“Netanyahu at War,” the Frontline documentary airing on PBS stations Tuesday night, manages to walk a very narrow line with surprising success. Despite the fairly transparent liberal leanings of the filmmakers and most of their on-screen interviewees, the two-hour film presents a reasonably balanced, objective portrayal of the Israeli prime minister and his beliefs. It’s a rarity for American television. If only for that reason, even if you think you know the whole story, it’s worth watching.
Most significant, the film avoids the tendency of many of Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics to depict him as a cynic devoted solely to maintaining power. Frontline shows Netanyahu as shaped by his historian father’s belief system, a profoundly pessimistic view of Jewish history, along with his late brother Yoni’s heroism and his own sense of duty to the state of Israel. It’s a refreshingly respectful approach to political journalism that’s all too rare these days.
Not that “Netanyahu at War” is shy about making its points. Like most documentaries, it has a story to tell and a case to make, and the images and words are effectively chosen to serve its purposes. The story it aims to tell is how the personal histories of Netanyahu and President Obama led to the confrontation between them over the Iran nuclear deal last spring, climaxing in the prime minister’s controversial March 3 speech to Congress.
The case it seeks to make is that the bad blood between them is a tragedy of historic proportions, and that it results from their personal histories and outlooks colliding at a series of critical moments. It’s hard to say who comes off worse from the telling — Netanyahu with his stubborn pessimism or Obama with his sometimes shocking naivete.
The film is the work of the prolific, award-winning writer-producer-director Michael Kirk, along with his frequent Frontline team of co-writer-producer Mike Wiser and reporter Jim Gilmore. They’ve teamed up in the past on “Losing Iraq,” “Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA,” “United States of Secrets,” “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” and many more. If the titles aren’t familiar, you’ll instantly recognize the grave, sonorous voice of Frontline narrator Will Lyman.
Any doubts about where the filmmakers are coming from are dispelled within the first half-minute. A topographical map of Israel fills the screen, then zooms in on an aerial view of Jerusalem, as the soundtrack plays snippets of newscasts in Hebrew, English and French. Then comes Lyman’s solemn voice, over a grim-faced close-up of Netanyahu, looking for all the world like Oz the Great and Powerful:
“March 2015. Jerusalem. At the prime minister’s residence, Benjamin Netanyahu was determined to stop President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.”
He’s immediately followed by an Israeli-accented voice, which turns out to belong to political consultant Eyal Arad. “The prime minister has a messianic notion of himself as the person called to save the Jewish people,” Arad says.
Most of what will follow is more measured, but Arad has set the tone. He’s identified as a “former Netanyahu advisor,” and we’ll later learn that he left Netanyahu’s service in 1996 (we’re not told that they parted on poor terms and Arad later worked for a series of Netanyahu’s rivals).
Now we’re about to relive Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. We’ll see shots of Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz standing and applauding and of Obama fuming in the Oval Office, livid over the insult of a foreign leader rallying Congress against him. In between the archival footage we’ll hear well-edited clips of Netanyahu allies explaining the historic importance of his mission, Obama allies describing the unprecedented breach of protocol and a clutch of celebrity journalists discussing what it all means. That’s the film’s prologue, all in five minutes. Then comes the history.
The rest of the film is divided roughly into three parts. The first is a biography of Netanyahu, from childhood through his political rise, his emergence as the controversial leader of the right-wing opposition to Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s, the leading opponent of the Oslo peace process and a young, none-too-successful prime minister. It leaves Netanyahu briefly to describe the failed Camp David summit between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat in 2000 and the bloody Intifada that followed. Then it returns to Netanyahu as he’s about to return to the prime minister’s office in 2009 and come face-to-face with Barack Obama.
The history isn’t flawless. The filmmakers take more or less at face value, with perfunctory denials, the accusations from the Rabin family and the left that Netanyahu was largely to blame for creating the incendiary atmosphere that led to Rabin’s assassination. That gives Netanyahu too much credit and underestimates the rage of Israel’s religious right over the prospect of partitioning the Land of Israel. Later on, they skip too quickly through Netanyahu’s eclipse in the early 2000s. They ignore Netanyahu’s rivalry with Ariel Sharon, who’s never even mentioned, despite his enormous impact on the Israel that Netanyahu eventually took command of. And again, they overstate Netanyahu’s impact on fostering the public’s right-wing mood in 2009 and afterward, underestimating the role of the Second Intifada and the Gaza rockets in souring Israelis on the prospect of peace with the Palestinians.
In the end, though, those are quibbles. The purpose of the film’s first half is to give viewers a sense of how Netanyahu came to his hawkish, pessimistic views and how he captured Israel’s and the world’s imagination. It’s all prelude to the second half, which tells the story of the clash between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. And it does that well.
At the film’s halfway point, it’s 2009 and Netanyahu is elected prime minister, only to face a newly elected American president, Barack Obama, who believes he can solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a conflict that Netanyahu, so we’ve learned, believes is insoluble. The clash between the two leaders is inevitable.
