Most people probably think of Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a pugnacious hawk. In interviews with the
media, his stern baritone insists on the dire threats to Israel's security. He
has warned that he will unilaterally bomb Iran's nuclear facilities if Tehran crosses
a "red line." Before his political career, he was respected in Israel as a
commander of special-forces overseas operations. The Gaza conflict over the
past month and a half seems to have only solidified Bibi's image: Israeli
forces have conducted extensive airstrikes against military targets in Gaza,
and the Israel Defense Forces have undertaken audacious operations to undo
Hamas's network of tunnels into Israel.
This image of a combative
Netanyahu, however, is misleading.
Operation Protective Edge, as this
summer's Israeli military venture was deemed, goes against everything that
typically makes Netanyahu who he is. Far from the public image, Bibi is
innately cautious and risk-averse. Those characteristics, combined with his
conservative Likud ideology, are most important in understanding how the stage
was set for the current conflict. Operation Protective Edge has in fact trumped
Netanyahu's inclination to avoid the risk of major military actions. But considering
these inclinations may help explain how the recent long-term cease-fire was
assessment of Netanyahu's personality, ideology, and decision-making are drawn
from political psychology, which applies insights provided by psychology to
politics in order to understand how politicians lead. The personalities and
beliefs of political leaders can be crucial in explaining decisions to go to
war and to forge peace.
my recent book, The
Political Psychology of Israeli Prime Ministers: When Hard-Liners Opt for Peace, I find that among the factors
crucial to understanding leaders' decision-making processes and the likelihood
of change are risk propensity and ideology. Leaders who are risk-averse are
less likely to reach comprehensive peace agreements. They are also less likely
to engage in major military operations. Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres were willing
to take the risk of withdrawing settlements from the West Bank and East
Jerusalem for a peace agreement. Ariel Sharon, who invaded Lebanon in reaction
to attacks against Israelis, but also unilaterally withdrew all Israeli
settlements and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, was also a risk-taker. Netanyahu is
Netanyahu is risk-averse
in terms of both his own political survival and Israel's national security -- and
that extends to both making peace and making war. A peace agreement could endanger
his political coalition or, potentially, the lives of Israelis, so he has
avoided doing everything he can to reach one. Similarly, military operations can
incur Israeli casualties and political fallout from dead soldiers, so he has
generally avoided those too. If Netanyahu can stick to a safe status quo,
that's his preferred option.
This is key
to understanding Netanyahu's foot-dragging when it comes to making concessions to
the Palestinian Authority that could make a peace agreement possible. Netanyahu
helped delay withdrawals in his first term and has not been ready to concede
most of East Jerusalem to an eventual Palestinian state in a final peace
agreement as both Labor's Peres and Barak, and Kadima's Ehud Olmert, were
prepared to do.
So what does
it take to get Netanyahu to do something drastic? The few times the prime
minister has conceded territory, the
perceived danger to Israel and to his ideology was trumped by what he feared
could happen to his political leadership. Bibi opposed the Oslo process in the
mid-1990s, but to win his campaign in 1996, he announced that he would comply
with previous commitments. When he
signed the Wye agreement in 1998 and withdrew Israeli forces from parts of the
West Bank, his motivation wasn't moving forward the peace process as much as it
was fending off Barak's centrist threat in the May 1999 election.
second term, which began in March 2009, he was so adamant about retaining his right-leaning
coalition that he risked the world's ire by continuing to build settlements in
the West Bank throughout the majority of his term. His domestic political maneuvering
during his second term, concluding with forming a bloc with right-wing Yisrael
Beiteinu, was likewise designed to minimize risk. Even though he was expected
to win a future election if he were to complete his second term, Netanyahu
avoided taking a chance. He called for early elections in January 2013 when
there was no clear challenger.
It's not just
personality that explains how Bibi makes decisions, though. There's also
ideology. Netanyahu's worldview is rooted in a revisionist Zionism that has traditionally
viewed the West Bank as crucial in and of itself. Moreover, the ideology of
Netanyahu's Likud party is characterized by the belief that time is on Israel's
side in the conflict and that, in the end, Israel will be victorious in its
feud with the Palestinians. That means that reaching a peace agreement is not
urgent. Netanyahu and many of his fellow Likud members think that Israel can
achieve security without peace. These beliefs have discouraged him from reaching
for a peace agreement.
The prime minister also
believes that the world is inherently hostile toward Israel. "No other country faces
both constant threats to its existence and
constant criticism for acting against such threats," Netanyahu wrote
in his 1993 book, A Place Among the
Nations. This phenomenon, he says, can be explained by the
inability of much of the world to accept that Jews have moved from being
powerless to having power like other nations. The world has "not yet accustomed
itself to the sight of Jewish strength, military and political," he writes.
