A Leader Driven by Pessimism

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: AP

The goals Netanyahu set for the operation in Gaza reflect his bleak worldview according to which neither toppling Hamas nor trusting Abbas will bring long-term quiet.

Ironically, given the multitude of conflicting Middle Eastern interests that surround Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, fans and critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership have managed to reach a consensus on one issue: For better or for worse, he’s a cautious leader who tends to hesitate before making fateful decisions.

But an effort to decipher the code of Netanyahu’s leadership actually reveals that hesitation and caution aren’t necessarily his defining traits. A hesitant leader wouldn’t have withstood public pressure to expand the operation, and he surely wouldn’t have dared to face off with the U.S. administration over the peace process. A cautious leader wouldn’t have been capable of leading significant economic reforms, as Netanyahu did during his term as finance minister, in defiance of the wishes of a significant portion of his electorate.

Nor, in contrast to another widely accepted hypothesis, should Netanyahu be identified with the neoconservatism of the American right. His policies contain no optimistic aspirations like those the neoconservatives hold with regard to disseminating democratic values. He has kept a distance from any attempt to influence or change the surrounding Middle East.

What does characterize Netanyahu – and Operation Protective Edge was tailored to this worldview – is deep pessimism. To understand him in this context, it’s necessary to read one of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s foundational articles: “Homo homini lupus” – a Latin phrase meaning “man is a wolf to other men.”

In this article, which derives from the worldview of Thomas Hobbes regarding the existential war of all against all that characterizes mankind in the state of nature, Jabotinsky wrote, “A fool is he who believes his neighbor, even a most good and pleasant one.” And the solution proposed by the founder of the Revisionist movement includes “separatism, lack of trust, to always be prepared and on the alert, with a stick hidden up my sleeve – for these are the things that allow us to exist among the wolves that fight.”

Without getting into psychology, it seems that Netanyahu’s family history – a strong father who felt that the academic and political worlds didn’t appreciate the value of his research, and a brother who was destined for greatness but was killed in the 1976 Entebbe hostage rescue – also contributed to his pessimistic view of life.

The element of pessimism was evident in Operation Protective Edge’s basic goal, which Netanyahu stuck to throughout its duration: achieving an arrangement based on forceful deterrence that would produce long-term quiet. Pessimism is evident in the fact that from the start, he didn’t believe toppling Hamas would produce a better outcome, nor did he believe Israelis would be able to tolerate hundreds of fatalities if the operation were expanded. And of course he didn’t believe in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a partner, or in surprising diplomatic moves that would entail, for instance, meeting Hamas partway.

In his view, life mainly offers a variety of threatening options. The “upheavals” in the Arab world, as he frequently calls recent developments there, have merely confirmed this belief.

Netanyahu’s pessimism isn’t necessarily either to his detriment or to his credit. Each of us can justify or reject it based on how he views life in general and the natural situation of the Middle East. But based on the goal Netanyahu set, it’s reasonable to think Protective Edge will yet prove to be a success.

The current disappointment stems from the fact that Israelis, who want to get on with their lives already, justifiably have less patience than the weaker side, which is already used to being worn down by life. But Hamas was definitely battered militarily, and the fact that in contrast to previous wars, no mass victory celebrations have been staged in Gaza indicates that its ties with Gaza’s civilians have also been undermined. When the war ends, Netanyahu will yet achieve quiet in the south – a quiet that’s prolonged, but laden with pessimism.

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