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Bibi’s My Story: An Intimate Political Thriller

Israeli president Zalman Shazar congratulates Benjamin Netanyahu after Sabena rescue (Israel Government Press Office, May 1972).
Israeli president Zalman Shazar congratulates Benjamin Netanyahu after Sabena rescue (Israel Government Press Office, May 1972).

Benjamin Netanyahu begins on the tarmac of Israel’s Lod airport (today known as Ben Gurion International), 30 miles from Tel Aviv and less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem.

Twenty-three-year-old Netanyahu had rushed from his military training base near the Dead Sea to the scene where four Arab terrorists were holding hostages, threatening to kill Sabena flight 571’s 94 passengers and crew if their demand for the release of 315 prisoners wasn’t met.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan with help from Transport Minister Shimon Peres was “negotiating” with the hijackers to buy more time for the elite Sayeret Maktal unit to improvise a rescue operation, something that had not been done in any of the 326 plane hijackings of the previous four years.

The two men and two women from the Palestinian Black September terrorist group were told their demands were being met. Mechanics would be sent to ready the plane for departure. Netanyahu and 15 other members of the elite combat unit dressed in white coveralls to approach and ultimately storm the plane.

At precisely 4:00pm on May 9, 1972, the Israeli commando team’s leader, 30-year-old Ehud Barak, blew the whistle from the sidelines. Two minutes later, the two male hijackers were shot dead. Their female accomplices were captured.

A bullet fired at one of the female hijackers passed through her and hit Netanyahu.

Three of the men present that Tuesday afternoon would go on to become prime ministers of Israel: Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, and Benjamin Netanyahu.

A fourth person, Netanyahu’s older brother Jonathan (“Yoni”) who was then a member of the same elite Sayeret Maktal force but forbidden to join the rescue operation with his brother, was also present. As the rescue unfolded, Netanyahu writes, Yoni was seen “pacing back and forth, frowning, a young lion caged.”

Four years later, Yoni would lead the rescue of hostages in Uganda. Yoni’s death on July 4, 1976, outside the Old Terminal at Entebbe airport, would change the history of Israel, the world, and the life of Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his recent autobiography, penned by hand over a year as leader of the opposition in the Israeli parliament, Netanyahu shares the words his brother confided at the time of the Sabena rescue. “Bibi, my life is my own and my death is my own.” Netanyahu adds from a letter Yoni, as a 17-year-old preparing for his military service, wrote to a friend: “Death does not frighten me. I don’t fear it because I attribute little value to a life without a purpose. And if I should have to sacrifice my life to attain its goal, I will do so willingly.”

Bibi My Story book cover (courtesy Amazon.com)

Bibi My Story is a fascinating, often intimate, revealing portrayal of one of the most influential political leaders of the 21st century. Israel’s longest serving prime minister takes readers behind the headlines in pivotal moments of his rise to global prominence, struggles, evolution, and the simultaneous impact on the fortunes, foibles, and fortitude of the Jewish state and people.

Family is a reoccurring theme throughout the book’s 724 pages. From his earliest memories through the deaths of his beloved brother, mother and father, Netanyahu offers thoughtful, sagacious insights into the relationships and lessons that continue to shape his values, perspective, and decisions.

His brother’s death led Netanyahu to launch the Jonathan Institute, envision and organize the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism that began on July 2, 1979 and was attended by leading Intellectuals, journalists and political leaders from Israel, Europe and the United States.

One attendee and conference speaker was Moshe Arens, at the time a Member of Knesset from Menachem Begin’s Likud Party and chairman of his parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Years earlier, before immigrating to Israel, 17-year-old Arens had been a member of the Betar youth movement in New York when Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, was on a Zionist mission in the United States during World War II. “Arens recalled how he accompanied my father to his rallies and even bought him a shirt one time,” Netanyahu writes.

In 1982, Arens was chosen to be Israel’s Ambassador to the United States and asked Netanyahu to become his deputy at the embassy in Washington, D.C.

“I thought quickly,” Netanyahu writes.

“Arens respected Father and as a youngster accompanied him in his public activity in America. He was a student of Jabotinsky. For the first time, the state of Israel would have an ambassador in Washington who understands how the battle for American public opinion should be waged. I liked Arens. He was a straight shooter. What he told me about the impending confrontation in Lebanon made sense. I could do good for the country, and I would work under a person I respected and trusted.”

“Why not?” Netanyahu answered, “Let’s do it.”

