Up close and personal: Getting lied to by Bibi

Unaware that their microphones were still on after a G-20 press conference in Cannes last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama were overheard expressing their true opinion of Binyamin Netanyahu on a personal level. The author had the same impression during a 1993 interview with Netanyahu.

So now Sarkozy says Netanyahu is a “liar” and that he “can’t stand” him, and Obama moans that that’s nothing, he has “to deal with him every day.” Join the club, fellas. Tony Blair and his team considered Netanyahu an “armor-plated bullshitter,” according to his aide Alistair Campbell; Bill Clinton couldn’t stand him, and if it hadn’t been for the Holocaust, imagine what Angela Merkel would be saying about Netanyahu now.

Our Bibi is a piece of work. It’s not his right-wing politics; Sharon was right-wing, certainly in his first term, Shamir was right-wing, Begin was right-wing, and foreign leaders didn’t talk about any of them like they talk about Netanyahu. Some said Begin was stubborn and argumentative, Shamir was a brick wall (I don’t remember anybody badrapping Sharon personally) – but I don’t recall any world leader complaining that they were intolerable, that they were liars like they do about Netanyahu. And with the exception of Ehud Barak –a different sort of piece of work, even more arrogant than Netanyahu and a physically violent bully, but much less of a liar – no Israeli prime minister ever alienated his political allies at home like Netanyahu did in his first term. (Though it must be said that he’s gotten over that problem in his current term.)

What is it about this guy? Besides the lying, what is it that makes foreign statesmen, not to mention his opposition at home, find him intolerable – “revolting,” as I put it in an August 2005 Jerusalem Post column that looked at this question. To help answer it, I told a personal anecdote:

I was interviewing Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office for a profile in summer 1993, a couple of months after his book, A Place Among the Nations – Israel and the World, came out. After awhile I started asking him various policy questions, and he started replying, ‘Read my book.’ Finally I told him, ‘I did.’

He looked at me sideways, skeptically, and asked, ‘Did you read it or just skim it?’ I told him, ‘No, I read it.’

Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz has written of Netanyahu’s technique of ‘giving the voters those extra two seconds of full-on, ultra-sincere eye contact to lock up their support.’ A few minutes after telling Netanyahu I’d read his book, I got my two seconds.

Sitting behind his desk he paused, fixed me with the look and said, ‘Larry, I think you understand my vision better than any Israeli journalist.’

I recall lowering my eyes and trying to make the wince on my lips look like a smile of appreciation, and went on to the next question.

This was nothing new, a politician feeding a journalist some flattering nonsense in the hope of getting sympathetic coverage. But what nonsense! He didn’t know me from Adam, I’m sure he’d never read anything I’d ever written, I’d been talking to him for all of an hour and he tells me he thinks no Israeli journalist has plumbed his depths like I have.

He was telling me a lie, but it was such a bad lie, such a ridiculous one. How could he expect that it would work, that it would get me on his side? Later I thought about that, and I asked myself: What sort of person tells ridiculously bad lies? A stupid person. But stupid is one thing Netanyahu definitely isn’t.

So what sort of intelligent person tells really bad lies? Answer: One who thinks the person he’s lying to is stupid, stupid enough to believe him.

I don’t think I gave Netanyahu any reason to think I was stupid. I think he just naturally assumes that about everybody – that he can tell anybody anything and get away with it, that everybody’s a gullible simpleton except him.

And that, finally, is what makes Netanyahu so uniquely offensive to watch: It’s not just the preening that shows he has such a high opinion of himself, it’s the outrageousness of his bullshit that shows he has such a low opinion of his audience.

The funny thing is that this guy is considered Israel’s Great Communicator – and he is, but with a very, very narrow audience. Republicans, AIPAC-owned Democrats, right-wing Zionists and the uninformed. Everybody else thinks he’s a liar and can’t stand him. A piece of work, our Bibi.