‘Netanyahu at War’ on PBS was dreadful but not without interest

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A week ago, PBS’s Frontline series was devoted to a two hour documentary entitled ”Netanyahu at War,” a name that recalls Lord Moran’s celebrated book, Churchill at War (2002). The reference to the title of Lord Moran’s history of Churchill makes sense because as the film makes clear, Netanyahu thinks he is Israel’s Winston Churchill. Right up front, former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren says, “Netanyahu was very much a man in the Churchillian sense.” He’s not the only one who believes this.

The multiple references to Churchill brought to my mind the delusional Teddy (Roosevelt) Brewster (played by John Alexander) in the 1944 Frank Capra classic “Arsenic and Old Lace” — the guy in the helmet and khakis who periodically runs up the house stairs (San Juan Hill in his mind) sword in hand yelling “Charge!”. But the Netanyahu we see in “Netanyahu at War” is the opposite of funny.

“Netanyahu at War” is basically dreadful. In a nutshell, the show (transcript here) traces back the “epic story” of how Netanyahu angrily (he’s always angry) came to cast his lot with John Boehner (remember him) and the rest of the Republican Congress in furtherance of his decades-long crusade against Iran when he spoke before Congress last year against one of Obama’s foreign policy achievements, the nuclear accord with Iran and the P5+1 countries, thereby infuriating the Obama administration– which Netanyahu had crossed off as a hopeless cause for Israel.

In addition to being angry himself, Netanyahu is shown to make successive American presidents angry too, but without any consequences for him or Israel. The show does point out that under President Obama US direct military aid for Israel chugs along at a crisp $3 billion per year, thereby dispelling in part the Israeli notion that the president is no friend of Israel. And let’s not forget the potential additional $45 billion in US military aid through 2028 to smooth Netanyahu’s ruffled feathers over the Iran nuclear deal (a deal that in fact makes Israel safer). That’s a lot of money, but nobody ever said that Netanyahu is dumb.

“Netanyahu at War” is a TV show about personalities, grudges, bad feelings, and the so called peace process, which Netanyahu is shown to derail when and where he can. Though as to what Israel has in mind for the Palestinian future, including the next “mowing the grass,” that awful Israeli term used to describe periodically killing lots of Palestinians, we hear not a word.

Since the show’s historical backdrop begins with the 1967 war, there is no mention of the forced and violent expulsion and exodus of over 700,000 Palestinians in the 1948 Nakba (an omission maybe necessitated in order for “Netanyahu at War” to be shown on Israeli TV); and the only real reference to Palestinian suffering and grievances comes from President Obama himself in footage of his June 2009 Cairo speech, in which he said that the situation facing the Palestinians is intolerable– which it is, every day. But that’s it for Palestinian oppression and grievances. You’d hardly know what all the fuss is about.

Last week, +972 published an article by Lisa Goldman entitled, “’Netanyahu at War’: An engaging but deeply flawed documentary,” which, in addition to showcasing examples of “dubious political analysis that is left unchallenged,” points out that the film’s having only three women (not counting Rabbi Rachel Mikva on the subject of Obama’s close relationship with her father Judge Abner Mikva in Chicago) out of a field of twenty-six explainers demonstrates an “unapologetically and shamefully patriarchal attitude that undermines the credibility of this elegantly produced Frontline episode.”

Those three women are Diana Buttu, the Canadian-Palestinian attorney who participated in negotiations with the Israelis; Channel 2 reporter Dana Weiss (who talks amusingly of Israeli hurt over Obama not stopping off in Israel on the way back from Cairo); and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, currently a leading member of opposition to Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Goldman names eleven women, including Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who could reasonably have been included in some of the space occupied by members of “the old boy’s club” who she helpfully also lists, as I do below at the end of this post, because the list is instructive. I would be interested in MW readers’ reaction to the list (as well as the show itself which I suspect many would dismiss in a few sentences).

“There were almost no Palestinians. It was almost entirely establishment ‘experts’ with pro-Israel credentials,” Rania Khalek commented about the documentary (in response to praise for it from the next NYT Jerusalem bureau chief Peter Baker). Besides a few seconds with Buttu, there is exactly one other Palestinian, the negotiator Saeb Erakat. And no Europeans, which is surprising given that much of the film’s focus is on Netanyahu’s resistance to the Iran nuclear deal, which in no small measure occurred because it seemed likely that the Europeans in the coalition sanctioning Iran would have pulled out of the sanctions regime had no deal been reached with Iran.

The presence of some of these (male white) explainers can be rationalized by their closeness to Netanyahu or, in the case of Dennis Ross, special adviser to President Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by their being in the room at the time, which Ross was a lot. (Gee, I wonder if we’ll see Mr. Ross in a Hillary Clinton administration.) But did we really need to listen to the wretched Iran-Contra chicken hawk warrior Elliott Abrams? He advised Reagan and George W. Bush., neither of whom are part of Frontline’s story. And not that I have anything against him, but why so much of Marvin Kalb?

