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'Psychobibi': A look deep inside the mind of the prime minister

In the beginning of his 2004 book on the psychology of world leaders, political psychologist Jerrold M. Post explains his guiding question: When does the personality of the leader affect political behavior? According to Matthew Kalman and Matt Rees, the self-anointed (and self-published) maverick authors of the e-book Psychobibi (DeltaFourth, 2013) the answer is simple: always.

Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street (photo: flickr/10Downing Street)

Ever wonder why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to contradict himself, take steps that sabotage his own success, or behaves in a way guaranteed to earn the wrath of critical allies, mirth of the press, contempt of the public? For those unsolved enigmas that keep the people of Israel up at night – why is he married to a woman everyone loves to hate, what kind of cigars does he smoke and why was he happy to lose the Premiership in 1999 – Psychobibi has an answer. It’s Freud, stupid. Those cigars are not just cigars.

Enough about you, let’s talk about me(dia).

Before looking at what’s in the cigars, it’s worth considering the book itself as a sort of commentary-in-motion on the state of print media today. The authors attempt to strike out a new form of long form journalism – a bold endeavor in an age of the 140-character blippersphere. The e-book is essentially an extended lengthy magazine profile, sold on Amazon for $5.00. For those who don’t have time to read a biography, it’s an abridged answer. For those who want more than a magazine story, it’s richer. The same concept informed their previous endeavor, The Murder of Yasser Arafat.

The writing crosses a harlequin-novella with a stylized spy-novel idiom. The tale is narrated by the bizarre “DeltaFourth” personality, a seamless blend of both authors’ voices after covering Netanyahu over a span of roughly 15 years as journalists in the region. The storyteller that emerges is sufficiently seamless such that being personally acquainted with one of them, I assumed most of the “voice” was actually Matthew Kalman’s – who was Editor-in-Chief of the Jerusalem Report briefly while I was a columnist there – but he assured me that the material and reporting is truly a fifty-fifty product. (The fact that neither of us are at the Report today and both of us invest our energies in new media inventions is further indication of the afflictions of traditional journalism; one big difference is that their invention is intended to make money.)

The book reads as if Kalman and co-author Matt Rees share the same alter-ego: a parody of an investigative-detective-spy team, who think in wry, self- or other-deprecating cracks. On being assaulted by Bibi’s desire to share a cigar-smoking session (at the risk of belaboring the cigar theme), they write: “Good God, he intends for us to smoke the thing. DeltaFourth’s lungs constrict at the mere thought. We must grit our teeth and think of journalism (which only makes us grit our teeth still more).”

The writing is low on significant scoops but heavy on “color” – quirks, details and mise-en-scène. It’s a fast and fun read, turning national leadership into a sort of cartoon strip – or perhaps a subtle statement that this is a more appropriate form for the outlandish bluster of personality politics. Truly, some days I awake in Israel and in the world in general, read the news and stand speechless at the boundless, shameless lies, hypocrisy, back-stabbing, life-robbing, morals-trouncing behavior of politicians, and I too feel that the staid reporting of yester-century doesn’t always cut it. When reality is so whack, how long can it hide behind the removed professionalism of the old-time newspaperman? I’m not sold on this as a replacement for news, nor do I imagine that two fine journalists (Rees is also a fiction author) intended that. But writing that reflects absurdities of reality instead of varnishing over them is an addition worth considering.

Staying Power: The book reaches far back into Netanyahu’s history, telling pieces of it in light of his later political evolution, while stretching forward to provide up-to-the minute developments. That’s another advantage of zippy self-publishing.

Yet in Israeli politics, updated details can be immediately outdated. For that matter, perhaps the book itself is already passé? Lately, Bibi seems to have been upstaged by Yair Lapid. Political neophyte Lapid made a surprise showing in the January elections that catapulted his zero-experience party into second place. He went on to make the top-100 most influential people at Time (symbolically muscling out that publication’s King Bibi cover less than a year earlier), and gave a coy first foreign interview to the New York Times that got further attention. Most importantly for Israelis, he captures headlines almost nightly on television news, instead of reporting them as he used to – whether for deflecting anger over his economic measures or drawing praise for standing up to Haredim, he is definitely the country’s new darling. Will a book about Bibi be a quick victim of the nano-second news cycle?

I think not. What many observers, including Israelis, tend to forget in the swirl of attention  to Lapid is that Netanyahu won. It’s his third term as Prime Minister, he is now the second longest-serving PM in the country’s history after David Ben Gurion and has been the most influential person at critical transitions of Israeli life. For example, he presided over the deterioration of the Oslo accords in the late 1990s along with the hopes it initially brought, and (as Finance Minister) ushered sweeping economic reforms to “undo the last vestiges of Israel’s socialist heritage.” Highlights of his later leadership include the utter stagnation of anything resembling a peace process, threats to Israel’s democratic foundations in the form of anti-democratic legislation, the raid on the Mavi Marmara which nearly cost Israel its most strategic regional ally, a (second) war in Gaza. He has made Israelis more concerned with “delegtimization,” than with the underlying reasons for it; on his watch the country went from having one of the greatest economic gaps in the OECD, to having the highest poverty rate in the OECD.

