Interview'Power has been central to everything Netanyahu has done'

Sultan of swing: Historian says Netanyahu is fickle by design

Author and Middle East expert Neill Lochery, a veteran watcher of the Israeli PM, argues his strategy is eventually bound to fail

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, July 18, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, July 18, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

LONDON — For the past 25 years Scottish historian Neill Lochery has closely studied, analyzed, researched, and written about Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career.

In his recently published “The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu,” Lochery argues that “Bibi,” as he is known at home, has cleverly and systematically played on the the fears of millions of Israelis in order to advance his own political career.

Netanyahu’s raison d’être for dedicating his life to politics, writes Lochery in his critical account of Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister, is driven by one fundamental idea only: the retention of power.

“Power has been central to everything Netanyahu has done,” says Lochery from his spacious office in the department of Jewish and Hebrew studies in University College London.

“When Netanyahu wins an election, he almost always starts running for the next one straight away,” Lochery adds. “Even his cabinet appointments are based on where he thinks the next election is going to be fought. And so power has largely replaced ideology. In this respect, Netanyahu is very different from leaders like Menachem Begin or David Ben-Gurion.”

“Netanyahu essentially sees Israel as a global trading company,” the historian contends. “And he doesn’t seem to have any long-sighted vision of how to deal with some of the challenges that Israel is going to face in the next 10 years.”

Netanyahu also believes that the world is changing, and that time is on Israel’s side, says Lochery.

Professor, historian, and author Neill Lochery. (Courtesy)
Professor, historian, and author Neill Lochery. (Courtesy)

“So Netanyahu believes that the splits in the Arab world are significant — that some Arab states will start developing closer ties with Israel; that Israel no longer faces a unified Arab world intent upon Israel’s destruction; and that there are opportunities to explore relationships with states like Saudi Arabia,” he says.

“But how much the Saudis are willing to come forward with the Israelis before Israel strikes a deal with the Palestinians remains to be seen,” Lochery adds.

Although the historian has closely studied what he sees as Netanyahu’s Machiavellian political maneuvering for a quarter of a century, he says it’s impossible to understand what Netanyahu’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict actually is.

“For Netanyahu, I don’t think there is a vision on this issue,” he says. “I’ve followed this guy for 25 years, and I can’t figure out what his position is on the establishment of a Palestinian state, or on a potential Israeli-Palestinian agreement. I suspect that his political party, chief of staff, or entire cabinet don’t know either.”

In his book, Lochery cites an interview Netanyahu gave in March 2015 to the NRG Hebrew language website — owned by the pro-Bibi Israel Hayom media group and tied to the conservative Makor Rishon newspaper — where he claimed that moves to establish a Palestinian state give “radical Islam an area from which to attack the State of Israel.”

Lochery believes such fiery rhetoric is simply an exercise in playing political games, pandering to those who Netanyahu might need votes from in the short- to medium-term future.

‘I think the pragmatism makes it very difficult to understand what his position really is’

“His public position is not very rigid on the issue,” says Lochery. “We saw, for instance, in the 2015 election campaign, where Netanyahu stood up and said, ‘I don’t think there will be a Palestinian State in the foreseeable future.’ Two days later, however, he tried to walk it back under American pressure. He has since made other comments — depending on which audience he is speaking to — and he constantly contradicts himself.”

“If he is speaking to an international audience, he tends to highlight the need for a two-state solution. When he is speaking to the Likud central committee, however, he seems less enthusiastic. I think the pragmatism that he has makes it very difficult to understand what his position really is,” Lochery says.

Potentially, though, dithering and flip-flopping on an issue where violent reactions are usually never far behind could lead to disastrous consequences.

Lochery seems to thinks so at least.

Cover of 'The Resistable Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu.' [2016, Bloomsbury Continuum] (Photo Courtesy)
Cover of ‘The Resistable Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu.’ [2016, Bloomsbury Continuum] (Photo Courtesy)
“I think it’s extremely dangerous,” says Lochery, nodding his head in agreement. “His conduct towards the end of 2015 really was questionable. You could take it either way — that he really is a hard line ideologue, or, that he will just say anything to get elected. I don’t think either of those are particularly attractive traits. Either way, it’s simply a stalling tactic, and one that will not end well for Netanyahu.”

Lochery, the Catherine Lewis Professor of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Studies at University College London, has dabbled in the world of political diplomacy too, serving as an advisor to political and economic leaders from both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Lochery is also the author of nine books of political history, including titles such as “The View from the Fence: The Arab-Israeli Conflict from the Present to its Roots,” and, “Why Blame Israel? The Facts Behind the Headlines.”

In his latest book, Lochery documents in some detail Netanyahu’s commitment to stamping out international terrorism. The prime minister’s attitude towards terrorism, Lochery believes, was born out of the death of his brother Yonatan, who was killed by the Popular Front for The Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) following a successful counter-terrorist hostage rescue mission carried out by the Israel Defense Forces at Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976.

Netanyahu is the author of several books on counter-terrorist strategies. (None of these, though, add anything of real value or substance on the subject that hasn’t been said before, says Lochery.)

Netanyahu also set up the Jonathan Institute in memory of his brother. It focused on researching counter-terrorism strategies, becoming internationally renowned in 1979, when Netanyahu organized its first international conference on terrorism.

Netanyahu’s writings on terrorism ever since, Lochery’s book claims, have consisted of a moralizing tone which argues that for any state to negotiate with terrorists is fundamentally wrong.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours the new Entebbe exhibition at the Rabin Center on July 9, 2015. His brother Yoni was killed in the 1976 hostage rescue mission. (via Facebook)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours the new Entebbe exhibition at the Rabin Center on July 9, 2015. His brother Yoni was killed in the 1976 hostage rescue mission. (via Facebook)

However, Lochery hypothesizes that Netanyahu is much more of a pragmatist on this issue than he lets on in the public domain. And, that he’s someone who understands the need for realpolitik in the art of political diplomacy — especially since violence from non-state actors is the stark reality for most countries in the area surrounding Israel’s borders.

After all, Menachem Begin, the founder of Likud, was once called a ruthless Jewish terrorist by the British government. And his central role in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem 1946 — just two years before the State of Israel was formed — is still considered by many academics, journalists, and scholars, as one of the most infamous acts of terrorism the world has ever seen.

With all of this in mind, Netanyahu’s public soundbites on this matter, the historian points out, are very different from what he may think, and eventually conduct in private.

‘Netanyahu shook the hand of Yasser Arafat, who he called the godfather of modern terrorism’

“Well, let’s go back to 1996,” says Lochery. “Netanyahu shook the hand of Yasser Arafat, who he called the ‘godfather of modern terrorism,’ and who he held as partially responsible for the death of his brother.”

Some Western political diplomats, such as the former Downing Street Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, Jonathan Powell (who negotiated with the IRA in Northern Ireland for a decade to bring about a successful peace settlement), have suggested that governments should always be willing to speak with terrorist organizations no matter how extreme their ideology may seem at first glance.

For example, Lochery says that there are “certain mutual benefits for Israel to talk with Hamas.”

“I suspect if these talks were to happen, Netanyahu would conduct this in private,” says Lochery.

But talking to Islamic State (IS) — should negotiations with them at some point in the distant future be essential to protecting Israel’s security — would most likely be a step too far for Netanyahu, says Lochery.

“At the moment, I would suspect that IS is a complete no-go area. But that is very different from Hamas, which sits on Israel’s border and who control Gaza.”

Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh gestures to the crowd as he takes part in a rally marking the 28th anniversary of Hamas's founding, in Gaza City on December 14, 2015. (Emad Nassar/Flash90)
Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh gestures to the crowd as he takes part in a rally marking the 28th anniversary of Hamas’s founding, in Gaza City on December 14, 2015. (Emad Nassar/Flash90)

Even though Netanyahu is presently on course to potentially become Israel’s longest serving prime minister, Lochery points out that he has never really been tested in a major conflict.

“When Netanyahu has dealt with smaller conflicts, a number of critics from the right — like Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennett — have suggested that he has buckled very quickly, and called for a ceasefire.”

Additionally, Netanyahu’s political career is full of paradoxes and contradictions. Some of these may eventually come back to haunt him, Lochery says.

Take, for instance, Netanyahu’s role spearheading economic reform. This saw Israel turn away from its strong tradition of Labor Zionism, moving instead towards Thatcherite-style neo-liberal policies which involved the rolling back of state services, increasing privatization, and abolishing trade unions, says Lochery.

‘A number of critics from the right have suggested that he has buckled very quickly and called for a ceasefire’

“As finance minister under Ariel Sharon’s government, Netanyahu brought about significant change to the Israeli economy. So there was liberalization, deregulation, and the ending of some cartels,” says Lochery, who strongly believes that these reforms were necessary for the Israeli economy to prosper.

“Now of course, he resigned from office before that came to an end. However, the very people he was hurting at the time were traditional Likud voters — lower-income Sephardi Jews. And so Netanyahu found it very difficult to reconnect with the traditional Likud base afterwards. Many of them have still not forgiven him,” he says.

“So it’s interesting to see how Netanyahu has shifted away in socioeconomic issues, from the traditional base of Likud, which is the party he’s been leader of for most of his political career,” Lochery adds.

Interestingly, despite the international attention that Israel tends to get over the Arab-Israeli conflict, Lochery believes this issue will not be central to Netanyahu’s eventual downfall.

“I suspect when Netanyahu is brought down, it will be on two things — socioeconomic, and secular-religious issues,” says Lochery.

“Netanyahu straddles an awkward position politically,” says the historian. “Relying on the support from a lot of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties, as well as being reliant on very strong support from secular parties and people like Liberman.”

“So the hardest thing Netanyahu has to do is not manage the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to pass a state budget and keep enough people in his coalition happy,” he concludes. “Because there isn’t enough of the state cake to go around for everyone in Israel.”

Most Popular
read more: