Reviewed by: Lauren Mellinger
In November 2016, the latest crisis in Israeli domestic politics threatening to destabilize – or possibly bring down the government altogether – broke out in a heated battle in the Knesset over the pending evacuation of the Amona outpost in the West Bank. The Prime Minister was forced to battle on several fronts simultaneously – from managing the demands of the settler community, to contending with the far-right wing of his coalition to stave off a challenger in the next elections, grappling with the expectations of the international community, and the outrage of the Israeli left and centre-left.
This latest crisis is not atypical of Israeli politics, and is certainly a familiar situation for the country’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who in November 2016 surpassed one of Israel’s founders and the country’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, to officially become Israel’s longest serving prime minister, and smashing Ben-Gurion’s record for the most consecutive days in office.
‘Outsider’, ‘stranger in a strange land,’ the ‘American’, ‘right-wing zealot’, ‘pragmatist’, and ‘fear-monger’ – each of these terms has been used to describe Netanyahu throughout his political career. Yet, which of these labels is an accurate characterization of Benjamin Netanyahu?
British historian Neill Lochery sets out to explore this question in the first English-language biography of the man regarded by veteran observers of Israeli politics as ‘the comeback kid,’ and who Lochery describes as ‘a hugely polarizing figure in Israel, the Middle East, the United States and the wider world.’ Lochery, who in a recent interview declared his boredom with the traditional womb-to-tomb structure of political biographies, purported to address this question by structuring the book with nine chapters, each reflecting a decisive moment in the Israeli politicians’ life, to assess what Netanyahu himself took away from these experiences – the successes and failures – and how over time, he applied these lessons to advance his political career.
Netanyahu: pragmatist or ideologue?
At the heart of Lochery’s analysis of Netanyahu is his attempt to explain the paradox embodied by Netanyahu’s historic tenure as a member of Israel’s political elite. As Lochery notes in the conclusion of his study: ‘For all his many failings Netanyahu remains the man who a large part of the Israeli electorate feels most comfortable leading the country. His successes have been mainly at the polls and his failures mainly in governing the country.’ This begs the question – in a country where the frequency of elections would undoubtedly make a stellar drinking game for anyone with a wooden leg – what factors have contributed to Netanyahu’s initial rise to power, and more importantly, to his subsequent political comeback(s)?
Lochery attributes the longevity of Netanyahu’s political career – in particular, his long tenure as Israel’s prime minister – to a host of reasons rooted in developments within Israeli domestic politics, geopolitical changes in the region and their impact on the Israeli electorate, and elements within Netanyahu’s own upbringing and the impact they have had on the development of his worldview.
A key attribute of Netanyahu’s success in politics has been what Lochery describes as the veteran politician’s ‘pragmatic skills of reinvention.’ Many practitioners and observers of Israeli politics continue to debate the source of Netanyahu’s hawkish stance with respect to the Palestinians, other Arab states in the region, and Iran. Yet, Lochery takes the view of those who maintain that the Prime Minister is driven by pragmatism and is simply not a right-wing revisionist ideologue always looking for the approval of his father, the late Israeli historian Ben-Zion Netanyahu. Rather, Lochery explains that what appears to observers of Israeli politics as flip flops or contradictions of Netanyahu’s own statements – most notably his initial 2009 acceptance and subsequent rejection of a two-state solution on the eve of the March 2015 Knesset elections – is arguably less a reflection of a genuine change in Netanyahu’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, such behavior is emblematic of the fact that as a politician, Netanyahu operates first and foremost with an eye on the next election. As Lochery noted in a recent interview, Netanyahu believes that though the world is changing, time is on Israel’s side. He does not govern by seeking to implement a long-term vision for Israel’s future, but rather, ‘[w]hen Netanyahu wins an election, he almost always starts running for the next one straight away. Even his cabinet appointments are based on where he thinks the next election is going to be fought. And so power has replaced ideology.’
Indeed a familiar pattern throughout Netanyahu’s political career has been his tendency to run to the right for political support when he is backed into a corner – a pattern which Lochery documents throughout the book. Such moves were (and arguably still are) considered by Netanyahu to be necessary – either to gain vital support for a pending election or to ensure the survival of his coalition – though such political manoeuvers often invoke the ire of many in the international community. For instance, commenting on the reaction of many in the international community following the surprising results of the 2015 Knesset elections in which Netanyahu succeeded in winning a fourth term as prime minister despite having made a number of inflammatory and contradictory remarks, Lochery argues that ‘[t]he trouble that the world had in dealing with Netanyahu was not that he was an ideologue, rather, that he was too pragmatic and prone to change his mind in order to curry favour with key voting groups in Israel.’
The role of Israeli society
While 2016 shocked the liberal democratic world order – with sweeping changes in Europe and in the recent presidential elections in the United States – it is worth recalling that in a democracy, individuals cannot come to power without a willing and able electorate.
