A Fresh Perspective: Understanding Netanyahu’s mind

Many attempts have been made to understand what motivates Netanyahu to act in such a way

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one of the most talked-about world leaders. This is true not only because he leads the small but much talkedabout country of Israel, but also because he has many times put himself at odds with world leaders to stand up for what he believes to be a crucial and defining issue.
For example, he criticized US President Barack Obama, in the White House, in front of cameras, for speaking of a return to the 1967 borders. He challenged the Western world when opposing the nuclear deal that the world powers signed with Iran.
Many attempts have been made to understand what motivates Netanyahu to act in such a way. Some have simply dismissed him as an opportunistic politician more interested in his own political future than the future of the free world. That assessment, however, would be unfair.
Netanyahu is one of the deepest thinkers among world leaders, and as such, one should give him credit by trying to understand his worldview and seeing if his actions make sense according to that worldview, before accusing him of opportunistic behavior.
Netanyahu comes from a very ideological family. His father sacrificed a lot for his ideology, when he refused to get in line with David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party, something that cost him an academic career in Israel and forced him to move to America. His brother was the famous national hero Yoni Netanyahu, whose letters are still used to teach high-school students about Zionist values. This is not the type of background that creates opportunists.
To understand Netanyahu’s philosophy, I believe that one must understand two complementary philosophies which are the backbone of his worldview: his father’s deep skepticism, on the one hand, and American conservative philosophy, on the other.
PROF. BENZION Netanyahu was one of those who had the deepest influence on the prime minister’s worldview. Prof. Netanyahu was a brilliant scholar of the Inquisition, who had been the secretary of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, and was an emerging professional during the time of the Holocaust.
Both his focus in academia and the current events of the Holocaust shaped his worldview, giving him a deeply skeptical outlook.
Prof. Netanyahu theorized that Jewish suffering during the Inquisition was caused not only by anti-Semitic leaders but by the Jews’ own utopian view of their surroundings. Their contentedness blinded them to danger.
He described this as a form of Jewish self-deception.
In many ways, one can see in his statements implicit criticism of those who let their guard down also in Europe, while the anti-Semitic Nazis rose to power.
This is what made Prof. Netanyahu feel at home with Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism, which later became the Likud, since Revisionist Zionism did not speak of utopian dreams such as creating a “new Jew” or tikkun olam, but rather about making Jews stronger by teaching them to defend themselves as a nation.
This opposition to utopian views of the world is what makes the prime minister such a strong realist, constantly arguing against the good intentions of his negotiating partners. This is what makes Netanyahu so keen to focus on the defense requirements of the Jewish state when speaking of any agreement with the Palestinians.
He starts negotiating with the premise that his partner is not to be trusted. Additionally, even if he could be trusted, who knows who would take his place in a few years? It is essential to move away from Jewish self-deception and not to let Israel’s guard down.
THIS IS also what worries Netanyahu about the Iran deal. As long as it is even partly dependent on the goodwill of the Iranian leaders, who keep on calling for the destruction of the Jewish state and sponsoring terrorist groups attacking Israel, Netanyahu sees it as a deal with horrible consequences, which he must oppose at all cost. Once again, the utopian worldview embraced by the Western world, led by President Barack Obama, who called for a “New Beginning” in the Middle East in the same way Shimon Peres once called for a “New Middle East,” is an existential danger for Israel, in Netanyahu’s mind.
However, this prudence and skepticism do not come only from the elder Netanyahu’s philosophy.
Benjamin, who lived a significant part of his life in the US, also has a deep connection to the American conservative political movement.
Conservative thinkers have often been reluctant to embrace the utopian view of the world that progressives pushed forward. As the world races forward without thinking too much of the sacrifices it makes for “progress,” the conservative asks of us to be prudent and not to make significant changes without serious thought.
William Buckley, founder of the National Review in 1955, an influential conservative thinker credited with reviving conservative thought in America, wrote in that magazine’s mission statement: A conservative is someone who “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
Is that not exactly the role that the prime minister took upon himself? While the world moved forward with a nuclear deal with Iran, and the US administration implored detractors to have faith, Netanyahu – from the podium in the US Congress – stood up and yelled “Stop!” This is not the first time he’s done this.
DURING THE Oslo Accords, as the world was mesmerized by the promise of utopian peace and a millennial almost-messianic fever seeing the end of war, or the “End of History,” to borrow Francis Fukuyama’s phrase, Netanyahu stood up said “Stop!” when no one was willing to listen. It took only a few years for the world to see the true face of arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat and to understand that Netanyahu was right.
Today, even the Israeli Left has stopped talking about utopian peace agreements and speaks about unilateral withdrawals.
The combination of the strong skepticism he inherited from his father and the motivation to stop history from taking a wrong turn which he inherited from American conservatism explain why Netanyahu is often seen taking a strong stand against what he views as a dangerous utopian vision of the world.
In fact, Obama himself accepts that this is the main difference between Netanyahu and himself. In an interview he gave to Israel’s Channel 2, Obama tried to politely criticize Netanyahu. However, his criticism sounded more like a blessing to all those who embrace Netanyahu’s prudent approach.
“We’re always trying to balance a politics of hope and a politics of fear,” Obama explained.
“And given the incredible tumult and chaos that’s taking place in the Middle East, the hope of the Arab Spring that turned into the disasters of places like Syria, the rise of ISIL [Islamic State], the continuing expressions of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment in so much of the Arab world, the rockets coming in from Gaza, the buildup of arms by Hezbollah – all those things, justifiably, make Israelis concerned about security, and security first.”
Obama then continued: “I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is somebody who’s predisposed to think of security first; to think perhaps that peace is naïve; to see the worst possibilities as opposed to the best possibilities in Arab partners or Palestinian partners. And so I do think that, right now, those politics and those fears are driving the government’s response. And I understand it. But my argument is that what may seem wise and prudent in the short term can actually end up being unwise over the long term.”
THE PROBLEM for Obama is that recent history has shown us that prudence is the right way, while utopian projects often end up in disaster.
The very examples of things he brought up in that interview show how recent history seems to encourage us to embrace Netanyahu’s worldview and not his own. After all, Obama was the one encouraging the Arab Spring, while Netanyahu expressed prudent concerns about it from the get-go.
The rise of Islamic State and the current situation in Syria are a direct result of such a policy of embracing all progressive change without first thinking of the costs of these changes.
While Netanyahu might be criticized today by many as being the only voice opposing what many view as positive change, history has a habit of remembering these people as the only ones who stood up against disastrous mistakes. While we always hope that negative predictions turn out to be wrong, even when they are our own predictions, it is only logical to conclude that this is also how Netanyahu will be remembered. 
The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to the Knesset’s coalition chairman. He previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.