Given the historic ties between the United States and Israel, watching the fraying relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who essentially campaigned for his defeat in 2012 – has been a source of considerable fascination. And leave it to Frontline to encapsulate those events, as well as the Israeli leader’s confrontational style, in “Netanyahu at War,” which begins and ends with the Israeli leader’s 2015 speech to Congress advocating against the Iran deal, and deftly putties in all sorts of biographical details, slights and controversies in between.
For many in the U.S., Netanyahu became a fixture as a forceful U.S.-based spokesman for Israel during the ’80s (at times, the former U.N. ambassador felt like a de facto co-host of “Nightline”), before returning home to pursue his political ambitions. That included bitter criticism of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for signing the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993, unleashing anger that culminated in Rabin’s assassination two years later — with many political rivals, including Rabin’s widow, blaming Netanyahu for helping inflame the passions that resulted in that violence.
Netanyahu’s hardline approach to the Palestinian question, and the way support for his conservative Likud Party has ebbed and flowed in concert with Israel’s security concerns, also offers noteworthy parallels to the political tides washing over the U.S. All that is summarized rather neatly by director Michael Kirk — again collaborating with co-writer Mike Wiser and reporter Jim Gilmore — before plunging into what amounts to the main event: the acrimony between Netanyahu and Obama, whose opposing views of how to achieve progress have erupted into open hostility.
In one of the more telling moments, the cameras zero in on Obama’s face as Netanyahu lectures him in the Oval Office, with aides discussing how the president was quietly fuming about the display of disrespect. Yet the documentary also offers necessary context, including how then-President Bill Clinton supported Shimon Peres in his bid to win the 1996 Israeli election against Netanyahu (which Netanyahu won by a razor-thin margin) — in much the way Netanyahu interceded in the U.S. race in 2008. The project contains interviews with numerous Israeli and American officials, including former Clinton national security advisor Sandy Berger, who died in December, as well as Obama confidantes Ben Rhodes and David Axelrod.
Although “Netanyahu at War” is merely the latest in a series of probing looks into foreign policy and terrorism from Kirk and Frontline, its most apt recent companion would be “The Diplomat,” the HBO documentary on the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, thanks to its intricate glimpse into the art (and missteps) associated with international diplomacy. Moreover, the fact that Obama was sworn in the same year Netanyahu began his second stint as prime minister, in 2009, has left the pair’s policy objectives inextricably intertwined — clearly defining the outlines of their divergent approaches, and occasional sharp elbows.
The polarized nature of the current political climate, and the sensitivity that surrounds Israel as a U.S. ally in the broader context of the Middle East, will likely color how many perceive “Netanyahu at War.” But Frontline has once again navigated that minefield in a manner that sheds light on both sides of the argument — as well as on Netanyahu’s influence, in his country and abroad — with the kind of clarity and depth that TV too seldom provides.