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How Benjamin Netanyahu Pushed Israel Into Chaos

Flanked by two bickering ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to shrivel in his seat. It was late July in the Knesset, the last week before the summer recess, but there was no anticipatory buzz in the air. While lawmakers were preparing to vote, anti-government protesters, walled off from Parliament by newly installed barbed wire, chanted “Busha!” — “Shame!”

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Sitting to Netanyahu’s left was Yariv Levin, Israel’s dour justice minister, a man “with less charisma than that of a napkin,” in the mordant opinion of Anshel Pfeffer, a Haaretz journalist and Netanyahu biographer. To Netanyahu’s right was Yoav Gallant, a former major general who serves as Israel’s defense minister. The two ministers hail from the right-wing Likud party, as does Netanyahu himself. But their consensus — much like every other consensus in the country — had splintered. Levin’s camp was bent on using the government’s majority to pass a package of bills that would do away with judicial oversight in the country and concentrate power in its hands. Gallant’s camp, seeing the extraordinary blowback that the bills had touched off around the nation, worried that this was a step too far.

The manner of the proposed legislative package (unilateral; rushed through) and scope (total overhaul of the system) had managed to rattle a public that had already accepted the most extremist coalition in Israeli history. Israel has no written constitution. Its Parliament is largely toothless as a check on power: The governing coalition has the majority and the means to impose its decisions there. Now it was proposing to neutralize the only curb to executive overreach: the country’s Supreme Court.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have poured onto the streets of Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities every Saturday since the legislation was introduced in January. The energy and breadth of the protest movement has been staggering. To see this human wave surge through blocked highways shouting “Democracy!” is to glimpse Israeli society in all its variety: There are white-coat groups (doctors) and black robes (lawyers), Brothers and Sisters in Arms (military reservists), Handmaids (women’s groups), students, teachers, young people, academics, anti-occupation activists, “religious Zionist democrats,” high-tech workers and civil servants.

Demonstrators opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul in July.Credit…Yair Palti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

With the proposed judicial overhaul came ominous warnings from Moody’s and other financial agencies about a “deterioration of Israel’s governance” and a downgrading of the country’s credit outlook. Foreign investments were pulled; the shekel depreciated. Military reservists threatened to not show up for duty. Panicking, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, suspended the legislation in March. But this prompted his base to rebel, calling it a “surrender.” As one Likud lawmaker posted on Twitter, “You voted right and you got left.” The pressure on Netanyahu closed in from all sides. “If it were up to Bibi, the overhaul would simply disappear, but he can’t because the genie is now out of the bottle,” Tal Shalev, a political reporter for Walla News, told me.

By July, Netanyahu calculated that he was paying a steep public cost and getting nothing in return. Suspending the legislation had been a strategic mistake, his advisers reasoned: If the other side realized that the “unilateral threat is real” — that the government was willing to pass bills without seeking wider approval from the opposition — “they’ll move to compromise,” a source close to Netanyahu told me earlier that month. The judicial overhaul was back on the table.

The issue before Parliament now, as Netanyahu sat between his squabbling ministers, was an amendment that would bar the Supreme Court from using a standard of reasonableness to reverse government decisions. Gallant was desperate for a last-minute compromise, concerned about military disunity. Levin was steadfast in his intention to push the law through.

“Give me something!” Gallant pleaded over Netanyahu’s head.

Netanyahu sat there, mute and impassive, uncharacteristically careless about the optics. Though he prefers not to be seen wearing his eyeglasses, enlarging the font of his speeches to 24, he kept them on this time.

Shortly after 3:30 p.m., the Knesset speaker announced a roll-call vote, to the sound of jeers. One by one, the coalition members stated “In favor” while the opposition members all rose from their seats, some pounding their fists, others calling out “Shame!” and stalked out of the plenum, refusing to vote. “There is no prime minister in Israel,” Yair Lapid, the head of the opposition, said to reporters outside. “Netanyahu has become a puppet on a string of messianic extremists.”

As soon as the vote passed, 64-0, lawmakers made a beeline to Levin’s desk, where, beaming, they took selfies with him. Few noticed the man who rose from his chair, folded his eyeglasses and, looking “mortified,” as one observer put it, quietly made for the doors.

Netanyahu thinks of himself in Churchillian terms. He would like to be remembered as the leader who faced down the Iran menace, the savior of Israel in the face of forbidding odds for the Jewish people. But the country’s 75th year will be noted for something quite different. Its democracy is dimming; the public has never been more divided. Netanyahu has pushed Israel to the brink, gradually and then suddenly.

In 1996, when he first moved into the prime minister’s residence, Netanyahu was 46, broad faced, with appealing asymmetrical eyes (one hooded, the other wide open) — the first head of the country to be born after its founding, in 1948, and one who brought an unapologetic outlook toward Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Now 73, he is besieged on multiple fronts. He stands trial in three cases of corruption that were rolled into one indictment in 2019 — charges he denies. Though his wife, Sara, is not a defendant, two of the cases feature her. Reports of their dealings, and those of their elder son, Yair, have the trappings of a royal soap opera: a steady supply of Champagne, cigars and expensive jewelry; demands for fawning press coverage; flagrant interference in matters of appointments and policy. These days, his gait is halting; his shoulders are hunched. His eyes sag. Try as his aides might, they have no way to spin this: The man looks exhausted.

