Benjamin Netanyahu did the rounds of foreign leaders this week, making Israel’s case and defending his settlement policy. But what drives the Israeli leader? According to one political writer and academic, for Bibi, survival is everything.
Neill Lochery, Professor of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Studies at University College London, has served as an adviser to key players on both sides of the conflict. His book, The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu, published last year, is a critical account of Israel’s Prime Minister, examining Netanyahu’s complex and contradictory character as well as documenting his rise to power.
Crucial to Netanyahu’s ambivalent political identity, and slick media-friendly PR-driven delivery, says Lochery, is the strategy he gleaned from working in the American corporate world in the late 1970s, where he learned that style, money and appearance triumphs over substance, integrity and ideology.
“Netanyahu has constantly used an American style of politics,” says Lochery, “and he has always remained this outsider, who sits half-way between America and Israel.
“He is different to nearly everyone in the Israeli political elite. And yet he still knows how to speak to his own party, Likud, and its [grassroots]base.”
Lochery believes that Netanyahu’s success is built on two vital components: his ability to play the pragmatist, and fortunate timing in coming of age in Israeli politics when the old Socialist Zionist tradition was dying and Israeli society — along with the world in general — was rapidly changing.
“Netanyahu arrived at a time when politics was changing globally,” says Lochery. The focus, therefore, became much more about the leader than the political party. That changed politics in Israel quite significantly.”
“[For decades]under Labour Zionism, party lists were chosen in smoke-filled rooms. But primary elections in Israel changed this, making the media much more significant.”
Netanyahu has used Israel’s imperfect, work-in-progress and, at times, fragile democracy to his political advantage, too, Lochery says.
“Israel is still a maturing democracy where a number of the key facets of a state have yet to be put in place,” he adds.
“For instance, there is no written constitution, no Bill of Rights; there is a series of basic laws, which people presume will be brought together in a constitution. So Israel is a very young state. Even things like the electoral system are still open to question,” he adds.
Netanyahu recently became the country’s longest serving head of state, overtaking David Ben-Gurion, who served in the position for 13 years. But Lochery insists that Netanyahu is not in the same league as B-G:
“I view Netanyahu essentially as a man who is buying time, rather than someone who can implement significant change. Ben-Gurion, for all his faults, brought about historic change. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is not a visionary, or an ideologue.”
Lochery claims that the Prime Minister “lacks any kind of vision for Israel, living very much day-to-day, where power is central to everything he does.”
“It’s intriguing that those who don’t even like Netanyahu — and there are many of those in Israel — still look to him as some kind of national goalkeeper who looks after Israel. They see him as someone who is by no means perfect in protecting it but who offers protection nevertheless.
“During his first period in office, Netanyahu said that one of his major achievements was reducing the number of attacks and suicide bombs in Israel. His critics, of course, would say that is perfectly natural because no progress on the peace process meant there was no need for Hamas to launch attacks on Israel.”
This Machiavellian style of politics is something Lochery describes as “extremely dangerous.
“When speaking to an international audience, Netanyahu tends to highlight the need for a two state solution. When he is speaking to the Likud central committee, however, he seems less enthusiastic.
In his book, Lochery cites an interview Netanyahu gave in March 2015 to the NRG Hebrew language website — which has ties to a Jewish settler newspaper — in which the Israeli PM claimed that moves to establish a Palestinian state is giving “radical Islam an area from which to attack the state of Israel.
“You could take Netanyahu’s comments [here] either way: that he really was a hard-line ideologue or that he will just say anything to get elected,” says Lochery.
If Netanyahu has spent much of his political career refusing to offer any level of commitment to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Lochery believes there is one area where the Prime Minister has remained consistent: the economy. As Finance Minister in Ariel Sharon’s government in 2003, Netanyahu moved Israel’s economy further to the right, implementing a number of radical, Thatcherite-style reforms.
They included privatising an Israeli airline, bank, and telephone company, while also capping government spending and drastically bringing down rates of taxation. While the policy proved popular with Israel’s middle classes, lower income groups in Israeli society did not benefit from such reforms.
“Netanyahu was the godfather of implementing [neo-liberal] policies in Israel,” says Lochery, who is a keen supporter of such economic changes.
“How successful they will turn out to be remains to be seen though, because the Israeli economy, in my opinion, is still in need of further reform,” he says.
Currently, Netanyahu remains the man who a large part of the Israeli electorate feels most comfortable with leading the country. His successes have mainly been at the polls, and his failures mainly in governing Israel is Lochery’s assessment.
“I don’t think Netanyahu has any long-sighted vision of how to deal with some of the challenges that Israel is going to face in the next 10 years.
“But the other side of the coin is, if not Netanyahu, then who? The centre has not really not found an adequate replacement for Yitzhak Rabin since his assassination [in 1995]. So Netanyahu is not facing a great deal of opposition.”
For a politician who prizes survival above all, that is only good news. And Lochery, whose book was written before the election of Donald Trump, or the current corruption inquiry targeting Israel’s leader, is no doubt taking notes for the next chapter in Netanyahu’s story.
‘The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu’ is published by Bloomsbury.