Image: Israeli demonstration with the hostages’ families against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding an immediate hostage deal and ceasefire. Tel Aviv, Israel. June 2024.

Guy Ziv, Netanyahu vs The Generals: The Battle for Israel’s Future. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2024. 254 pages.

Anshel Pfeffer, Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu. New York: Basic Books, 2018. 423 pages.

As I write (June 9), Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu of Israel is a major and seemingly immovable obstacle to any kind of progress toward a reasonable resolution of Israel’s conflict with Hamas. A member of his war cabinet, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, has just resigned, calling for new elections and criticizing Netanyahu for placing his own political interests ahead of those of the country. The presence of the centrist Gantz had given a veneer of respectability to Netanyahu’s right-wing government. Another member of the war cabinet, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant from the Prime Minister’s own Likud party, has publicly urged Netanyahu to change course.

Netanyahu has been cagey about making a full commitment to a plan – vigorously promoted by the United States and supposedly initiated by Israel – for ending the fighting and bringing home the hostages held by Hamas. He has failed to articulate any kind of plan for postwar Gaza and has refused to contemplate the possibility of a Palestinian state.

So who is Benjamin Netanyahu and why is he acting like this? Two books, one recent and the other older but still relevant, provide at least a partial explanation.

Anshel Pfeffer’s 2018 biography traces the roots of Bibi’s worldview back two generations, to his grandfather Nathan Mileikowsky, an early right-wing religious Zionist. Mileikowsky’s son, the historian Benzion Netanyahu, dropped the religion but kept the right-wing Zionism, becoming a prominent figure in the Revisionist movement. Revisionism was, and is, a tough, uncompromising strain of Zionism. Seeing Jewish and Arab aims in Palestine as fundamentally irreconcilable, it concluded that the Jews needed to impose their will by force.

“Any indigenous people will fight the settlers as long as there is a spark of hope to be rid of the foreign settlement,” the founder of Revisionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, wrote in 1923. “That is what the Arabs of the land of Israel are doing and will continue to do, as long as a spark of hope lingers in their heart that they can prevent ‘Palestine’ becoming the land of Israel.” In light of this fully understandable Arab resistance, Jews would need superior military strength to fulfil their dream of a homeland in Israel.

Benzion Netanyahu’s son Benjamin, born in 1949, grew up in this ideological atmosphere. He also grew up in two countries – the United States, where Benzion held a series of academic positions, and Israel. One of the ironies of Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister is that while he has boasted of a unique understanding of the United States because of his American experience, his relations with successive administrations in Washington have rarely been harmonious.

Pfeffer – whose astute political analysis appears frequently in Israel’s resolutely anti-Netanyahu daily Haaretz – describes the death of Bibi’s older brother Yoni as a hero in one of Israel’s most spectacular military escapades, the 1976 Entebbe raid, as a turning point in his life. Bibi became the self-appointed keeper of Yoni’s memory, and evocation of his brother’s sacrifice was an important element in launching his political career.

Pfeffer traces that career from Netanyahu’s leadership of the opposition to the Oslo process of reconciliation with the Palestinians in the early 1990s through his narrow victory over Shimon Peres in 1996 that effectively brought the Oslo period to an end, the collapse of his coalition and his electoral defeat three years later, his ten years out of power (punctuated by a brief stint as finance minister under Ariel Sharon), to his return to office in 2009 and three more terms as Prime Minister.

In his subtitle Pfeffer refers to Netanyahu’s “turbulent life and times,” but the turbulence was only beginning when his book was published in 2018. Netanyahu was already under investigation for corruption – accepting gifts from wealthy businessmen in exchange for favourable treatment, deals with media owners who promised positive coverage of Netanyahu in exchange for legislation they wanted – but indictments would not come until the following year. Also still to come were the deadlock that led to four elections in two years, Netanyahu’s defeat in 2021 at the hands of a wall-to-wall coalition of parties united only in their opposition to Netanyahu, and his calamitous sixth term that followed his return in 2022 at the head of a far right–Orthodox coalition. This term has been marked first by the judicial overhaul that sparked mass protests and then by the Hamas terrorist attack of October 7, 2023, and the subsequent Gaza war.