I first met Netanyahu the following year at Indiana University where I was pursuing an undergraduate degree in journalism, political science, and had founded a pro-Israel student organization known as IPAC, an acronym for Israel Public Action Committee. In Bloomington, we faced a relentless coalition of Arab/Islamic “students” and neo-Nazis who’d put aside their differences for daily attacks against Israel and the Jewish people.

In 1983, we’d invited Arens to speak at the large student auditorium and he’d accepted. At the last minute, we learned his deputy, Netanyahu, would come instead.

I’ll never forget one student who asked a question of Netanyahu during a Q&A session after his powerful address.

“I am a Christian born in Jerusalem and I grew up in Lebanon,” I remember fellow IU undergraduate Samir Wakim saying before he went on to share the story of losing more than 20 close relatives to PLO terrorists. He thanked Netanyahu for Israel’s efforts to support freedom and save the lives of Christians in south Lebanon and paid tribute to the 241 Americans who were murdered that October when Iran backed Hezbollah terrorists blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut.

Forty years later, the friendship Samir and I began that day continues to be among my most cherished.

Like other readers of Netanyahu’s My Story, I was enthralled to learn about the private conversations, tragedies, conflicts, opportunities, and decisions that led Bibi to Bloomington that day and becoming his nation’s longest serving prime minister. The humanity of a man so often caricatured and maligned by political opponents in Israel, antagonists near and far, and his nation’s most dastardly enemies dissolves into the deeply personal story of the talented, articulate, visionary and ambitious middle son of a pioneering Zionist family who has held on to many of his earliest values despite what has become years of brutal, scorching, often hateful assaults that have unceasingly maligned and threatened Netanyahu, his closest family, and those who remained loyal supporters.

Bibi My Story overflows with paragraphs and chapters any reader interested the intricacies and nuances of the U.S.-Israel relationship, Israeli politics and policy-making, and the battle for the hearts and minds of Israel’s diverse, often polarized electorate, will find thrilling and revealing.

Examples:

Netanyahu discusses the impact the Entebbe strike had on ultimately removing Ugandan dictator Idi Amin from power, as Ugandans discovered he wasn’t invincible and could be brought down.

Netanyahu reveals a July 9, 2009 conversation with then American CIA Director Robert Gates. “All the experts tell us that an American strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would unite the Iranian public behind the regime. Can all the experts be wrong?” Gates questioned? “Yes,” Netanyahu replied, “all the experts can be wrong. They often are.”

About the challenges of Israel’s sworn enemies pursuing nuclear weapons, Netanyahu compares past cautions against Israel’s actions against the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs with warnings about Iran, highlighting his willingness “to sustain conventional war with Iran in order to avoid a war with nuclear Iran.”

Writing about the Mama Marmara affair that led to a rupture in Israel’s public relationship with Turkey: “Needless to say, these anti-Israel activists never dreamed of demanding that Hamas observe human rights by stopping the execution of political rivals, the persecution of gays and the subjugation of Palestinian women, let alone the deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his father, Benzion, during a memorial ceremony for Yoni Netanyahu at Mount Herzl military cemetery, Jerusalem, 2007 (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Netanyahu highlights the words his late father, Benzion, spoke in March 2010 at a celebration of his 100th birthday at the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem:

“The existence of the Jewish people is put into question by the threats to annihilate us which are openly declared by our enemies. On the one side, Iran vows that soon Zionism will be destroyed when Iran will possess nuclear weapons. On the other, the people of Israel are showing the world how a nation should behave when faced with an existential threat: stare unflinchingly at the danger, calmly consider what needs to be done and what can be done and be ready to enter the fray when the chances of success are reasonable. A powerful stance requires tremendous inner strength. The people of Israel show today that they have such strength, and this leads to my certain belief that our people will roll back this danger to its existence.”

Netanyahu confides the emotions he experienced when he lost his 102-year-old father in 2012:

“When Father passed away two years later, I felt an indescribable sadness and emptiness. Did he leave the world despondent? Did he believe that his life’s work, for which his eldest son gave his life, would endure? Did he truly believe I would succeed in leading Israel in rolling back Iran’s threat to our existence? He seemed to me like the rock of the ages, and he was my rock, always bringing me back to the basic values for which we fought. And now he was gone.”

He includes the words shared by his longtime political adversary and friend Shimon Peres: “Bibi, your father wrote history. You are making history.”

