One evening so many years ago, I was sitting with my wife in a Tel Aviv restaurant. The only seats were in the smoking area. As I walked in, I saw a man who looked like he was watching TV intently. Then I saw the wire coming out of his ear. Security guard. I then saw sitting at a table smoking a cigar, then finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. After an hour he got up to leave and I introduced myself as a new immigrant. His large soft and chubby hand, engulfed mine. It was a brief encounter. While he had already been prime minister once, I didn’t realize that I was shaking hands with the man who would become Israel’s second most iconic prime minister. No one will outshine Ben Gurion—our first.
There is a joke about Netanyahu: What is the difference between Bibi and President Trump? Netanyahu speaks good English. That is not a slight against the President, but more the fact that Netanyahu’s English is so good, he could be mistaken for an American politician.
He is polished to the tee. While the evangelical world loves Netanyahu—who can forget his bold speech before congress, attacking President Obama’s Iran Deal—he is the most polarizing figure in Israel. Walk down any street in Israel and you will get two responses to the elections.
Rak Bibi! Only Bibi
Anyone but Bibi
But surprisingly Netanyahu is polling well amongst young people. This has intrigued the experts. As a 53-year-old man, I forget that for many young people, Bibi is the only leader they have ever known. While there are clearly domestic problems, no one can deny that he has kept the country safe in the midst of ISIS, Hamas and Iran. Maybe they are simply frightened of a new leader.
Think about it. Bibi has been in power for 10 years. The left wing Prime Ministers before him served two years (Barak), one year (Peres) and three years (Rabin). If Netanyahu wins in today’s elections and makes it to July, he will surpass Ben Gurion, our first prime minister, as the longest serving prime minster in Israel’s history.
Born in Tel Aviv to secular parents, his mother, a native-Israeli and his father an American immigrant, Netanyahu enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces just after the Six Day War. He served in an elite commando unit. He fought bravely on the front lines in the wars between 67-73, once getting shot in the shoulder.
His brother, Yoni, is one of the most famous of Israeli war heroes, as he led the raid on Entebbe, freeing Jewish hostages taken by terrorists to Uganda. If you have time to read Shimon Peres’ No Room for Small Dreams, his chapter on the Entebbe raid is fascinating.
Bibi graduated from the illustrious MIT. One of my Hebrew teachers at Tel Aviv university was not only one his classmates, but part of his inner circle of friends. While she is a dyed in the wool left-winger, she had nothing but praise for Bibi as a person.
Gulf War and CNN
The first Gulf War was the first war fought on TV. Elana and I would stay up late at night watching CNN and the latest developments. It was then, that a young, handsome Benjamin Netanyahu won the hearts of Americans. The former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, and present deputy foreign minister, spoke intelligently, with charisma, in perfect English. Everyone knew he was destined for great things.
Then, Rabin was assassinated in 94. Had Shimon Peres called for immediately elections, there is no doubt that Peres would have crushed Netanyahu in the wake of public sympathy. But Peres knew that would be manipulative; an abuse of Rabin’s memory. By the time elections came a year later, Israelis had no faith in Arafat or the PLO and were growing weary of terror. Bibi defeated Peres and became prime minister.
He was the youngest prime minister we have ever had and served until he lost to the arrogant Ehud Barak in 1999. Barak was sure he could fix things. However, after he offered everything to Arafat, including parts of Jerusalem, and still Arafat rebuffed him, the public threw him out for Ariel Sharon.
Netanyahu bided his time for the opportune moment to gain back the premiership. In 2009 he came back to power and has not let go. Despite leading a country of less than 10 million people, he is one of the most recognized world leaders, right up there with Trump and Putin. Love him or hate him, he is one of the most extraordinary figures in the last 50 years. Over the past couple years, he has managed to build relationships with some of our worst enemies like Saudi Arabia. Recently he was received in the Muslim Majority nation of Oman.
His life had not been without bumps. He cheated on his first wife who promptly divorced him. He married his non-Jewish mistress who converted to Judaism. However, they soon divorced. Then he met a flight attendant on an El Al flight named Sara. She was studying for her master’s degree in psychology at the time.
Sara may be the most famous, or infamous, wife of a prime minister that we have had. She has made bitter enemies in the political world and has been accused of arrogance, abusing employees and living a lavish lifestyle. She has been under police investigation for corruption for the past few years. For that matter, Bibi was recently recommended for indictment for taking bribes.
He will go before the court in the next several months. If he is elected to a fifth term today, he will be the first sitting prime minister under indictment. Bibi’s pitch: No one can lead the country at this time like me. His main rival, Beni Gantz: Our democracy hangs in the balance this election.
We will know soon
By the end of the day, it will either be the end of the Netanyahu era or the next chapter. We will see.
photo credit Amos Ben Gershom/GPO