Received Wisdom? How the Ideology of Netanyahu’s Late Father Influenced the Son

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Abir Sultan / EPA

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend the funeral of his father, Benzion Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, Israel, 30 April 2012.

The effort to glean insights into the mind of Benjamin Netanyahu by examining the views of his extraordinary father reached a new level with word that Benzion Netanyahu had died, at age 102, in his Jerusalem home early Monday. A historian of Jews in medieval Spain, the elder Netanyahu spent most of his academic career in the United States—supposedly because his political views were out of fashion among the leftist Israeli intelligentsia of the 1950s and ’60s. But in recent decades Israeli politics came to be dominated by the Likud, the party founded on the philosophy of Ze’ev Jabotinksy, the man Benzion Netanyahu went to America to serve as secretary, and whose vision he carried on after Jabotinsky’s death. The ideology called for a “Greater Israel” that stretched across not only the West Bank but even across what is today Jordan,  land regarded as promised to the Jews in the view of Revisionist Zionism, as the movement was known. It was a robust, even militaristic movement that called for an “iron wall” between the newly founded state and the Arabs surrounding it.

So when Benjamin Netanyahu, after being elected Prime Minister a second time, announced support for a Palestinian state on the West Bank, the sincerity of his reversal was greeted with skepticism. Among the skeptics was his father. “He supports the kind of conditions they would never in the world accept,” Benzion Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 2 news in an interview, as the Prime Minister sat beside him. “That’s what I heard from him. Not from me. He put forth the conditions. These conditions, they will never accept them — not even one of them.” The excerpt was replayed repeatedly on Israeli TV Monday, a day after the airwaves thrummed with the assertion by Netanyahu’s former chief of domestic security, Yuval Diskin, that despite its claims to the contrary, Netanyahu’s government “has no interest in resolving anything with the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu has dismissed as “psychobabble” the question of how much his father has influenced him. But the father entertained the question in a 2009 interview with the daily Ma’ariv. “Sometimes I feel Bibi is influenced from a very small age, and sometimes I don’t. We don’t have the same opinions always.”

Q: And still, how much do you think you’ve influenced his opinions today?

A: “I have a general idea. Bibi might aim for the same goals as mine, but he keeps to himself the ways to achieve them, because if he expressed them, he would expose his goals.”

Q: Is that what you wish?

A: No, I just believe that it could be so. Because he is smart. Because he is very careful. Because he has his ways to handle himself. I am talking about tactics regarding the revealing of theories that people with different ideology might not accept. That’s why he doesn’t expose them: because of the reaction from his enemies as well as from the people whose support he seeks. It’s an assumption, but it might be so.

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In the same interview, Benzion Netanyahu expounded on the “Arabs” — like Newt Gingrich, he doesn’t believe in the existence of a Palestinian people. “The Bible finds no worse image than this of the man from the desert. And why? Because he has no respect for any law. Because in the desert he can do as he pleases,”  Benzion Netanyahu said.  “The tendency towards conflict is in the essence of the Arab. He is an enemy by essence. His personality won’t allow him any compromise or agreement. It doesn’t matter what kind of resistance he will meet, what price he will pay. His existence is one of perpetual war.”

Israel’s must be the same, he indicated. “The two states solution doesn’t exist,” Benzion Netanyahu said. “There are no two people here. There is a Jewish people and an Arab population… there is no Palestinian people, so you don’t create a state for an imaginary nation… they only call themselves a people in order to fight the Jews.”

So what’s the solution? the reporter asked.

“No solution but force,” the Prime Minister’s father said. “Strong military rule. Any outbreak will bring upon the Arabs enormous suffering. We shouldn’t wait for a big mutiny to start, but rather act immediately with great force to prevent them from going on.”

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The same, he said, goes for the 20% of Israel’s citizens who are Arabs: “I think we should speak to the Israeli Arabs in the language they understand and admire – the language of force.  If we act with strength on any crime they act, they will understand we show no forgiveness. Had we used this language from the start, they would have been more careful.”  The elder Netanyahu found the Ottoman Empire’s use of the gallows in the Levant instructive.  “The Arabs were so badly beaten, they didn’t dare revolt. Naturally, I don’t recommend the use of hangings as a show of force like the Turks did, I just want to show that the only thing that might move the Arabs from the rejectionist position is force.”

David Remnick, who interviewed both father and son during Netanyahu’s first term, noted that as Prime Minister the son took steps that clearly departed from his father’s philosophy, including handing over to Palestinian control the West Bank city of Hebron, regarded as the second-holiest city in Judaism. But the pessimism of his father’s world view — “Jewish history is in large measure a history of holocausts,” the historian told Remnick — clearly colored Benjamin’s approach to the world beyond Israel’s borders. “To a considerable degree, Bibi Netanyahu’s struggle as Prime Minister is a struggle between an inherited ideology and the tug of political contingencies,” Remnick wrote. “His dilemma is always to what degree he can, or should, remain true to the ideals, the stubbornness, of his father.”

The title of Remnick’s 1998 New Yorker profile was “The Outsider.” Ari Shavit, the Haaretz columnist who also spent time with both men, harked to the image. “Though he eventually achieved renown as an expert in his field, Israel’s academic establishment never acknowledged his abilities; as a result, he was forced to teach and carry out research in the United States and raise his sons abroad,” Shavit wrote in Tuesday’s edition. “This rejection — the strong experience of unrecognized greatness — left its mark on the Netanyahus and deeply influences the prime minister to this day. This is the source of the ongoing revenge of his son against Israel’s leftist elite. Benzion Netanyahu did not bequeath rationality alone to his son Benjamin; he also left him the feeling that he belongs to an exclusive fraternity that is treated contemptuously by the same Israelis who rejected his father.”

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