The second segment traces the growing rift between Netanyahu and Obama. The president doesn’t get as full a biography as the prime minister, presumably because it’s familiar to the American audience. But there is a brief look at a less familiar side of Obama’s past: his political apprenticeship in Chicago, where he was mentored by prominent Jewish liberals. He came, we are told, to embrace as his own a “universalist, liberal, progressive” set of Jewish values — along with an old-fashioed, pre-Likud vision of Israel’s birth as “a chance to build a nation-state but to do it right, in a progressive way.”
“What Obama is admiring in the Jewish tradition and in the Jews he knows,” journalist Peter Beinart tells us, “is exactly what Netanyahu fears. 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.”
Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit picks up the theme: “The deeper clash here is really, if you wish, like between two versions of Judaism. One is the universalist, liberal, progressive Judaism and one is the under-siege, fortress Judaism which Netanyahu is all about.”
From here on in, the film is a tragedy of errors, many of them on Obama’s part. At his first meeting with the prime minister, in May 2009, the president stuns and infuriates his guest by calling — openly, before the cameras, and without warning the prime minister — for a freeze on settlements.
“Whatever happened in that traumatic meeting,” says Ari Shavit, Netanyahu “came back angry, suspicious, hostile, and he came back from Washington feeling that he is at war, that he’s under siege. And that shaped the entire relationship, because with people like Netanyahu you don’t get a second chance.”
Two weeks later the president flies to Cairo to deliver his famous speech to the Muslim world, which Israelis take as a turning away from Israel toward its enemies. The perceived insult is compounded by the fact that the president doesn’t hop from Cairo to Israel while he’s in the neighborhood. It’s a decision urged by aides to avoid muddying his conciliatory gesture to Muslims, though some aides tell us they later came to regret it.
Whatever the intent, the combination of the speech and the non-visit “sent Israelis the signal that he didn’t like them,” says U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk. The president’s popularity with the broad Israeli public drops to historic lows.
Then come the uprisings known as the Arab Spring in early 2011. The president is “excited,” says Peter Beinart. National Security Council aide Dennis Ross recalls: “Suddenly it looks like the forces of history are in the squares and not in the presidential palaces. And now the president wants to be on the right side of history.”
Inspired by the seeming outbreak of democracy, he backs protesters calling for the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a longtime American ally. Now it’s not just Israelis who lose faith in Obama, but America’s moderate allies across the Arab world. Netanyahu and his aides are appalled. “The thinking that after Mubarak is out a new Thomas Jefferson is going to be born on the Nile is miserably naïve,” then-deputy prime minister Dan Meridor recalls.
In May 2011, the president addresses staffers at the State Department on the significance of the Arab Spring — “but the speech would be remembered for just one line,” narrator Lyman says. It’s this Obama statement: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”
That speech and its aftermath are the topic of one of the film’s longest set pieces. In a series of quick talking-head shots, top aides to the president and the prime minister recall how angry Netanyahu was. The prime minister was due to leave for a Washington visit the next day, and Israel’s Washington ambassador Michael Oren remembers that when he landed “you could almost imagine steam coming out of his ears.”
In one of the film’s most telling moments, Dennis Ross remembers Obama asking him why Netanyahu “reacted so negatively to the speech.” Ross replied that it was because the prime minister had been “surprised by it.” Envoy Martin Indyk tells us Netanyahu felt “ambushed.” White House aide Ben Rhodes says the “notion of ’67 lines with mutually agreed swaps is not at all a controversial idea.”
But it was much more than surprise. Netanyahu’s then-aide and future ambassador Ron Dermer reminds us of the Likud view that the 1967 lines “were lines of war” that left Israel’s existence threatened. Watching, we get the feeling that Obama didn’t understand the fundamental difference in territorial policy that had come into office in Jerusalem, and nobody around him was clearing it up for him.
Obama got his explanation, in the form of an unprecedented, finger-wagging lecture from the visiting prime minister before the cameras in the Oval Office two days later. Now it was the turn of Obama and his aides to be insulted. Ross remembers White House chief of staff Bill Daley standing next to him and watching, “and he was going, ‘Outrageous. Outrageous.’ It was like, he was almost levitating.”
Obama adviser David Axelrod says he thinks Netanyahu “came with a mind toward inflaming the relationship.” But the relationship had already gone up in flames, probably from the moment Netanyahu first visited the Obama White House in 2009 and was lectured about settlements. Netanyahu understood the profound difference between himself and the president in worldview and expectations in a way that Obama failed to grasp until it was too late.
The final segment dramatically recalls the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations that was Netanyahu’s March 2015 congressional address. It’s a compelling climax to what we’ve watched building up as an almost Shakespearean tragedy.
Sometimes it’s the history we’ve lived through and witnessed that’s the hardest to see for what it was. “Netanyahu at War,” despite some flaws, does a good job of retelling it in a way that makes you reconsider, even if you thought you were watching closely at the time.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).