Imagine a documentary film tracing the biography of Barack Obama from the point of view of his political opponents. Such a film would psychoanalyze him, question his motives and treat his political ideology as the result of mad obsessions and irrational judgments. His motives would be questioned. The distorted narrative of the picture — which would eliminate the context of his decisions — would be carried by interviews with pundits and foes that despise him. It would, in other words, be kind of like Dinesh D’Souza’s “2016: Obama’s America,” a documentary polemic that was applauded by many conservative partisans but disdained by the arts world and the mainstream press as right-wing propaganda unworthy of a viewing or even a dispassionate analysis.
Translate that formula into a film about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and what you get is “Netanyahu At War,” a two-hour documentary that aired in primetime on taxpayer-funded PBS television stations this week.
That liberal-oriented PBS’s Frontline series would broadcast a hit job on the Israeli leader is hardly a surprise. PBS and its sister radio network NPR have a long history of bias against Israel. Moreover, Netanyahu is deeply unpopular among American liberals who resent his strong stand against U.S. pressure on the peace process. What’s more his willingness to publicly challenge President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal has put a bulls-eye on his back as far as administration cheerleaders are concerned.
But rather than dismiss “Netanyahu at War” as just the latest piece of anti-Israel propaganda, those who care about the Jewish state need to consider it closely. That is not because it brings much insight to a consideration of Netanyahu’s life or the issues facing Israel because those are things it consistently fails to do. Rather it deserves to be studied because it provides a classic example of the misunderstandings about the Middle East conflict that pass for insight among mainstream journalists with large followings. Moreover, its highly selective historical narrative of the past 25 years tells us exactly why Israel’s positions are assailed in the liberal media.
As for its treatment of Netanyahu’s personality, we must start by admitting that the film’s subject is not a particularly likable figure. Warm and fuzzy is not his normal mode of communication. If glowering, frowning pictures dominate the images of the film it is due in part to the fact that those expressions are the prime minister’s natural look. Nor does his personal story easily lend itself to the sort of hagiography that, for example, generally passes for treatment of President Obama — the person that the film correctly positions as Netanyahu’s main adversary over the course of the last seven years.
But one doesn’t have to be a fan of Netanyahu or even a political supporter to understand that the basic psychological premise of the film is absurd. To understand Netanyahu, the film tells us, you must realize that his historian father taught him that the world is out to get the Jews. Netanyahu is obsessed with anti-Semitism and the notion that Israel is surrounded by an Arab and Muslim world that wishes to destroy the Jewish state. Netanyahu is, therefore, always at war with enemies, both perceived and real, leading Israel into endless and often counter-productive fights.
While Netanyahu does have a combative personality, the problem with this formulation is pretty obvious. The fact is, as the history of the last century, if not the previous 20 attest, the world has been out to get the Jews. Enemies who want to destroy it besiege Israel. As the old expression goes, even paranoids can have enemies, and that is certainly true of the one Jewish state on the planet. Netanyahu’s view of the region is rooted in realism and those who pretend otherwise, including Obama and most of Netanyahu’s critics, are the fantasists.
While the historical distortions that frame the narrative are really too numerous to analyze in detail, almost all of them stem from that main mistake. Thus, while we hear a great deal about both Netanyahu and Obama in this film, we get precious little about the main actors that have decided the issues of war and peace far more than even those two individuals: the Palestinians.
That is the explanation for one of the key myths that the film seeks to keep alive: that Netanyahu incited the assassin who murdered Yitzhak Rabin and killed the peace that he might have brought the region. According to the film, Netanyahu rose to the leadership of the opposition to Rabin and ruthlessly drummed up opposition to the Oslo Accords, seeking to tear the nation apart just as peace was finally becoming possible. It depicts opponents of the accord as convulsed by an irrational hatred of the peace process that was given structure and form by Netanyahu’s paranoid worldview.
But what it fails to point out is that the opposition to Oslo only grew as the accords were proved a failure by the uptick in Palestinian terrorism. In the documentary, Palestinian suicide bombings are only mentioned as having begun after Rabin’s death as cynical radicals sought to help Netanyahu defeat Rabin’s successor Shimon Peres in the 1996 elections. But they had started long before the assassination, which is why Netanyahu’s claim that he would have beaten Rabin, as polls foretold at the time of the murder, was credible. The film fails to mention that Yasir Arafat, depicted here as a peacemaker, subsidized those terror operations and openly boasted to his own people that the peace process was merely a “phase” that would be followed by future wars aimed at destroying Israel.
