This week’s Time magazine cover story features Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and attempts to divine the Israeli leader’s true ambitions. Time asks: Now that he has formed Israel’s strongest coalition in the country’s history, what does he plan to do with it? Analyzing Netanyahu’s “true intentions” has become a virtual cottage industry, both in Israel and abroad. Over the years, many commentators have scoured the Israeli leader’s personal history, speculating on the respective influences of his father, his wife, his fallen brother, and his childhood in the United States.
This exercise at psycho-historical analysis, while fascinating, is largely pointless. I have had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time with the Israeli leader. But I would not profess to have gleaned special insight into what path his country will take under his leadership as a result. But I would say the same thing applies after having been exposed to other statesmen in my experience in public service.
Indeed, one conclusion I have drawn observing world leaders is that most of them avoid tipping their hands prematurely or making decisions before they have to. They often have a strong sense of the direction they would like to point their ship of state. But they also know that they cannot predict, much less control, developments as they unfold. Therefore, given the stakes and consequences of the choices they must make, they will usually defer the hardest decisions until they absolutely must make the call.
Journalists may indeed write the first draft of history. But they will not likely learn what historic decisions a given leader will take by interviewing them. The coherence and trajectory of where leaders are going are often only clear in retrospect, not at the time. Having been trained as an historian, I have spent years of my life in historical archives. Pouring through the private papers, correspondence, and minutes recording historic figures’ decision-making, it is impossible not to be struck by the complexity and even contingency of many momentous decisions. While many leaders have a strong sense of history, and operate in the knowledge that their actions will be the subject for future historians, most if not all entertain the same doubts, uncertainties, and questions the rest of us do. They are, after all, human.
Momentous decisions can be literally a matter of life and death for thousands of people. It should not be surprising, therefore, that most leaders’ bottom lines on such issues can only truly be discerned at the decisive moment. They will only make the hardest choices when they absolutely have to, or when faced with an unpalatable situation in which the price of inaction forces them to act. The decisions they take are usually based on conviction, incomplete and imperfect information, and ultimately instinct.
We can’t know what Bibi Netanyahu will do either with regards to Iran or the Palestinians. Whether or not Israel strikes Iran will ultimately depend on a host of elements, some international, some domestic, some personal. The actions of Iranians, Europeans, Americans, and other Israelis will all affect the calculus. But these variables are constantly changing, and it is impossible to know where they will be at some decisive moment that may well not be that of the Israeli leader’s choosing.
Similarly, when it comes to what Netanyahu may do in negotiations with the Palestinians, the Israeli leader’s current intentions are much less important than the realities he will encounter down the line. In his previous stint at Israel’s helm, Netanyahu surprised many by becoming the first Likud leader to deploy Israeli deploy troops out of the historic land of Israel by signing the Hebron Accords with Yassir Arafat in 1997. This suggests that those who believe Netanyahu’s path is predetermined are mistaken.
Moreover, realities change over the course of leaders’ tenures. Prime Minister Sharon took office in 2001 seeking to halt the negotiations with Yassir Arafat that had resulted in a second Intifada. Sharon later took the historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 after he saw that other diplomatic efforts, such as the Geneva initiative, were starting to gain traction internationally. Sharon was not sure that the United States would not resume a full court diplomatic press, even under George Bush. Seeking to initiate rather than react, he put forward and executed his Gaza plan.
Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, came to power seeking to continue the unilateral disengagement effort but apply it to the West Bank. Instead, Olmert wound up negotiating intensively with the Palestinians within an American-sponsored framework launched in 2007 at Annapolis.
How Netanyahu proceeds with the Palestinians ultimately depends on the realities he will confront in the future and the choices he will be asked to make. Many actors and variables will affect those choices. Intentions are important. But ultimately, timing is everything.