Netanyahu Documentary Producer: March Speech Revealed Bibi’s Character, Upbringing
The debate between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama over the Iran deal, the clash between the two when they came into office in 2009, and Netanyahu’s rise to power in the early ’90’s was the topic of “Netanyahu at War” – a two-hour documentary from veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk aired on PBS Tuesday night.
Ahead of the program airing on TV, Kirk revealed what he found most compelling about Benjamin Netanyahu the man – his past and upbringing – while working on the 2-hour documentary, based on interviews with 40 individuals over the past 9 months since Netanyahu’s controversial speech to a joint session of Congress.
In an interview on Huffington Post Live, Kirk said the reason he decided the make the film was because he had watched the speech and thought that he would find a way to tell the story of the peace process and the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama through the eyes of “these two characters – the Prime Minister of Israel, a forceful and very different guy than Barack Obama, who’s sort of a more optimistic person and a guy who believes everyone should sit around the table and talk.”
As he dove into Netanyahu’s past, Kirk says he came to realize that Netanyahu was an American, basically. “English is really his first language in lots of ways. People in Israel tell us that when he gets into an argument, he starts in Hebrew but when he wants to really make his points he, automatically, switches to English,” Kirk told host Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani.
According to Kirk, Benzion Netanyahu, the father, brought up his children to believe that they were on a mission to save Israel from eradication. But with Yoni’s tragic death during the Entebbe rescue mission, “Bibi was apparently given the job” and placed with the burden of “shouldering what Yoni was going to do,” which was to run for the job of Prime Minister. That prompted Netanyahu to embark on a political career that will be based on fighting terrorism.
The effect the death of Yoni had on Netanyahu was “profound,” says Kirk, basing it on the many conversations he had working on the documentary. “I think in memory of his brother, his actions are even more forceful at times. He operates, really, in the world sphere as a man with a grudge; as a man who has something formidable to protect, and as a man who’s unafraid of stepping up and taking on whatever challenges there are.”
Kirk also makes a point that while a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is nowhere in sight, there is reason to believe that Netanyahu is the one capable of signing a peace deal. “The other part of Bibi Netanyahu is a really pragmatic politician. It’s a surprising part of him. But he’s gotten reelected over and over again by making some political concession,” he asserted. “His willingness to shake Yasser Arafat’s’ hand” despite the heat he got from the right, “tells you something about the potential willingness inside this man to cut a deal.”
In the film, Netanyahu’s former political adviser Eyal Arad, is quoted as saying that Netanyahu believes he is “a person called to save the Jewish people.” Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit adds, “He wants to be the new Churchill, to stop Iran in the way Churchill stopped the Nazis, and believes he will go down in history as the person who warned us all it would come true.”
The 2nd segment describes Netanyahu leading a coalition of the ultra-right and conservatives (Likud) and becoming the face of the opposition to the Oslo Accords. Netanyahu found himself at the center of the anger against Rabin, and as the intensity grew, the film compiles footage of the rally on Kikar Zion, where protesters raised poster of Rabin dressed in Nazi uniform, and Netanyahu addressing the crowd with a vow never to allow the division of Jerusalem. Netanyahu knew how to channel the outrage on his way to power, says Chemi Shalev. The Likud leader took it as a given and knew what was coming, Ross tells Frontline, as he recalls a private conversation he had with Netanyahu at the time. Indyk also recalls a conversation with Netanyahu after the murder of Rabin expressing regret that he didn’t get the chance to defeat Rabin at the polls.
After Rabin’s murder and Netanyahu eying the premiership, Ross admits Clinton “probably went overboard” in helping acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres win the election. As the election season kicked off, Netanyahu was trailing Peres by 31 points. People who spoke to him at the time said he thought his political career was over, Shalev says. But Netanyahu returned to center stage and starts to recover and climb up in the polls as bombs set off across Israel and Israelis lose faith in the peace process.