The judicial overhaul has now jeopardized every one of his perceived accomplishments, including Israel’s economic success and its international standing. Netanyahu is “in a Job-like state,” Nahum Barnea, a veteran columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth, told me. His coalition members embarrass him on a daily basis. His legal woes are mounting. On top of which, Barnea added, “He can’t travel to the White House, and it’s killing him.” (Netanyahu’s meeting with President Biden on Sept. 20 was the first since Netanyahu’s re-election last November and came on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.) Still, many who know Netanyahu well rebuff the suggestion that he is losing control. “That’s like saying that Orban or Erdogan has lost control,” a former senior aide to Netanyahu told me recently.

But while the judicial overhaul is unpopular — only one in four Israelis wants it to proceed, according to a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute — it hasn’t diminished the passion of Netanyahu’s core supporters. In a recent poll measuring suitability to lead the country, he and Benny Gantz, who heads the centrist National Unity party, were tied with 38 percent each. (By comparison, Lapid, the current opposition leader, trailed them with 29 percent.) For vast parts of the country, from the Jewish settlements in the West Bank to ultra-Orthodox enclaves to Israel’s impoverished development towns, he remains “King Bibi.”

His status is such that his personal base of supporters is far greater than that of his party. Campaign posters from 2019 showed him shaking hands with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, with the caption “Netanyahu: A Different League.” For his electorate, he is exactly that: a once-in-a-generation leader, suave and polished, speaking a refined American English, and also a bare-knuckled sabra who has shown no qualms about taking on Barack Obama, the Palestinian leadership and the U. N. Security Council. “He has turned himself into a symbol for entire sectors of the public that are drastically different from him but that are willing to die for him,” Zeev Elkin, a former Likud minister under Netanyahu who is now chairman of National Unity, told me.

Yariv Levin, Israel’s justice minister, in January.Credit…Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

Netanyahu is secular and Ashkenazi (of Jewish European origins); he comes from a liberal milieu in Jerusalem that is similar to the social elites against which he, and his voters, rail. He is erudite, thorough, lonesome and vengeful. He is prone to grandiloquence, but then so are his admirers: “I look at Bibi and think that he’s a rare man, and we should thank God every day for giving us such a gift,” Benny Ziffer, a friend of his, told me.

One of Netanyahu’s main achievements in office has been overseeing Israel’s transformation into a country with one of the highest per-capita investments in start-ups in the world; a second has been forging relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Each achievement has asterisks attached. In the early 2000s, he served as finance minister in the government of Ariel Sharon; he spurred growth in part by slashing large annual subsidies to the ultra-Orthodox. He then led Likud to its worst-ever defeat in an election. Lesson learned: Never again would he dare cross the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox. As prime minister, Netanyahu has since doled out more annual subsidies and additional inflated budgets to the Haredim than any leader before him. A Haredi family in which the father is unemployed (as more than half of Haredi men are) now receives four times more financial assistance than a non-Haredi Jewish household, one research institute found.

Admirers credit Netanyahu with “changing the paradigm” around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Boaz Bismuth, a Likud lawmaker, told me. Netanyahu did so by effectively bypassing the Palestinians and signing normalization agreements with other Arab countries in the region. But those agreements, known as the Abraham Accords, are the diplomatic end result of an arms deal in which Israel would provide nearly all signatories with licenses to its powerful cybersurveillance technology Pegasus, as an investigation in this magazine revealed last year. “He made use of knowledge and technologies to get closer to dictators,” a former senior defense official told me. A normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, which Netanyahu is eager to advance, would be even more consequential. But such a deal would entail concessions to the Palestinians, something that his extremist coalition partners would no doubt torpedo.

Netanyahu’s impressive endurance in office is, in part, a reflection of his enlarged base. The Likud electorate has historically been the Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent), the religiously observant, the noncollege-educated and the poor. But it has expanded to include Israelis who support his conservative economic agenda and others who cite his reluctance to go to needless wars and his international connections, Mazal Mualem writes in “Cracking the Netanyahu Code.” Netanyahu has refashioned Likud from a hawkish yet liberal party into a populist party wholly in his thrall.

But a broadened Likud base, even when combined with ultra-Orthodox allies, still doesn’t amount to a majority in Parliament. For that, Netanyahu turned to the far right. Last year, he orchestrated an alliance between two competing hard-right factions in order to guarantee that their joint list made it to the Knesset and into his governing coalition. One faction, led by Bezalel Smotrich, an ultranationalist zealot and Israel’s current finance minister, represents the interests of the growing settler movement, which numbers more than 600,000 in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The second, headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir, a man convicted of support for a terrorist organization, is an offshoot of a virulent racist movement founded by the Brooklyn-born rabbi, Meir Kahane. Under Netanyahu, the Israeli left has not only diminished but is regarded by much of Israeli society as illegitimate: not Jewish enough, not patriotic enough.

“There has always been this dualistic element in covering Netanyahu,” Shalev, the Walla journalist, says. “Netanyahu the politician versus Netanyahu the statesman; the responsible Netanyahu versus the corrupt Netanyahu; Netanyahu in English versus Netanyahu in Hebrew; Dr. Netanyahu, Mr. Bibi. There was always this dissonance. But he managed to synchronize it so that you at least knew what his goals were.” She went on: “At the start of this government, Bibi laid out four goals” — preventing a nuclear Iran, restoring security, bringing down the cost of living and expanding Israel’s diplomatic ties — “and every day something happens that is counterproductive to those goals. You no longer understand what he is doing.”

