This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Here’s a note from author Max Blumenthal:
At the G20 conference in 2011, France’s then-president Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama were caught on an open mic grumbling about a mutual annoyance.
“I cannot bear Netanyahu. He’s a liar,” Sarkozy remarked to Obama.
“You’re fed up with him, what about me?” responded Obama. “I have to deal with him every day.”
Obama was hardly exaggerating. Having been forced to meet with Netanyahu more frequently than with any other foreign leader since entering the Oval Office, he has been transformed into The Bibisitter. When Obama pledged to “get Israel’s back” and Netanyahu has responded by lecturing him on Jewish history, insisting that the lessons of the Holocaust compel the US to attack Iran. When Netanyahu’s summoning of the nightmare of Auschwitz failed to ignite war in the Middle East, he and his billionaire benefactor Sheldon Adelson threw their weight behind Mitt Romney in a campaign to unseat the appeaser Obama. That failed too, and now a panicked Netanyahu has rushed back to the White House following Obama’s landmark phone call with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.
In my new book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, I present readers with the real Netanyahu: He is the transferist who urged mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians when he thought the world’s attention was elsewhere; the slick salesman who hijacked American airwaves during the Gulf War; the messianist who presents gullible foreign columnists with a magical ring asserting his holy bond with Jerusalem and the exclusively Jewish right to control the city for eternity; and the Holocaust-obsessed scaremonger stoking panic over the “insatiable crocodile of militant Islam” that controls the Iranian “nuclear duck.” As extreme as he might seem, in today’s Israel, Netanyahu stakes out the political center and sits to the left of the young upstarts who control the destiny of his dominant Likud Party.
When Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly, he attempted to present the Iranian regime as dangerously irrational and unhinged — too dangerous to be allowed to “have [its] yellowcake and eat it too,” as he put it. But as the leader of the only Middle Eastern nation with nuclear weapons, could the same not be said about him and the government he leads? Read the following excerpt from my book and decide.
Raised in suburban Philadelphia and educated in business management at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Netanyahu pitched himself to Israelis as the man best able to explain Israel’s supposedly unique situation to the world, and especially to its chief benefactor in Washington. During the Gulf War of 1991, when Netanyahu served as deputy foreign minister, he emerged as a familiar face on CNN, the first twenty-four-hour American news channel. Following a successful Likud-inspired campaign the previous year to oust CNN’s chief Jerusalem correspondents, branding them as “self-hating Jews” with the help of Jewish American establishment groups, Netanyahu was able to single-handedly turn CNN into what one PLO official called “a propagandist for the Israelis.”
For his extended televised diatribes branding the PLO as a front organization for Saddam Hussein, the Washington Times recommended Netanyahu for an Emmy Award, the honor bestowed on American daytime TV actors. Well before Netanyahu was an internationally recognized figure, veteran Middle East analyst Leon Hadar labeled him, “The Joe Isuzu of the Middle East Wars,” referring to the fictional pitchman who amused American audiences with outrageously false claims about Isuzu cars—“Hi, I’m Joe Isuzu, and I used my new Isuzu pickup truck to carry a two-thousand-pound cheeseburger.” With a straight face and a tone of total conviction, Netanyahu marketed a lemon to American consumers, and arguably faced fewer challenges than most used car salesmen.
By emphasizing the essential role of government public relations years before hasbara—the Hebrew term for the societal obligation to “explain” Israel’s predicament to the world—became a national focus, and leveraging his success in the frenetic American media environment, Netanyahu improved his position himself on the domestic stage. He campaigned as much more than a politician: he was an American-accented marketing agent, so slick he could sell a dirty diaper to a garbage can—the Joe Isuzu of the Jewish state. He was the self-proclaimed master of hasbara, the explainer extraordinaire who could obliterate inconvenient truths about occupation and war crimes with emotionally potent talking points. As Netanyahu told a conference of Likud activists, “It doesn’t matter if justice is on your side. You have to depict your position as just.”
Netanyahu believed that if Israel was ever portrayed abroad as a strong-armed oppressor, it was because of a national failure to generate clever hasbara, not because of the state-practiced apartheid toward Palestinians. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, the issue here is not just what kinds of pictures will flicker across the television screen . . . ” Netanyahu wrote in his 1993 manifesto, A Durable Peace. “I have found over the years . . . that occasionally one word can be worth a thousand pictures, rather than vice versa. For example, the word occupation [italics in original], or the expression homeless people. Or Arab land. Or land for peace. In countless newspaper pieces, journal articles, and books, the Arabs have devoted untold intellectual resources to framing the argument in such a way that it frames Israel. Israel will have to devote an even greater intellectual effort to extricating itself from the trap into which it has so readily entered.”
When he entered the prime minister’s office in 2009, Netanyahu immediately set himself to what he did best: spinning the herd of clueless American reporters and columnists who parachuted into Jerusalem and Tel Aviv each week. In August 2010, following the bloody Israeli raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, the conservative American columnist George Will flew to Israel to meet with the prime minister. Will returned with an error-laden ode to Netanyahu, rehashing a tall tale that the prime minister first told at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Council’s annual conference in Washington. “Nevertheless, a display case in Netanyahu’s office could teach the Obama administration something about this leader,” the awestruck Will wrote. “It contains a small signet stone that was part of a ring found near the Western Wall. It is about 2,800 years old—200 years younger than Jerusalem’s role as the Jewish people’s capital. The ring was the seal of a Jewish official, whose name is inscribed on it: Netanyahu.”
