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Lessons From ‘Bibi’

Published in Blog on October 13, 2023 by Jakob Fay

This week I picked up a copy of “Bibi: My Story,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s autobiography, published weeks before he secured a sixth term in last year’s November election. In this moment of crisis, the book offers a profound window into Netanyahu’s leadership outlook and the history of Israel.

Spanning a staggering 736 pages, this tome serves as both an exposition and justification of Israel's longest-tenured prime minister's doctrine of achieving durable peace through strength. As Vox recognized in 2015, "peace through strength" is “foundational to the modern Israeli right,” and Netanyahu embodies this approach. His memoir lays the foundation for his core principles from an early age.

“We are a people of hope,” he writes. “Our national anthem, Hatikva, means hope. Without hope we would never have been able to rise from the ashes of the Holocaust and reestablish the Jewish state. But… you can’t build peace on hope alone,” he contends, “and you certainly can’t build it on false hope.”

“Sooner or later, a false peace will crash on the rocks of Middle Eastern realities. The real foundation of peace in our area is hope that derives from strength, and the consequent realization by our neighbors that Israel is here to stay [emphasis added].”

It becomes evident throughout the book that Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu, the middle Netanyahu child’s big brother and hero, was perhaps the greatest influence on a young Bibi. Many of his beliefs about hope, peace, and strength seem to have come first from the much idolized Yoni, an Israeli military officer who was tragically killed in combat during the infamous 1976 Entebbe raid.

“I want peace very much,” Yoni wrote six years before he was gunned down by Ugandan soldiers. “I don’t like to live by the sword, a life of killing and trying not to be killed.”

Nevertheless, he added, “I see with sorrow how a part of our people still clings to unrealistic hopes for peace. Common sense tells them that the Arabs haven’t abandoned their basic aim of destroying the state. But the self-delusion that has always plagued the Jews is at work again.” In other words, Israel could not afford the luxury of wishful thinking—in a hellhole like the Middle East, wishful thinking would get them killed, annihilated.

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Bibi admits he eventually picked up his brother’s frustration at such dangerous naivety but also his determination to preserve their cherished state—through courage, strength, competence, whatever it took.

“We must cling to our country with our fingernails and with all our strength,” Yoni wrote the boys’ father, a line of thinking that no doubt reflects Bibi’s own. “Only if we do so will Israel remain the State of the Jews. Only then will they not write in the history books that once indeed Jews roused themselves to action and held on to their land for two decades, but then they were overwhelmed and once more became homeless wanderers. That is why I have to be here now.”

He was referring to his decision to leave Harvard, return to Israel, and again fight for his country. Injured in a previous conflict, Yoni “knew it was unlikely that he could ever do reserve duty in the army again.” But when Egypt launched its War of Attrition, the eldest Netanyahu son could not watch from the sidelines. Miraculously (a medical examiner mistakenly inspected his knee instead of his injured elbow), he was let back into the service.

But more than that, he took Bibi’s place. When his unit’s commander ordered that Benjamin attend Officers’ Training School, a move which Benjamin objected to, or be thrown out of his unit, Yoni arranged to be sent in his brother’s place instead. Later, after Yoni was killed, Benjamin recalled having to overcome a haunting string of “what ifs.”

“Obsessing over hypothetical courses of action that would have avoided tragedy is simply too painful and gets you nowhere. What if I had accepted [the] original request to attend Officers’ Training School? What if I had resisted Yoni’s pressure to replace me…? Would Yoni still be alive?”

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Quelling the temptation to endlessly relitigate the past, Bibi was nevertheless marked by his brother’s death, which reinforced his resolve to make Israel safe through strength. 

Amazingly, he later learned that his brother, whom he had so greatly admired, had also admired him and privately predicted he would one day become Prime Minister. 

“He spoke about you a great deal with admiration and love,” a friend of Yoni’s later described to Bibi. “I’ve never seen such love of a brother to a younger brother…. Yoni also said a number of times… that you will be Prime Minister…. Yoni saw in you things that no one else saw, that you too could not envision then.”

Decades later, when he first became Prime Minister in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu labored to honor his beloved brother’s legacy. In 2011, during the Cairo Embassy Attack, he called Israelis trapped in Egypt and was deeply impacted when the man who answered the phone introduced himself as Yoni.

“Yoni, hang in there,” Netanyahu replied, thinking of his own brother. “We’ll get you out of there.”

As the narrative draws to a close, and Netanyahu reflects on his “life of purpose,” it becomes unmistakably clear that Yoni was, in many ways, the unsung hero behind his younger brother’s triumphs. Undoubtedly, Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu would have taken immense pride in witnessing how Bibi has kept up the fight for Israeli peace through strength.

“[N]othing is ever predetermined,” the Prime Minister writes in Chapter 65. “If Yoni hadn’t insisted on joining the Unit and if he had not fallen in Entebbe, my life would have taken a different course. Nor did I know that I would recover from the tragic death of my brother, whom I miss every day.”

He concludes the book: “The rebirth of Israel is a miracle of faith and history. The Book of Samuel says, ‘The eternity of Israel will not falter.’ Throughout our journey, including in the tempests and upheavals of modern times, this held true.” 

“The People of Israel Live!”

(NETANYAHU, B. (2023). Bibi: My story. SIMON & SCHUSTER.)

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