My favorite explainer is the low key, self effacing deputy national security advisor to Obama, Benjamin J. Rhodes, also one of those in the room at the time, who seems like a reasonable and sensible dude. But Rhodes does not escape the show’s weirdness when he is a proffered as someone who did not come to the conclusion that Obama’s trip to Cairo was badly handled– because Obama didn’t stop off in Israel first, and was distancing himself from Israel. Then cut to Mr. Rhodes saying that in his experience with Israel you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Boy, that’s a ringing endorsement of the decision. I’m sure a more forceful defense of a perfectly sensible pivot was available to the film’s editors.

The Israeli and Palestinian outlooks are nicely, if unintentionally, illuminated by two moments in the show’s segment on Obama’s Cairo trip. Tzipi Livni says, “We live in a world of images and perceptions.” While Diana Buttu, discussing Palestinian disappointment in Obama, says that Obama sent signals that he failed to follow up; he didn’t back up his statements against settlements in Cairo with “actual action.” For instance, Buttu says, by

“saying to the Israelis you have to make a choice now. Do you want these settlements or do you want the money we give you every year? It’s always been one signal after another signal after another signal. And this isn’t an area that deals well with signals. This is an area that requires concrete action.”

To an Israeli government that has no intention of peacefully resolving the Palestinian conflict, it’s all about images and perceptions intended to bamboozle Americans. While to Palestinians, after how many decades of talking and pretense, only real action has meaning to them.

The film only reinforced my view that U.S. aid, given without condition, has to stop and stop now. Since 2008 the Palestinians have received an average of $400 million a year in humanitarian, non lethal aid from the US. So first we give money to the Israelis to bombard the Palestinians and then we give the Palestinians money to rebuild and patch themselves up in a circle dance of untold death and suffering. Make sense? And if the US were to stop funding Israel without conditions, then I guess I really would have no dog in this fight. Compassion and sympathy (for both sides), yes, but no dog.

Among the worst of the show’s chosen explainers are former and current Israeli ambassadors to the US Michael Oren and Ron Dermer who, incredibly, are handed most of the job of describing the purported Iranian nuclear threat to Israel, leading up to the ridiculous moment when Netanyahu appeared at the UN General Assembly with a cartoon of a crudely drawn bomb with a lighted fuse, purportedly showing how close Iran was to being able to blow up Israel. There is no mention of Israel’s substantial nuclear arsenal. There never is.

The description of Israel’s build up for a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear sites is scary, but the conclusion hilarious because right before pulling the trigger for the attack, Netanyahu, the national leader who is at war, decides, thank the gods, and at the urging of his military, that he needs Obama’s green light if not tactical support. He doesn’t get it; and so Netanyahu, not for the first or last time, appeals directly to the American people for US armed intervention. The title of the film should have been “Netanyahu at War on Someone Else’s Chit.””

As for the story line, among the most serious flaws of “Netanyahu at War” is its refusal to put to bed the notion that Israel had any basis to complain that Obama’s speeches in Cairo and at the State Department were somehow hostile to Israel because he called for a return to the pre-1967 War borders with mutually agreed swaps. That’s absurd. The 1967 borders and land swaps have been the basis for US led peace talks going back at least as far as Carter and Reagen, not to mention UN Resolution 242. Yes, the film says that a return to ’67 borders with land swaps was a “familiar demand”, but it also goes on to say that it had “never been made so publicly,” a dubious claim at best. And the segment concludes with Michael Oren telling us that for Israel this was a “major development”– before the show blithely moves on to describe Netanyahu calling an emergency meeting, etc., etc. Elsewhere in the film, Dermer suggests that those borders are indefensible and a “noose around Israel’s neck.”

The film includes repeated suggestions that President Obama’s view of the Arab spring was naïve and in doing so  vastly oversimplifies those events. For example, the film brings attention to President Obama’s call to Mubarak advocating an orderly transition to another Egyptian president, at which point the film’s narrator ominously recounts that some few number of days after Obama’s call Mubarak resigned. I’m sure Obama would be very pleased if he had such power, but he doesn’t. As anyone who has watched the 2013 movie The Square knows, there was something else going on in Egypt besides what the US was thinking– like millions of Egyptians in the streets in full throated peaceful revolt and an Egyptian military trying to ride and control the wave.

And if he does have such power then I suggest President Obama call President Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu at War” is not, however, without interest. Substantial time is spent on Netanyahu’s culpability in the incitement leading to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, who Netanyahu would otherwise have run against for Prime Minister. Netanyahu whipped up right wing calls for violence, which preceded the assassination. The historical footage of Israelis protesting against the Oslo Accords is riveting, as is that of Leah Rabin’s 1995 TV interview in which she cited the Likud rally in Jerusalem, attended by Netanyahu, in which her husband was paraded in effigy, wearing a Nazi uniform. “[Netanyahu] later talked against it, but he was there and he didn’t stop it,” she said. And as one of the film’s explainers says, when Israelis feel threatened, they vote for right wing politicians. Obviously, there is nothing Netanyahu won’t do to win an election, including infuriating successive leaders of its most important “ally,” the United States.

