A chat with Benjamin Netanyahu

While in Israel last week to visit the grave of my father, of blessed memory, whom we buried on the Mount of Olives at the start of the coronavirus, I went to the Knesset to see our dear friend Amir Ohana, formerly Israel’s justice and then public security minister.

I had gotten to know Amir when he became the first LGBT member of Knesset from the Likud, and we honored him at our gala in New York for his contributions to Israel’s security and international standing. I recognized then that he was a man of exceptional character and talent. But even I could not have predicted his meteoric rise to one of the highest positions in Israel’s government, especially at such a young age.

While we were catching up with Amir, he mentioned that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom I have known for more than 30 years, was in the building. Did we wish to see him?

I had not seen Bibi since the signing of the historic Abraham Accords on the White House lawn in September 2020, and I jumped at the chance to sit once again with one of the greatest figures of modern Jewish history.

MY WIFE, Debbie, and I walked into Bibi’s office with Amir. The Likud leader greeted us warmly.

 OPPOSITION LEADER MK Benjamin Netanyahu has an animated conversation in the Knesset plenum last month.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/REUTERS)

OPPOSITION LEADER MK Benjamin Netanyahu has an animated conversation in the Knesset plenum last month. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/REUTERS)

I first thanked him for the beautiful letter he had written to me on the occasion of my father, Yoav, passing, which led us to a discussion of Bibi’s father, the world-renowned historian Benzion Netanyahu, whom I had hosted in England for lectures at Oxford, London, and Cambridge in 1998, and whom I had continued to visit in Israel and whom I loved and admired greatly.

Any mention of his father to the former prime minister immediately evokes laser-like focus. Netanyahu was famous for his devotion to his father, who, throughout his life, like the former prime minister himself, displayed convictions of steel and was larger than life. Netanyahu asked me whether I had the videotapes of his father’s three speeches. I said I believe I could find them.

“What I believe we also have,” I told him, “is the first speech you ever gave at the Oxford Union, in about 1990, which till today remains one of the greatest pieces of oratory I have ever heard.”

Netanyahu at the time was deputy foreign minister. He was young, single, and by that time had emerged as Israel’s greatest communicator in the English language since Abba Eban.

We had booked him to speak in the world-famous debating chamber, but he insisted that “he be worked to the bone” and deliver as many speeches as possible in a single day so as to reach the widest possible audience.

We had obliged and taken him even to the lion’s den at St. Anthony’s College, filled with Oxford’s world-famous Palestinian scholars and sympathizers, who argued with him no end. He causally had one leg propped up on a chair the entire time, fielded each question with patience and deep scholarly knowledge, and never lost his cool. His ability to respectfully engage even the most rabid Israel haters was a sight to behold.

A few hours later, after a kosher dinner with Oxford’s Rhodes scholars, Netanyahu arrived to a tumultuous and packed crowd at the Union, complete with a large demonstration against him by Palestinians and some Jewish students. “Ne-tan-yahu you should know, we sup-port the PLO.” Wow, it even rhymed!

Again, taking everything in stride, Netanyahu walked over to the demonstrators and invited them in to hear his speech.

What followed was a masterful discourse of unsurpassed eloquence. Netanyahu did not speak from a single note and engaged in soaring oratory of the kind revered in Oxford that won over even some of the die-hard Israel cynics in the audience.

It’s a curious fact about Oxford and its parliamentary-style debating chamber that no matter how much people disagree with the content of your speech, they will appreciate outstanding and passionate delivery and might even give you a standing ovation.

The most moving line came when Bibi said Israelis had paid every price just to live.

“Some of us have paid with our families,” he said. “Some of us have paid with our brothers.”

Everyone knew he was referring to his brother, Israel’s greatest military commando legend, Yoni Netanyahu, who had led and fell in the Entebbe rescue mission of July 4, 1976.

“Prime minister,” I continued, “what you have done for Israel is unprecedented. You opened Israel diplomatically to the whole world, including regions that had heretofore been closed, like Asia and South America. You rescued Israel’s economy by decentralizing it from government control. You kept the Jewish people safe through repeated terrorist attacks and war. You defended your people by sending the English language into battle, to paraphrase what Kennedy said of Churchill.

“The American Embassy was moved to Jerusalem under your watch, and you never once caved in to the pressure that [former US president Barack] Obama exerted on you to cede land, make peace with terrorists, or not speak out against the abominable Iran deal, which was an affront to America’s most deeply cherished values.

“Greatest of all, you forged the Abraham Accords, which I personally witnessed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi just days ago as transforming the Middle East.

“You are one of Jewry’s greatest leaders, and it does not much matter whether this is appreciated by all. God is watching, and he know what you have done for His people.”

I told him that the biggest change in Israel under his combined 15 years of leadership was this. Prior to his premiership, Israel was still treated as the poor cousin of American Jewry. We raised money for Israel and arrived as tourists with an air of superiority, from the skyscrapers of New York to the smaller buildings of Tel Aviv.

All that has changed now, I told him. Israel is booming like never before. It’s a technological superpower; it has forged peace with the most influential countries of the Gulf; it is an acknowledged military power whose technology and intelligence everyone seeks to defend their own citizens; and it has created a passionate Jewish identity of a Judaism and Israeli nationalism that is flourishing like never before.

In a painful reversal of fortune that was impossible to predict, it is now not Israel but American Jewry that is struggling like never before. Rampant assimilation and ignorance of tradition are hollowing out American Jewish identity and commitment to Israel. Antisemitic attacks in the United States are out of control, and Jews cannot know that going to synagogue does not mean that they won’t be gunned down by terrorists while they sit in prayer. Openly antisemitic members of Congress like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib spew the ugliest venom against Jews and Israel without earning an iota of their party’s condemnation. And forces of BDS have all but taken over American college campuses.

AND WHY did I tell Netanyahu, whom I have known and loved for 30 years, all this? Because every day in the Israeli press I read criticism of Netanyahu. He may indeed have earned it. Lord knows that politicians are not perfect. But there doesn’t seem to be even a semblance of balance. Gratitude is a Jewish virtue, and it’s one that our people seldom practices.

I watched as right-wing American Jews could not thank Obama for increasing Israel’s foreign aid before he left office, and I watched as left-wing Democratic Jews called Donald Trump Hitler even as he became the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the Oval Office.

We have allowed even our values to be politicized.

And I wanted Netanyahu to know that, however many critics he may have – which is natural and welcome in politics – there are still members of our people out there who get it, who will not forget a leader who lifted his people to great heights.