And How Does That Make You Feel, Bibi?

The psychology behind Israel's Gaza war and the truce that followed.

Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images
Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images

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 achieved.

My 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.

In 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 not.

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.

In Netanyahu’s 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 government.

Understanding 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.

The decision 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.

In response 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.

After initial 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.

Netanyahu likely 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.

If understanding 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.

Netanyahu’s risk-aversion 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.

Throughout 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.

The 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.

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