If the various components of the judicial overhaul pass, Israeli democracy will be in peril: The courts will be powerless, a government-appointed authority will be tasked with overseeing broadcast media, a parallel system will be set up for the ultra-Orthodox, who will be exempt from military conscription and whose children will receive only minimal education in core subjects such as math and science. The experiment of finding a balance between the Jewish and the democratic aspects of the state will be tipped toward the former.

Netanyahu, more than anyone, is responsible for this transformation: a leader whose blend of staying power, deep suspicions and legal entanglements have hollowed out the political discourse in his country. These days, Israeli society can be seen as a reflection of Netanyahu and his neuroses; an entire political class is now devoted to burrowing into his psyche for clues on how far he is willing go.

Netanyahu declined to speak to me for this article. In response to a detailed fact-checking request, Netanyahu’s office offered only this statement: “Your questions indicate a malicious and farcical hit job aimed at smearing a strong conservative Israeli prime minister. Such a compilation of regurgitated and tired lies — all of which have previously been discredited — is not worthy of our response.”

But in speaking to more than 50 people around Netanyahu — childhood acquaintances, friends, current and former associates, outside observers, critics and biographers, some of whom asked to remain anonymous to talk about sensitive matters — what emerged was a portrait of a remarkable yet flawed man whose vision for Israel has become clouded by self-interest; a leader who has fallen prey to the idea that, in the words of his wife, “Without Bibi the country is lost.”

Cela Netanyahu predicted that her middle son, nicknamed Bibi after a cousin with the same name, would become a painter. The historian Benzion Netanyahu told an interviewer in 1998 that his son was suited for the role of foreign minister. (The compliment was barbed: Netanyahu was already prime minister at the time.) In “Bibi: My Story,” his 2022 memoir, which he wrote longhand in English, Netanyahu underplays his privilege: military service in the elite Matkal Unit; university studies at M.I.T.; a job at the prestigious Boston Consulting Group. “I had taken all these decisions with an attitude of ‘What the hell, let’s give it a try and see what happens,’” he writes.

Tragedy soon brought his life into focus. On July 4, 1976, as the United States celebrated its bicentennial, an Air France flight taking off from Tel Aviv was diverted to Entebbe, Uganda, by Palestinian and German terrorists. An Israeli commando force raided the airfield where the hostages were held. More than 100 hostages were successfully liberated, but an Israeli officer was killed in the rescue. Netanyahu was living in Boston at the time with his then wife, Miki Weissman, whom he started seeing while both were still in high school. He went by the name Ben Nitay and worked as a consultant. That summer night, the couple’s phone rang. As he picked up the receiver, he recalls in his memoir, he told Miki: “It’s Iddo, to tell me that Yoni is dead.” His premonition proved right. Iddo, his younger brother, was on the line from Jerusalem. Yoni, their older brother, had been killed in the raid.

Bibi and Yoni shared an extraordinary bond. “I think I love him more than anyone else in the world,” Yoni wrote in a letter to his girlfriend in 1964. At times, they were each other’s sole family. Their parents left Israel with them when they were young, after Benzion failed to secure an academic position. They resorted to a lengthy American exile, with Benzion working first at Dropsie College in Pennsylvania and later at Cornell. The parents were notoriously absent, spending months abroad and leaving Netanyahu with friends.

Netanyahu speaks in front of a banner depicting his late brother Yoni Netanyahu.Credit…Amir Cohen/AFP, via Getty Images

“Bibi spent the whole summer in Israel alone when he was 13, and they didn’t bother calling him more than once,” someone who knew him as a child recently recalled. Bibi “was different from all of us from a very young age in his over-independence,” he went on. “What you see is a lonely person. He didn’t have this thing that the rest of us had” — a warm parental presence.

Benzion, who died in 2012 at age 102, was an intransigent, difficult man. But the boys “worshiped him,” Dan Netanyahu, a cousin, told me. For Bibi, “the image of the father remains a guiding light,” his friend Ziffer says.

As a young man, Benzion evangelized the views of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the right-wing Revisionist movement. Jabotinky believed in territorial maximalism, which he considered a “revision” to the too-compromising interpretation of Zionism advocated by the country’s founding generation. He viewed Jewish history as an ongoing series of catastrophes. Toward the end of the Second World War, he “regarded the Palestinian leadership as a continuation of the Nazis — the embodiment of evil,” Adi Armon, a scholar of Jewish history and author of essays on the elder Netanyahu, published in Haaretz, told me. Bibi has inherited much of his father’s pessimistic worldview. Friends recall him warning against Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, which became a singular diplomatic and strategic milestone.

He also took on his father’s resentments. “Netanyahu presents this impressive combination of a strongman who’s also a victim,” Barnea says. It’s a paradox typical of right-wing leaders in the West, Barnea adds, but in Netanyahu’s case, “I think it truly represents what he thinks of himself.”

