Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on course to become Israeli’s longest serving prime minister. His tenure will exceed that of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder and first prime minister. Even accounting for the vast tectonic shifts over the last 70 years in the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East, the legacies of the two leaders sharply diverge. Ben-Gurion’s genius lay in his ability to identify opportunities and capitalize on them and, while avoiding unnecessary risk, he kept his eyes focused on sustaining international legitimacy for the fledgling Jewish state.
Netanyahu has relied on the wholly justified Israeli fear of Iran to answer his critics’ charges that he and his wife Sarah have personally overstepped legality and made crucial political decisions in the interest of personal survival and little else. One stands like a rock in memory; the other seems to posture with the political wind, survival an end in itself. Netanyahu has shown a penchant for avoiding tough decisions, opportunities as well as risks, while overseeing a government that has declining legitimacy around the globe. Instead of focusing on key strategic goals and vital principles for Israel, Netanyahu seems to be focused on balancing political forces to ensure his own survival; this comes at the expense of strategic decision-making and means that too often policy is decided more by inertia rather than by decisive action.
Ben-Gurion saved Israel when it was invaded in May 1948 by five Arab armies within hours after it declared independence. Building on the valor of Israel’s military, he relied on audacity, nerve and tactical skill. He made tough decisions: Accepting the UN partition plan for mandated Palestine against the outspoken opposition of the Jewish Revisionists, declaring Israel’s independence without knowing whether the United States would recognize the new Jewish state, disbanding the Irgun and other irregular military groups outside of the government’s control, moving the government to Jerusalem, not conquering the West Bank in Israel’s War of Independence and withdrawing from the Sinai in 1957.
But he also had a broader regional strategy, the Periphery Doctrine. He reached out to Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia, the principal non-Arab Muslim countries in the region. The strategy largely worked. Taking advantage of the historic enmity between Turkey and its Arab neighbors, Ben-Gurion’s efforts led to Turkey being the first Muslim country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, who falsely claimed lineage back to Cyrus the Great – ever distrustful of his Arab neighbors and the Russian bear to the north – found a partner in the Polish Zionist Ben-Gurion that in 1958 led to the Trident intelligence alliance among Turkey, Iran and Israel. For its first 30 years, the Israeli economy ran on Iranian oil. Ethiopia under the self-styled Lion of Judah Haile Selassie, largely stayed out of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Fast forward. Today Ben-Gurion’s outreach to non-Arab Muslim countries is no longer relevant. Theocratic Iran is rightly seen by Israel as its greatest near-term threat to survival. Turkey’s President Islamist Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan has made clear in words and deeds that Turkey is not willing to go beyond reluctantly accepting Israel’s continued existence. Ethiopia, consumed with internal problems and its immediate neighbors to the east, has yet to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel where today over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews are slowly moving up the ladder in Israeli society.
But what is Netanyahu’s strategy? He is a master political juggler, even when he resorts to demagoguery as he did on the morning of national elections four years ago when he frantically called to the Likud faithful to vote to counter “busloads of Israeli Arabs” heading for the polls (not unlike President Trump’s tweeting the week before last November’s congressional elections about a caravan of refugees in Mexico headed for the U.S. border). Israel’s economy is booming, its stock market reached an all-time high in September and the level of technological innovation in Israel is breathtaking. Faced with increasing income inequality, large pockets of poverty in Israel, and corruption charges against Netanyahu and his wife that appear daily in the Israeli press, Netanyahu nevertheless gets passing marks for his handling of domestic affairs.
But that is not the whole story. For most Israelis, external threats outweigh domestic issues. Israelis, fixated on their country’s survival, regularly listen to hourly news broadcasts – seeking constant reassurance that a calamity is not about to occur. Surprisingly, this may be where Netanyahu is most vulnerable. He has rightly warned Israelis and the world that Iran poses a threat to Israel’s survival and that Tehran is intent on creating a Shi’ite hegemony across the Middle East. Iran is truly Israel’s major problem, but Netanyahu has staked his Iran strategy on support from the Trump Administration and on “enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend” reasoning in courting Sunni Arab countries, most critically Saudi Arabia, while ignoring the rest of the world. Is this strategy really working? Let’s start with the United States. Netanyahu takes credit for influencing America’s long-overdue decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem (a move that recognizes the legitimacy of the Jewish nation’s claim to its ancestral home, with Jerusalem its heart), and most Israelis applaud Trump’s decision to walk away from the Obama-era Iranian nuclear deal (albeit with no broader strategy to replace it). But if these are pluses, they are outweighed by Trump’s tactical blunder in his precipitous tweet announcing the immediate withdrawal of American forces from Syria (now extended for four months while his advisers try to patch things up).
In the end, with American forces withdrawing from the strategic Al-Tanf base in central Syria, Netanyahu’s embrace of Trump leaves Israel alone to face Iran and its Shi’ite surrogates intent on establishing an Iranian land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, and at a cost of making Israel a partisan issue in the United States and causing serious friction with American Jewry, two long-term pillars of Israel’s international support and in turn its national security.
