Journalists think they understand the human mind. When the Israeli prime minister Binyamin (Benjamin) Netanyahu was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust on November 21, they blamed it on his selfishness, greed, exaggerated self-love, “obsession,” stinginess, craving for recognition, feelings of entitlement, grandiose self-image as a king or messiah, lack of self-awareness and “hubris.” One journalist said that Bibi had a “dual personality,” that he could be careful, balanced and responsible, but that he could also be reckless, unbalanced, and lacking “reality testing.”
All this may be true, but the fascinating question in this tragic story is how and why “Bibi” became such a person. How and why did the young man who reached the very top of Israeli politics and served as prime minister longer than nay of his predecessors become selfish, stingy, craving love and recognition, narcissistic, a man with a deep self-destructive streak, who ruins his own life and brings upon himself severe indictments and possibly years in jail?
The English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote that “the Child is father of the Man.” To understand Benjamin Netanyahu we need to back to the child Bibi as he was in his early life and as he still dwells in Benjamin’s unconscious mind. Bibi (born 1949) was not his father’s favorite child, nor his mother’s. They preferred his elder brother Yoni (born 1946), criticized Bibi, and told him to be like his brother. Perhaps they had wanted a daughter when they had their second son. Bibi felt rejected and unloved by his parents. He envied Yoni, and, while he consciously loved him, he also unconsciously wished hid death. When Yoni was killed in the Entebbe raid in 1976, Bibi not only felt a great loss but also unconscious guilt feelings, which made it hard for him to mourn his loss.
Those guilt feelings were amplified during his political life, when, like other political leaders who reach the top, he hurt other people and trampled over others in order to defeat his rivals and win the coveted leadership. Sigmund Freud claimed in his famous study “Those Wrecked By Success” that unconscious guilt feelings drive such people to destroy themselves in unconscious punishment. He cited the example of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But this hardly the whole psychological story.
Bibi Netanyahu fought his severe, rigid, critical and rejecting father all his life. In his youth he immigrated to the United States and changed his name to Ben Nitay. Now, changing one’s last name is no trivial matter. It is a symbolic declaration that the son does not want his father’s name, that he may not want to be his father’s son, that he is his own man. The Unconscious never lies. In 2012, when his father celebrated his 102th birthday, Bibi told him publicly, “You have lived two hundred years… er, I mean, a hundred and two years.” This slip of the tongue indicated his death wishes for his father. He was saying, You have lived too long. Die already.” Indeed, his father died a month later.
Bibi’s war on his father was unconsciously “displaced” to other authority figures and political entities. Both before and after his indictment, he attacked the Israeli law-enforcement authorities in the most violent of of terms, accusing them of illegal investigative methods, selective enforcement, threatening witnesses and inciting them against him, and saying that it was they who should be investigated for their corrupt and illegal actions, not him. The attacks came not only because of his deep conviction that he was being mistreated, but also because they had become “the bad father” who did not love him.
But the psychological story had not begun with Bibi’s father. Bibi’s mother was a hard, cold woman who kept the children away from their scholar father “so they would not disturb his work.” She had three sons but no daughter. It was possible that with each additional son she craved a daughter even more and was disappointed at not having one. She never gave Bibi the maternal love he so deeply craved. When he emigrated to America, where he had lived as a child, he unconsciously sought an embracing and giving maternal figure who would give him all the love he had not received. But he was disappointed again, because America did not give him that love. He left his wife Miriam, the mother of his first child, Noa, had an affair with a young British woman named Fleur, and later married her. But they divorced as well, and, after shuttling between the U.S. and Israel, Bibi returned to his native land and re-adopted his original name.
Bibi was plagued by the well-known “repetition compulsion,” a tragic unconscious psychic process that causes a person to being disasters upon himself. Thus a man may marry a cold, rejecting woman like his early mother when he consciously craves a warm and loving one, quite unlike his mother. He unconsciously denies her painful qualities and idealizes her, until he realizes what he had done to himself. It was after his two divorces in America that he returned to Israel. The women he chose to marry were not warm and loving. They could not give him the love he craved. Sarah is the third example. Women are not the only objects who can take on the role of the early mother. Geographic and political entities like countries, governments and states can do so as well. The State of Israel, a feminine word in Hebrew, can unconsciously fill the role of the early mother for many Israelis.
Like many other politicians, Bibi needed power as an unconscious antidote to his very painful feelings of helplessness in his early life, in the face of his rejection by his unloving parents. The craving for power as an antidote to early feelings of helplessness was first shown by the American political scientist Harold Lasswell (1902-1978) in his book Psychopathology and Politics (1930). After Bibi returned from the U.S. to Israel, the State of Israel took the place of America as the idealized mother in his unconscious mind. His high intelligence, his smartness (rather than his wisdom), his skill at exploiting others for his own needs brought him to the pinnacle of political power. Now he could receive from the “mother” (the State of Israel) all the love and all the “goodies” that he had not received from his own mother. Moreover, as prime minister he could now force her to give them to him. He had thus seemingly overcome his early trauma of abandonment and rejection, and could use his position as the man who ran the State of Israel to derive from Her all the “emoluments” that he could.
But the tragic unconscious “repetition compulsion” caused Bibi to destroy himself. By demanding and accepting bribes, breaking the trust the people vested in him as their leader, defrauding people and abusing his power, he caused himself once more they very rejection and abandonment he had suffered as a little boy. Now it was the State of Israel, rather than his early mother, who was the “bad and rejecting mother”: the indictment said, “The State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu.” Thus did Bibi unconsciously bring upon himself the greatest disaster of his life, without intending to do so.