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'Netanyahu at War': An engaging but deeply flawed documentary

Twenty three men and three women tell the captivating story of Netanyahu’s rise to power, and how he ended up on a collision course with the leader of the free world. Yes, 23 men and three women.

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel, March 20, 2013. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel, March 20, 2013. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

“Netanyahu at War,” a PBS Frontline documentary about Benjamin Netanyahu’s rise to power and the background to his now-infamous, ongoing feud with Barack Obama, opens with the controversy surrounding the Israeli prime minister’s address to Congress last March, which one of his former advisors frames as a Churchillian attempt to warn the world about the dangers of a nuclear deal with Iran. “Netanyahu,” says former advisor Eyal Arad, “has a messianic notion of himself as someone called to save the Jewish people.”

Over the next five minutes, we hear insights into the hostile Obama-Netanyahu relationship from no less than 10 name-brand experts (besides Eyal Arad): Ari Shavit, David Axelrod, Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev, Ronen Bergman, Sandy Berger, David Baker, Aaron David Miller, veteran Likud parliamentarian Tzachi Hanegbi, the New York Times‘ White House correspondent Peter Baker, and Dennis Ross. Axelrod describes Netanyahu’s meddling in U.S. foreign policy as “audacious” and “unprecedented.” Sandy Berger says it was a “direct attack” on Obama’s foreign policy legacy. Shalev observes that Netanyahu was “ready to undermine Israel’s relations with the U.S. in order to fight off the Iranian challenge.”

Having thus set the stage, over the next third of the documentary we learn about Netanyahu’s background. His illustrious combat career as an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, and his involvement in the mission to release the hostages during the 1972 Sabena Airline hijacking. The years he spent in the United States, first in high school, and then as an Israeli diplomat when he built his strong relations with leaders in the Jewish community. Then on to his return to Israel in the late 1980s and his rise to leadership in the Likud party during the Oslo period, leading up to Rabin’s assassination in 1995.

Twenty three men

At this point we’re 45 minutes into this documentary and we finally hear from an actual female expert. Really. Dana Weiss, an Israeli TV news presenter, explains why Israelis were insulted that Obama didn’t “stop by for coffee” after he gave his 2009 Cairo speech. And then Diana Buttu, the prominent Canadian-Palestinian attorney who was a spokesperson for the PLO and a participant in negotiations with the Israelis, speaks. But all we hear from her is a four-second clip about the Second Intifada, in which she explains that the Palestinians were “fed up” with the stalled negotiations and broken promises. But the narrator of the program had just presented the Second Intifada as a renewal of Palestinian violence.

We hear from Buttu a couple more times. Channel 2 reporter Dana Weiss gets a few more seconds. As does Tzipi Livni, the veteran Israeli politician, former foreign minister and former leader of the Kadima party. Leah Rabin, the late widow of Yitzhak Rabin, appears briefly in archival footage of a television interview she gave to an American network after her husband’s assassination.

And that is about it for the women in this long, detailed documentary.

But in addition to the 10 men who spoke in the first five minutes, we also hear from Saeb Erakat, Ben Rhodes (Obama’s deputy national security advisor), Marvin Kalb, Dore Gold, Peter Beinart, George Mitchell, Michael Oren, Jeffrey Goldberg, Martin Indyk, Dan Meridor (Likud politician) and journalist Dan Ephron.

Twenty three men and three women, with the women given a total of maybe four minutes collectively (and I am being generous) in a nearly two-hour episode.

We hear nothing from Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice, Susan Rice, Ilana Dayan, Yonit Levi, Mazal Mualem, Lara Friedman, Tamara Coffman-Wittes, Hanan Ashrawi, Lucy Kurtzer Ellenbogen, Hillary Clinton or any other important, leading female analyst, journalist or politician who is truly an expert with real insights to bring. Oh, you’ve never heard of most them? That’s probably true. Because even thought they are leading experts in their fields, and despite the fact that many of them actually served in the State Department and were directly involved in negotiations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, why bother to solicit fresh voices? Why, indeed, when the old boy’s club is so ready, willing and able.

Obama the Naive

But it’s not just the unapologetically and shamefully patriarchal attitude that undermines the credibility of this elegantly produced Frontline episode on Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s also the dubious political analysis that is left unchallenged.

