TV Review: Frontline’s ‘Netanyahu at War’

Netanyahu at War Frontline Documentary Review

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.

TV Review: Frontline's 'Netanyahu at War'

(Documentary; PBS, Tues. Jan. 5, 9 p.m.)


Produced by Kirk Documentary Group with Frontline.


Executive producer, Raney Aronson-Rath; producers, Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore, Mike Wiser; director, Kirk; writers, Kirk, Wiser; reporter, Jim Gilmore. 120 MIN.

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  1. Linda Jensen says:

    I was disappointed there was no mention of Obama interfering with the re-election of Netanyahu that was widely reported in the media. Unbalanced to mention Netanyahu’s meetings with Mitt Romney and not all the efforts made by the Obama administration to unseat Bibi.

  2. Hugh Colvin says:

    Frankly I think is one of the poorest examples of reporting I’ve witnessed in years. In the first 10-15 minutes the “documentary” describes how Bibi bravely performs during the raid on Entebbe. Only it wasn’t Bibi, it was his older brother, who was the only one killed during this rescue mission. I’ve seen no evidence Bibi was at this rescue, or was even old enough at the time. How can these basic facts be so erroneously reported? Who edited and fact checked this piece? It calls into question every other part of this report. Viewers have no other option than to take it all with a grain of salt.

    • spence says:

      MY friend, I think you need to watch this again, It does not say he was involved in the Entebbe raid- rather the Sabina 571 raid at Lod airport.

      • Hugh Colvin says:

        I never heard Sabina mentioned. Thank you. I would be very encouraged to know this was a mistake on my part. I will go back and review it again. Regards.

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