For the Jewish News magazine May 2019
There is a chilling, but prescient, moment in a unique BBC film made in the early 90s when the Israeli politician Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara invited the TV cameras into their home. Their children, toddlers Yair and Avner, are running around until Yair decides to play the piano — badly. Netanyahu senior attempts to help his son but is rejected — and then the child, who can’t be more than five or six, suddenly turns to the camera operator and shouts: “You, stop filming!”
This unpleasant scene, of privilege and entitlement, marked almost the last time Netanyahu, now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, interacted with the media. But as Dan Shadur, director of a new documentary film, King Bibi, shows, the secret of Netanyahu’s success is “how soon Bibi embraced direct populism”, and how the Israeli media have lost fights with him over and over again.
The film, which was screened at the Seret Israeli Film Festival in London in early May, received wide acclaim in Israel. First shown in cinemas and then on the country’s YesDocu channel, the meticulously researched film has trawled more than 70 different archives and taken more than three years in the making.
Dan Shadur himself grew up in the Tel Aviv suburbs but actually spent a couple of years living in London as a child when his stepfather was working in the UK. Shadur worked as a journalist for Israeli papers such as Ma’ariv and Ha’aretz, and was the culture editor of the Globes financial paper before going to film school and switching career.
King Bibi is subtitled “the life and performances of Benjamin Netanyahu”, and Shadur has used that word “performances” deliberately — “acting is a very big part of his strength”, he says.
The major outlines of Netanyahu’s life are well-known: his schooling in Philadelphia after his embittered historian father moved the family there from Israel (because he could not get academic preferment); his further education in Boston, his first marriage to Micki Weizmann, the birth of his daughter Noa ,and what looked like a career in business; and then, the catastrophic death of his heroic brother Yoni during the 1976 Entebbe operation.
As the film makes clear, Yoni’s death catapulted Bibi into a public life he might never have sought for himself. But watching his father, Benzion, state that he had no doubt that Yoni would have been a leader of his country, is a clue to what made Bibi tick all this time — a determination to prove to his father that he was as good, if not better, than his brother.
By the time politician Moshe Arens recruited him, Bibi was on wife number two, the British student Fleur Cates. Though she converted to Judaism, Fleur, the film tells us, “was not at home in Israel”, and so the couple divorced, leaving him free to marry Sara Ben-Artzi, the mother of his two sons, in 1991.
Viewers who today are used to seeing Sara stuck like glue to her husband’s side may understand this better when the film recalls Bibi’s startling on-screen admission of an affair in 1993. But perhaps the most eye-opening sections of the film deal with Bibi’s determination to prepare himself for his political career by repeated public speaking lessons, with the use of unedited film clips showing him rehearsing for the camera. Bibi’s great stock-in-trade is his apparent ability to speak off-the-cuff — but King Bibi shows it is anything but, and actually depends on years of repetition and practice.
Shadur says: “Bibi grew up with a deep sense of history and ‘what needs to be done’ for Israel”. For him, it was no surprise that Bibi won the most recent election in April this year. “His grip is so strong, and he doesn’t let facts interrupt”. This is why, he believes, the prime minister has been able to shrug off claims of corruption.
The main lesson Shadur draws from his film? “If you want to dislodge Bibi, you have to do something different and not play the same game”. King Bibi shows a politician not just at war with the media, but someone who has defeated them; he refuses to be interviewed now, or give press conferences, but Shadur says he doesn’t need to. “He has [the newspaper] Israel Hayom, he has Facebook, he has his own Prime Minister’s social media”.
Shadur’s film paints a portrait of a man who has identified his enemies, and, oddly, “a man who comes from a very well-off family but keeps representing weaker people”. Netanyahu’s ability to re-invent himself has enabled him to win over and over again.
Yair Netanyahu, now in his late 20s, is, says Shadur, an almost constant, dominant presence in his father’s inner circle. “Well, when you are the king, you have to have someone to hand the crown to”, he says.