Historians, fortunately, are not inclined to comprehend the personality, motives and actions of leaders on the basis of insights derived from the realm of psychiatry and psychology. At the same time, Benjamin Netanyahu’s anomalous reaction to the report by the Israel Channel 2 television investigative journalism series “Uvda” (“Fact”) on the conduct of the Prime Minister’s Office, together with the concern expressed by MKs Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) and Zehava Galon (Meretz) about his fitness to be prime minister, provide an opportunity delve into certain still-undeciphered psychological aspects of the Netanyahu phenomenon.
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The “abnormal” and destructive aspect of Netanyahu’s rule is not confined to his political, social or economic positions. I also believe that those who attribute his declaration of war against the media solely to a desire to scare opponents and suppress opposition are mistaken. Netanyahu’s unsettled relations with the media are another expression of a deep-seated and painful conflict he has with every truth, be it from the left or the right, from the present or the distant past.
Those who see Netanyahu as Machiavellian, guided solely by political interests, miss his deep need to sidestep the truth even when the truth is unlikely to hurt him and a lie offers no political advantage. A year after claiming that the mufti of Jerusalem gave Hitler the idea of annihilating European Jewry, Netanyahu explained that evacuating settlements amounts to an ethnic cleansing of Jews. What these statements share, together with his insinuation that the criticism of him in Haaretz is linked to the distant Nazi past of one of the paper’s shareholders, is not that they “sidestep the truth” but rather that they assault it as a human value and rationality as a means to achieve it.
These statements can be termed “contra-rational” or “contra-historical,” because even if their overt aim is to substitute one historical argument for another, they are driven by the fantasy that reality is inherently totally subjective and that there is no added value in striving for truth. Listening to the raving of a madman, one asks whether his words have any connection to reality. Listening to Netanyahu, one is tempted to ask whether there is such a thing as reality.
The question of whether the prime minister is “going mad” comes up when Netanyahu affords his listeners a glimpse of his painful internal struggle. A full comprehension of the attraction this conflict holds for him and his supporters requires knowledge of the concept of perversion. Not in the common and incorrect sense of a sexual deviation or preference for certain practices, but rather as an emotional stance and philosophy of life that rejects fundamental human facts and principles, such as preferring the truth over a lie or valuing the complicated gradations between good and bad.
Perversion as a way of thinking is in constant conflict both with dependence on other people and with the separate existence, independent from our wishes, of the good and the proper. Perversion always prefers identification with the perfect object over acceptance of partialness. Perversion is also in deep conflict with the tension between how things are and how they appear to be, in other words the tension surrounding the depth and complexity of any knowledge and experience. Unlike psychosis, which is an expression of turning one’s back on reality, perversion denies the importance of the distinction between wishful thinking and reality. Of the psychotic one can say that reality is too painful for him to bear; whereas in the perverted mental posture it is truth, not reality, that is under attack.
Netanyahu’s statement of reaction to the “Uvda” segment showed him for what he is: a sane and absolutely abnormal person in his relation to the truth. Equally unsettling was the sight of an esteemed journalist surrendering, blank-faced, to an attack on her person and her work. The performance of her reading Netanyahu’s response faithfully reflected the gripping power that perversion can exercise. Ask the pornography addicts. They know something is really not right here – but how difficult it is for them to stop taking part in it.
Eran Rolnik is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and historian.