On April 9, some 6.3 million Israeli voters are eligible to go to polling stations for the 21st elections since the establishment of the state in 1948. So far, this election campaign has been ugly, shallow and negative with punches under the belt by the two major contenders – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz of the newly-formed Blue and White list, with worse to come in the remaining days. In a nutshell, both their campaigns revolve around the personality of Netanyahu, who is under several corruption investigations.
For the last 20 years he has dominated Israeli politics and his character has been the subject of speculation by journalists, who have tried to analyze his behavior with what is termed “pop psychology.”
But there is also “conventional psychology,” with research studies written by serious, professional psychologists and psychiatrists, studies, which for the most part have gone under the radar of the Israeli public and international audiences.
One of them appears in a book published in 2015 by Jerold Post, a professor of psychiatry and political psychology. For 21 years, Post served in the CIA and was the founder of its Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. The center focuses on “Leadership Analysis,” the art of breaking down a leader into basic psychological components for study and for the use of American presidents.
Four years ago, Prof. Post published a book titled Narcissism and Politics: Dreams of Glory.
The book examines the dramatic proliferation of politicians with significant narcissistic personality features. Driven by dreams of glory, they seem to find the spotlight that the arena of politics provides irresistible. The book explores the psychology of narcissism – the entitlement, grandiosity and arrogance overlying insecurity, the sensitivity to criticism and the hunger for acclaim – illustrating different narcissistic personality features through a spectrum of international and national politicians.
One of the leaders dissected by Post is Netanyahu. He is one of four leaders who star in a chapter called, “Leaders by Default: Second Choice Sons.” The other three are Joseph Kennedy Jr., Bashar Assad and Rajiv Gandhi.
All four share at least one common trait. Their dominant fathers – and mother in the case of Gandhi – had cultivated other sons as their favorites to be groomed for glory. But their preferred sons unexpectedly died in wars and accidents, and the ambitious parents had no choice but to settle for the sons who were their second choice and invest in them by default.
Following in the footsteps of the CIA, the Israeli intelligence community – the Mossad and Military Intelligence – established a unit, though much smaller, to write psychological profiles of enemy and rival leaders such as PLO chief Yasser Arafat, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan, Syria’s Hafez and Bashar Assad, and more.
One of their main psychologists was Shaul Kimhi, today a professor of psychology at the Tel-Hai College and director of its Center for International Resilience.
In January 2001, using what was termed “behavior analysis,” Kimhi published an elaborate profile of Netanyahu after his first term as prime minister (1996-99).
The research followed the young Netanyahu’s relations with his parents. Cela, his mother, who was a housewife, is described as a “cold iron woman,” who taught her three sons – Yonatan, the eldest, who was the favorite, died in the rescue operation at Entebbe in 1976; Benjamin, the second son, and Iddo, who became a physician and a writer – to be tough and to conceal their emotions.
Netanyahu’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, a right-wing Zionist, was a professor of Jewish history. After being rejected by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he moved to the US. For the rest of his life, he held a bitter grudge against the Labor party establishment and Israel’s intellectual elites. His sons adored their father.
Kimhi found in Benzion traits such as “egocentric, highly motivated achiever, emotionally detached, a man of the spoken and written word” – which wasn’t necessarily compatible with his actions.
According to Kimhi, Benjamin Netanyahu inherited some of these features from his father. He found in the Israeli prime minister the following “distinguishing traits”:
• Egocentricity – “Personal success is more important to him than ideology and he constantly strives for it. This pattern is demonstrated by his acceptance of help from US contributors who held extreme views different from his own” such as Sheldon Adelson.
Netanyahu “doesn’t hesitate to exploit other people, including colleagues, in order to succeed. His attitude toward people who work with him closely is self-centered” and leads him to the “manipulation of colleagues.” And also, “he sees himself more perceptive than others and those who disagree with him don’t understand historical-political processes correctly. He believes that it is his heroic task to rescue his homeland.”
• Ambition and Determination – They are Netanyahu’s most prominent character traits. Ambition is expressed in his desire to be the very best, to be first, to triumph over others, to reach for the top. He almost never despairs and never gives up. He also displays “tremendous determination against all odds.” His architecture teacher at MIT, Prof. Leon B. Groisser, said that Netanyahu “was the most ambitious and focused man he had ever seen, with amazing willingness to work hard in order to achieve his goals.”
• Aggression and Manipulation – Netanyahu sees the game of politics as governed by the “laws of the jungle, where the strong survive and weak fall by the wayside. To him, achievement of the goal justifies any political means. In most cases, he does not act out of aggression, malice or cruelty. His dominance and manipulation stem from cold, rational calculation.”
Since he entered politics several behavioral patterns have been identified. He preemptively attacks anyone perceived as an opponent or rival. He aims to shrink and diminish, and, if necessary, dismiss allies who might threaten him in the future.
• Credibility – The testimonies of politicians, journalists, leaders and public figures portray Netanyahu “as someone who makes and even signs promises that he does not keep. As a result, he is considered untrustworthy.” Leaders around the globe – Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, America’s Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel – accused him of deceiving them and even lying to them. “For him, duplicity is an agreed upon and accepted standard in politics.” Consequently, “telling different people different things are accompanied by no psychological difficulty, sense of guilt or conscience. Even when he tells the truth, he sounds unconvincing.”
• Interpersonal Relationships – These “tend to be instrumental. He is not a good social mixer, nor is he a man who forms bonds with people. He is closed and withdrawn with a limited ability to empathize. Most of the people with whom he has social relationships are those he needs or who assist him. Many of his relationships are more clearly based on exploitation than friendship.
• Suspicion – “He has a suspicious nature” that translates into a worldview of “the entire world is against me” accompanied by “feelings of victimization.” Such feelings “mobilize his inner resources enabling him to fight and win in an effort to show them.”
In another part of the study, Kimhi writes about his subject’s “functional characteristics.” In analyzing Netanyahu’s behavior under stress, he detected two contradicting responses. “If stress can be anticipated and its source is known, Netanyahu feels in control, is unlikely to improvise and ensures backup for alternative plans.” Thus, “he remains calm during such crises and deals directly with the problems.” However, when a crisis comes suddenly and Netanyahu does not feel in control, “he reacts in a pressured, frightened and confused manner.”
A good example that illustrates this occurred a quarter of a century ago. Netanyahu got a phone call hinting that his extramarital love affair was known to the anonymous caller. Fearing that he had been filmed in a comprising situation, he panicked, went to a TV studio and confessed before the entire nation that he had sinned and betrayed his wife. Apparently, though, he had not been caught on camera and there was no video tape.
The research emphasizes that the prime minister “is a very talented and intelligent man. He is gifted with an extraordinary capacity for learning, a broad education and an excellent memory.”
It is very important for him to look attractive and impressive, and “he exudes self-confidence and charisma.” At the same time, he “loves the good life” that status and power afford him. He lives lavishly: luxurious hotels, high-class restaurants, fine food, connoisseur wine, high-quality cigars and tailored clothes.
In another paragraph titled “Couple Relations,” the research describes the relationship between Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, who is known for her erratic and sometimes unstable behavior. Kimhi reminds us that Netanyahu married her only after she was pregnant and it wasn’t out of “strong love.”
Nevertheless, “it seems that he treats her with patience and tolerance though his emotional attachment is low and does not divert his attention from his main goal: to lead Israel in his way.”
All in all, Netanyahu’s psychological study concluded that he has “a narcissistic personality with paranoid and authoritarian tendencies,” which most probably will not change.
Two decades later, Kimhi was joined by his colleague, Dr. Sagit Yehoshua of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in writing a new paper called “Behavioral Analysis of Netanyahu 1999-2017 – What has Changed?”
Their answer is – very little. Their conclusion is that the three major traits of his personalities have not disappeared. On the contrary, they have strengthened and worsened. I asked Prof. Shaul Kimhi to elaborate. “It is amazing how there is consistency without any change in Netanyahu’s behavior,” he told me. But it is no less interesting to note his “ability to mobilize his supporters. It is a trait, which also characterizes Donald Trump and other similar leaders who nowadays rule the world.”
The professional literature emphasizes that such traits and behavior usually result in “toxic leadership,” which leads the subject to tell himself, “The hell with the nation. I am more important. I am above it.”■