The night in 1976 when he heard of Yoni’s death, Bibi drove seven hours to Ithaca, N.Y., to break the news to his parents. Benzion greeted him with a surprised smile, but “when he saw my face, he instantly understood,” Netanyahu writes in his memoir. “He let out a terrible cry like a wounded animal.” The Netanyahu family founded a think tank in Yoni’s name, the Jonathan Institute, for the study of terrorism. The institute would lend Netanyahu gravitas and connections; it would also help start his political career. People who knew Netanyahu at the time say that were it not for Yoni’s death, they doubt whether he or his parents would even have returned to live in Israel.

To ease his foray into politics, Netanyahu took up work as a marketing executive at one of Israel’s largest furniture manufacturers. The decision appears to have been mostly financial. But the salesman in him, who pitches people using hyperbole and deception, has never quit. His stage presence and his easily digestible, good-versus-evil outlook on the Middle East set him apart when he began his career as a young diplomat. By 1982, he was back in the United States, serving as deputy ambassador to Washington during the early years of the Reagan administration. The jingoism of that time has remained a Netanyahu trademark: “It is not the Jews who usurp the land from the Arabs, but the Arabs who usurp the land from the Jews,” he writes in his memoir, adding, “The Jews are the original natives, the Arabs the colonialists.”

In 1984, Netanyahu was named as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, and he later threw himself into defending the right-wing policies of Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister, with gusto and skill. He became a fixture on “Nightline” and U.S. news, learning to present his best side to the camera: the one that hid the scar on his lip (a result of a childhood game involving an electric socket). During one memorable appearance, at the height of the gulf war, air-raid sirens sounded while he was on the air from Jerusalem. Rather than cut the interview short, Netanyahu — ever attuned to ratings — suggested that they keep rolling with gas masks on. Larry King told Vanity Fair that women used to stop by the studio to inquire about his dashing guest from Israel.

In the middle of a live TV interview in 1991, Netanyahu put on a gas mask when air-raid sirens sounded during the gulf war.Credit…Mario Suriani/Associated Press

Netanyahu’s first marriage ended when Miki, pregnant with their daughter, discovered that he had been carrying on an affair with Fleur Cates, a British-German student he had met at Harvard Business School. He and Cates — who, the Israeli tabloids were scandalized to note, was not Jewish when they met — married in 1981. After Netanyahu’s stint at the United Nations ended, in 1988, the couple moved to Tel Aviv. They lived rent-free in a seafront apartment belonging to the Australian billionaire John Gandel, two independent sources told me. This was an early indication of Netanyahu’s cozying up to moneyed friends, a pattern that would come back to haunt him. His thriftiness is, by now, infamous. “He is stingy to the point of extreme,” Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former national-security adviser, who has since turned into a critic, told me. “He cannot pay for his lunches!” A former employee of Benzion’s recalled of Bibi, with whom she also worked for a while, “He was a person who walked around without a wallet.”

As Netanyahu and Cates settled in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu quickly established himself on the Likud roster. He showed little reverence for party seniority. “His innovation was that he moved from the outside in,” Elkin, the former Likud minister, told me. He set up marathon sessions with many of the 2,500 voters who made up the committee that determined the party’s list for Parliament.

But he soon encountered a problem: A group of well-connected and much admired second-generation politicians, known as the Likud “princes,” had their own ambitions. They included Ehud Olmert, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. “One day I get a phone call, and it’s Bibi,” Olmert recalled recently. “He wants to come see me. So I meet him, and he tells me: ‘Listen, there are only two people who can run this country. Me and you. Let’s make a deal. I don’t need more than one term. I’ll take a term, and you take a term.’ He tells me, ‘Just don’t go against me.’ I told him: ‘What are you talking about? Is this a private bargain? Besides, I’m in no rush.’ So we say goodbye, and I tell him that I support him.” A few days later, Olmert says, he recounted that conversation to Meridor. Meridor told Olmert: “He told me that there were only two people who could run this country. Him and me.” Later, Olmert ran into Benny Begin, who said: “He told me that it was him and me.”

Netanyahu dispensed with the princes — one after another. He has done the same with every other rival who has threatened to gain prominence. “He always took care to decapitate those who grew strong,” Elkin told me.

By 1992, Labor had overturned Likud’s political dominance. Rabin was elected prime minister and embarked on historic peace talks with the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat. A year later, Netanyahu clinched the Likud chairmanship, ousting Shamir, his former boss. He set about excoriating the peace talks, and the subsequent Oslo Accords, every chance he had. Not that he had many: Rabin, Arafat and Israel’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 and were exalted internationally. The Israeli media, which had previously celebrated its young, Americanized diplomat, became critical of him. “The only game in town was Oslo,” Pfeffer says.

Yet Netanyahu soon won the opinion on the street. Mass-casualty suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorists on Israeli buses and on bustling promenades turned the Israeli public against the recently signed treaty. Netanyahu presented himself as a bellicose alternative to the left-wing government’s concessions. He installed himself at the sites of the attacks, lambasting Rabin. In October 1995, he gave an infamous balcony speech at a Jerusalem protest in which some protesters carried signs of Rabin dressed as a Nazi. Netanyahu later claimed that he did not witness such incitement from his perch, though other Likud politicians who were present sensed what was brewing and walked away. A month later, a Jewish extremist assassinated Rabin at the end of a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

In elections held the following year, Netanyahu defied the polls and a newly hostile press and triumphed over Peres. For right-wing voters, this was a deliverance from the Oslo debacle. For the left, there was no recovering from the bloodied circumstances that brought about his rule.

