Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Tel Aviv, Israel February 14, 2018.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
When news of the corruption scandal affecting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began to be revealed on Wednesday evening, the Middle East was preparing for dinner. In Egypt and Kuwait, major papers reported the scandal on their home pages, but most of the region has remained relatively indifferent.
One man from Gaza remarked that Netanyahu’s insistence on staying in office and “talking about conspiracies” reminded him of “some Arab rulers.”
It is a testament to Netanyahu’s staying power – almost nine years in office – that he has become one of the stable landmarks of the region.
Those ossifying Arab dictators who were in power when he returned to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009 – Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen – are gone. Two were brutally murdered. Such was the fate of Arab nationalism.
MKs respond to police recommendations that the AG indict Netanyahu on two accounts of bribery, Febraury 13, 2018. (Reuters)
The region’s rising stars, such as Qatar’s Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (aged 37) and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia (age 32), are young compared to Netanyahu, who is 68. Bashar Assad, who has been in power since 2000, and King Abdullah of Jordan, who assumed the throne in 1999, are both in their 50s. In short, Netanyahu is the elder statesman of the region.
The corruption scandal casts doubt on his ability to govern in the coming years. For regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this presents a problem. Over the past several years there has been a growing sense that Israel and these two Gulf states see the region through a similar lens. They fear Iran and its tentacles. Along with Egypt and Jordan, the two neighboring countries Israel has official peace with, there is a kind of block against the instability that spread with the “Arab Spring” and the rise of Islamic State.
With ISIS mostly defeated in Iraq and Syria, and the US administration seeking to give wind to a post-ISIS Middle East, Israel has a role to play. Netanyahu sought to cast Israel in the role of the realistic state that forgoes idealistic notions of democracy spreading to the region in favor of hard-nosed policies against Iran and talking up fear of Islamist influence. Mr. Security. King Bibi. But corruption and bribery threaten those two pillars of identity.
For Israel’s foreign policy, which has been in Netanyahu’s hands since 2015 as he refuses to relinquish the ministerial portfolio to any rivals, the problems now add up. Iran is near the Golan, and several Shi’a militia leaders from Iraq have recently been in Lebanon. Hezbollah is beating its chest after the downing of an F-16 by Syrian air defense. The “axis of resistance” thinks it smells weakness in Jerusalem. Now all the fears that Netanyahu has played on, his redlines, his constant warnings, could be closer to coming true.
As the Iranian threat manifests itself, the man who was the foremost opponent of it, and someone that some in the region looked to for guidance on the issue, could be leaving power. Nonscientific surveys posted on Twitter show that many in the region fear Iranian influence and quietly applaud when Israel strikes back in Syria. Netanyahu is seen as the driver of that policy, even if under other leadership Israel would likely maintain the same posture.
Netanyahu outlasted many of his opponents, from Ahmadinejad in Iran to extremists like Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. He also outlasted the Obama administration. When US President Donald Trump went to Riyadh to speak and called to drive out Hezbollah and Hamas, it was a speech Netanyahu could have made.
At the precise time that the region seems to be partly cast in his image, his power base in Jerusalem could be teetering. His fall from power would leave the Middle East wondering what comes next and whether Iran and its tentacles might exploit the political process in Israel.