What makes some political leaders change their minds? Think anti-Communist President Richard Nixon opening relations with Communist China. Or nationalist French President Charles de Gaulle leading the exit from Algeria.
Guy Ziv, assistant professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service, has been looking at that question as it relates to Israeli leaders, using what he has learned to predict the prospects for peace talks after Israel’s elections in March.
“Very few people change their core beliefs,” Ziv told an audience Feb. 5 at American University’s Center for Israel Studies. In his new book, Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel, Ziv analyzed Israeli leaders using insights from cognitive psychology to better understand their personalities – particularly their capacity to change from hawk to dove.
In Israel, hawks and doves are identified by their positions on the issues of territorial compromise, settlements, the PLO and a Palestinian state, he said.
In the movement from hawk to dove, former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres is “a paradigmatic case,” Ziv said. But why was he unique? In his six decade-long public career, Peres demonstrated what Ziv called “cognitive openness” to ideas and challenges to his beliefs, and “cognitive complexity,” meaning that “he sees things in nuances, not in black and white.”
Because “people want consistency,” cognitive openness and complexity are
important counterweights. Nowhere is this more apparent in Israel’s history than Peres, who spent the first 25 years of his career as an ultra-hawk in the ruling Labor party.
In those years, Peres was hostile to Arab leaders, dismissed talk of peace and negotiated secret deals with France that brought Israel conventional weapons and a nuclear plant that spawned the country’s nuclear weapons program. After the Six Day War in 1967, Peres was a supporter of settlements and opposed territorial compromise.
His positions began to change when he became chairman of the Labor party in 1977 and lost that year’s parliamentary elections. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel later that year “had a major impact,” Ziv said.
By the 1980s, Peres was involved in the Oslo Accords with the PLO and supported the creation of a Palestinian state.
What do these insights say about the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the prospects for him making a similar shift from hawk to dove?
“Netanyahu is a more cognitively closed and simple person and unlikely to change,” Ziv said, prompting laughter. “He prizes personal loyalty, so he is surrounded by people who think like he thinks.”
Like many observers, Ziv believes Netanyahu will be re-elected.
An election loss for the center-left “Zionist Camp” could lead to the formation of the first genuine parliamentary opposition that Israel has seen. “Things move when you have a real opposition,” Ziv said.