While some of the rhetoric aimed at Rabin was over-the-top and unfair, the anger about the fact that Israel had traded land for terror rather than peace was genuine. To claim that the entire opposition, including Netanyahu, had no right to point this out in strong terms is to delegitimize public debate on a life-and-death issue in a democracy, especially a fractious one such as in Israel. The effort to blame Netanyahu for the assassination was a canard that has been consistently and correctly rejected by most Israelis who are not his partisan opponents.
The same basic error characterizes its depiction of Netanyahu’s stormy relationship with Bill Clinton. Oslo failed not because Netanyahu “slow-walked” the negotiations but because the U.S. was so dedicated to the process that they failed to hold Arafat and the Palestinian Authority accountable for terrorism and educating its people to hate Israel and the Jews. As even some Clinton staffers later admitted, this failure convinced the Palestinians they could push the U.S. and the Israelis as hard as they like and never be made to pay for terror or a refusal to make peace.
All of this adds up to a basic misconception about Netanyahu that not only smears him but also gives him far more credit than he actually deserves. For all of his influence and political success — he’s been elected prime minister four times in the last 20 years — those victories and the consequent destruction of the once dominant Labor Party and left-wing peace camp it led was not the result of Bibi’s political genius. The relegation of Labor — which seemed ready to reassume its position as the natural party of government in the 1990s — to a splinter party with little hope of ever leading the country again was entirely the work of the Palestinians.
It was the Palestinians that refused to use Oslo to build peace with Israel. Instead, they treated the pact, as Netanyahu warned they would, as a platform for continuing the conflict on more advantageous terms. The film mentions Arafat’s refusal of Ehud Barak’s offer of an independent Palestinian state including almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem even though it treats that cynical decision as self-preservation on his part. But it credits the second intifada — a bloody terrorist war of attrition — he started in the aftermath of his refusal to frustration rather than his calculation.
The documentary doesn’t even mention Ariel Sharon’s complete withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Every Israeli soldier, settlement, and settler was pulled out, and the result was the creation of a terror state led by Hamas that used the territory as a terrorist launching pad. That failure is key to understanding why even Israelis that don’t like Netanyahu think calls for more withdrawals from the West Bank are madness.
It also fails to mention how Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas turned down an even more generous peace offer in 2008 or his refusal to negotiate seriously in the subsequent years as President Obama sought to tilt the diplomatic field in his direction. If most Israelis agree with Netanyahu now, it is not because he exploited their fears but because, unlike the producers of this film or most American liberals, they have been paying attention to the history of the last 20 years. Israelis understand that the Palestinians have made it clear that they will not recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Had they done so at any point, Netanyahu’s epic political comeback after his 1999 defeat would never have been possible and his current three-term run would have been cut short.
As for Netanyahu’s conflict with Obama, the film does provide a bit more context there though it bizarrely takes the president’s claim to be sympathetic to Israel at face value. Obama clearly came into office devoted to the idea of creating more “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel and has spent the last seven years demonstrating how to do it. Though Netanyahu played his part in the epic battles between the two, the terms of that conflict have always been set by the Obama administration. It has consistently sought to ambush the Israelis and to pressure them into concessions even though the Palestinians have made it clear they aren’t interested in peace. That dysfunction was accentuated by the disconnect between the two men, but it doesn’t really explain it. Even when Netanyahu sought to appease Obama — as he did by agreeing to a settlement freeze that somehow the film fails to mention— the Palestinians still refused to negotiate. But in the film as in the narrative about Israel that is the gospel of liberal critics of Israel, the Palestinians are consistently denied agency for their actions. They are the missing pieces to a puzzle that the filmmakers and the Obama foreign policy team never notice.
With the Arab Spring and the Iran nuclear issue, the divide between the two has always been framed by Obama’s fantasies about a rapprochement between the West and radical Islam and Netanyahu’s realistic understanding of forces that hate the U.S. as much as Israel. History will judge whether he was right about the nuclear accord, but so far his track record when it comes to debunking optimism has been impeccable.
While Netanyahu is a complex figure that has made his share of mistakes in office, his dominance of Israeli politics in the last generation is a function of the failure of the peace processers to understand the nature of the conflict with the Jewish state’s enemies. If he is hated by Obama and his staffers as well as by the liberal pundits who provide most of the commentary in the film, it is not because he was obdurate but because his realism exposed the foolishness of their illusions. Netanyahu may be the boogeyman of American liberals who is at fault for all of the tragedies of the modern Middle East whether it is Rabin’s death, the failure of the peace process or the undermining of the U.S.-Israel alliance. But his real sin is that he is the scapegoat for the failure of their fantasies. “Netanyahu at War” tells us little of value about the prime minister or Israel’s predicament. But it speaks volumes about the misconceptions about the Middle East believed by both the administration and the liberal mainstream media that are of touch with reality.