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The ideas that define Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu.
Netanyahu.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the midst of a tough re-election fight, but there's a chance he'll keep his job after Tuesday's election — and hence govern Israel for some time to come.

Western observers, though, often have a difficult time understanding the Israeli leader's approach to the world. Why is Netanyahu so deeply skeptical of making concessions to the Palestinians? Why does he talk in harsh, almost apocalyptic terms about the threat from Iran's nuclear program? And why has he fought so publicly with Barack Obama, the president of what's nominally his closest ally?

It's impossible to understand any of this without understanding Netanyahu's animating ideology. The prime minister's belief system is deeply influenced by his father, an iconoclastic scholar of the Spanish Inquisition. Netanyahu and his father both hail from an older, militant Zionist tradition — one that has its origins with a man born in 19th-century Ukraine.

Netanyahu's ideological roots: Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Revisionist Zionism

netanyahu jabotinsky

Netanyahu speaks at a 2012 Likud party meeting with an image of Jabotinsky as the backdrop. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

There are few figures in the history of Zionism as important as Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Born in Odessa, Ukraine (then Russia), in 1880, Jabotinsky founded both the intellectual tradition and political institutions that would eventually produce Netanyahu's Likud party — and the hardline policies that define it.

Jabotinsky's vision of Zionism, born partly out of experience with Russian pogroms, took as its premise that Jewish life was inherently precarious. Several years before the Holocaust, he was begging Jews to get out of Europe before calamity struck.

"You can’t understand [Jabotinsky’s] thinking on the Arab-Zionist conflict, his maximalism, without understanding his role as the lone Jewish voice for emergency rescue," Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, told Tablet Magazine's Jordan Chandler Hirsch.

"Maximalist" is a key term here: Jabotinsky famously wrote of a Jewish state that would control both sides of the Jordan River, which currently divides the West Bank from Jordan.

Unlike mainstream prewar Zionist leaders, who were more interested in some kind of negotiated compromise with the Palestinians, Jabotinsky's doctrine — called Revisionist Zionism — held that the only effective way to get Arabs to end their hostility toward a Jewish state was a Jewish force strong enough to coerce its Arab neighbors into peace.

"We cannot offer any adequate compensation to the Palestinian Arabs in return for Palestine. And therefore, there is no likelihood of any voluntary agreement being reached," he wrote in the "The Iron Wall," a famous 1923 essay. "The only way to obtain such an agreement is the Iron Wall, which is to say a strong power in Palestine that is not amenable to any Arab pressure."

Jabotinsky hoped that if the Palestinians were so thoroughly outmatched that they lost any hope of driving the Jews out, then "the leadership will pass to the moderate groups, who will approach us with a proposal that we should both agree to mutual concessions," he wrote.

Jabotinsky's work is hardly a playbook for Netanyahu's foreign policy. But its two core principles — territorial maximalism and peace through strength — are foundational to the modern Israeli right, Netanyahu included.

Their application to his Palestinian policy is almost too obvious. For one thing, Netanyahu is loath to give up what he sees as rightfully Jewish land in West Bank. Moreover, he simply doesn't believe the Palestinians are ready for peace — they haven't given up the dream, in his eyes, of pushing out the Jews.

When Netanyahu showed John Kerry a video of Palestinian children being taught to glorify Israel's destruction in the midst of the last round of peace negotiations, and declared, "This is the true obstacle to peace," it wasn't just a political stunt or a negotiating tactic. It was an expression of genuine belief: that the iron wall has yet to accomplish its fundamental purpose. If a peace deal were struck, Netanyahu believes, it likely wouldn't hold.

That's not to say it's impossible to push Netanyahu toward peace. Secret documents, recently reported by Israeli reporter and columnist Nahum Barnea, appear to show Netanyahu's representative floating wide-ranging concessions to the Palestinians in backchannel negotiations. He also endorsed a two-state solution in 2009 (though that support may not be so genuine) and implemented a partial settlement freeze. Like almost all politicians, Netanyahu isn't purely defined by his ideological priors. Political incentives shape his behavior, as well — arguably even more than ideology.

But the fact is Netanyahu is very much a product of Jabotinsky's tradition — and without understanding that, you can't understand why he's so skeptical of a negotiated solution to the conflict with Palestinians.

Benzion Netanyahu: the father who still looms over his son

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Benjamin and Benzion Netanyahu in July 2011, a little under a year before the latter's death in April 2012. (Amos Ben Gershom/Israeli Government Press Office/Getty Images)

Netanyahu's relationship with Jabotinsky isn't just ideological. The prime minister's father, Benzion Netanyahu, was one of Jabotinsky's personal deputies. In 1940, Jabotinsky sent Netanyahu to the United States to lobby for the creation of a Jewish state. And Benzion's influence on his son goes well beyond that.

"The father. Everywhere I went in Jerusalem, when I asked about Netanyahu, the same answer came back: 'to understand Bibi, you have to understand the father,'" the New Yorker's David Remnick wrote in a 1998 profile. "Bibi, for his part, dismisses all talk of paternal influence as 'psychobabble.' His friends and colleagues who have known him for decades do not."

Benzion Netanyahu's influence is most keenly felt in his son's rhetoric on anti-Semitism and on Iran. After his work in the Zionist movement, the elder Netanyahu worked as a historian. His most famous work, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, tackled the conventional account of the Inquisition head-on. In most accounts, the Jews of Spain were forced to give up their religion publicly, but continued to practice it in private. The Inquisition, according to mainstream historical accounts, sought to ferret out Jewish practice among nominally converted "Marranos."