Obama’s support for the Egyptian uprising, for example, is presented as childlike and naive. It is implied that the U.S. president’s enthusiasm for the popular uprising put Israeli security at risk. Jeffrey Goldberg suggests that Netanyahu was prescient in criticizing Obama for calling upon Mubarak to resign in February 2011. Netanyahu knew that “Muslim extremists” would take over, says Goldberg. This view is supported by Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, and by Dan Meridor, the Likud politician.

There are no analysts to challenge this extremely shallow analysis of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. No one mentions that under Morsi, the deposed president who came up through the Brotherhood, relations between Israel and Egypt remained as they had been under Mubarak. In fact, in 2012  Morsi came under fire from Egyptians — including secular opponents to the Brotherhood — for sending an effusively warm official letter to his “great and good friend,” then-president Shimon Peres. Cooperation between the Egyptian army and the Israeli army continued uninterrupted under Morsi. Nor does anyone bother mentioning the potential damage to the United States’ credibility in the Arab Middle East if Obama had offered to continue supporting a deeply unpopular authoritarian leader while millions demonstrated against him on the streets.

This theme of naive Obama and Obama the Arab lover dominates “Netanyahu at War.” Obama is criticized heavily for calling for a settlement freeze right after he gave his 2009 speech at Cairo University and immediately after Netanyahu was elected. None of the analysts denies that it had always been U.S. policy to oppose Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories. But Indyk, Ross and Mitchell all agree that in hindsight it was bad timing to reiterate U.S. policy after, oh, only 42 years of unceasing settlement expansion. Obama should have waited.

Goldberg and Oren both criticize Obama for “putting daylight” between Israel and the United States in order to make nice with the Arabs. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, is given a few seconds to point out that not only has opposition to settlements been the policy of every U.S. administration, but that in his seven years of experience he has learned that you’re “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” in every decision regarding Middle East policy.

I take serious issue with the overall tone of the analysis offered by the various participants interviewed for this program, with a few notable exceptions. At the very least, there should have been some strong voices to counter the narrative that Obama was naive or that he deliberately undermined relations with Israel in order to pursue his alleged love affair with the Arab states. Both accusations are absurd and insulting.

And I must emphasize again that this male dominated discourse has to stop. It simply must. The year is 2016. Washington is full of senior, expert female policy analysts and journalists. There is no shortage of expert women in Israel or in Palestine, either. When they are left out of a current affairs documentary for an important program like Frontline, it constitutes a serious omission that undermines its credibility. Why in the world are men in their 60s who have not been involved in policy making for nearly two decades still considered experts while female diplomats who were directly involved in high level negotiations over very recent years completely ignored?

“Netanyahu at War” will be broadcast Tuesday night (tonight) on PBS in the United States. Viewers abroad can watch it online. It’s a well-edited documentary that flows and and offers some insights that will engage even those who know the story intimately. But it is also deeply flawed in its framing and seriously undermined by its failure to include both genders — and, also, by its having omitted Palestinians. Saeb Erakat and Diana Buttu aside, what we have here is a program dominated by American Jewish men who live in Washington or New York. Again.

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    1. Lewis from Afula

      Obama is the Leader of the Free World?
      You mean an over-hyped, ex-Community Organizer whose representing a sinking boat nation with $200 Trillion of Unfunded liabilities? The idiot who generated the biggest credit bubble in history of the World and hopes it won’t burst on his watch? That leader of the Free World?

      Comparing that loser with Bibi – an ex-officer of Israel’s special forces who risked his life in anti-terrorist operations. The Netanyahu who swam in the Suez Canal while under fire from the Egyptian army in the Yom Kippur War. The guy who has reduced Israel’s Debt to GDP ratio from 97% to 67% over the last 17 years?

      Reply to Comment
      • betz55

        Bibi is an aging out of touch has-been in 2016, the 21st century, still clinging to the idiot tenant that he and his failed, apartheid policies will prevail. Bibi was a mess the first time around and he has confirmed he has been a mess for the rest of his time in office.

        His vision of peace? Go back to his Newsweek interview April 20, 1998.
        “At the end of the final settlement, the Palestinians would have their own territory and the ability to govern themselves, but none of the powers that could threaten Israel.” Nothing, nothing has changed.

        He has painted himself and Israel into a corner, surrounded by states that loathe both of them. Their hubris, arrogance and sense of entitlement based on the ridiculous credo of “God’s chosen people”, has left them discredited, unmasked, de-legitimized, scorned, maniacally messianic fanatics, laughed at and alienated from the rest of the international community. That will be his well deserved legacy.

        Reply to Comment
    2. DCJ

      To watch this documentary one would also think that America was a majority Jewish male population that carried two passports instead of a mixed gender population constituting 2% of the America’s demographic. Bibi Netanyahu carried a US and Israeli passport in his youth. Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US was born in America and went to Princeton. Martin Indyk was an Australlian national two weeks before he was granted US citizenship/ made American Ambassador to Israel. Obama’s chief of staff and his senior advisor were both Jewish.Three members of Netanyahu’s former political team respond to questions in a flawless American accent- not a coincidence, since they were all born in the United States. The American political perspective is offered by Jewish males Marvin Kalb, Jeffry Goldberg, and Peter Beinart. In its framing of events the documentary ironically captures the male Washington DC/ New York City male world that determines US/ Israeli policy: women, Palestinians, all non male goyim need not apply to participate.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Larry Snider

      Amazing! Frontline does a two hour documentary titled Netanyahu at War and the author of this piece devotes the first paragraph to the lack of gender balance in the interviews. There was a lot covered and a lot left out. I never saw Sharon who it seems to me bypassed Netanyahu to reclaim the leadership of Likud and the Prime Ministership of Israel for a rather important period of time. Another Prime Minister named Ehud Olmert preceded Netanyahu after his leader of Kadima, no longer Likud fell ill. And the story barely touched either Palestinian intransigence, Israeli aggression, or the rockets from Hamas that fell first in the Negev and then more broadly across southern Israel in 2014. The competition between the conservative Netanyahu who won on security and the liberal Obama who won on his promise to bring the boys home from two wars began in earnest when Rahm Emanuel told his new boss not to get caught in the trap with Netanyahu that befell Bill Clinton. His response was to publicly press a settlement freeze and follow that with an appearance in Cairo, Turkey and Saudi Arabia that somehow missed landing in Israel…

      Reply to Comment
    4. David Green

      I get your point about male dominance, but the point is that they relate a false narrative. For instance, right off the bat, the origins of the 67 war were distorted. The viewer is supposed to accept without question that Israel really was in danger. This is repeated again later on. Also omitted, for example is the Goldstein massacre in Hebron. So the impression is given throughout that the Palestinians just get out of control for no reason. And, of course, no mention of the Nakba. So, yes, more diverse voices, but there are plenty of female hasbarists. Let’s emphasize the grossly distorted narrative, the hasbara, and the fact that Obama has continued to support Israel’s crimes, both settlement and war.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Philos

      “and, also, by its having omitted Palestinians” – one would think that would be it’s major flaw given that Jewish Israeli women, although subject to patriarchy, nonetheless benefit from racial policies of the State of Israel and from the Jewish military dictatorship over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

      Furthermore, I find this kind of liberal-tokenist critique too shallow to be taken seriously. Would women like Livni or Clinton added anything to the discussion that would’ve been different from the hegemonic men that were given sumptuous airtime? We both know the answer to that question is: no, they would not have. So what if it is 2016 – having white women who are as neoliberal, aggressive and warlike as white men in their 60s is hardly an improvement on the world as it is nor any kind of step towards progressive politics. If the presidency of Barack Obama should teach us anything it is that we should take Martin Luther King’s invocation that a person should be judged by the content of their character and not by any arbitrary factor like the pigmentation of their skin or the genitalia they were born with. And Obama’s character was found to be seriously wanting of any the qualities of a transformative leader that was supposed to herald a peaceful and progressive American future. Indeed, for liberal women it seems the most outrageous thing to have happened in 2015 that the most progressive voices in politics in both the UK and USA happened to those of quite old white men from the “far-left” of political parties that had long ago betrayed all their values and voters. Clinton, Cooper, Merkel, Lilian Tintori, Marine Le Pen, Allessandra Mussolini, Tzipi Livni, Ayelet Shaked, and so on. Not one of them is a progressive, and all of them are more retrograde in their attitudes to equality than the so-called “median voter” male.

      Feminism needs to return to its radical roots and abandon this liberal illusion for liberalism, at its core, is about the protection of private property and in a world like that women’s bodies will always be up for negotiation.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Weiss

      Satanyahoo is just another Fascist in a Pin-Striped Suit.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Men, women, neither here nor there regarding this spell-binding documentary.

