On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review Oct. 2, 1998 / 12 Tishrei, 5759

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin Bibi: No Messiah, just a politician

ISRAEL, WHICH GETS SO MUCH EXPOSURE in the American media, ironically is poorly understood by most Americans. The same applies to Israel's current leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last Sunday, I was among an invited group of Jewish editors to meet with the prime minister in his suite at the Park Lane Hotel in New York City. After more than an hour of discussion, I came away wondering why a man who is so articulate has such trouble getting his message across.

Netanyahu first became well- known to Americans as a spokesperson for Israel on American television news shows. There -- speaking in reasonable tones in American English -- he was Israel's most effective defender on a variety of issues. Yet most Americans still seem to think of him as some sort of an extremist. Despite this reputation, the truth is, he's just a garden variety politician.

Netanyahu has generally taken a beating in the media and from the Clinton Administration. One reason for that is fairly simple: both the Administration and most of the journalistic elite openly rooted for Shimon Peres and Labor to win the 1996 election. They have never forgiven Bibi for beating their guy and puncturing their illusions about the peace process. No matter how often the Palestinian Authority flouts the Oslo agreements, the lack of "progress" is always blamed on Bibi, who has assumed the mantle of chief "obstacle to peace."

Even this week, as Netanyahu dutifully trooped to the White House for a photo-op with President Clinton and Arafat and made clear that he has agreed to give up the much ballyhooed 13 percent of the territories to Arafat, Netanyahu still seemed to be playing the role of the bad guy.

But what about American Jews? Where does Bibi stand with them? In my travels around the Jewish community, I have yet to discover any groundswell of support for Netanyahu the man. That strikes me as unusual because he is, after all, the first Israeli prime minister who was directly elected by the people.

Sure, he has his fans. But I have never sensed among American audiences the kind of natural respect that his predecessors of both parties commanded (even fellow Likud leaders Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir who also suffered with the "obstacle to peace" label). Maybe that's because men like Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Begin and Shamir all were of the generation of Israel's founders and Netanyahu is the first Israel prime minister born since 1948. This is another similarity to Clinton --- the first of the baby boomers to reach the White House.

Yet unlike Clinton's "feel your pain" natural empathy which translates into a high charisma quotient, Netanyahu's personality is intellectual and a bit aloof. Bill Clinton wants you to love him. Those who know our president say that it is almost impossible to resist his personal charm, even if you fervently disagree with him.

Spend an hour in the same room with Benjamin Netanyahu, and the primary characteristic that comes across is his desire to prove to you that he is smarter and more knowledgeable than everyone present.

The fact of the matter is that he often is the smartest guy in the room, and I think his policies are usually sensible. But his efforts to prove it -- sparring one moment, joking the next, and then invariably lecturing -- spiked with sarcasm and condescension, is not a display which generates much affection. He gets his points across brilliantly. But likeable? Not very.

The bottom line with Bibi is that he is, first, last and always, a politician.

Remember last spring when he devoted his energy to resisting American pressure to give up the 13 percent? That battle was supposedly about security concerns that couldn't be compromised. But today he stands ready to give it up, and there is little in the way of explanation from him about why he was drawing a line in the sand about it then and not now.

When I asked him about this, he took great umbrage at the idea that he had "conceded" to the Americans. "It was not conceded," he snapped. "You should use the word ‘resolved.' We were not under enormous pressure," he told me.

Yet just a few minutes later as he insisted that the Palestinians would be held accountable for their promises and repeated that he wouldn't compromise security, he admitted that American pressure on Israel was "quite severe." Even Netanyahu's strongest critics need to acknowledge that he has, as he put it, brought "the peace process back to a realistic foundation." He has stopped the "headlong rush to the 1967 boundaries," and introduced the Palestinians to the concept that "they can't get something for nothing," as they had from his immediate predecessors. Whether the process leads to some form of uneasy peace or to further bloodshed, Netanyahu's hard-headed demand for reciprocity is simple common sense that deserves American Jewish support.

And even though it gets little attention here, his economic policies of pushing free market reform and privatization may be his most lasting legacy to Israel. When he bragged that he had "made Israel behave macroeconomically" and therefore rejected the socialist dogma that had hindered its economy for decades, he was telling the truth.

But listen carefully to the man and what comes through loud and clear is the prime minister is someone with his eyes on the next election and his ears attuned to the latest polls. That's what his meaningless slogan of "peace with security" is all about. He can say, as he told me and my colleagues, "I am prepared to face the political consequences [if the peace process breaks down due to Palestinian unwillingness to fulfill their Oslo pledges on terror] -- including for me personally-- I'm not prepared to take on security risks for the State of Israel."

But he has already conceded points that he was telling us a few months ago were security risks. Fear of personal political consequences is what had him scurrying to Washington this week. And though everything he says and does makes one believe the Oslo process is a path to disaster, for all his bravado, he is too politically savvy to say so openly and face the consequences. Ask him about the religious pluralism dispute which continues to drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora, and the most he can say is, "The best thing is to have this issue go away." From his point of view, that makes sense since there is little that is politically possible that he can do to ameliorate the situation.

Benjamin Netanyahu understands that idealogues don't get elected prime minister. That's why he is where he is and one cannot reasonably criticize him for it. But can his trimming and hedging, followed by ringing rhetoric about lines in the sand the next moment, inspire American Jews or anyone else to stand up and fight for him when things get sticky? Especially, come next May, after the Palestinians declare their state. Netanyahu will then have to be more than just a clever politician. His place in history will largely depend on it.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association highest award: First Place in The Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing. The Rapoport award is named for the longtime editor of the Jerusalem Post and was given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 1997 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Cleveland on June 18, 1998.


9/11/98: Politics ‘98: By their enemies shall ye know them
9/04/98: Pro-terror groups' cry of discrimination rings hollow
8/28/98: Defending the undefendable;Or, the AJCongress should stop wasting Jewish resources
8/21/98: Is 'Jewish journalism' an oxymoron?
8/14/98: Holding on to our heroes
8/07/98: Three strikes, but they continue to play
7/23/98: Zionist vs Zionist
7/17/98: Summer news stories: Large and small
7/13/98: A step closer to school choice
6/26/98: The Holocaust Museum and Mort Klein
6/12/98: What price Jewish education?
6/5/98: Ten books for a long, hot summer: A serious vacation reading list for Jewish history lovers
5/29/98: Double standards here and there: Hypocrisy raises its ugly head in Israel and the U.S.
5/26/98: Hartford Seminary tangle points to bigger issues
5/22/98:The importance of being Bibi
5/14/98: The ‘dream palace' of the anti-Zionists: Hartford Seminary controversy has historic roots
4/26/98: All-rightniks versus the alarmists: Focussing on the Jewish bottom line
4/13/98:Of ends and means and victims
4/5/98: Hang up on Albright
3/29/98: Bigshots or activists?: Clinton's three clerics return from China
3/27/98: Will American Jews help Clinton push Israel into a corner?
3/22/98: Anti-Semitism then and now
3/15/98: Still searching for Jews at the opera
3/11/98: Remembering Eric Breindel
3/8/98: Getting lost in history
3/5/98: Follow the money to Hamas
2/22/98: Re-writing "Anne Frank" - A distorted legacy
2/15/98: Religious persecution is still a Jewish issue
2/6/98: A lost cause remembered (the failure of the Bund)
2/1/98: Economic aid is not in Israel's interest
1/25/98: Jews are news, and a fair shake for Israel is hard to find

©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin