According to Arab Affairs expert Smadar Peri
Ahronot, October 7, 1996), Syrian Defense Minister Mustapha
Tlass said in an interview on Syrian TV that he had given an order
to translate Binyamin Netanyahu's book </>A Place among the
Nations into Arabic. He wanted it circulated among the soldiers in
the Syrian army, because "it is obligatory that every soldier and
officer read it, because the entire book is filled with hatred and
a humiliating attitude towards the Arab nation." On the other hand,
government supporter MK Yehuda Harel (The Third Way), who says that
he and fellow party member Minister Avigdor Kahalani have never
opposed a Palestinian state, asserts that Netanyahu as prime
minister has not fulfilled any of the ideological commitments he
made before the elections, "and that's good." As a historian, he
says that "Netanyahu's primary goal is to succeed," not to fulfill
ideological commitments. So who's right, Tlass or Harel?
Before reading Netanyahu's book, my impression was that the prime
minister was primarily an opportunist, not an ideologue, and as
such, the desire to maintain power might lead him to pragmatic
The book demonstrates that Netanyahu has a very clearly defined
outlook, which tends towards absolute black-and-white definitions
and conclusions. He pays lip-service to his desire "to see a secure
Israel at peace with its neighbors," but insists that it must be
"built on a foundation of truth."
So what is Netanyahu's truth?
His first truth, in the most simplistic terms, is that Jews are
good and Arabs are bad. Astoundingly, after carefully combing 401
pages of text, I couldn't find even a single positive reference to
Arabs, Arab culture, etc. He writes about how, during the Second
World War, Arabs "in Iraq, Egypt and in Syria ... flocked to Berlin
to enlist in the war effort and lobby Hitler for favors" (p. 71),
equating Arabs with Nazi behavior. He quotes Saudi Arabia's King
Saud as having said in 1954 that "Israel to the Arab world is like
a cancer to the human body, and the only way of remedy is to uproot
it just like cancer ..." (p. 79), but doesn't cite a single
positive quote of Arab readiness to accept the State of Israel's
existence. This is obviously more than just a flaw in research.
Such quotes would interfere with the closed structure of his
He writes that Arabs are guilty of "heinous crimes" (p. 88), and
that "Arab regimes are ... ready practitioners of violence against
citizens of their own countries ... This habitual willingness to
resort to violence against their own citizens is a feature of most
governments throughout the Arab world" (p. 97). And since
opposition groups in the Arab world also use violence, "it is
difficult to judge which is more oppressive, the people's current
rulers or their would-be liberators" (p. 98). He adds that
"international terrorism is the quintessential Middle East export"
(p. 102), an idea which would definitely come as a surprise to the
oil-users of the world. Netanyahu even uncovers a 1928 quote from
T.E. Lawrence that most Arab regimes are "tyrannies cemented with
blood" (p. 126).
To summarize his view of the Arabs, Netanyahu notes that "although
some Arab regimes are truly predatory, others are more often prey.
Still, this does not alter the picture before us, a picture that is
unpleasant to contemplate, but that must be understood if one is to
form a reasonable opinion about the politics of the Middle East.
Violence is ubiquitous in the political life of all Arab countries.
It is the primary method of dealing with opponents, both foreign
and domestic, both Arab and non-Arab" (p. 103). One can only
conclude from his analysis that, with neighbors like these, how is
it possible to achieve peace?
Netanyahu seems to be frozen in a perception of the Arab world as
still being characterized primarily by Pan-Arab ism, though he does
grant that it "has been somewhat on the wane" during the past
decade (p. 111). However, to reinforce his analysis of the
essentially extremist nature of the Arab world, he sees "another
force waiting in the wings .... [the] almost universal resurgence
of Islamic fundamentalism" (p. 112).
One of Netanyahu's favorite techniques is the use of lists to
reinforce his views: a "Partial Chronology of Arab Violence against
Arab Rulers" (p. 100), a "Calendar of Middle East Violence, April
1985" (p. 105), lists of Arabs dead in "other" (non-Israeli-Arab)
Middle East conflicts (p. 106), etc.
