Indefatigable Israeli

by Quin Hillyer
Netanyahu at the ramparts

To the American public, this is Benjamin Netanyahu’s moment. As an advocate of Israeli resolve and Israel’s moral authority, that tiny nation’s prime minister is a one-man tour de force, speaking with clarity, directness, and authenticity.

Twice in the last week, in random conversations that touched briefly on news of the day — which of course included the fighting in Gaza — different women (both of Social Security age, one Protestant, one Catholic) volunteered to me without prompting that they think Netanyahu is, well, wonderful. Each had seen him interviewed on American TV (on different American networks); each said she was struck by the moral weight of his message, by his businesslike firmness without extravagance, and by what each described as his authenticity.

Those two ladies aren’t alone. While others may not praise Netanyahu quite so exuberantly, the basic tenor of American reactions to his name, everywhere I go, is the same: “I really wish we had a leader like that.”

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has plenty of critics, both in his own country and among some hardliners and some doves in American Jewry, and he has been no paragon of virtue in his private life. But there is no doubt that the man is a superb communicator, a canny politician and diplomat, and a remarkably tough, persistent, able leader.

More than 40 years ago, in his early 20s, he was a young war hero; 38 years ago, he was the bereaved brother of perhaps the most celebrated military hero in Israeli history; 30 years ago, he became one of the most recognizable Israelis in the United States through regular news appearances while serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. In Israeli politics, Netanyahu has seen more ups and downs, more ins and outs of power, more setbacks and more recoveries, than a novelist would dare invent. By age 50 he was a defeated former prime minister. Now, at just shy of 65, he is one of only two three-term PMs in his nation’s history.

It is undeniable: There is something appealing, something galvanizing, about him. And, apparently, it always was thus.

His brother Yonatan, the squad leader martyred in the famously successful rescue at Entebbe in 1976, wrote this of his younger sibling in a letter to Yonatan’s girlfriend on Oct. 4, 1964:

Today I received a letter from Bibi [who was then not quite 15]. It was quite unexpected, and you don’t know how happy I was to receive it. I think I love him more than anyone else in the world. . . . When Bibi writes about home, our parents and Iddo [the third brother], I believe him. I feel as though I had actually been there and seen everything that was going on and had reported it to myself.

What was true about how he wrote is still true about the way he speaks: with such immediacy, such concreteness, that no room exists for doubt. When Netanyahu describes Hamas’s use of schools as garrisons, children as human shields, and terror as both means and end in itself, the listener does indeed believe him. When he explains the lengths to which Israel goes to try to avoid civilian casualties, it rings true. When he describes the stakes for Israel, the existential threats it faces, his words and tone are so clear, so concise, so direct, that they cannot be doubted or ignored.

And as the oldest Netanyahu brother was right in seeing unusual communicative ability in his little brother, so did the younger learn lessons from Yonatan. Writing an afterword to Self-Portrait of a Hero: The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu, Bibi and Iddo back in 1980 quoted a 1973 letter from their martyred sibling. Even if America lost in Vietnam (as by then was clearly probable), Yoni wrote, the loss “would not prevent the Americans from moving on with a loud fanfare of victory to the Middle East to make peace here. . . . I believe that it will be very hard to force upon us peace terms that are repugnant to us, and I hope the Americans will have enough sense not to try to do so.” To which insight, the two younger brothers commented: “He saw the efforts of the United States to force his country time and again to concede vital assets and positions as part of an ongoing process, with no sign or let up; and he bemoaned the failure on the part of Israel to mobilize the forces inside and outside the United States needed to effectuate a decisive change in American policy toward Israel and the Middle East.”

How prescient that was! What a perfect description of the approaches of American presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and before them (to some extent) George H. W. Bush. But for the past 30 years, Benjamin Netanyahu has used all his communicative skill to turn that American policy tide, all while leading Israel to refuse peace terms repugnant to them and dangerous for their very existence.

And while much of the media and the intelligentsia, and even benighted “mainline” Protestant churches, in the United States repeatedly show a bias against Israel, polls consistently show that a majority of the American public sympathizes with and supports the Zionist state. Surely, Netanyahu’s 30 years of work, and openness to American interviews, has helped broaden and deepen that support.

But here’s the thing many Americans sense; here is at least one secret to Netanyahu’s success with American viewers: What we sense is that Netanyahu loves America, too. He spent much of his childhood and young adulthood here, including his high-school and college years. He enjoys deep friendships over here. He is resolutely “Western” in outlook, repeatedly appealing to the Western world’s traditions of liberty, individual initiative, free markets, and human rights. The reason he “talks our language,” not just literally but in the best sense of the word “figuratively,” is that his outlook is fully imbued with the republican (small “r”) values he learned in his years sojourning here.

So many Americans believe Netanyahu because they recognize in him a kindred spirit. And through him, they recognize the Israeli people as kindred also.

We are right to do so. And it is good.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.