One paradox of Netanyahu’s time in office is that although he is venerated in Israel for his presence on the world stage, he has made few friends there. According to Aaron David Miller’s “The Much Too Promised Land,” an exasperated Bill Clinton came out of their first meeting in 1996 fuming to aides: “Who the [expletive] does he think he is? Who’s the [expletive] superpower here?” Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, used to describe Netanyahu unfavorably as an “Israeli Newt Gingrich” and felt condescended to, Miller, who worked for her, has written. In 2011, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was caught on mic complaining to President Barack Obama, “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar.” Obama responded, “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was caught on mic complaining to President Barack Obama.Credit…Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

That May, Netanyahu traveled to Washington for a scheduled meeting with Obama in the Oval Office. From the outset, their relationship had been strained. During their first meeting in office, two years earlier, according to Netanyahu’s memoir, he expected pleasantries when Obama suddenly turned to him.

“Bibi,” he recalled Obama saying. “I meant what I said. I expect you to immediately freeze all construction in the areas beyond the 1967 borders. Not one brick!”

Netanyahu tried to deflect with the usual shtick. “Israel,” he told Obama, “is willing to begin unconditional peace talks with the Palestinians immediately.”

But Obama was undeterred. Coming from Chicago, he told Netanyahu, he knew how to deal with tough opponents. “He then said something out of character that shocked me deeply,” Netanyahu writes. He doesn’t specify what it was, but in Mualem’s book, Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, described the moment: “I know how to deal with people who oppose me,” Obama reportedly said and then made a slashing gesture across his throat.

Now Netanyahu was stunned again. The day before they met, Obama reiterated in a speech his demand for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories in the West Bank.

“I was absolutely furious,” Netanyahu wrote. In front of a roomful of reporters, he seemed to lecture Obama, saying, “It’s not going to happen.”

Obama and Netanyahu meeting at the White House in 2011. They had a frosty relationship.Credit…Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Obama was understandably dubious when, in 2013, John Kerry, his secretary of state, pressed him to begin peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Still, Obama told Kerry to proceed. The issue of Palestinian refugees became a major flashpoint. At stake was whether Israel would grant refugees who had fled or been expelled from the country during its war for independence in 1948 a “right of return,” as the Palestinians demanded.

Speaking via video conference from Paris, Kerry and Martin Indyk, the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinean negotiations, proposed to Netanyahu that Israel would take in a symbolic number of refugees and contribute to a fund that would provide further compensation. Netanyahu then asked to take a break. When it was time to resume, half an hour later, the Israeli negotiators “came into the room, and said, ‘We’re very sorry, the prime minister is indisposed,’” Indyk recalls. Netanyahu had reportedly gone over the details of the refugee agreement with his media adviser, who told him that it was a “complete disaster” and that the Israeli public “would never accept it,” Indyk says.

“It was at that point that he apparently had a breakdown,” Indyk adds. “The pressure came not because we were putting the screws on him, but because he was thinking of the politics of it and how he would try to sell it.” This wasn’t the first time that Netanyahu had taken ill at critical junctures. At least a dozen people, including his friend Ziffer, told me about health problems he has experienced when he was under intense pressure.

In the summer of 2013, U.S. negotiators drew up a document that would serve as a basis for a final peace deal. Its language said that Israel would retreat to its pre-1967 borders with “reality-driven swaps”: Israel’s largest settlement blocs would be left in place in exchange for other territory. This time, though he has never publicly acknowledged it, Netanyahu was willing to accept the terms.

Tzipi Livni, a centrist politician who served as Israel’s chief negotiator for peace, told me, “Netanyahu agreed to the American paper that was based on the ’67 borders.” This seems almost unimaginable in hindsight: that Netanyahu, who has done more than any other leader to entrench Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, agreed to the framework for a historic peace agreement that would have ended it. The deal never materialized, Livni added, in part because Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, never gave his response. Soon after the paper circulated, Abbas announced a reconciliation between his Fatah party and Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organization. This buried any prospects for a deal. Indyk confirmed that Netanyahu appeared open to accepting the 1967 outline. But he has since come to believe that Netanyahu never intended to follow through. “He saw the ’67 language. The question was, Was he serious about it? My view is that both leaders were not serious. They were ready to blame the other.”

Biden, Indyk says, agrees. He “doesn’t think Netanyahu’s serious when it comes to peacemaking. He admires Netanyahu’s political skill but is skeptical about his statesmanship.”

Talk to Netanyahu’s longtime observers, and you come away convinced that he is a heartfelt ideologue, his father’s son. Talk to others, and he’s a calculated pragmatist. He has been compared in the Israeli press to a “weather vane” blowing with the wind. He advocated a nation-state law that relegates Arab Israelis (who make up 21 percent of the public) to second-class citizenship but was also responsible for passing an unprecedented $3 billion program to improve living conditions in Arab communities. He used to endorse a two-state solution (publicly, at least), before announcing his intention to annex parts of the West Bank when it became politically expedient. He reassured protesters that he would not pass the judicial overhaul unilaterally, then watched as his Likud base responded with outrage and announced that it would move forward anyway.