He believes that Israel and the Arabs are locked in a PR war,
claiming that since 1967 there has been an "ongoing Arab
war…to defeat Israel on the battlefield of public opinion: in
the media, in university halls, and in the citadels of government"
(p. 81). Of course, the book is replete with examples of successful
PR struggles (by the author) which turned the tide in Israel's
favor. His conclusion seems to be that good PR could guarantee
Presumably the Jerusalem tunnel experience in the fall of 1996 was
very chastening, since it provided a graphic demonstration of the
inability of PR to correct bad policy.
An Existential Problem
One of the most striking aspects of the book is the fact that
Netanyahu has virtually no mentors. Only two role models are
referred to at any length: Theodor Herzl, the founder of modem
Zionism, and Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, the founder of the
right-wing Revisionist movement. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak 5hamir and
David Ben-Gurion receive two brief mentions apiece, while his
direct political patron, former Foreign Minister and Defense
Minister Moshe Arens, is not mentioned at all. It is Netanyahu, his
ideas and actions which dominate center stage throughout the
He refers to the Jewish right to "self-determination" (p. 21), and
proudly writes about "the continued existence of the people whose
country had been conquered, and the persistent aspiration of that
people to be reestablished in its own home" (p. 27), and doesn't
seem to understand that these passages could apply to the
Palestinians as well.
Most disturbing to me is his statement (referring to the Nazis and
the Arabs) that "libel is the prelude to murder. It is a license to
kill." When reading those words, it's hard to forget the libel
against Yitzhak Rabin and his government which took place at
rallies where Netanyahu was the main speaker.
He asserts that the PLO is "constitutionally tied to the idea of
Israel's liquidation" (p. 232), making it inconceivable (in 1993,
at the time the book was written), from his point of view, to enter
into negotiations with Arafat and the PLO leadership.
So what type of peace does he offer (in the book)? He states that
the "problem is not territorial, but existential" (p. 329), i.e.,
no land for peace, just recognize our right to exist. Until the
Arab world becomes democratic, the only possible peace is the
"peace of deterrence" (p. 244). He states that "if Israel were to
face a threat to its existence, it would respond with awesome
power" (p. 344), a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons. Netanyahu
asserts that "for the sake of peace, they (the Arab world) must
renounce their claims to four ten-thousandths - 0.0004 - of the
lands they desire, which constitutes the very heart of the Jewish
homeland and the protective wall of the Jewish state" (p.
In the only hint of a readiness for any territorial compromise in
the book, he writes that "one simply cannot talk about peace and
security for Israel and in the same breath expect Israel to
significantly alter [reviewer's emphasis] its existing defense
boundaries" (p. 343). Instead of concluding the book with his
vision of "A Durable Peace" (Chapter 9), he ends with a discussion
of "The Question of Jewish Power" (Chapter 10). Unlike Yitzhak
Rabin and Shimon Peres, who devoted their adult lives to the
cultivation and maintenance of Jewish power, Netanyahu seems to be
obsessed with "the question of Jewish powerlessness [as] central to
the traumatic experience of the Jewish people" (p. 359). Unlike his
predecessors who considered contemporary Jewish power to be a given
from which to make a peace based upon compromise, Netanyahu does
not seem to have internalized the fact that the State of Israel is
considered to have the fourth or fifth most powerful army in the
Reading Netanyahu's book is a difficult exercise. In many ways, it
appears to be a propaganda tract, originally created as the ideal
gift for potential right-wing donors, to be accompanied by the
autograph of a possible future prime minister of Israel.
After finishing the book, I was very pessimistic about the
prospects for the foreseeable future. Soon afterwards, I
participated in an encounter in Tel Aviv with Sufian Abu-Zaideh,
head of the Israel Desk of the Palestinian National Authority. All
the Israelis attending were pessimistic, and I mentioned that
reading Netanyahu's book only reinforced my pessimism. Abu-Zaideh
responded: "I know. Whenever people ask Netanyahu for his views,
instead of 'Read My Lips' (George Bush), he says, 'Read My Book.'
But I remain optimistic. Reality and the direction of history are
too strong. Before the elections, Netanyahu refused to meet with
Arafat, and now he is doing business with him. He will have to
modify other preconceived ideas as well. The only question is, how
much blood will be shed before reality prevails."
Perhaps Sufian Abu-Zaideh is right. The signing of the Hebron
agreement is another important step in Netanyahu's reconciliation
with reality. However, we are still left with the crucial question
- how much unnecessary Israeli and Palestinian blood will be shed
before reality eventually prevails?