How did Netanyahu's foreign policy achievements become an Israeli fiasco?

Netanyahu may lead with his foreign policy experience, but the focus of elections this year is centered more around the coronavirus.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu, then-US president Donald Trump, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani attend the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House last September. (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu, then-US president Donald Trump, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani attend the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House last September.
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
Two years ago, in the first campaign of this four-election-in-two-years saga, the Likud unfurled billboards on each side of the tower that houses its headquarters in Tel Aviv.
On one side was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with then-president of the US Donald Trump, on the other Netanyahu was with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Other billboards depicted the prime minister with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. They all featured the slogan: “Netanyahu – In Another League.”
This election, the slogan is different. The Likud saved money on billboards in the early weeks of the campaign because Israel was in lockdown. But these days, the billboards popping up on the Ayalon Highway first said “Coming Back to Life” – meaning, a more normal, post-corona existence.
Then, after the Central Elections Committee determined that the Likud cannot have a slogan identical to that of a Health Ministry campaign, the Likud went with “Coming Back to Life,” but in the feminine, instead of the masculine that is usually used to refer to mixed groups of people, and, in some cases, changed one Hebrew letter on the billboards, that changed the message to “Smiling Again.”
In short, the message is about post-pandemic recovery, and not so much about foreign policy. Israelis are more concerned with getting back to normalcy, helping their kids make up for lost school days and reviving their sputtering businesses.
YET FOREIGN policy remains on the agenda. How could it not? In the year since the last election, Israel under Netanyahu’s stewardship normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. These moves were overwhelmingly popular in Israel, and have been mostly untouched by Netanyahu’s opponents. Netanyahu makes sure to mention them in just about every interview.
Foreign policy has long been Netanyahu’s strong point, even in areas that are more controversial than the Abraham Accords.
He made electoral hay when going head-to-head with former US president Barack Obama, along with Europe, Russia and China, over the 2015 Iran deal. Many Israelis liked that Netanyahu was standing up for Israel, and were less impressed by the warnings of opposition party leaders who warned that Netanyahu was endangering bipartisan US support for Israel.
And in the ensuing years, Netanyahu’s super-close relationship with Trump, who recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, among other pro-Israel moves, was played as a sign of the prime minister’s virtuosity and stature on the world stage, as witnessed by the “another league” billboards.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has made high-level international contacts of his own since entering the political scene in 2012, though he was never really in a position to set foreign policy. He and French President Emmanuel Macron have been friendly for years, to give a prominent example, and he has frequent and close contacts with members of the US Congress from both parties.
Plus, Lapid has strongly criticized Netanyahu on foreign policy grounds, which Netanyahu likes to bring up, because Lapid opposed Netanyahu’s speech before both houses of the US Congress against the sitting president’s Iran deal.
Yet, those criticisms have not been a centerpiece of Yesh Atid’s campaign, nor of any other major opposing party. That’s likely because, again, Netanyahu is seen even by Israelis who don’t vote for him as strong and the most experienced in this area, so Lapid would be less likely to score points on it, and even more so because it just isn’t anywhere near the primary issue in this election.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz has openly criticized Netanyahu on foreign policy grounds. He’s talked about Netanyahu’s poor relationship with King Abdullah of Jordan and wrote an op-ed in Haaretz in English this week with the headline “How I prevented Israel becoming a pariah in Washington.” But Gantz and his Blue and White Party are struggling to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold.
THAT MAY have been how things would have continued until Election Day on Tuesday, with Netanyahu keeping his advantage on foreign policy, but without it being a central issue, if not for his desperate last-ditch efforts to bring the issue to the fore.
Netanyahu has tried repeatedly to visit the UAE and Bahrain since the Abraham Accords were announced on August, and that is normal, it must be said. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan invited Netanyahu, as did King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The first attempted trip was pushed off because of the second coronavirus lockdown; the second because it coincided with the UAE’s National Day; the third, because of the third lockdown.
The fourth serious planned trip was last week, for just a few hours, to meet with bin Zayed, and with Bahrain off the agenda. It was set to take place 12 days before Election Day. Officials in Abu Dhabi had some misgivings about holding a big event with Netanyahu so close to an election, but, as an insider said at the time, they figured Netanyahu would win anyway, so the risk was low.
