The man often portrayed as an extremist is really just locked in a deep psychological battle with the ghosts of his tough father and golden brother. The result: Bibi’s driven to succeed, so long as he can always get it wrong in the end. Confused? You won’t be. Not after you’ve met Psychobibi. Matthew Kalman and Matt Rees report from Jerusalem.
© DeltaFourth 2013
The armored Chevrolet Suburban rumbled through the graveyard. In the back seat a burly man in late middle age listened to a consigliere speaking to him down the line of his carphone. His features were heavy and lifeless. He stared through the blacked-out shatterproof windows at the crowd gathered to pay their respects around the grave of his mother. Some of them may have known her. Most were there to kiss his hand.
The car pulled up beneath the retaining wall of the next terrace of graves on the steep hillside. His bodyguard jumped out into the February chill, an Uzi submachine gun strapped across his chest, a communication wire looping from his earpiece into the collar of his dress shirt, a microphone clipped to the lapel of his blue blazer. He adjusted his wraparound shades and opened the rear door.
The big man glanced across the tombstones. On the other side of the deep valley, the sun dipped toward the hilltops. The operators and the chisellers, the political hacks and the cops dodged about among the graves, hoping to come closer to him. To get a wave or a nod to show that they were inside his circle, his powerful orbit. His younger brother, tall and ill-dressed, lingered near the spot where the old woman had been laid two years before.
Only one man stood still. He was shorter than average, shrinking as his years advanced and his bone and muscle deteriorated. He wore a plain rainproof coat in a dour shade of gray-blue. On his head he had a flat gray tweed cap. The glasses on his nose were thick-framed. His skin lay wrinkled and soft and wattled around his face, but the bones of his jaw were as firm as a young man in war and his milky, fading eyes were intense, glaring toward some other world. Perhaps thinking of another grave a few miles away in the military cemetery where his eldest son lay. The golden son who was supposed to rise to the top.
The big man was the second son. He paused and glanced down at his black loafers. His wife touched his hand. He clasped her fingers and hauled himself out of the armored car. A DeltaFourth operative also emerged from the back of the car. The big man seemed about to say something to him, to explain himself. Then he decided instead to ignore him. He walked across the dirt and stone chippings, making no attempt to respond to those around him. He was lost in his remembrances of his mother in her grave. Or maybe he was cowed by the old man’s presence, by knowing that everyone else was wrong and that it wasn’t he who was the most important man here. Most of the onlookers stood away, content that he would remember they had been there. He was trained that way, to draw people to him without trying too hard. But a few of them came forward and held out their hands in greeting. He gripped them briefly. They sucked in a little of his energy, his power. Each one brightened, despite the studiedly mournful expressions they strove to maintain. They had obtained the blessing of the Godfather.
Then the big man came to the stolid figure in the dour mackintosh. He bent down and kissed his cheek. “Father,” he whispered.
The old man didn’t move. He kept his eyes on his wife’s grave and the elaborate Hebrew text inscribed upon it. It said that her name had been Cela Netanyahu. The big man, her son, would soon become the longest-serving prime minister of Israel since David Ben-Gurion, the country’s founding father.
But it was the old man who was the real Godfather.
* * *
When Benjamin Netanyahu was a boy, his family gave him the nickname Bibi. For a time, when he first was Prime Minister of Israel between 1996 and 1999, his aides tried to get people to drop the childish tag, to treat him as a grown-up. It didn’t work.
Headline writers loved its brevity. Supporters chanted it. Critics spat it out. Everyone adopted it. When Tony Blair, then prime minister of Britain, wrote to his Israeli counterpart he addressed him as “Dear Bibi.”
There were other reasons to keep the moniker. Benjamin isn’t an action name. The hero of a thriller could be called Ben; ‘Benjamin’ hands the books out at a library or advises you on the sale of your property or is a fluffy rabbit in an old children’s book. But Bibi, well, there’s only one. And that’s the kind of name a politician needs, whether he wants to admit it or not.
The childhood nickname became a professional brand, giving Bibi the kind of immediate recognition that stars and statesman crave. There are many Yitzhaks and Davids in Israel’s history, but only one Bibi. A Benjamin would be lost on the world stage, but Bibi strode into the spotlight. He joined an exclusive band of heroes and hellraisers for whom a syllable or two is enough to conjure an instant multi-volume biography: Che, Madonna, Marlon, Elvis – and his hero, Winston.
In any case, there was a part of Bibi that hadn’t grown up. Hadn’t become fully independent of his father. He still hasn’t. That’s why in 2013 he was elected prime minister of Israel for the third time.
You’ll understand what that means soon enough.
The story that follows is based on many conversations with Bibi over 14 years in private offices and armored limos and the Prime Minister’s bureau and hotel rooms on election nights, plus long-time observation first-hand and through the eyes of those who know him well. DeltaFourth doesn’t care whether you think Bibi is good or bad. Few world statesmen are so vilified or deified by those who oppose or support them, just as perhaps no other is so misunderstood. DeltaFourth wants to tell you how Bibi functions. What happens to this man to make him the way he is. To make him act as he does, do what he does.
Political science is a science like the “Kansas City wine” of Leiber and Stoller’s blues is wine. It’s not science at all. Still, this is as much a piece of science as you’ll read about Bibi.
Try this for science: Oscar Wilde wrote that every man kills the thing he loves. Could be. What’s scientifically proven is that every man faces a struggle if he’s not to turn into the thing he hates. A man grows up wanting to please his father, but also needing to be himself. The more he tends toward the path his father would wish upon him, the more he detests himself. If he goes the other way and ploughs his own furrow, he risks the withdrawal of paternal love. Which one is stronger? Usually it’s the father, and so the man hews resentfully to Dad’s line. Then it comes to this: a grown man ends up with a dead father and realizes just about then that all that could’ve been best in himself is dead too. That’s not just Bibi’s struggle. It comes to all of us. That’s science.
Bibi was the first Israeli Prime Minister born in Israel after the founding of the state, the first to be an Israeli when he came out of the womb. (Yitzhak Rabin was born in Jerusalem, but before 1948.) He was formed by his father’s opposition to the founding Israeli Zionist generation and came to a set of political and intellectual positions that were opposed to that original Zionism and its European roots. This oppositional element of Bibi makes a lot of people hate him. Not on a political basis, but on a deep psychological level.
To Palestinians and their supporters, he represents Israel’s occupation. Within Israel, he’s the personification of the changes of recent decades, the post-Zionism and the half-assed Americanization of a country that had lived for its first few decades by ideals of its own unique invention.
If he’s disliked on such a profound psychological level, perhaps the reason lies at equally profound depths within Bibi’s psyche. That’s the conclusion DeltaFourth has come to after many years parsing his political statements and observing his political moves and meeting the man.
Bibi would claim his politics are an outgrowth of his intellectual belief in a philosophy that unites reason and experience, in contrast to the wishful simplicity of the Israeli left and its desire to trust the Palestinians despite every piece of fatally contrary evidence. He’d make other points about himself, too –– that he follows a grounded American style of thought, rather than a European theorizing one, for example. But most of all, he’d have to admit that Bibi is the second son. The brother of the dead, golden boy. The son of a hard, idealistic, demanding man. And Bibi could never live up to the expectation of either one. In fact, he doesn’t want to.
If that sounds a little crazy, that’s fine. Because the Israeli Prime Minister is not Benjamin or Binyamin or Ben ¬– or even Bibi.
If you want to understand the prime minister, you’ll need to get to know the real person: Psychobibi.
Allow us to introduce you.