Benzion controversially argued that this was false and that Spanish Jews really had become Catholics, so the Inquisition could not be described as seeking to expose false converts. Instead, Benzion argued, the Inquisition was about the hatred of Jews as a people, regardless of their religion. He argued in his book, "Both Spanish anti-Semitism (which was the real author of the Spanish Inquisition) and German Jew-hatred (which gave birth to Nazism) produced race theories about the Jewish persons aimed at their annihilation."

This analysis carries a dark view of Jewish history: even if Jews go so far as to give up their religion, people will always hate them for who they are. "Jewish history is in large measure a history of holocausts," Benzion said to Remnick, "carried out by anti-Semitic leaders and factions that managed to take over whole countries or regions in times of anarchy, civil war, or rebellion. In the areas that fell under their control, all Jewish communities were wiped out."

Though Benzion died in 2012, his ideas, or at least the worldview that informs them, live on through his son. See, for example, Benjamin Netanyahu's book, A Durable Peace, in which he uses a view of Jewish history that sounds a lot like his father's to explain what he sees as the core purpose of the Israeli state.

"Once the Jews were driven into exile, and became a collection of dispersed communities in the medieval world, they were gradually deprived of all the conditions necessary for self-defense," Benjamin wrote in the 2000 edition of his book. "The rise of Israel has been a conscious attempt to wrest redemption from the grip of unrelenting agony."

This is why Netanyahu is concerned, seemingly above all else, with Iran. He believes, very deeply, that anti-Semites mean what they say. The Iranian government's vicious anti-Semitism, and repeatedly stated hope that Israel will cease to exist, threatens the latest in his father's "history of holocausts."

That holds even if you think Netanyahu's suggestion that Iranians would nuke Israel in an act of national suicide is ridiculous to the point of dishonesty. If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, it'll be much harder to retaliate against Iran for acts of aggression or terrorism. They'll have a freer hand to attempt to kill Jews, both in Israel and out — a threat Netanyahu believes he cannot allow on his watch.

How Netanyahu's ideology explains his fights with the Americans

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(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Only once you understand Netanyahu's ideological background, both from Revisionist Zionism in general and from his father in particular, do his fights with the Obama administration start to make sense.

Netanyahu has never been on especially good terms with any American counterpart, even during his first tenure as prime minister in the 1990s: Bill Clinton pretty overtly supported Shimon Peres, Netanyahu's opponent, in the 1996 Israeli election (Netanyahu won). But his fight with Obama has been especially nasty — partly as a direct result of the two men's differing ideological approaches to Israel's biggest challenges.

This ideological difference could be seen at Obama and Netanyahu's very first meeting after the former's inauguration, in May 2009. Israeli journalists Yaakov Katz and Yoaz Hendel describe the encounter in their book Israel vs. Iran, citing Israeli government sources:

While Obama tried to persuade Netanyahu to make peace with the Palestinians and pave the way for the creation of a broad pan-Arab coalition against Iran, Netanyahu argued both that Iran was preventing peace by supporting [Hamas] and that if Iran were neutralized, a Palestinian state would no longer be a dream but would instead become a reality.

Netanyahu's position has to be understood in light of his ideology. He sees Iran's support of violent Arab groups like Hamas and Hezbollah as weakening the iron wall: it doesn't just threaten Israelis, it also prevents the Palestinians from finally coming to terms with the reality of Israel's existence. Given the enormity of the Iranian nuclear threat, focusing instead on what he sees as a likely doomed quest for peace with the Palestinians makes no sense.

Obama's read is quite different. He sees Iran as a dangerous state whose ambitions can nonetheless best be managed by the right mix of pressure and diplomatic maneuvering. The president has spoken very publicly about Palestinian suffering, and believes the best way to resolve the differences with Israel is by developing a peace agreement that addresses both sides' legitimate grievances and fears.

These stated views suggest that he sees Iran and the Palestinian conflict as an issue of incentives: figure out the right mix of carrots and sticks, and the major threats to Israel can be neutralized.

This tension in worldviews, among other things, doomed Netanyahu and Obama to conflict. On the two most important issues facing the US and Israel in the past six years — Iran and Israel-Palestine peace — Netanyahu and Obama have constantly pulled one another in opposite directions.

When Obama wanted to talk peace, Netanyahu wished the effort was being directed toward Iran; when Obama launched his diplomatic push on Iran, Netanyahu wanted him to insist on a much harder line. All of the personal spats and insults — Obama dissing Netanyahu to the French president, Netanyahu coming to Congress to lecture Obama (twice) — are in some ways symptoms of this deeper ideological conflict.

You might think the fundamental need to preserve US-Israel ties would give Netanyahu pause about antagonizing Obama. But remember: in Netanyahu's mind, these issues are directly linked to Israel's very survival as a viable state.

Iran isn't just one threat among many, in his view. It's a reflection of the fundamental threat to the Jewish people identified by Benzion Netanyahu: eliminationist anti-Semitism. By trying to force a peace deal, Obama, in Netanyahu's mind, is asking him to give up his claim to Jewish land in exchange for an agreement that might only encourage Palestinian maximalists to go even further.

Netanyahu won't give up when he thinks this much is at stake. If he's re-elected, expect more of the same — and for his fights with Obama to continue.