That's not an uncommon worldview
for members of the Likud party, but as a prime minster it makes a big
difference. Among other things, it helps explain his resistance to taking international
pressure seriously, whether it comes from the White House or the United Nations.
Netanyahu's belief that Israel lives in an inherently hostile, unstable world
in which peace agreements do not ensure security has been strengthened by his
perceptions of the uprisings in the Middle East over the last three years. The
uprisings highlighted for Netanyahu the risks of relying on peace treaties in a
region buffeted by rapid, unpredictable change. This underscored Netanyahu's
concern about making concessions in an agreement with the Palestinian
Authority, which could likewise be torn up by a future Hamas-controlled
Netanyahu's psychology and ideology sheds light on his decision-making prior to
and during the current conflict in Gaza, and on the long-term cease-fire that
Hamas and Israel agreed to on Aug. 26.
to introduce ground troops was anomalous for Netanyahu, an instance in which changing
circumstances prodded him to take exactly the kind of action he usually avoids.
During his first two terms as prime minister, 1996 to 1999 and 2009 to 2013, he
never undertook a significant ground invasion, even when other politicians called
for one. Although suicide bombings against Israeli civilians continued during his
first term, he did not reoccupy the portions of the West Bank from which Israel
had withdrawn, as Sharon did during the Second intifada. He neither introduced nor withdrew existing Israeli soldiers from
southern Lebanon in his second term.
to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip in December 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
launched the three-week-long Operation Cast Lead, which included a massive
ground invasion. But when Hamas's rockets once again started raining on
southern Israel in late 2012, Netanyahu's response was more constrained. He
agreed to a cease-fire after only eight days of airstrikes and never sent ground
troops into Gaza. It was exactly what you might expect from risk-averse Bibi.
But this time
around something was different. Operation Protective Edge trumped Netanyahu's innate
cautiousness and his distaste for ambitious military operations. Events on the
ground and regional circumstances prolonged and intensified the campaign beyond
Netanyahu's original intentions.
denials, a Hamas leader recently admitted
that the group was responsible for the kidnapping and
murder of three Israeli teenagers in June. Any Israeli prime minister would
have had to react to this terrorist act. Netanyahu used the occasion to arrest approximately
300 Palestinians, including many Hamas top leaders in the West Bank, in an
effort to get information leading to finding the teenagers and to punish Hamas. Once Hamas started firing rockets toward
Israeli civilian targets in response, any Israeli government would be compelled
-- by public opinion and by its obligation to protect its citizens -- to strike
back at those firing and making the rockets.
anticipated another operation like 2012's Pillar of Defense -- something
lasting a week and not requiring ground troops. But unlike in 2012, Hamas
rejected an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire after the first week of fighting,
which forced the operation to continue. And once Israel discovered the extent
of the Hamas tunnel network reaching into Israeli territory, Netanyahu felt
compelled to use ground forces to destroy them. These circumstances forced
Netanyahu to launch a ground offensive, going against his natural inclinations.
Netanyahu's political psychology does not directly explain his decision to
launch Protective Edge and put Israeli boots in Gaza once again, it does help account
for how he came to the cease-fire that ended the operation.
explains his repeated willingness to enter a cease-fire if Hamas stops firing rockets.
Netanyahu was prepared to enter a cease-fire brokered by Egypt on July 15, before
the introduction of ground troops. Hamas rejected it. He agreed to several cease-fires afterward,
which were either rejected or violated by Hamas.
the early days of Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu enjoyed overwhelming
support from Israelis for his perceived accomplishments: intercepting many of the
4,000 rockets fired at Israeli civilian targets since July 8; destroying most
of Hamas' arsenal of 10,000 rockets; killing approximately 900 Hamas combatants,
according to the army's estimates; and destroying all known tunnels reaching
into Israel or close to its border.
But as the
conflict dragged on, Netanyahu likely knew that this popularity was evaporating.
Indeed, it did. The most recent polls found a massive drop in the prime minister's
approval rating. And that's the kind of chance he was not willing to take. As
the conflict progressed, he became ready to indirectly negotiate a more
long-lasting truce with Hamas, one in which Israel made some minor concessions on
Gaza's crossings. The rest of the details of a permanent truce between Hamas
and Israel -- including demilitarizing radical Palestinian militants and the
possibility of opening Gaza's port -- will be worked out in the future.
international community has a stake in peace in the Holy Land. Given my
analysis of Netanyahu's political psychology, pressure from the international
community that includes carrots that address Israeli security concerns will be more
effective than sticks like diminishing aid, the threat of sanctions, or
international boycotts. Just as Netanyahu backed into the introduction of
ground forces, he is also capable of surprising many by backing into
significant progress toward peace. Unfortunately, his tremendous caution and his
ideology will make it a risky bet.
Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images