In short, he has presided over the country during the phase that turned Israel from the hero into the villain in global eyes and in those of its citizens, from a country of socialist ideals to a rapacious economic environment that forced half a million of its people into the suffocating summer air of 2011 to demand relief. Much blue and white ink has been spilled figuring out why Israelis still vote for Netanyahu, with no one conclusion. The book flips the lens, as if maybe understanding Bibi in a deep way will tell us something about Israel instead.

So, why is he like that?

Something I have suspected about Netanyahu since his first term in the 1990s is that he is worse than a right-winger I don’t agree with. He is simply politically expedient, unpredictable, spineless. The authors confirm this early on, quoting a former aide:

“’Bibi is not a real ideologue…He may have ideas, but he doesn’t think that you necessarily have to stick to them if you’re going to lose power by being too inflexible.”

To some extent, this is of course a reality of politics – all leaders must bend or break, ideologically. But in Bibi’s case it seems thickly coated with a heavy dose of downright double-speak, forked-tongued, two-faced, whatever-you-call it – lies.

From there, they begin interpreting things like Netanyahu’s body language. When he sits behind the desk at an interview in 1998, write the authors, he is concealing something. But the desk wasn’t enough to hide the damned spot, so he pushed the large crystal ashtray in front of him as well (you guessed it – for the cigar).

If the book is a journey, those are the road signs leading deeper into the dark tunnel of Bibi’s personality. At the darkest, furthest end lies the secret psychoanalytic key intended to unlock the explanation of who he is. The revelation, given early on, is somewhat anti-climactic because it is in fact a well-worn theme of many a coffee-shop analysis. The thesis is that there’s a psychological triumvirate or holy national-political-security trinity in his mind, comprised of Netanyahu the elder, Bibi’s legendary father, and his slain brother Yonatan, a fallen mythical hero if there ever was one. It is Bibi’s trapped-animal status between these two that compels him to seek his own defeat, in the authors’ view.

They observe that Benzion Netanyahu made no secret of his preference for his eldest son, Yoni, or of his hopes that Yoni would lead the country to fulfill the father’s grandiose mighty-man dreams for Israel. Bibi of course has awe and respect for both his father and his brother. His ambitions would lead him to the top offices, his insecurities meant that when he got there, his inner will not to steal his dead brother’s birthright meant that he never wanted to be too good, too successful, too loved – his deep anger against his father, but also at himself for disappointing his father by not being his brother, leads to self-fulfilling prophecy of permanent failure.

That’s why, for example, the two Matts report that Bibi was “happy” when he lost the elections in 1999 to Ehud Barak, and on a wave of anti-Bibi sentiment, no less. His colleagues trying to scrutinize him “didn’t really get it,” because, claims DeltaFourth:

“They hadn’t suffered to get there and suffered while they were there, the way he had. They hadn’t been split between the desire to please the father by becoming prime minister and the need to honor a beloved brother by allowing him to remain the one who would have been the better prime minister.”

Passages like this throughout the book clearly take psychological license, resting on a healthy dose of faux-solemn speculation (“Why was Netanyahu’s reaction to [Naftali] Bennett’s success [in 2013 – ds] so visceral? DeltaFourth knows.”) But they are fun to read and ring true enough to pop up later in one’s mind, for example when scratching one’s head over the latest round of Bibimania that passes for policy.

The decorative nuggets do ultimately tend to link back to the psychological-family-tree analysis. Thus for example, Netanyahu is a regular candidate running his first campaign for Prime Minister in 1996; but his inner complex, Psychobibi, is not driven by principles or values but by the desperate ambition to fill his brother’s shoes. We learn that he then commits a sin which to a pollster is of the most egregious nature, demanding partial data from an incomplete survey and making poor campaign decisions based on that. I would conceivably quit over behavior like that, and in fact, many of Netanyahu’s staff people have quit over the years – including those same American advisors, who moved to work with Lieberman in later years (only to work with Bibi again when those two parties merged in the 2013 elections). Other quitters have included his spokespeople (five  in three years – Hebrew), not to mention a series of nanny– and aid-scandals under Sara Netanyahu’s direction. The self-defeating behavior must have rubbed off on his wife, too.

Having set out the premise, the book delivers a swift-paced narratives through Netanyahu-led developments that have defined Israel in these ignominious years: Settlement expansion against American wishes; ratcheting up the Iranian nuclear threat to the level of obsession and exploiting it to dismiss and distract from other issues; “Spectacular failures,” write the authors, in dealing with religious issues in Israel, and general policy zig-zagging, to name a few. There is some chronological jumping around, some gossip about his personal life; the final word is an ominous prediction that Psychobibi and the self- and other-destructive behavior that accompanies this golem, “is still alive.”

****

This review ought to have had the brevity appropriate to such a book itself, so maybe I’m the dinosaur here. I am, however, open to any new-fangled approach to journalism that helps reinvent the profession. Especially if it reminds us of critical political insights, such as the fact that leaders were flawed human beings before they became homo politicus. And if these new journalistic life-forms entertain us to boot, well – that’s a small consolation for having to suffer three terms of this loser.

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    1. Piotr Berman

      Today I learned that “Bibi” may be a “slob in chief”. In particular, the budget of cleaning his residences was doubled to reach ca. 1 million shekels per year, more than the budget for hosting and entertaining. One kind of slob requires 1000 dollar worth of cleaning work each day?

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