What does Bibi want?

Is­rael’s PM met Theresa May and Don­ald Trump this week, and raised the set­tle­ment stakes. J P O’Mal­ley asks his biog­ra­pher what makes him tick

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - IN­TER­VIEW NEILL LOCHERY The Re­sistible Rise of Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu,

BEN­JAMIN NE­TANYAHU did the rounds of for­eign lead­ers this week, mak­ing Is­rael’s case and de­fend­ing his set­tle­ment pol­icy. But what drives the Is­raeli leader? Ac­cord­ing to one po­lit­i­cal writer and aca­demic, for Bibi, sur­vival is ev­ery­thing. Neill Lochery, Pro­fes­sor of Middle East­ern and Mediterranean Stud­ies at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don, has served as an ad­viser to key play­ers on both sides of the con­flict. His book,

pub­lished last year, is a crit­i­cal account of Is­rael’s Prime Min­is­ter, ex­am­in­ing Ne­tanyahu’s com­plex and con­tra­dic­tory char­ac­ter as well as doc­u­ment­ing his rise to power.

Cru­cial to Ne­tanyahu’s am­biva­lent po­lit­i­cal iden­tity, and slick me­di­afriendly PR-driven de­liv­ery, says Lochery, is the strat­egy he gleaned from work­ing in the Amer­i­can cor­po­rate world in the late 1970s, where he learned that style, money and ap­pear­ance tri­umphs over sub­stance, in­tegrity and ide­ol­ogy.

“Ne­tanyahu has con­stantly used an Amer­i­can style of pol­i­tics,” says Lochery, “and he has al­ways re­mained this out­sider, who sits half-way be­tween Amer­ica and Is­rael.

“He is dif­fer­ent to nearly ev­ery­one in the Is­raeli po­lit­i­cal elite. And yet he still knows how to speak to his own party, Likud, and its [grass­roots]base.”

Lochery be­lieves that Ne­tanyahu’s suc­cess is built on two vi­tal com­po­nents: his abil­ity to play the prag­ma­tist, and for­tu­nate tim­ing in com­ing of age in Is­raeli pol­i­tics when the old So­cial­ist Zion­ist tra­di­tion was dy­ing and Is­raeli so­ci­ety — along with the world in gen­eral — was rapidly chang­ing.

“Ne­tanyahu ar­rived at a time when pol­i­tics was chang­ing glob­ally,” says Lochery. The fo­cus, there­fore, be­came much more about the leader than the po­lit­i­cal party. That changed pol­i­tics in Is­rael quite sig­nif­i­cantly.”

“[For decades]un­der Labour Zion­ism, party lists were cho­sen in smoke­filled rooms. But pri­mary elec­tions in Is­rael changed this, mak­ing the me­dia much more sig­nif­i­cant.”

Ne­tanyahu has used Is­rael’s im­per­fect, work-in-progress and, at times, frag­ile democ­racy to his po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage, too, Lochery says.

“Is­rael is still a ma­tur­ing democ­racy where a num­ber of the key facets of a state have yet to be put in place,” he adds.

“For in­stance, there is no writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion, no Bill of Rights; there is a se­ries of ba­sic laws, which peo­ple pre­sume will be brought to­gether in a con­sti­tu­tion. So Is­rael is a very young state. Even things like the elec­toral sys­tem are still open to ques­tion,” he adds.

Ne­tanyahu re­cently be­came the coun­try’s long­est serv­ing head of state, over­tak­ing David Ben-Gu­rion, who served in the po­si­tion for 13 years. But Lochery in­sists that Ne­tanyahu is not in the same league as B-G:

“I view Ne­tanyahu es­sen­tially as a man who is buy­ing time, rather than some­one who can im­ple­ment sig­nif­i­cant change. Ben-Gu­rion, for all his faults, brought about his­toric change. Ne­tanyahu, on the other hand, is not a vi­sion­ary, or an ide­o­logue.”

Lochery claims that the Prime Min­is­ter “lacks any kind of vi­sion for Is­rael, liv­ing very much day-to-day, where power is cen­tral to ev­ery­thing he does.”

“It’s in­trigu­ing that those who don’t even like Ne­tanyahu — and there are many of those in Is­rael — still look to him as some kind of na­tional goal­keeper who looks af­ter Is­rael. They see him as some­one who is by no means per­fect in pro­tect­ing it but who of­fers pro­tec­tion nev­er­the­less.

“Dur­ing his first pe­riod in of­fice, Ne­tanyahu said that one of his ma­jor achieve­ments was re­duc­ing the num­ber of at­tacks and suicide bombs in Is­rael. His crit­ics, of course, would say that is per­fectly nat­u­ral be­cause no progress on the peace process meant there was no need for Ha­mas to launch at­tacks on Is­rael.”

This Machi­avel­lian style of pol­i­tics is some­thing Lochery de­scribes as “ex­tremely dan­ger­ous.

“When speak­ing to an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence, Ne­tanyahu tends to high­light the need for a two state so­lu­tion. When he is speak­ing to the Likud cen­tral com­mit­tee, how­ever, he seems less en­thu­si­as­tic.

In his book, Lochery cites an in­ter­view Ne­tanyahu gave in March 2015 to the NRG He­brew lan­guage web­site — which has ties to a Jewish set­tler news­pa­per — in which the Is­raeli PM claimed that moves to es­tab­lish a Pales­tinian state is giv­ing “rad­i­cal Is­lam an area from which to at­tack the state of Is­rael.

“You could take Ne­tanyahu’s com­ments [here] ei­ther way: that he re­ally was a hard-line ide­o­logue or that he will just say any­thing to get elected,” says Lochery.

If Ne­tanyahu has spent much of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer re­fus­ing to of­fer any level of com­mit­ment to a peace agree­ment with the Pales­tini­ans, Lochery be­lieves there is one area where the Prime Min­is­ter has re­mained con­sist-


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