And though the Prime Minister’s office has denied it took place, Martin Indyk offers a gripping account of a conversation he says he had with Netanyahu at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral: “I remember Netanyahu saying to me: ‘Look, look at this, [Rabin’s] a hero now, but if he had not been assassinated, I would have beaten him in the elections, and then he would have gone into history as a failed politician…’ Netanyahu was thinking, well, politically he was on the ropes before he was assassinated.”

There are other interesting moments in the show. I did not know , for example, that the Clinton administration had tried to influence the 1996 Netanyahu-Peres race for Prime Minister in favor of Shimon Peres (who lost); or the depth of President Clinton’s regard for Rabin, who we are told he was in awe of. Saeb Erekat tells a story about a peace conference in which one morning at 4:00 AM Erekat heard Clinton and Netanyahu arguing: “real shouting… 4 AM in the morning, screaming… President Clinton shouting from the depths of his stomach …and head… and ears and eyes and mouth and legs- at Netanyahu.”

I will skip over the substantial part of the film which is devoted to Netanyahu’s early biography, including the dour pessimistic influence of his fearful father, his American upbringing, MIT, his military service in the Israeli army special forces, his heroic brother Yonatan, who was killed in action, or his stint at CNN.

Basically, the problem with the film is that viewers learn nothing except information about some of the people involved in a failed peace process. In fact, I think the film came about because a number of influential liberal Zionists are really pissed off at Netanyahu for what he has done to the two-state peace process, which they still believe in. The Prime Minister’s making so abundantly clear to anyone willing to think about it for more than a minute that Zionism is brutal and logically spells doom for the Palestinian people is not helpful to Israel’s cause in the US. The film may be intended as a shot across Netanyahu’s bow, telling him to cool it or better yet to get lost.

Viewers would have learnt a lot more if the filmmakers had thought to include interviews with Max Blumenthal (Goliath-Life and Loathing in Greater Israel), Ilan Pappe (The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine) or Noam Chomsky (On Western Terrorism and many other books).

A mostly complete list of interviewees in Frontline’s “Netanyahu at War:” Weiss, Buttu and Livni: Eyal Arad (opposition strategist accused by Likud last February of accepting foreign donations and having ties to “left wing” NGOs), Ari Shavit (My Promised Land), David Axelrod (Obama adviser), Chemi Shalev (Haaretz correspondent), Ronen Bergman (Israeli author journalist), the late Sandy Berger (Clinton National Security Advisor), David Sanger (NYT), Aaron David Miller (Wilson Center in DC), Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), Peter Baker (NYT White House correspondent who is going out to head the paper’s Jerusalem bureau), Dennis Ross (former US ambassador), Saeb Erekat, Ben Rhodes, Marvin Kalb, Dore Gold (Netanyahu advisor), David Remnick (The New Yorker), Peter Beinart (Atlantic Media), George Mitchell (US negotiator under Obama), Ron Dermer, Michael Oren, Jeffrey Goldberg (The Atlantic), Martin Indyk (Brookings Institution and former US ambassador to Israel), Dan Meridor (Likud politician) and Dan Ephron (journalist).

The film is by writer-producer-director Michael Kirk, along with co-writer-producer Mike Wiser and reporter Jim Gilmore.

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Was this video at 2 hours intended as anything but a “keep Israel favorably in the American view” thinggy? Should we be grateful or not that, as apparently a pro-Israel thinggy was timely for PBS, it was about Netanyahu rather than about the holocaust (sorry, “Holocaust”)?

what an excellent review john. a couple things. you ask about kalb. not sure if you knew he is a senior fellow at brookings and also the founding director The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy is a Harvard University — a center that “explores the intersection and impact of media, politics and public policy in theory and practice….. the center has emerged as a significant source for research on U.S. campaigns,elections and… Read more »

Thanks for this analysis and the link to +972. Much of the footage is valuable recording of different people’s views and insights or imagined insights – and the viewer isn’t necessarily forced or expected to accept this view or that. Could’ve been more and different voices, could’ve covered more or different contexts. But valuable is the conclusion I take away. Martin Indyk about talking to Netanyahu at Rabin’s funeral, worth a lot by itself. I… Read more »

RE: “‘Netanyahu at War’ on PBS was dreadful but not without interest” ALSO NOTE: “Are US Relations With Israel a Proprietary Matter? The People at PBS’ Frontline Seem to Think So” | by Thomas S. Harrington | counterpunch.org | January 13, 2016 [EXCERPT] . . . Last week, PBS’ Frontline aired a new report, Netanyahu at War, whose core aim is to explore the tense and mistrustful relationship between US President Barack Obama and Israeli… Read more »

Netanyahu is a sideshow that our media must promote lest people learn why it is that Israel and its zionism are the problem. The pretend oppostion to Netanyahu’s antics is a reminder that when Israel’s politics was limited to Labor versus Likud, both sides supported the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians with Labor called “liberal” for objecting to the pace of that cleansing (because it drew unwanted attention to what Israel, under both Labor and Likud,… Read more »