for undermining Israeli democracy itself. The Anti-Defamation League called his embrace of the Kahane party “troubling.” Abroad, Netanyahu has embraced Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister who vilifies immigrants and has so compromised the governing apparatus of the E.U. member state that leading analysts say the country no longer qualifies as a democracy.
Yascha Mounk, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies populist leaders, says Netanyahu follows a familiar playbook—suppressing dissenting views, attempting to take political control of public broadcasters and creating a loyal propaganda outlet for himself, led by Israel Hayom, a free tabloid established by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson in 2007, which has consistently supported Netanyahu. “He does not seem to acknowledge the legitimacy of opposition,” Mounk says, “but rather claims that his opponents are paid by outside agents or motivated by a lack of patriotism.”
Netanyahu reads inside his car in Jerusalem on June 25.
Alex Majoli—Magnum Photos for TIME
The most famous photograph of Ben-Gurion shows him standing on his head in a swimsuit, seeking relief from a backache on a Tel Aviv beach. Netanyahu is rarely out in the open during the course of his day, spending most of his time inside a security bubble that grew far more restrictive after the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Netanyahu’s world is armored vehicles, conference rooms, his office, his official residence, a beach home in Caesarea. He has few hobbies. People close to him say he fills his time reading biographies and histories and likes to smoke a cigar at the end of the day.
This day, during quiet moments in the backseat of his armored car, he’s reading a history of legal concepts that emerged in response to the German Third Reich’s atrocities, by University College London law professor Philippe Sands. It’s titled East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity.”
As we talk, he recommends Will Durant, the American philosopher who wrote The Lessons of History with his wife Ariel Durant. Netanyahu summarized his takeaways from the book: “Lesson No. 1, history does not favor Christ over Genghis Khan. O.K. Lesson No. 2, in general I would say, big numbers have an advantage over small numbers. That’s bad news for us. Then he says, at a certain point, sometimes the power of culture and leadership overcome limitations of geography. And perhaps the new country, the young country of Israel, is an example of that, how we overcome the odds of history.
“The strong survive. Strong and smart.” — With reporting by Joseph Hincks/Jerusalem
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