In a Time magazine cover story coming out later this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describes the Iranian nuclear drive as “the greatest threat not just to Israel and the Middle East but to civilization,” because, he says, “You don’t know how they will behave” if they attain the bomb.

Time's Netanyahu cover, dated May 28.

Time's Netanyahu cover, dated May 28.

The eight-page, approximately 5,000-word, May 28 profile, which includes a wide-ranging interview with Netanyahu, is headlined “King Bibi,” with the subhead: “He’s conquered Israel. But will Netanyahu now make peace — or war?” The article itself echoes the cover text, with the headline “Bibi’s Choice. Will he make war? Can he make peace?”

The text offers no definitive answers to such questions, but highlights the prime minister’s acute concern over the Iranian program, and his skepticism about the Palestinian leadership’s readiness to enter a genuine, viable accommodation with Israel. Still, he says he can “make peace happen” with the Palestinians if they engage with him.

Asked whether he thinks the Iranians are rational actors, Netanyahu replies: “People say that, but how do you know that?”

The writer, Time’s Managing Editor Richard Stengel, notes that “Bibi does not share the general faith in negotiations or give any ground on the military option. There’s a greater threat in doing nothing, he says, than in acting. Game theory would also suggest that there is no downside to Bibi’s bluster. But he gives no hint that he is anything but dead serious.”

As for the Palestinians, the article quotes Netanyahu as saying that “Peace treaties don’t guarantee peace,” and Stengel says the prime minister “believes that the Israelis and the Palestinians have
competing and incompatible narratives.”

Writes Stengel: “The longer Bibi and I talk about the Palestinians, the more I get the sense he just does not believe that they want peace or that they are capable of democracy if they had it.”

Nonetheless, Netanyahu says in the interview that, “If they figure it out, they will never have a better partner than me. I can make it happen and make it stick.”

Time's September 2010 cover on Israel.

Time's September 2010 cover on Israel.

Time, which in September 2010 published a cover story headlined “Why Israel doesn’t care about piece,” accompanies its Netanyahu cover with new, dramatic black-and-white shots of the prime minister and a series of photographs that reflect the profile’s focus on his entire life — childhood, military service and political career.

The piece notes the “enormous legislative majority” he has attained with his new Kadima partnership in government and says he is “poised to become the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister since David Ben-Gurion.” Netanyahu “has no national rival. His approval rating, roughly 50%, is at an all-time high. At a moment when incumbents around the world are being shunted aside, he is triumphant. With his bullet-proof majority, he has a chance to turn himself into the historic figure he has always yearned to be. He has become, as some commentators have dubbed him, the King of Israel.

“But to be a historic figure, one must make history,” Stengel writes. “Now we will find out what the king really believes. Is he a statesman or a pol, a builder or a general, the Israeli leader who can finally make peace with
the Palestinians or the one who launches a potentially disastrous unilateral attack on Iran? Can he keep Israel a distinctive Jewish state and preserve it as a democratic one?”

Probing as to whether the prime minister’s new alliance with Kadima gives him the political margin to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities unilaterally, Stengel reports that “Bibi is mum. He tries not to mix the issue of Iran with elective politics.”

The reporter notes that the former head of Israel’s internal intelligence service, ex-Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, “recently called Bibi messianic, unsuited to handle the levers of power. Netanyahu himself calls the Iranians messianic, and perhaps it takes one to know one.”

At times quite empathetic in tone, the piece says that, “For Netanyahu, the Jews are not so much God’s chosen people as his argumentative ones. They don’t take things on faith. Abraham, Moses and Job, he notes, all argued with God. And sometimes won. Like Bibi, they were ornery and maybe had a chip on their shoulder. You can imagine Bibi arguing with God, and he probably does.”

Stengel says Netanyahu has suggested that Islam “is about submission, Judaism about arguing. And if you disagree, he will argue with you. Just because everyone thinks something, he says, doesn’t mean it’s right…. How do you know that? could be his mantra. People say the Palestinians want to live in peace. How do you know that? People say the Arab Spring is good for democracy. How do you know that? His attitude is, Show me the evidence. Prove it. He sees himself as the last empiricist. He thinks people, especially liberals, take too much on faith. He dwells in reality.”

Ronald Reagan, “an idol of Bibi’s,” says Stengel, used to say, “’Trust but verify.’” Bibi’s attitude is ‘Don’t trust. Verify.’ Like his father, he sees Jewish history as a succession of holocausts. Like his father, he has an almost mystical belief in the abiding power of anti-Semitism, as though it were more biological than cultural. ‘There was a sense that anti-Semitism stopped after the Holocaust,’ Netanyahu says. ‘But it’s been going on for millennia. And it’s coming back with these challenges to the Jewish state.’”

While “others may wring their hands over Israel’s militaristic global image,” writes Stengel, Netanyahu doesn’t. “In the world according to Bibi, it is better to be victor than victim.”

Stengel says Netanyahu “sees Iran as exceptional, and not in a good way. ‘It could be the first time we have a nuclear player who will not necessarily play by the rules,’ the prime minister says. ‘All the previous nuclear powers have been careful.’” To Netanyahu, writes Stengel, “This is as clear a threat to Israel as has ever existed. He gets exercised on the topic.” Netanyahu is quoted saying: “This is the greatest threat not just to Israel and the Middle East but to civilization. You don’t know how they will behave.”

“In the end,” Stengel concludes, “Bibi would like to be a hero, but he will not be one at the expense of Israel’s security. He wants to be a defining figure in Israeli history and a significant player on the world stage, but he will not risk what he sees as Israel’s safety to be one. His ambition and now his security as Prime Minister, though, may let him take that risk.”