Beirut, Lebanon – Gal Hirsch has no known experience in hostage negotiations, and in 2006, he left the Israeli forces, disgraced over his role in military failures during the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Yet when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu picked the former military commander to lead efforts for the release of captives taken by Hamas to Gaza after its October 7 attack, that decision made sense to political psychologist Saul Kimhi.
“He’s choosing people [to join his wartime administration] based on their opinions of him and not on how fit they are for the job,” Kimhi said. Hirsch is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, and — like Israel’s prime minister himself — has faced charges of corruption.
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Kimhi, who teaches at Tel Aviv University, has studied Netanyahu’s mind for almost a quarter of a century. In 1999, the same year that Netanyahu’s first term as premier would end, Kimhi’s behavioural analysis of the leader found a concerning pattern of behaviour. Some of his conclusions: Netanyahu was narcissistic, entitled and paranoid, and he reacted poorly under stress.
Kimhi revisited Netanyahu as a subject in 2017 but found not much had changed. As people age, Kimhi said, their behaviours tend to become more extreme. For Netanyahu, his paranoia and narcissism have grown. He trusts no one, except maybe his immediate family, and prioritises his “personal future” over all else, Kimhi’s research found.
Now, as he leads his nation into the war on Gaza, the personality traits that shape Netanyahu’s biggest decisions could directly affect the lives of millions of Israelis and Palestinians and the direction of the conflict. And the signs so far, according to Kimhi and other analysts, are worrying.
Indecisive and distrustful
Netanyahu’s behavioural analysis, according to Kimhi, suggests that he is indecisive and struggles with difficult decisions. “He is not a resilient person at all,” Kimhi told Al Jazeera.
Before Netanyahu appointed Hirsch on October 8, the position of hostage negotiator had been left vacant for more than a year. Hamas took more than 200 Israelis captive during its raid on southern Israel, and only a handful have been released so far. This, Kimhi said, was an example of Netanyahu taking “tough decisions at the very last minute”.
To be sure, Netanyahu also has qualities that appear to have helped him emerge as one of the world’s great political survivors. A 2021 personality study by the Jordanian professor of political science Walid ‘Abd al-Hay, found Netanyahu to be highly charismatic, “with a strong memory and high analytical ability”.
In a career at the top of Israeli politics spanning almost three decades, those attributes have frequently worked for him.
Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. He first came to power in 1996 and served a three-year term before he was replaced by Ehud Barak. He would return to power in 2009 and then serve for 13 of the last 14 years.
On a handful of occasions, Netanyahu’s time appeared to be running out. In 2015, with his back to the wall, he used a scaremongering tactic, saying “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.” He was re-elected.
After losing the premiership for a year, he came back to power in 2022, this time, by assembling the most far-right government in Israel’s history.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has been convicted of incitement to racism, destroying property, and joining a “terror” organisation when he was 16 years old. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads the hardline Religious Zionist Party that not only rejects Palestinian statehood but denies the existence of the Palestinian people and has condemned LGBTQ activists. Interior and Health Minister Aryeh Deri is an ultraorthodox rabbi who was sentenced to three years in jail for taking bribes.
By composing such a cabinet, critics have accused Netanyahu of choosing his own political survival over Israel’s interests. An op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has described some of Netanyahu’s ministers as “neo-Nazi” and “neo-fascist”.
However, none of that will matter much to Netanyahu. The important thing for him, according to Kimhi and other analysts who have studied the Israeli prime minister, is that he is in power, no matter the cost.
The extremist views in his cabinet may not bother him because “everything goes through him without the ministers knowing”, Thomas Vesconi, an independent researcher and author of two books on Palestine and Israel, told Al Jazeera.
Killing the ‘two-state solution’
Netanyahu’s paranoia and entitlement have arguably shaped his view on a Palestinian state as well. Despite publicly saying he is open to a two-state solution, he has undermined the process at every turn — including by insisting that a Palestinian state should have no military or security oversight over its territory.
Under his reign, settlement expansion has flourished and political repression of Palestinians is rampant. Even before October 7, this year was the deadliest on record for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank with more than 150 people killed by Israeli forces, 38 of those children. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since October 7. Netanyahu has tried to circumvent a Palestinian state by building regional agreements with Arab states through the Abraham Accords.
The issue of settlements and Netanyahu’s perceived unwillingness to engage in good-faith peace talks has grated many of Netanyahu’s foreign contemporaries over the years. “I cannot bear Netanyahu,” former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was caught telling then-American President Barack Obama on a hot mic in 2011. “He’s a liar.”
“You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” Obama had replied.
According to Vesconi, Netanyahu believes that all of historical Palestine should belong to Israel. It is a belief with roots in Netanyahu’s upbringing.
Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister’s father, was a proponent of Ze’ev Jabotinsky – a proponent of what is known as Revisionist Zionism – who believed a Jewish state should extend to both sides of the Jordan River. In effect, that means an Israel that includes the country’s current territory, the West Bank, Gaza and part or all of Jordan.
After failing to be awarded a position at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Benzion moved his family to the United States and took a position at Cornell University where he taught Judaic Studies. He carried that rejection for the rest of his life, and along with it, a distrust of intellectuals and the Israeli Labor Party.
Netanyahu held his father, who died in 2012 at the age of 102, in high regard. He said his father knew “how to identify danger in time” and “draw the necessary conclusions”.
Netanyahu learned that relationships were transactional – not altruistic – and “that humans live in constant Darwinian struggle for survival”, according to ‘Abd al-Hay’s study.
The Israeli prime minister is currently waging his own struggle to survive in office. He once enjoyed support from deeply religious conservatives and young, liberal capitalists working in sectors like tech — what Vesconi calls the two bourgeois.
But in recent times, he has lost the liberals while the religious right has intensified their support to that of what Kimhi calls “almost like a cult”. Starting in January 2023, Israelis flooded the streets to protest against wide-ranging judicial reform. Netanyahu said the changes are to balance an interventionist court.
Meanwhile, he is currently under trial for corruption, fraud and breach of trust and public opinion largely blames him for allowing the October 7 attack which saw Hamas break through a border fence, killing about 1,400 people and taking some 200 people captive.
Under fire once again, Netanyahu’s character flaws are once again showing themselves, Kimhi said.
Analysts believe Netanyahu is likely to want to prolong the war, as few in Israel will call for a change of leader amid a war. More than 8,500 Palestinians have been killed in recent weeks in an assault of unprecedented intensity on Gaza. More than 3,000 of those are children. But those figures, much like the hostages, do not seem to be of concern to Netanyahu.
Putting his survival first aligns with the conclusions of Kimhi and ‘Abd al-Hay’s studies. Whatever move he takes next will be with that in mind.
“The Israeli public,” Kimhi said, “needs a real leader that can unite people.”
Additional reporting by Nils Adler