For all practical purposes, Netanyahu’s path to the prime minister’s office was never etched in stone. While providing a brief overview of Netanyahu’s upbringing, Lochery describes how it was Netanyahu’s older brother Yonatan who was destined for a career in Israeli politics, while Benjamin was headed for a career as a businessman, likely in America. It was only following the death of his brother that he began to take an interest in a career in politics. While Netanyahu rose to political prominence at a fortuitous moment – namely the democratization of Israeli domestic politics – with his command of spoken English and media savvy, he was, as Lochery describes, partly responsible for the Americanisation of Israeli politics. It is not insignificant that at the time of his first election as prime minister in 1996, Netanyahu was the youngest person to ever assume the office (and without having first served in other senior political posts), nor that at that time he represented a break from the previous generation of Likud leaders. When Netanyahu became the leader of the Likud party in 1993, he was only the third individual elected to lead the party, succeeding Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, two larger than life predecessors, who both played key roles in the establishment of the State and were firm right-wing ideologues in their own right.
However, despite Netanyahu’s adept skills as a politician, Lochery argues that in terms of the longevity of his tenure as prime minister, ‘[t]o a large extent Netanyahu’s political successes have been achieved as a result of the shortcomings of Israeli society and its political leadership.’ Over the years, as Lochery notes, Netanyahu has undoubtedly benefited from the failure of the left and centre-left in Israeli politics – since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 – to produce a viable candidate, and a message that resonated with an electorate were security dominates as a prime concern.
Another factor contributing both to Netanyahu’s initial rise to power and his political comeback has been his ability to tap into the innate pessimism that most Israelis feel about their future. As Lochery writes, ‘Israel remains deeply divided and unsure of its place in the world,’ and this overarching skepticism applies both domestically, in the ongoing struggle to determine the role of religion in state affairs, and in terms of Israel’s relationship with others in the region. For Israelis, as Lochery explains ‘the litmus test is survival.’ As a result of this prevailing attitude of uncertainty, the public’s view of Netanyahu as somewhat of a ‘goalkeeper’ has served as a critical factor contributing to the longevity of Netanyahu’s political career, as well as enabling his politics of fear to gain traction among the electorate. Indeed, as Lochery observes:
On a deeper level, there was a connection between Israel being in trouble and the electorate running towards Netanyahu. Many of those Israelis who were calling for him to return to office in late 2000 were the very same voters who had kicked him out of the same office a year and a half earlier. Netanyahu’s personality had not changed, nor had he offered a Nixon-style apology for the mistakes he had made during his first term in office. Netanyahu did not come back to the people: the people came back to him. To some extent, this would set an important precedent for the rest of his career. Whenever Israel looked to be under threat, be it from the Palestinians, the Iraqis or, in recent times, the Iranians, the majority of Israeli voters look to Netanyahu as the ‘goalkeeper of the state.’
What understanding Netanyahu could mean for the prospect of peace
Though his tenure as prime minister has largely lacked significant foreign policy successes, Netanyahu’s views on Israel’s security and the security of the region have not been without merit. His statements warning of the dangerous consequences of Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, including those made while he served as Finance Minister in Sharon’s government, have largely proven correct. And his concerns about the Iranian nuclear program are shared by many in the international community, though over the last few years, Netanyahu’s efforts to gain international support for a hardline on Iran have largely resulted in diminished returns.
Without discrediting Netanyahu’s own astute political intelligence, the resilience of Netanyahu is in large part a by-product of changes within Israeli domestic politics over the past several decades – the rise of the right wing, and the failures of the left and centre-left – and of changes that swept the region following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the ensuing chaos post-Arab spring. But what impact will an improved understanding of Netanyahu’s tenure in office have on the prospect of peace in the region, and in particular on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Lochery raises the question but steers clear of formally answering. Yet, if Lochery’s study of Netanyahu is correct, and the veteran politician is indeed guided by pragmatism rather than ideological rigidity, than this may provide the biggest clue for those working to move the peace process forward.
Lauren Mellinger (@Lauren_M04) is a doctoral candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and a senior editor of Strife’s blog and journal. Her research specializes in Israeli counterterrorism, foreign policy, and national security decision-making, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
 Neill Lochery, The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 1.
 Ibid., p. 341.
 Ibid., p. 339.
 J.P. O’Malley, ‘Sultan of Swing: Historian says Netanyahu is fickle by design,’ Times of Israel, November 26, 2016, http://www.timesofisrael.com/sultan-of-swing-historian-says-netanyahu-is-fickle-by-design/.
 Lochery, pp. 71; 190; 339.
 Yonatan Netanyahu was a member of the Israel Defence Forces elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal. In July 1976 he was killed during a mission to rescue hostages held at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
 Lochery, p. 388.
 Ibid., p. 337.
 Ibid., p. xii.
 Ibid., pp. xi-xii; 211.
Image 1 credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Benjamin_Netanyahu_portrait.jpg
Image 2 credit: http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-militant-islam-causing-sunni-arabs-to-view-israel-as-ally/
Book cover credit: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-resistible-rise-of-benjamin-netanyahu-9781472926111/
Lauren Mellinger is a doctoral candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and a 2018-19 Israel Institute Doctoral Fellow. She is also a former senior editor of Strife’s blog and journal. Her research specializes in Israeli counterterrorism, foreign policy, and national security decision-making, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can follow her on Twitter @Lauren_M04.