And the words he spoke at his father’s funeral:

“You taught me, Father, to look at reality head-on, to understand what it holds in store and to come to the necessary conclusions. You were not only endowed with the ability to see into the future but also to uncover the secrets of the past, and of course the two are related. Many times, you told me that those who cannot understand the past cannot understand the present, and those who cannot understand the present, how can they portend what the future will hold? There were always those who did not see what you saw and dismissed your accomplishments. In this, too, you taught me to stick to the essential things, to separate the wheat from the chaff. As I say farewell, I use the same words Yoni wrote to you forty-six years ago: ‘I never told you how proud I am of the man that you are, and that I am your son.’”

Netanyahu comments on the most pro-Israel speech he ever heard from U.S. President Barack Obama at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 9, 2011 when Obama emphasized there could be no “shortcuts to peace,” that peace must be negotiated directly by the parties, that neither the U.S. or UN could impose it, and that a two state solution must ensure Israel’s security.

“Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off the map. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relationship with its neighbors,” President Obama said.

Netanyahu highlights the words he spoke at the same UN General Assembly gathering:

“Being a moral people won’t save you from conquest and carnage, which was the history of the Jewish people for two thousand years. Being perfect victims who harmed no one, we were perfectly moral. Being utterly powerless, we were led to the slaughter again and again. The rise of Zionism was meant to correct this flaw by giving the Jewish people the power to defend themselves. Enhancing this capacity was the central mission of my years in office.”

And a later speech to the same General Assembly in which he said: “It’s not easy to resist something that has been accepted by the leading powers of the world. Believe me, it’s much easier to remain quiet. But over our long history, the Jewish people have learned the price of staying quiet. As the prime minister of the state of Israel, I refuse to remain silent. No matter what decision you reach here or in your capitals, Israel will do whatever it needs to do to protect itself and its people.”

Netanyahu reveals several private conversations with U.S. President Joe Biden over the decades since they first met, including what the future president and then American senator said during a visit to Israel with then Mideast negotiator John Kerry: “As Biden would later put it, ‘Bibi, I love you but I don’t agree with a word you say.’ On many occasions, the feeling was mutual.”

Repeatedly, Netanyahu highlights the values of Israel’s military, including: “Colonel Richard Kemp, the commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said that the IDF took measures to limit civilian casualties never taken by any Western army in similar situations.”

Netanyahu writes extensively of his controversial speech to the US Congress as the Obama Administration was preparing to sign a nuclear deal with Iran:

Turning to Elie Wiesel, who was in the audience, Netanyahu said: “I can guarantee you this. The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over. We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in one hundred generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.

And he offers a personal revelation into how he felt after the speech:

“Back in the hotel, I was drained of energy, like a boxer after a bruising fight. I spent a few quiet hours with Sara. I thought of my grandfather, Nathan, of my father, and of Yoni. I thought of Aaronsohn and Jabotinsky and of generations of Jews who fought to rekindle the flame of the Jewish national revival. Seventy years after the Holocaust, the Jewish state had taken a powerful stand among the nations for its survival and its future.”

He devotes much of the book to his vision of Israel as innovation nation, including a conversation with Elon Musk: “Another memorable encounter was with Elon Musk. Over breakfast at the Balfour residence in 2018, I was deeply impressed by the clarity and boldness of his vision for the future. Musk, though clearly aware of his exceptional capabilities, was down-to-earth and spoke matter-of-factly about things he was doing that were changing the world. All these inspiring entrepreneurs clearly appreciated Israel as a force for innovation.”

Within its pages, My Story captures and reveals much of the recent history of the Jewish people from the perspective of a son of Jerusalem dedicated to his family and nation.

From the pre-1948 struggle to rescue the Jews of Europe from Nazi extermination as England and the United States significantly closed their doors to saving Jewish lives, the ancient pledge to holy Jerusalem, clandestine and then public efforts to free and absorb more than a million Jews long locked behind the former Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, reunite Jewish sons, daughters, mothers and fathers of Ethiopia, the competing visions for a modern, reborn Jewish state at peace with itself and its neighbors, and the commitment “Never Again!,” Bibi’s My Story delivers a uniquely compelling understanding of the transformation of an ancient, threatened people scattered for millennia into a nation of artists, scientists, farmers, innovators, entrepreneurs and more protected by the most courageous, valiant, and committed modern day warriors the world has ever known.

Readers who can approach the book without undue influence from those who have long and maliciously sought to caricature Benjamin Netanyahu, his family, and his loyalists will not be disappointed.

About the Author
Seth Eisenberg is President of Purpose Built Families Foundation, a former At-Large chair of the National Writers Union, elected labor leader, and pro-Israel activist. He can be reached via LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/setheisenberg/.
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