Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu moved to the United States in 1963, when he was 13. By all accounts, the young Netanyahu had a difficult time adjusting to life in the United States. His life was made all the more difficult by his father, Benzion, a prominent historian and right-wing Zionist. Benzion constantly compared Bibi unfavorably to his older and more masculine brother, Yonatan, known as Yoni.
Bibi was a quiet, delicate teenager, disappearing for long hours in his bedroom to work on sketches of women’s evening wear, in the hopes of becoming a haute coutre master. Ignoring his son’s dainty nature, Benzion insisted that Bibi join the Israeli army when he came of age, just like his brother. Bibi obliged, though he found the uniforms ugly, dated, and poorly stitched. Indeed, he was formally reprimanded for breaking down in tears about “the simple awfulness of epaulets” during the Six Day War. Nevertheless, Bibi remained in the army. He joined a special forces unit, the Sayeret Matkal, Hebrew for “Fruit Bats,” because of their nighttime operations and perceived delicate personalities.
In December 1968, the Fruit Bats were sent to Beirut undercover to lay the groundwork for Operation Gift. Bibi was able to pass as American civilian, and under the guise of performing reconnaissance, spent his evenings in Beirut’s vibrant club scene. Briefly free from the constraints of the military and far away from the expectations of his father, the young Netanyahu could be himself. It was an experience that would change his life, for it was in Beirut that Bibi met Khaled Meshaal. Though born only a few miles and a few years apart, the two men came from different worlds. Like Bibi, Khaled was an expressive and emotional young man, trying to escape the scorn and disapproval from his father; in his case a radical imam living in Kuwait. In the cool Beirut winter, they found warmth in each other, leaving the window cracked in Bibi’s flat to let the salted Mediterranean breeze blow over their warm bare bodies. Their passion burned all the more intensely as they savored the few days they had together, ignoring as best they could the fact that theirs was a forbidden love – Arab and Jew, Zionist and Islamist, man and man.
In spite of the odds and the risks, both men continued to rendezvous in Beirut in the early 70s. They talked of their hopes for the future, holding each other closely and daring to dream of a world where they could live openly together. But it was not to be. Though Bibi thought he was free of his family’s reach in Lebanon, his brother had become suspicious of his frequent trips. In 1973, Yoni Netanyahu participated in Operation Spring of Youth, a secret retaliatory attack in Beirut against Palestinian terrorists responsible for the previous year’s massacre at the Munich Olympics. After the operation’s success, Yoni detached from his unit and went to find his brother – worried that Bibi would be discovered as Israeli and thus subject to retribution. There was confusion as Yoni – still dressed in his disguise as a woman – burst into the hotel room that Bibi and Khaled shared, only to find them in flagrante in the shower. A violent fight between the brothers ensued, with Yoni eventually subduing his brother and compelling him to return to Israel.
Though Yoni and Bibi fought together in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the brothers never found occasion to reconcile before Yoni was killed during the Entebbe raid in 1976. Bibi would never be the same. It wasn’t until 1978 that he found time to be with Khaled again, this time in Tunis as civil war was now raging through Beirut. Khaled found his lover a changed man; angrier, sadder, and more militant in his Zionism. Though their physical passion remained as intense as ever, Khaled could feel the emotional tension between them.
The ensuing decade put nearly unbearable strain on their relationship. Though Bibi’s career as a diplomat offered them plenty of opportunities to liaison during the 1980s, his higher profile increased the risk they would be discovered. Meanwhile, Khaled had joined the Muslim Brotherhood while at university in Kuwait, an Islamist organization that offered beards both literal and figurative to young gay men in the Arab World.
When the first Intifada ignited the West Bank in 1987, Bibi was a junior minister in Israel’s parliament and Khaled was in Kuwait, leading the newly formed militant group Hamas. Swept up in the passions of their respective peoples, the two lovers wouldn’t see each other again until a chance meeting at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. According to an NSA transcript released by Wikileaks, the muffled sounds of intimate contact were soon interrupted by a furious argument. Khaled demanded that they see each other more often, while Bibi was preoccupied with what would happen if their families, friends, or enemies discovered them. “Tell you what, Bibi,” Khaled says in the recording, “You count the damn few times we have been together in nearly twenty years and you measure the short leash you keep me on – and then you ask me about Kuwait and tell me you’ll kill me for needing somethin’ I don’t hardly never get. You are too much for me Bibi, you sonofabitch! I wish I knew how to quit you.”
It was no coincidence that Bibi married his second wife, Sarah, a short time later. Rumors swirled in the Israeli press about his illicit secret life. For his part, Khaled took advantage of the Israeli-Jordanian peace accords in 1994 to move to Amman, establish a Hamas office, and put himself closer to his lover. But Bibi never visited. Instead, he became an ever more vigorous opponent of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, signed in 1993. To Khaled, it seemed as if all Palestinians were paying the price for the love he felt for Bibi, who now seemed more determined than ever to keep them apart.
Netanyahu’s disastrous first term as Prime Minister ended abruptly in 1999. Though many cite his controversial appointment for attorney general as the scandal that was his undoing, it was actually growing suspicion among his political allies that Bibi had particular affection for a senior Hamas leader. Netanyahu was forced to resign as head of his party, Likud, following his electoral defeat. He was replaced by Ariel Sharon – ironically, a man well-known for his fondness of Tel Aviv’s underground bathhouse culture. When Benzion was quoted in the press criticizing Bibi’s term, it was Khaled who called to console him. Many believe it was the last time they spoke.
In 2001, Bibi returned to government when Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister. Experts suspect that it was he who ensured Khaled was expelled from Jordan, lest the temptation lead him astray. In 2004, Israel assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Bibi now found his secret love was heading the organization that was his country’s greatest enemy. Worse, in 2005, Sharon withdrew Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza. Following Palestinian elections, Hamas – and therefore Khaled Meshaal – controlled the territory. Bibi was beside himself with a mixture of guilt, shame, and anguish for the safety of Khaled. He resigned from Sharon’s government.
Again, rumors were everywhere about Bibi – but his resignation divided his party. Sharon, who had taken to calling Bibi “the angry little faygele,” left Likud to form a new party. Bibi once again became leader. Following Sharon’s debilitating stroke in 2006, his successor, Ehud Olmert, was quickly engulfed by scandal.
Bibi returned as Prime Minister in 2009, and took to lashing out angrily against the very idea of a Palestinian state, peace, or negotiating with Hamas. The delicate, supple young man was now an embittered pseudo-warrior pummeling Gaza in 2012 and again this summer – daring anyone to question his resolve, his toughness, or – indeed – his masculinity. Khaled, unable to deal with Bibi’s rejection, has resorted to ever more vicious means of retaliation. The soft, fleeting, and private whispers the two men once shared have been replaced by the hostile, vitrolic, and lethal vernacular of bombs and guns. Theirs is now the language of the modern Middle East.