'Narcissistic, Hesitant, Alarmist: Netanyahu Is Just Like He Was in 1999'

Two decades ago, Prof. Shaul Kimhi, an expert in analyzing leaders’ personalities, sketched a psychological profile of the prime minister. Now he explains how Netanyahu is displaying these same traits during the coronavirus crisis

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Yossi Melman
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Netanyahu during a government meeting. He takes every opportunity to glorify his status as a father figure of the state.
Netanyahu during a government meeting. He takes every opportunity to glorify his status as a father figure of the state.Credit: Emil Salman
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

In 1999, Prof. Shaul Kimhi published a psychological profile of Benjamin Netanyahu with insights and assessments whose accuracy can only really be judged now, in retrospect, 21 years later – after his three years as prime minister in the 1990s and his subsequent 11 years in the position. The coronavirus crisis, one of the greatest challenges Israel has ever known, prompted Kimhi to take another look at his original analysis of Netanyahu’s personality. He says one of the key conclusions he presented more than two decades ago, in the late 1990s, has not changed: Whether in normal times or times of crisis, Netanyahu’s style is one of centralized management.

“There is nothing new under the sun. Netanyahu has been managing the current month-long crisis as the lead actor and sole decision-maker,” Kimhi told Haaretz. “He avoids the involvement of skilled staff to deal with the situation, does not include government ministers and distances them from the decision-making process. Consultation takes place mainly with his relatives and loyalists, and as a rule – and we have recognized this in the past – Netanyahu emphasizes absolute loyalty from the people he works with,” says Kimhi.

In a soon-to-be published research paper on Netanyahu, Kimhi writes: ­“This management style ignores predetermined managers and policies and this creates noticeable flaws that are manifested in contradictory messages from those who work for him (masks are harmful versus masks are necessary, e.g.). Netanyahu issues vague messages and promises (such as the expected number of tests), and incessant conflicts arise between the various bodies (for example, the Defense Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Health Ministry), which are probably only partly reflected in public.”

Prof. Shaul Kimhi.
Prof. Shaul Kimhi.Credit: Yael Kimhi Orel

Kimhi, 71, currently heads Tel Hai Academic College’s Program for Stress, Trauma and Resilience Studies. Until four years ago, he also headed the psychology department there, which he founded. He studied psychology at the University of Haifa, earned his doctorate at the University of Palo Alto and is considered a world expert on the study of personal, communal and national resiliency, coping with stress, stress disorders and political psychology. When he completed his studies in the United States, he was immediately recruited by the Israeli defense establishment and headed a team that prepared a psychological profile of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi ruler who even prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait threatened to “burn” half of Israel.

“We determined that Saddam Hussein is a psychopath, but we also wrote that while he likes to tread on the edge of the abyss he is careful not to cross the line. We therefore surmised the he would not launch missiles with chemical warheads and that was indeed the case,” he says.

The work earned Kimhi and his team a prestigious award from the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence and led the head of the MI research department at the time, Brigadier General Danny Rothschild, to appoint Kimhi as a special advisor. In this position, Kimhi assembled profiles of many Middle Eastern leaders, including Yasser Arafat, Hafez Assad, King Hussein and others. For this research, Kimhi drew inspiration from the work of Jerrold Post, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University. In the 1960s, Post founded the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior and directed it for two decades, and over the years his findings on leaders’ personalities and behavior attracted much attention from other intelligence agencies around the world.

Saddam Hussein. A psychopath, but also careful not to cross the line.
Saddam Hussein. A psychopath, but also careful not to cross the line. Credit: INA / AFP

Kimhi left his work in military intelligence as the peace process gathered steam and the decision was made to cease drawing psychological profiles of rivals and enemies. He turned to academic research, and with the 1999 election approaching, was asked to compose a psychological profile of Netanyahu, who was nearing the end of his first term as prime minister. In his comprehensive study, Kimhi analyzed Netanyahu’s personality traits, concluding, in part, that he was “a narcissist with paranoid and authoritarian tendencies, who is gifted with extraordinary rhetorical ability and public relations skill,” and that in addition to his centralized style, for him, media is paramount.

“Netanyahu always attaches great importance to the media and public relations and sees himself as the ultimate explainer. Not for nothing has he himself taken on the role of the main spokesman during the current crisis. And he makes sure to appear again and again on prime time television and deliver messages without enabling hard questions from the media. In these appearances, he presents himself as a captain navigating the ship of state using elements of intimidation and excessively presenting the dangers (in the opinion of quite a few experts). With a baritone voice and serious expression, he presents one unquestioned reality as someone who sees and understands it better than others. Netanyahu knows how to appear: He is eloquent, shows self-confidence and is in full control of the situation. These capabilities have characterized him throughout his political life.”

Kimhi stresses that Netanyahu’s vision is always political and that political survival is his prime concern. “To that end, he does not take risks, and his personal benefits and those of the state are inseparable. From his point of view, his remaining prime minister is for the good of Israel. For example, he halted negotiations with the Kahol Lavan party over a controversy about appointing judges even during the corona crisis, without considering this as a problem. This is not new to Netanyahu, and it has characterized authoritarian leaders throughout world history,” he writes.

Netanyahu, left, Moshe Bar Siman Tov and Yaakov Litzman during a coronavirus briefing. Knowing everything and being afraid.
Netanyahu, left, Moshe Bar Siman Tov and Yaakov Litzman during a coronavirus briefing. Knowing everything and being afraid.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Kimhi cites the prime minister’s insistence on keeping Yaakov Litzman on as health minister as another example of his inability to separate the handling of the coronavirus crisis from his personal political survival.

Another pattern in the prime minister’s behavior, says Kimhi, is his perception of himself as omnipotent. “Netanyahu sees himself as being able to understand complex situations (worldwide and in Israel) much better than others. This is reflected in his involvement in every issue and subject and his centrality among decision-makers. He takes every opportunity to glorify his status as a father figure of the state, which, thanks to his leadership, is in a better situation in the corona crisis than many other countries. He recently cited a ranking indicating that Israel is the safest country in terms of the corona crisis and took credit for this, but the ranking turned out to be unsubstantiated marketing information. In past crises as well, Netanyahu has introduced himself as the first person to understand the situation and has taken pride in his ties with the leaders of the powers whom he has enlisted to help Israel during its difficult days.”

In his research, Kimhi identified two different types of responses from Netanyahu to stressful situations. “When the cause of the stress is known and foreseeable, he functions well, but when the crisis comes as a surprise, he feels a lack of control, panics and tends to lose his cool,” says Kimhi. “In the coronavirus crisis, this has manifested in anxiety and great exaggeration in viewing the situation. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan called him an ‘alarmist.’ Netanyahu also has trouble making decisions and tends to delay his final decisions to the last minute. This pattern of behavior is characteristic of Netanyahu’s political career and may explain the failure to present a plan to emerge from the crisis. Accordingly, he tends to deal with the issue at the tactical level, without making strategic decisions.”

Kimhi continues: “In the literature dealing with leaders, the concept of ‘toxic leaders’ emerged some years ago. The concept describes leaders who identify, feed and nourish the deepest fears of the public. A toxic leader’s personal characteristics have been linked in the literature to an egotistical narcissistic personality, hate disseminator  and authoritarian leadership. Many common lines can be seen between these descriptions of toxic leaders and Netanyahu’s behavior and functioning during the current crisis: Knowing everything and being afraid, full of himself and exhibiting a never-ending need to present his successes and abilities again and again.” And Kimhi concludes: “The patterns of behavior mentioned here are not new and have not changed throughout Netanyahu’s many years in power. A few of them have become more pronounced.”

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