Similarly, Netanyahu’s Sunni Arab strategy has run into bumps and a likely glass ceiling. Looking at the Sunni Arab countries one by one, although Egypt works closely with Israel in combatting ISIS terrorists in Sinai and in damping down Hamas belligerence in Gaza, it has yet to sign onto Israel’s anti-Iran campaign. So, too, King Abdullah in Jordan has not joined Netanyahu’s anti-Iran campaign, wary of doing anything that might upset his Palestinian subjects (a majority of the population). The 1993 Oslo Accords paved the way for his father (King Hussein) to sign the peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but the accords are now entombed in a desert graveyard, thanks in part to Netanyahu’s drumbeat of inflammatory rhetoric denouncing the accords prior to the assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. As for Saudi Arabia, the budding friendship between Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has run aground on the damage done by the Crown Prince’s complicity in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While Israeli-Saudi intelligence cooperation is an open secret, there are limits. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman made clear two months ago that closer relations with Israel will depend on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Gulf States have similar hang-ups. In a word, until there is genuine movement toward an independent Palestinian state, Israeli’s relations with Sunni Arab nations have reached its limit.
True, a big part of the problem is that Israel does not have a negotiating partner. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has so far refused to come to the negotiating table with Israel despite carrot-and-stick pressure from the United States and repeated Israeli offers to negotiate with no pre-conditions. Rather than negotiate with Israel, the PA has mounted a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in foreign capitals and at the United Nations with some success.
All the while, Netanyahu faces increased pressure from Israel’s territorialists, led by Naftali Bennett’s New Right Party and the Bayit Yehudi party he formerly led, to enlarge existing Israeli settlements and build new ones with strident rhetoric reminiscent of 19th century America’s Manifest Destiny slogans. However, the analogy ends here.
The Palestinians are not 19th century Native Americans. They are educated, have the support of much of the world (including the political left in the United States and elsewhere plus an increasing number of American Jews who are put off by Netanyahu’s right-of-center government and Israel’s ultra-religious), and are backed up by more than 200 million Arabs living in the region, not to mention the rest of the Muslim world.
Mark Twain once remarked, “No tribe, howsoever insignificant, and no nation, howsoever mighty, occupies a foot of land that was not stolen,” which confirmed by history puts a dent in the moral claims of Israeli settlers. The two million Arabs in the territories are not going anywhere and Israel cannot displace them without violence and world condemnation sure to follow in its wake nor can it absorb them and fulfill the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state. Here lies the conundrum: The Palestinian issue is Israel’s problem to solve. Netanyahu’s anti-Iran rhetoric may buy time to preserve the status quo on the West Bank but it is no substitute for a long-term solution to Israel’s Palestinian problem.
Netanyahu has been on record supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His detractors doubt the sincerity of these statements and his actions support their doubts. Rather than take steps to make a two-state solution more likely, he has done the opposite, making it less likely. By enlarging Israeli settlements in the territories, withholding taxes collected by Israel payable to the Palestinian Authority for economic development in the territories and by his slow walking building permits and other administrative steps needed to facilitate development in the territories, he has discouraged Palestinians from thinking of independence as a possibility and has given ammunition to those outside Israel who support BDS.
All blame does not lie with Netanyahu. Mahmoud Abbas and the PA also need to change direction by stopping the virulent anti-Israel rhetoric in Palestinian schools and by ending payments to families of Palestinian terrorists killed by Israeli security forces. (In return, Washington should reinstate funding for Palestinian development projects.) There are other interim steps that could be taken such as the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) program that would not endanger Israel’s security while keeping alive the possibility of a two-state solution.
There are those who would add a change of leadership on both sides to the list of things that need to happen. But this is both dangerous and wishful thinking. Who is to say whether Mahmoud Abbas’s successor will be better or worse than he. Moreover, Mahmoud Abbas now aged 83 shows no signs of leaving any time soon. The same is true on the Israeli side. Absent a criminal indictment, Netanyahu is likely to remain in power heading a right-of-center coalition government.
It is easy for armchair experts to juggle the pieces on the Israeli chessboard and imagine a coalition government in Jerusalem headed by someone other than Netanyahu, but the king on the chessboard is not responsible for the fate of millions of people. The prime minister of Israel bears that burden. Regardless of whom the two sides choose to be their leader, the elephant in the room will remain the Palestinian issue and it needs to be solved in a way that does not obliterate the vision of David Ben-Gurion and those who founded the State of Israel. The writer is a former US ambassador and special presidential envoy, who currently co-chairs the Board of Governors of Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, where he has a home. He has also served for the last 19 years as chair of UN Watch in Geneva and is the author of ‘Bucharest Diary – Romania’s Journey from Darkness to Light’ (Brookings Institution Press, 2018)
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