With “Netanyahu at War,” the PBS Frontline series continues its tradition of visiting its subject with a combination of fast-paced dramatic footage, sprinkled with authoritative talking heads providing commentary with some (very limited) variation of views. It features well-known personalities who are often consulted on Israel — including Dennis Ross, Ari Shavit, Peter Beinart, Jeffrey Goldberg, and David Remnick; but opinions delivered in any given scene generally proceed without being challenged. So, for example, when Ari Shavit exclusively blames Arafat for the failure of the Camp David Summit of 2000, there is no alternative analysis offered, even though many well-informed observers see this event in more complex terms, with plenty of blame to go around (not that I would want to excuse Arafat for his share).
Unremarkably for a less than two-hour broadcast, it is not anything like a complete run-down of major events in the past 20 years since Netanyahu first became prime minister in 1996. Perhaps surprisingly, however, there is no mention of Ariel Sharon, the Gaza Disengagement, Ehud Olmert, Operation Protective Edge (the Gaza war of 2014); likewise, there is nothing on how Netanyahu bested Livni in 2009 despite having fewer votes (in fact, the only mention of Livni is one appearance as a talking head about something else). There is no mention of how he defeated Herzog in 2015 by rallying votes from other right-wing parties in the eleventh hour; you’d never know that the plurality vote for his Likud party last year was a mere 23% of the total. The details of how Israel is governed by coalitions of diverse parties may seem too arcane for television, but it is important in understanding Israeli politics.
Viewers get little sense of how Netanyahu has become more extreme in recent years by …
- undermining John Kerry’s intense diplomatic mission in 2014-15 by refusing to curb the growth of settlements;
- launching a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2014 (his first comprehensive military campaign in over eight years in office);
- tolerating or even encouraging legislation that would inhibit free speech (e.g., anti-boycott rules that even target those who favor “Zionist BDS” only against settlements), demonize human rights NGOs (if they receive grants from abroad), and threaten to curtail the jurisdiction of Israel’s Supreme Court;
- appealing to bigotry about Arabs voting “in droves” during last year’s election.
What it does concentrate on, and makes good narrative viewing with, is Netanyahu’s acrimonious relationship with Pres. Obama. (JTA’s Washington correspondent Ron Kampeas cites “4 times Obama and Netanyahu got along that ‘Frontline’ skipped,” but I’m with the PBS producers on this point.)
The most dramatic footage, which PBS has used in a trailer, is Netanyahu’s angry reaction to the Iran nuclear agreement, denouncing it as a “very bad deal” and haranguing Dennis Ross, who was still an Obama administration official at that time. Plus, of course, there’s the background run-up to this agreement, including Netanyahu’s unprecedented speech before Congress opposing such a deal, prior to its finalization.
The program reasonably contends that Obama got off on the wrong foot with both Netanyahu and the people of Israel, by pointedly not making a brief stopover in Israel (a short hop from Cairo) on his June 2009 tour of Middle Eastern countries that began with his high-profile speech in Cairo. Another obvious faux pas examined was Netanyahu’s extreme breach of etiquette in publicly lecturing Pres. Obama, at some length, on why the 1948-67 armistice lines should not be the territorial “basis” for negotiating a two-state solution — even though Obama had clearly allowed for some trade-off of territories. What struck me immediately was to wonder why Obama and the various commentators had not phrased this proposition differently: that the new border between Israel and a Palestinian state should include modifications of the pre-’67 lines through mutually-agreed upon land swaps. This was really saying the same thing, but emphasizing the “land swaps” aspect, which tended to get completely lost in the ensuing controversy.
Writing in 972 Magazine, Lisa Goldman criticizes the production for overwhelmingly relying on male commentators: “ ‘Netanyahu at War’: An engaging but deeply flawed documentary“; she was not wrong, but I found her criticisms in the subsection entitled “Obama the Naive,” more germane and penetrating. For example, she rightly questions the implication that Obama should have sided with Mubarak in 2011, as suggested by Jeffrey Goldberg and Michael Oren, although masses of Egyptians seethed to throw off his tyrannical and corrupt reign.
All in all, this made for interesting viewing for those of us who are Israel junkies. Frontline made an honest effort to portray events in a compelling and coherent way, but there were plenty of grounds for reviewers to fault it as well. No big surprise.
This broadcast can be viewed online by clicking here.