Guy Ziv, who teaches in the School of International Service at American University, completed the bulk of his manuscript before October 7, but he did have time to insert an afterword before publication. He tells a narrower story than Pfeffer, focusing on another irony of Netanyahu’s career. Netanyahu has always presented himself to the electorate as “Mr. Security,” the only person who can keep Israel safe. And yet his relationship with senior figures in Israel’s security establishment – the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet internal security service and the Mossad spy agency – “has been fraught with tension from almost the moment he first assumed the premiership in June 1996.” This tension, Ziv notes, has continued after October 7.

Ziv interviewed roughly 30 of those senior security figures (mostly retired), and the story is told largely from their point of view. And from their point of view, Netanyahu has been a disastrous leader for Israel. There are always tensions between security officials and politicians, facing two different sets of concerns and constraints. But a number of factors exacerbate those tensions in Netanyahu’s case. Perhaps the most significant one is opposing attitudes toward relations with the Palestinians. The pragmatically inclined security officials almost all favour a two-state solution – to which Netanyahu, driven by Revisionist ideology, is adamantly opposed. After October 7, Ziv writes, “senior security officials, both past and present, continue to warn Netanyahu and his cabinet members against ignoring the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu’s embrace of right-wing populism and the inclusion in his government of irresponsible far-right politicians such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have reinforced the security officials’ distaste for Netanyahu. There is also a degree of personal animosity. Netanyahu regards the security officials as “leftists” who are out to undermine him and has excluded them from decision-making. On the security officials’ side, “their greatest source of frustration has been their widely held notion that Netanyahu habitually places his self-interest above the national interests.”

So why does Netanyahu act the way he does? On the basis of these two books, there would seem to be two primary explanations that give coherence to even his most puzzling actions.

The first is his implacable opposition to a Palestinian state. In a speech at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv soon after he returned to power in 2009, Netanyahu acknowledged the possibility that in a future peace agreement Israel would “reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.” This was the first time Netanyahu raised that possibility, and it would be the last. His suggestion was never operationalized, and he soon went back to his old habit of promising that he would never allow a Palestinian state to be created.

While other prime ministers, from Yitzhak Rabin to Ehud Olmert, were prepared to make concessions to reach a deal with the Palestinians, Netanyahu preferred to perpetuate the unstable status quo. Just how far he would go to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state was demonstrated in his favouring Hamas over the more moderate Palestinian Authority and approving funding from Qatar for the Gaza-based terrorist group. For Netanyahu, a few rocket barrages from Gaza were less of a threat than being manoeuvred into a deal with Mahmoud Abbas. The folly of this policy became amply clear on October 7.

The second characteristic that explains Netanyahu’s actions is his placement of his own personal and political interests at the top of his priority list. We have seen how security officials mistrust him for this reason, and they are joined in this mistrust by many other Israelis and foreign leaders. This tendency has grown stronger since Netanyahu’s corruption indictment in 2019, as he has sought to delay his judicial reckoning by remaining in office as Prime Minister.

In this area as well, he has gone to great lengths. In the election of November 2022, Israelis gave Netanyahu’s Likud 32 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Two ultra-Orthodox parties won 18 seats, while a joint list of two far-right Jewish supremacist parties, headed by Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, won 14. By this time Netanyahu had alienated all of his potential coalition partners of the centre and mainstream right, including former staunch supporters such as Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett. So he formed a majority coalition with the ultra-Orthodox and the far right. And then, since he cannot countenance having his coalition fall apart, he appointed Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to senior positions and gave them virtually all they wanted politically. The charge of genocide against Israeli forces in Gaza may not stand up to scrutiny, but Israel’s case is not helped by the inflammatory statements regularly emanating from Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

Internally, Israel has rarely been as divided; externally, its standing in the world has never been lower. It will be said that the condemnation of Israel is unfair, and no doubt some of it is. It will be said that antisemitism is involved. But much of the responsibility for the decline in Israel’s reputation needs to rest with its Prime Minister, except that Benjamin Netanyahu never takes responsibility for anything – notably including the security failures that led to the October 7 attack. And since he will not leave office voluntarily and his religious and far-right partners will continue to prop him up, Netanyahu can be expected to be around until the next scheduled election in October 2026. There are more chapters to come in Netanyahu’s story, and they are unlikely to be edifying ones.