In the land of the biblical patriarchs, the stories of fathers and sons matter.
And the story of the Netanyahu family is something as ancient as Leviticus and as modern as the Kennedys.
To understand Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, you need to understand the hard-line, uncompromising ideology of a father who pushed his sons to succeed and how the tragic death of the oldest son shaped the destiny of the younger brother, who Tuesday was sworn in as prime minister of Israel for a second time.
All of this family history looms over Netanyahu as the 30 ministers in his newly formed government take their seats in parliament today.
It shapes the life and beliefs of a leader on the edge of what many see as a last desperate chance to breathe life back into an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that has lingered on diplomatic life-support since it collapsed into violence in the fall of 2000.
Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion — still alive and in his late 90s — is famous for a towering intellect and renowned for bitter clashes with Israel’s more liberal intellectual elite. Father and son share a great deal: tenacity, perseverance and above all a view of themselves as outsiders.
But where the father is a rock-hard ideologue adamantly opposed to giving up even an inch of “Eretz Israel,” or the biblically defined “Land of Israel,” the son is a political survivor who has fought his way back to power and, according to many political analysts, is obsessed enough with his own legacy to at least contemplate forging an agreement aimed at ending the decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence and war.
Just before his swearing-in ceremony Tuesday night, Netanyahu said his government would “work toward peace on three tracks: economic, security and political.”
Netanyahu did not voice support for a two-state solution. He appointed Avigdor Lieberman — the hard-right nationalist who has a reputation for derogatory remarks toward Palestinians and a firm resistance to the peace process — as foreign minister.
Still, in his first term from 1996 to 1999 Netanyahu implemented the Hebron Agreement, which returned some portions of occupied West Bank land to Palestinians. And as history has proved, right-wing governments tend to make more progress in implementing peace agreements here than the more liberal Labor Party.
Netanyahu said yesterday, “Under the final settlement, the Palestinians will have all the rights to govern themselves except those that endanger the security and existence of the state of Israel.”
The question is, would his father disown him if he did forge such a deal? And will Netanyahu be liberated from all that patriarchal judgment if the aging and ailing father does not survive to see it?
During Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister in January of 1998, there were some limited steps forward on the peace process, but Netanyahu's deep mistrust of the Palestinian leadership blocked the process from hitting full stride. The Palestinians were locked in mistrust of him as well. As a result, the peace process ground to a halt and violence erupted.
I was in his office in Jerusalem interviewing him for a profile when I asked about his father. He immediately dismissed any such questions as “psycho-babble.”
When I persisted in knowing more about his father, Netanyahu stood up and lifted off the book shelf behind his desk a heavy historical tome written by his father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu.
The 1,388-page book — a scholarly but dark and bitter history of the Spanish Inquisition and the virulent anti-Semitism of 15th century Spain — landed on the prime minister’s desk with a thud. The weight of the relationship between father and son was heavy in the air. By many accounts, they had grown apart. The father had three sons, all of whom served in the Israeli Army’s most elite commando unit.
The father instilled in all his sons a fierce, right-wing school of thinking in Israel known as “the Revisionists.”
They believe in rule by force and raw self-interest as the only hope for Israel’s survival. They see the historic enmity between Arabs and Jews as something that will never be overcome and propose that there should be an “iron wall” — to use the Zionist pioneer Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s words — between the two. Anything that compromises these beliefs, they hold to be dangerously naive.
The oldest, Jonathan, was the more handsome and charismatic and was viewed as a natural-born leader destined for politics. But he died a national hero in 1976 while leading a raid at Entebbe, Uganda to free 103 hostages from Tel Aviv whose plane had been hijacked by pro-Palestinian terrorists.
The stern judgments of his father and the great sadness over the loss of his brother are undeniably the twin strands of Netanyahu's DNA. They shape him and make him who he is. The family history has made for comparisons to Kennedy, but his political personality and insularity have also caused some to compare him to Nixon.
In 1998, he told me, “We are not the Kennedys. We are a very different family. Nixon is the line now. It is intended to be negative certainly. It’s the herd mentality of the media … The comparisons are fatuous. Kennedy is Kennedy. Nixon is Nixon. And I am what I am.”
In the beginning, the prime minister’s father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, emigrated from Lithuania to Palestine before the birth of the Jewish state in 1948. His family name was Milikovsky, but like many Israelis, the family chose a Hebrew name. They chose Netanyahu, which in Hebrew means “God’s gift.”
Some cynics quip that the name says much about how members of the family see themselves.
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