      For me an overwhelming pride in Obama when said and done.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Frontline’s neutrality has been suspect for years but this was way over the line. I taped it (yes, taped) and only saw 15 min of the last hour. It took me only that long to see the manipulation of evidence therein, especially as every snearing comment about Obama’s “failure” around the Arab Spring was made by an Isreali (with perfect American accent) who served Netty in some capacity. I was so mad I jumped on the web for reviews and mercifully ran across this one. Saved my blood pressure to read such a good put-down of this Right Wing propaganda that Frontline engages in far too often. And I especially liked the POV that talking to a few women would vastly improve this crap. Here, here.

      Reply to Comment
    9. RUTH

      Lisa is annoyed her opinion was not sought by Frontline.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ben

      David Green gets it right. The distortion of the origins of the six day war is a crucial propaganda victory foisted on the outside world. It’s just one distortion among others slipped in as “fact” in this documentary but it’s a seminal one. That 48 years later this distortion is perpetuated in the American MSM is a measure of how far from an honest reckoning with the conflict and its resolution we are. And it’s amazing to me that the same arrogant Israeli talking heads condescending to Obama are the ones who don’t say a word about Bush and Cheney’s idiotic adventure in Iraq, an utter disaster still spreading outwards, that generations of presidents will have to clean up.

      Benjamin Netanyahu: “If You Take Out Saddam, I Guarantee, It Will Have Enormous Positive Reverberations on the Region”

      And we are supposed to believe a word that comes out of this guy’s mouth? To trust him? Not ever.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Eric

      The complaint about gender disparity, however valid, is absurd as the major basis to judge this documentary. It’s like Israel ‘making nice’ (as the author puts it) with gays and lesbians when critics point to occupation of Palestinian land and concomitant repression. (Not that gay rights aren’t important, but they aren’t the elephant in this room.)

      This seems to be the only review of the doc on this site, which certainly wouldn’t encourage me to donate to 972.

      And if Goldman really wanted incisive female critics, why didn’t she mention Amira Hass or Phyllis Bennis?

      Reply to Comment
    12. Baladi Akka 1948

      So the lack of female voices is Lisa’s biggest concern. As a female Palestinian, I have more in common with a fellow male Palestinian, may he be from Hamas than with a Jewish Israeli feminist in Tel Aviv or New York, and I don’t care that much whether a male or a female represents the Palestinian point of view as long as it is a Palestinian (I know liberal Jews often have the ambition of speaking for the Palestinians too).
      A part from that, we all know that American media are occupied just as Palestinian land.

      Reply to Comment
    13. jfleni

      Absolutely right, women were mostly ignored, but so what. The groveling to show BIBI (a man after all) as some kind of seer was nonsensical; he comes across as an arrogant fool sticking his nose in another country’s business.

      Reply to Comment
    14. James Kay

      It is hard, but not impossible, to believe that somehow every ‘thing’ – book, film, event, ad infinitum gets framed as a test of sexism. Nothing is not ‘fair game’ for this extremely tangential kind of ‘picking’ at everything. If the documentary had been about combat in WWII, and the only women portrayed were the women who ‘manned’ factory jobs to promote the war effort, you’d probably say ‘but out of a 2 hour documentary, women only were portrayed for 8 minutes! Sexism run wild!’ Well, few if any women were actually *in* combat in WWII – much like the coterie of top Obama advisors were, at the time, in fact men. Why not blame Obama for sexism rather than the filmaker of this Frontline episode? The irony is that this need to run everything through the microscope of ‘political correctness’ is so very close to the tactics of Stalin and Hitler in allowing no dissent from the dogma of their cause.
      One of the commentators on the film asks why Condolezza Rice and other women of high rank were not given commenting time? Well, IIRC, George Bush II was either given zero time or very little. Why? Because he’s almost irrelevant to the issues at hand. The documentary spends some time on Clinton, but not Bush. Is this evidence of ‘anti-Bushism’, or does it reflect the fact that Clinton went to great effort to get an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, while Bush simply embraced Israel and Netanyahu, and was much more focused on starting foreign wars against Islamic countries, so there’s not much of a relevant story there.
      The inherent idea that there is only one way to correctly view events, i.e., through the ‘lens’ of sexism, is what is deeply flawed about this analysis. Why give time to George Mitchell but not Madelyn Albright? Because of the simple fact that Obama charged Mitchell with the duty of brokering an Arab-Israeli agreement. Albright had little or nothing to do with that. Why wasn’t Golda Meir interviewed, since her intransigence with the idea of a Palestinian state dwarfs Natanyahu’s? Um, because she’s dead? Hope myopic can we get here?

      Reply to Comment