What the left “doesn’t get,” a source close to Netanyahu says, “is that he’s very flexible, and he will switch, but for him there are issues and then there are politics.” The source adds: “Iran is the big issue for him. His thinking is, Everything else I have to navigate to thwart that danger; if I’m not here, then I can’t deal with this big issue. Saudi Arabia is also very big for him right now. Principles are big issues, and the rest is pragmatism.”

The most consistent he has been on any issue is on the prospects of a nuclear Iran. But that has proved a colossal failure. At least three former Mossad chiefs have called Netanyahu’s actions on Iran dangerous. In 2015, he blindsided Obama by speaking out in Congress against the United States’ signing “a very bad deal” with Iran, even though a deal was imminent and Democratic support was all but ensured. In fact, according to Indyk, while Netanyahu knew that the United States and Iran had been negotiating, he himself was blindsided by the nuclear agreement. “He was screaming at Kerry the day after the framework deal was announced,” Indyk says. “He was furious.” Three years later, at Netanyahu’s urging, President Trump pulled out of that agreement. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to produce “several” bombs, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned earlier this year. Iran’s enrichment is “100 percent the result of the U.S. pulling out of the agreement,” Tamir Hayman, a former Israel military intelligence chief and the managing director of the Institute for National Security Studies, told me. Hayman called the pullout from the deal a “grave mistake,” adding, “We retreated from Plan A without having a Plan B in place.”

Netanyahu gives a speech against the Iran nuclear deal to the U.S. Congress in 2015.Credit…Win McNamee/Getty Images

Elkin, the former Likud minister, believes that Netanyahu’s sole governing ideology is his own survival. “He began with a worldview that said, ‘I’m the best leader for Israel at this time,’” Elkin says. “Slowly it morphed into a worldview that said, ‘The worst thing that can happen to Israel is if I stop leading it, and therefore my survival justifies anything.’ From there, you quickly reach a worldview of ‘The state is me.’ He believes in it wholeheartedly.”

It’s impossible to grasp Netanyahu’s complex brew of self-regard and insecurity without understanding his marriage to his third and current wife, Sara. In one astonishing recording from 2002, released by the public broadcaster Kan, Sara can be heard lashing out at those who have criticized her husband: “Bibi is bigger than this country!” she declares. “People here want to be slaughtered and burned? Why should he even bother? We’ll move abroad, and the whole country can burn.”

In reporting for this article, I tried to resist the “family narrative” that characterizes much of the reporting on Netanyahu, which presents him as a kind of pawn, an unwitting captive of his wife’s and elder son’s demands. But while its conclusion may be faulty, implying that Netanyahu is somehow subservient, I have become convinced that his family plays a significant role in his decision-making and, ultimately, in how the country is run. The stories range from the salacious to the serious: from allegations that Sara had routinely underpaid, overworked and verbally abused employees of the prime minister’s residence to reports in The Washington Post that she used to take suitcases of dirty laundry on her husband’s official flights to Washington so as to enjoy the free dry-cleaning services offered to official guests of the White House. Netanyahu has denied all of these claims.

He met Sara Ben-Artzi in 1988 on a layover at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. She was 30 and a flight attendant; he was 39 and Israel’s deputy foreign minister. They went out on several dates, but according to Ben Caspit’s “The Netanyahu Years,” there was no great chemistry. Soon after that, he told friends that they broke up. By 1991, they had reunited. They married in March of that year at his parents’ house in Jerusalem; Sara was visibly pregnant.

Two years later, Netanyahu shocked the nation when he went on the air and confessed to having cheated on his new wife. In the aftermath of the affair, there were reports in the Israeli press about rumors that Sara had agreed to take him back only after making him sign some sort of secret agreement stipulating that he could not have contact with other women without her knowledge and could go hardly anywhere without her. She also intervened at work. “Sara was shot into the Prime Minister’s Office as from a cannon,” Caspit writes in his book. The former senior aide to Netanyahu told me, “Our whole goal was to build a layer of defense around Bibi to protect him from Sara’s madness and allow him to do his work.” The portrait that emerges from such stories is of a scorned, grifting, raging woman. In various successful lawsuits and investigative reports over the years, this portrait appears to bear out.

Since his indictment in 2019, Netanyahu’s bond with Sara seems to have hardened. In their view, they are victims of a state plot to unseat them. The state prosecution claims that from 2011 to 2016, Netanyahu accepted a steady supply of cigars, cases of Champagne and jewelry from Arnon Milchan, an Israeli film producer in Hollywood, and James Packer, an Australian billionaire. In exchange for these presents, estimated to have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the prosecution says that Netanyahu lobbied U.S. officials to help Milchan renew his U.S. visa and tried to lighten his tax burden in Israel. (Milchan and Packer are not on trial, and Packer has not been accused of a quid pro quo.) A former Netanyahu spokesman who turned state witness in 2018 told prosecutors that he had learned of “a method, let’s say, in which, on every visit abroad, the Netanyahu family was attached to a walking credit card on two legs” — meaning to local benefactors.