What was Netanyahu’s connection to the ring, and by extension, to the ancient land of Israel? There was none. Netanyahu’s grandfather, Nathan Milikovsky, had merely changed his name to Netanyahu after he emigrated from Lithuania to Palestine. Thus Netanyahu had a much closer relation to the former Alaskan governor and vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, whose Lithuanian maternal grandfather was rumored to be a Jew, than to any late Bronze Age “Jewish official” from the Middle East. Intended to assert his legitimacy to rule over the Land of Israel, Netanyahu’s magical ring tale rested on the same logical fallacy as my own dubious assertion to a historical mandate to rule over Mexico because my grandfather, Hymie Blumenthal, had changed his name to Hymie Quetzalcoatl. Despite his reliance on childlike myths that recalled the plot of the J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy, or perhaps because of it, Netanyahu was able to inject his hasbara into the mainstream American media without the slightest difficulty.
As his term as prime minister wore on, Netanyahu extended more access to easily duped American reporters than to Israeli journalists who might be inclined toward skepticism. Instead of interacting candidly with the Israeli press, the prime minister’s office briefed Israeli reporters with American reports that portrayed him in positive terms. Netanyahu achieved perhaps his greatest media coup in May 2012, when Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel arrived at his doorstep eager to relay a heavy dose of Bibi-think to the American public. The result of the interview, carefully managed by Netanyahu and his American-born advisers, was a fawning profile in which Stengel compared the prime minister to Moses, imagined him arguing with God, and dubbed him, “King Bibi.” “He’s conquered Israel. But will Netanyahu now make peace—or war?” the cover read. Sixteen years prior, Time published a nearly identical cover, juxtaposing a triumphant Netanyahu with the question, “Can He Make Peace?”
Having convinced one of the American media’s most influential figures to market him as a potential peacemaker, even as he rattled off violent threats against Iran and authorized thousands of new settlement units in the West Bank, Netanyahu and his inner circle celebrated the sensational public relations score. At a press conference in Prague with his Czech counterpart, the prime minister reveled in his coronation by Time as King of the Jews. “We are [engaging] in a hasbara effort and every opportunity to explain Israel’s position is something that I welcome,” Netanyahu declared.
The PR victory would not have been possible without the help of Netanyahu’s American fixer, the Florida-born Ron Dermer. The son of a wealthy trial lawyer and brother of the former mayor of Miami Beach, a Democrat who helped elect Republican George W. Bush, Dermer enjoyed more proximity to Netanyahu than perhaps any other adviser. His principal role was to finesse the network of neoconservative think tanks, Israel lobbying organizations, and assorted Beltway influentials, leveraging them against an Obama administration that Netanyahu viewed with outright hostility. Dermer’s apparent success in stymieing pressure from the White House confirmed a remark Netanyahu made to a family of bereaved settlers in 2001: “I know what America is,” he said. “America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in the way.”
The selection of Michael Oren, an American-born neoconservative and intellectual, as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, was consistent with Netanyahu’s obsession with shaping the American media’s meta-narrative. Having reportedly named the New York Times one of Israel’s “main enemies,” then angrily denied even making such a statement, Netanyahu dispatched Oren as both his emissary to the thoughtful precincts of the political class and attack dog, siccing him and Dermer on the newspaper after a series of critical editorials and articles accusing him of interfering in the American political process in an effort to damage President Obama. In the tumultuous Netanyahu era, Oren was kept constantly busy.
When the ambassador learned that 60 Minutes, the popular American news program, was planning a segment on the plight of Palestinian Christians living under occupation, he placed a panicked phone call to CBS News chief Jeff Fager, demanding that Fager pull the segment before it aired. Instead of acceding to Oren’s demand, however, CBS correspondent Bob Simon grilled the ambassador about the phone call during the broadcast. Unaccustomed to hard questioning by American reporters, Oren was flustered, issuing a contorted, barely coherent response. “When I heard that you were going to do a story about Christians in the Holy Land,” he stuttered, “and my assum . . . and . . . and had, I believe, information about the nature of it . . . and it’s been confirmed by this interview today.”
When confronting questions of occupation, or of anything related to the Palestinians, Netanyahu and his American-accented PR cadre seemed to recognize that they were not likely to win much international sympathy. Thus Netanyahu rehashed the public relations strategy he introduced during the early 1990s, when he openly urged the United States to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power, warning that the consequence of inaction was a nuclear holocaust. This time, the Hitlerian enemy was the Islamic Republic of Iran, which had initiated a nuclear program with murky goals, and which provided sponsorship to Hezbollah and to a decreasing degree, to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Shifting away from the traditional Israeli emphasis on shared values of democracy and liberalism, Netanyahu sought to recalibrate the Israeli’s “special relationship” through the framework of the Islamophobic clash of civilizations narrative, in which the freedom-loving West waged an existential global fight against what Netanyahu called “the insatiable crocodile of militant Islam.” In the battle for the heart of American opinion, Netanyahu assiduously cultivated Israel’s image as a Fort Apache on the frontlines against the Muslim menace—and the United States as a larger Fort Apache that could learn from the Israeli model.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.
From the book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel by Max Blumenthal. Excerpted by arrangement with Nation Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.