Yet another area of Israeli foreign relations that Netanyahu had long neglected got in the way. A day earlier, Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah was supposed to visit the Temple Mount. Israel and Jordan had agreed on security arrangements, but at the last minute there was a dispute about the prince wanting to bring more armed guards than Israel would permit. The revenge came swiftly; the next morning, Jordan would not allow the plane the Emiratis sent to pick up Netanyahu to reach Israel. In response, Netanyahu blocked Jordanian flights from entering Israeli airspace. Jordan backed down, and Netanyahu reversed the instruction before there were any practical implications, but the trip to the Emirates was already canceled.
Netanyahu and his associates immediately went to work to try to get to Abu Dhabi this week, and once again, the Emiratis considered it, but ultimately determined that it was too close to the election, and they did not want to be used for the Likud campaign. And this time, the Emiratis broke their custom of being extremely diplomatic, to make their views known publicly.
Former UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash, who left the position last month and is now a senior adviser to the president, tweeted on Wednesday: “From the UAE’s perspective, the purpose of the Abrahamic Accords is to provide a robust strategic foundation to foster peace and prosperity with the State of Israel and in the wider region. The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever.”
In an apparent response to Netanyahu citing the UAE’s announcement that it is establishing a $10 billion fund to invest in Israel as proof of its confidence in his economic policies, UAE’s Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology Sultan Al Jaber also clarified that the fund is “commercially driven and not politically associated.
“These are very early days,” and his ministry is studying Israeli laws with regard to investments, Jaber told UAE news site The National.
On Thursday, well-connected sources in Abu Dhabi and Dubai continued to push the apolitical message, in a directive coming from the top echelons of the Emirates.
In the end, Netanyahu’s efforts to highlight his foreign policy bona fides resulted in a totally avoidable negative news cycle on the subject, and tensions with Abu Dhabi, where things had heretofore gone very smoothly.
MEANWHILE, NETANYAHU no longer has a US president helping his campaign. Trump had timed various “gifts” to coincide with Israeli elections, like his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and his peace plan that would have allowed all Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria to remain intact.
Not only is US President Joe Biden not giving Netanyahu any gifts, he and his administration are keeping as quiet as possible when it comes to Israel. It took Biden a month to call Netanyahu after his inauguration, with some speculating in the interim that he would even wait until after the election. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan are saying supportive things about Israel, broadly but cautiously.
Yet, this week, a Biden administration plan on the Israeli-Palestinian front leaked to The National, with a goal to reverse many moves by the Trump administration. The timing, so close to the election, is suspect, though the content matches what has been said publicly. The Biden administration plans to restore aid to the Palestinians within weeks, and is pushing for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 lines with land swaps. The memo says that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli-Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr had been in touch with Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who supported his goals; Netanyahu seems to have been left out of the loop.
As for Iran, Netanyahu has been very vocal about opposing any return to the 2015 nuclear deal – which is exactly what Biden aims to do. That being said, the administration hasn’t removed sanctions on Iran – to Israeli officials’ relief – and nothing dramatic is expected between now and Tuesday.
The Biden administration is open about consulting with Israel and other allies in the region, and Sullivan and Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat opened a strategic dialogue, which is good for national security, but is a political equivalent of a bear hug. How can Netanyahu say that he’s standing up to the Americans who don’t understand our security needs, if his office is also saying there’s a productive dialogue with them?
THE FINAL component of a rough foreign policy week for Netanyahu is that it’s been a good week for others. President Reuven Rivlin – with whom Netanyahu has a famously contentious relationship – traveled with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi to Germany, Austria and France to warn about Netanyahu’s pet issue, the Iranian threat, and speak out against the International Criminal Court investigation of Israel. Meanwhile, Ashkenazi was in Moscow, for a successful meeting with his Russian counterpart.
With Netanyahu serving as foreign minister in 2015-2019, followed by Israel Katz, who had little enthusiasm for the role, the prime minister almost single-handedly ran the country’s foreign affairs. That made it easy for Netanyahu to say that he is the only one in the political field to have any international stature, and that only he can maintain Israel’s standing.
But other people – even if they’re not running in this election – are showing that Netanyahu is not really the only person who can advance Israel internationally.
Despite all of these factors weakening Netanyahu’s ability to campaign on foreign policy in the past few days, it’s hard to say that they’ll have a dent in the final election result. This really isn’t a foreign policy election. It’s the coronavirus election; it’s another yes-Bibi no-Bibi election. But Netanyahu is now more vulnerable in the final stretch of the election in an area where he may have been bulletproof.