In 2021, an unusual video went viral in Israel. Set against a black background, it featured the account of a man named David Artzi. Artzi, the former deputy head of Israel Aerospace Industries, met with David Shimron, Netanyahu’s cousin who was then his private lawyer in 1999. Shimron, Artzi claimed, had recently been fired by another client, and in trying to illustrate to Artzi that he was still in demand, he brought up his work with Netanyahu. He opened his briefcase and pulled out a contract that he had drawn up between Sara and Bibi. “So I read it over carefully, slowly, slowly, and I almost faint,” Artzi recalled. It was 15 pages long and, according to Artzi, stated that “he would have no credit cards, only she would, and that if he needed money she would give it to him in cash.” It also outlined Sara’s veto power over appointments including the military’s chief of staff, the head of Shin Bet and the head of the Mossad, Artzi said. Shimron denies Artzi’s account and has since sued him for libel. In testimony early this year, Sara Netanyahu said that “this agreement did not exist,” and Netanyahu called Artzi’s account a “gross lie.”

But the former senior defense official said he was convinced of Sara’s power. He told me that he had spoken to someone who had witnessed Netanyahu grilling a candidate for a sensitive role about personal “loyalty.” The former Netanyahu spokesman told the investigative program “Hamakor,” “There is an agreement that the innermost appointments in the bureau don’t pass without a green light from Sara Netanyahu.”

However shaky the beginning of their relationship, by now there is no question that Netanyahu is deeply committed to his wife. Pfeffer, Netanyahu’s biographer, told me: “Sara is the most hated woman in Israel. If he divorced her, he would probably be more popular. He loves her. She’s a problem in many ways, but he also relies on her.” He works tirelessly to clear her name and to get her the plaudits he feels she deserves. His efforts have embroiled him in one of the corruption cases for which he’s under indictment.

Known in Israel as Case 4000, it details allegations that, in exchange for giving the owner of the news site Walla regulatory benefits, Netanyahu had sought favorable coverage for himself and his family, claims that the defendants have denied. Many of the demands, according to the indictment, had to do with Sara. (Walla ran stories about her “fashionable makeover,” lighting Hanukkah candles with Holocaust survivors and attending a Mariah Carey concert.)

Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, on the way to a state visit to the United States in 1996.Credit…Yaakov Saar/GPO, via Getty Images.

Critics of Netanyahu argue that his insistence on forging ahead with the judicial overhaul stems from his legal woes. Netanyahu and his inner circle reject the argument. But Elkin, the former Likud minister, recalled that Netanyahu summoned him to his office in 2020, as his trial got underway. Earlier, Netanyahu signed a power-sharing agreement with the centrist Gantz, whereby he would serve first in rotation as prime minister and Gantz would serve second. Now Netanyahu told Elkin that he wished to renege on that agreement. “I was very much opposed, and told him why,” Elkin says. “He listened and nodded and then he said something I will never forget. He said, ‘If I don’t call an election now, I won’t get to nominate the next state prosecutor.’ He was willing to risk everything just to save his own skin.”

If you were to identify a turning point in Netanyahu’s 16-year rule, the election of 2015 would be it. The previous year, Netanyahu called for the dissolution of Parliament over disagreements with his center-left coalition partners, including their attempts to pass a law that would curb the influence of a free newspaper bankrolled by the U.S. mogul Sheldon Adelson that was widely seen as friendly to Netanyahu. That decision reflected his growing obsession with his own press coverage and a sharp rightward turn in his political calculus. Told by the news media and many advisers that he was facing defeat, Netanyahu ended up winning that election decisively — thanks in large part to a by-now infamous video in which he warned against the voting rights of a fifth of the public: “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.” Netanyahu’s scare-tactics campaign that year was the brainchild of his son Yair, together with two of Yair’s friends from the military spokesperson’s unit who now run Netanyahu’s social media strategy.

Two days after the election, according to Netanyahu’s former senior aide, “he called his advisers into a meeting and told them that one person was in charge of this victory. Then he turned to Yair. Some people in the room were shocked.” Before that night, the former aide continued: “Sara and Yair kept telling him that he was all-powerful, but he didn’t think so. He was like me and you. After that win, he really started to believe that he was above the country.” That year, Netanyahu not only served as Israel’s prime minister but also held the positions of foreign minister, health minister and communications minister. “He no longer speaks in years but in decades,” the columnist Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz.

With Yair’s backing, Netanyahu realized that by playing to his base’s resentments, he could simply write off the political center. His close adviser Natan Eshel admitted as much. “This public — I call it the non-Ashkenazi camp — what gets it going?” Eshel said in a tape released by the magazine program “Uvda” in 2020. “We’ve managed to fuel this, this hate. It’s what unites us.”

Long before the invention of Trumpism, there was Bibism. It, too, has been marked by a strain of grievance politics and a galvanizing of the ranks against perceived elites. But the election of Trump, which happened to coincide with the start of the police investigations into Netanyahu, has bolstered Netanyahu’s confrontational styles. With Trump, in general, “Netanyahu got everything he wanted,” Amit Segal, a political reporter for Channel 12, told me in 2021. Israel got a pass on settlement construction in the West Bank and signed normalization accords with four Arab states; the United States withdrew from the Iran agreement and moved its embassy to Jerusalem. “Our years together were the best ever for the Israeli-American alliance,” Netanyahu writes in his memoir.