The next step was Netanyahu trying to block the implementation of the Oslo Accords and defy President Clinton’s demands to continue the process. The documentary describes Netanyahu’s first meeting with Clinton at the White House a month after he won the election as the start of a clash between two conflicting interests. But at the same time, Netanyahu gave into some demands by meeting with Arafat, shaking his hands and withdrawing from Hebron. Nonetheless, that was described as an attempt to slow-walk the process, which made him appear stubborn and impossible to deal with. Erekat recounts hearing President Clinton shouting and screaming “from the depths of his stomach” at Bibi at 4 o’clock in the morning during the Wye River Plantation peace talks. “It was 4:00am, I hear shouting, real shouting – screaming 4:00am in the morning. President Clinton shouting from the depths of his stomach, and head, and ears, and eyes, and nose, and mouth and legs at Bibi Netanyahu.”
Towards the end of the first hour, the program focuses on Netanyahu’s 2nd attempt to return to power at the same time Barack Obama emerged as the favorite to win the presidency. Marvin Kalb describes meeting Netanyahu – then Israel’s opposition leader – at a coffee shop inquiring about Obama’s background, Muslim roots and worrying about the kind of objectivity he would bring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peter Baker and David Axelrod describe Obama’s first moves on the Middle East peace process as an attempt to bring the two sides together, bridge the gaps and bring them to agree to a final settlement. But Obama’s admiration of progressive Jewish ideals and his relationship with Jews on the left was exactly what Netanyahu was against, Peter Beinart described the beginning of the clash between the two leaders. “What Obama is admiring in the Jewish tradition and in the Jews he knows is exactly what Netanyahu fears,” Beinart explains. “It is the sense that Jews have this instinct towards making the world better that may make them in Netanyahu’s eyes too idealistic to deal with the actual threats that they really face, especially in a place like the Middle East.”
The 2nd hour starts with the first meeting between Netanyahu and Obama with the President insisting on a settlement freeze – making the demand in public. At one point, the camera turns to show Rahm Emanuel smirking and whispering something into George Mitchell’s ear “This shocked Netanyahu, and it gave proof to the people that have been whispering to Netanyahu in the ear that this guy is up to no good,” says Shalev. “He recognized that Obama was hell-bent as setting up a Palestinian State.” The Israeli Prime Minister came back home angry and feeling he was under siege. “With people like Netanyahu, you don’t get a second chance,” says Ari Shavit.
The 2nd incident took place when Obama flew to the Middle East to deliver his Cairo speech but skipped Israel, a move which angered the Israeli government and sent a signal to Israelis that he didn’t like them. Ben Rhodes and Denis McDonough were the two who advised Obama to skip Israel, says Ross. Rhodes defended the decision in an interview to Frontline. “I’ve lived in this job for seven years and have learned repeatedly that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Rhodes. “Frankly, I see it as a lose-lose proposition. Whatever we were going to do was not going to be the right thing for this particular Israeli government.” Mitchell and Axelrod, however, admitted it was a mistake. The move insulted Israelis, Obama’s reputation took a hit and Netanyahu capitalized this incident to show Israelis he is the only one that could stand up to the U.S. President.
The next clash, which ultimately buried the peace process, came as Obama called for the creation of a Palestinian State on the 1967 lines. Netanyahu was convinced it was an ambush, says Ross. Dore Gold recalls Netanyahu calling him, sounding furious and ordering him to enter his office for emergency consultations while speaking with Hillary Clinton on the phone.
The last hour shifts to Netanyahu’s media blitz against the Iran deal and the WH fearing Israel would strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Netanyahu then crossed the line by actively supporting Mitt Romney for president in the fall of 2012. Remnick says the champagne bottles in Netanyahu’s residence were on ice on election night as the assumption was Romney would win.
The final part of the program is a recap of the debate over the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu insisting Obama told him the military option is off the table, and his aggressive attempt to block the deal in Congress. Indyk calls Netanyahu irrational. “I think this is for him the fight of his life – he’s no longer rational about it,” Indyk stated. “A rational Prime Minister of Israel, understanding the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, would not confront the president on the most important agreement that he has managed to negotiate in his presidency.”