Thursday, May 17, 2012

ARCHIVE: TIME magazine profile of Bibi Netanyahu in 1996

I obtained from TIME magazine's archives, the first profile on Benjamin Netanyahu, from June10, 1996, when he first became Israel's youngest Prime Minister, at the age of 45.
When Benjamin Netanyahu's grandfather immigrated to Palestine from Lithuania in 1920, he changed his family name to one that means "God's gift." The grandson often seems to take that literally. Israel's new Prime Minister is self-assured; but more than that, he has the air of someone who is pleased with himself, someone who thinks he knows more than those around him--and deserves more. It is visible in his swagger, his smirk, his well-practiced gestures. Only a man with supreme confidence and a generous sense of entitlement could have wrested control of the Likud Party as a relative newcomer. And only a man with such qualities would, at 46, have sought to become Israel's Prime Minister, a post to which no one under 60 had ever been elected.

Aside from ambition, self-regard and a glossy finish, his critics have asked, what else is there to Netanyahu? Many Israelis have found him too smooth to be taken seriously. As Netanyahu himself observes, that has given him the advantage of being underestimated. Those who would work with him, or against him, will now need to reassess. In fact, he has many gifts--intelligence, guts, tenacity--and if, by the standards of Israeli politics, he hasn't had a long career or done all that much, what he has done, he's done notably well.
Netanyahu was raised to achieve. His mother Cela studied law, and his father Benzion is a historian whose lifework, a study of the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, was published to acclaim last year. Called Bibi from childhood, after a cousin, Netanyahu inherited his right-wing politics from his father, a disciple of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism. To members of that movement even David Ben-Gurion was not sufficiently nationalist. Netanyahu can be touchy about his family. Last week his mother lent a Time photographer six pictures of him as a youngster, then called urgently at 1 a.m. to say he insisted on vetting them. Over the phone Netanyahu forbade the use of a photo that showed him with his father and his elder brother Jonathan.

When Netanyahu was 14, he moved with his family to Pennsylvania, where his father taught college. Netanyahu attended high school in a Philadelphia suburb but after graduating, returned to Israel to serve with distinction for five years in Sayeret Matkal, an elite special-forces unit. At 22, he was among the commandos who, in 1972, successfully stormed a hijacked jet on the tarmac at the Tel Aviv airport. Jonathan served in the same unit, and was killed in 1976 while leading the team that rescued the passengers of a hijacked plane at the Entebbe airport in Uganda. Jonathan's death badly traumatized the Netanyahus. They have made a kind of cult of this son, producing three books about him and establishing the Jonathan Institute, devoted to the study of terrorism.

As a career, Netanyahu has said, politics was discouraged in his home, and according to an associate, Benzion "despises politicians." Netanyahu earned a bachelor's degree in architecture and a master's in business administration, both from M.I.T., and later worked at a consulting firm in Boston. After his brother's death, he flung himself into the activities of the Jonathan Institute, returning to Israel in 1978. A year later, in need of money, he took a job as marketing manager for Rim, Israel's largest furniture company. In 1982 the Likud's Moshe Arens, a family friend and the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., recruited him as his deputy in Washington.

Attuned to American ways, Netanyahu recognized the power of the global media and worked to advance at home by becoming Israel's most engaging and articulate advocate abroad. His mastery of American English made him a constant guest on Nightline and cnn, both when he served as Israel's ambassador to the U.N. from 1984 to 1988 and as a deputy Cabinet Minister from 1988 to 1992.

Rolando Eisen, his boss at Rim, remembers visiting Netanyahu in Washington and being surprised that he wasn't attending parties and receptions. "He had decided that the way of influencing was television," says Eisen. "His first TV appearances weren't good. He used to sit with the tapes, going over and over them until he got it right."

In the U.S. Netanyahu made a point of getting to know wealthy Jews who were to become some of his biggest financial contributors. An Israeli diplomat who served in the U.S. at the same time as Netanyahu says, "While he was ambassador to the U.N., he was already enlisting support for his political career. Bibi made a point of cultivating people as far away as the West Coast, people who weren't even identified with the Likud."

Netanyahu's Americanness has contributed to the belief that he is too slick and superficial, as Americans are often viewed in Israel. "It's the no-there-there problem," as an associate says. Yet in a country where anything related to America also has glamorous connotations, Netanyahu's U.S. ties have their benefits. "Part of the Bibi mystique," says political scientist Ehud Sprinzak, "is that he is a person who fought in Sayeret Matkal and is basically ours, but who also succeeded in America. It's to his credit."

Mystique is not substance, however. "Bibi has failed in projecting what he really is," says Eisen. "He comes across as Mr. Sound Bite, as shallow as Ronald Reagan. But Bibi is much more intelligent, much deeper than people think." The two books Netanyahu has written--one on terrorism, the other laying out his political views--are a testament to his intellect and gravity. In the latter, A Place Among the Nations, Netanyahu paints a compelling picture of Israel's vulnerabilities and offers a reasoned argument on the limitations of peacemaking in a region dominated by dictatorships.

Netanyahu's management of the Likud has shown his savvy and toughness. First elected to the Knesset as a Likud member only eight years ago, he moved to rally the party after the demoralizing 1992 election. Netanyahu won the leadership in a primary battle against more veteran contenders, then worked to retire the party's $16 million debt and introduced democratizing reforms.

During the party-leadership campaign, Netanyahu brought a U.S.-style media scandal upon himself. Hoping to head off damaging rumors, he appeared on the main TV-news program to confess that he had cheated on his wife Sara. He charged that a political rival, by which he plainly meant former Foreign Minister David Levy, was trying to blackmail him with an incriminating videotape. Police found no evidence to support the charge, and Netanyahu was compelled to apologize to Levy.

Neither Bibigate nor the self-satisfied smirk nor the American manner prevented Israelis from going for the whole package, not just the polish but the steel underneath. If the younger, tougher, smoother candidate raced to the top almost before his resume built up to it, the slimmest of majorities was persuaded that his youthful energy and conservative caution hold the greater promise. Voters concluded that Bibi's there is there, and it belongs in the Prime Minister's office.