Netanyahu’s attacks on the courts have since grown constant (“ginned-up cases”; “attempt to overthrow the government”), as have those on veteran Israeli journalists (“a woman of the extreme left”; “ leaders of an orchestrated rebellion”). In recent years, he has shunned Israeli mainstream media, opting instead for Facebook Live videos and frequent “exclusive” interviews with Channel 14, a media outlet that he has personally helped elevate into one of the most-watched news programs in the country. His inner circle has changed, too, from an abundance of freethinking policy advisers to a narrow group of loyalists. Behind all these decisions, insiders say, lurks the figure Yair Netanyahu.

In a country in which the American alt-right is largely unfamiliar, Yair Netanyahu is a fan of Breitbart News, Mark Levin and Ben Shapiro. He is embraced by the Fidesz party of Viktor Orban in Hungary, where earlier this year he attended a conference on the media and denounced a “global elite” and a state of “Sorosization” with seemingly little awareness of the antisemitic overtones. At 32, he has never held down a job that wasn’t directly connected to his father.

Whatever caution Netanyahu still possesses in attacking opponents is wholly lacking from his son’s arsenal of obscenities. Yair has tweeted that two Israeli news channels were an “existential threat to the State of Israel as much as Iran!” and compared protesters against the judicial overhaul to Nazi storm troopers. Yair reportedly urged his father to push through the controversial legislation despite wide public disapproval. This spring, after heated arguments at home, Bibi and Sara ordered Yair off social media, according to reporting by Shalev, the Walla journalist. His Twitter presence went down to zero posts a day from 77. And then, for the next couple of months, Yair disappeared from public view. He has left the country, shuttling between Puerto Rico and Miami, where, according to Caspit, he has been getting help with job referrals from Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. (Kushner’s father, Charles, is a longtime family friend of Netanyahu’s.) In April, during a news conference, Netanyahu was asked about Yair’s degree of influence. “Zero,” he replied.

In mid-August, as lawmakers scampered for their summer vacations, the Netanyahus visited the northern township Ramot, on the Golan Heights. It’s a quiet, pastoral place, with rolling farmland and gravelly roads. But when Bibi and Sara arrived with a long police motorcade, a thousand anti-government protesters awaited them, carrying Israeli flags and blowing bicycle horns. Tensions were palpable throughout the country. In July, as the judicial overhaul resurfaced, Netanyahu fainted. Several days later, he was fitted with a pacemaker. Doctors revealed a history of heart problems that had been kept from the public.

In early September, Israel’s Supreme Court heard petitions against the amendment to strike down the court’s ability to cite “extreme unreasonableness” in government decisions. For the first time in Israel’s history, all 15 justices convened for a single case. Leading economists caution that without the standard of reasonableness, Israel will experience an increase in political and public corruption. Several Likud lawmakers have already indicated that if the court rules against the proposed amendment, they might not abide by the ruling. This would throw the country into an unprecedented constitutional crisis. On Sept. 28, the court was scheduled to hear a challenge to another law, which protects the prime minister from being removed from office on grounds of incapacitation. It’s this law that Netanyahu is said to care about most, though there is little evidence to support his fear that he would be ousted. Israel’s attorney general has warned that passing the law was a “flagrant misuse” of Parliament’s authority.

Still another court hearing looms. Until now, during the three years of his trial, Netanyahu has resisted taking a plea bargain, which would most likely require him to admit wrongdoing and thus avoid prison time but force him out of political life for years. His former senior aide told me that Sara wouldn’t let him consider such a deal: “She is clinging to power at all costs.” Things may be different now. Next year, the prosecution is expected to wrap up its side of the hearings, and Netanyahu will be called to take the witness stand. It’s a prospect he dreads. “His close associates have told me that he doesn’t want to testify,” Shalev, the Walla reporter, says. “There are gaps between the things he told police and what his lawyers wrote in their defense, and he doesn’t want those gaps to be exposed. It will make him out to be a liar.”

Netanyahu accompanied by members of his Likud party at the district court in Jerusalem in 2020.Credit…Yonatan Sindel/Associated Press.

Observers who follow the trial closely say that he might accept a plea bargain this time. Especially if Israel and Saudi Arabia manage to reach a normalization agreement — an agreement that, by all accounts, Netanyahu is desperate to sign. Perhaps then the historical record will show a palpable achievement: something to distract from the crisis in his own country that he has helped engineer. For years, liberal Israelis were afraid that a right-wing coalition would come along and annex West Bank settlements. “Then came the twist,” the author Etgar Keret wrote earlier this year. “Instead, the settlers annexed the country.”

These may be the twilight months of Israel’s longest-serving leader, then, a feeble coda to two decades’ worth of power and bluster and ego.

This summer, a TikTok video that the Netanyahus posted from their vacation in Ramot piqued the ire of the protesters. The Netanyahus are sitting at a small dining table, a bottle of rosé chilling in a cooler beside them. Netanyahu wore Barbie-pink sunglasses, and took them off for the camera. “I don’t see the world in rose-colored glasses,” he says smiling, in a rehearsed tone. “I want to assure you: Things are much better. It’s fun to spend a few days in the Sea of Galilee!”

“And the Golan Heights!” Sara chimes in. “The country belongs to all of us.”

“Enjoy yourselves!” Netanyahu says.


Ruth Margalit is a contributing writer living in Tel Aviv. She last wrote a cover story about a decade-old murder that has consumed Israel.

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