Netanyahu’s foreign policy is crucial

The Israeli prime minister signed the Abraham Accords while facing internecine battles against home-front forces trying to topple him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as the government approves the peace deal between Israel and the UAE, October 12, 2020 (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as the government approves the peace deal between Israel and the UAE, October 12, 2020
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
In the lead-up to the 1999 Knesset elections, a prominent Arabist friend told me why, in spite of his reputation as being on the Right, he would be voting for a left-wing party.
“Israeli politicians are all the same sh*t when it comes to defense and foreign policy,” he said. “And since I’m a socialist, I’m supporting Meretz or Labor.”
Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s momentous signing of the US-brokered Abraham Accords and simultaneous internecine battles against home-front forces trying to topple him bring this conversation to mind.
In the first place, the elections in question were those that saw a much younger Netanyahu lose – after serving his first three years as the country’s premier – to then-Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. The latter turned out to be a disastrous leader.
His first move was to withdraw Israeli forces hastily from Lebanon like thieves in the night, and then practically begged PLO chief Yasser Arafat to accept major Israeli withdrawals from Judea and Samaria for the establishment of a Palestinian state, naturally to no avail.
The former would end up retaking the reins a decade later and remaining at the helm for longer than any other prime minister in Israel’s history, including David Ben-Gurion.
Whether Barak, like many former generals, had come down with a kind of Stockholm Syndrome that caused him to identify with the ostensibly innocent yearning of Israel’s Palestinian enemies for independent statehood, is not clear. What has become apparent, however, is that his affiliation with the peaceniks who sang “The Internationale” on May Day was a joke.
Indeed, Barak is the third-richest person in Israel, with a net worth of NIS 120 million ($33m.) from real-estate and cannabis investments. For socialists like him, the phrase “workers unite” seems to mean toiling away with fellow Forbes A-list hopefuls.
That he managed to amass his fortune during a short break from politics – returning to the scene in 2005 and later serving as defense minister under former prime minister Ehud Olmert, and subsequently under Netanyahu – has raised a few eyebrows. His clawing to shed himself of his well-earned has-been status in the political arena, however, barely elicits a shrug.
When he formed the “Israel Democratic Party” in the summer of 2019 to challenge Netanyahu in the second round of elections on September 17 (after the first round on April 9 resulted in a coalition stalemate), it did not occur to him that he wouldn’t even make it onto the back benches of the Knesset. Smart enough to merge with Meretz to create a wider “Democratic Union,” he was foolish to think that his number-10 slot was realistic.
The upshot was that the Democratic Union bloc garnered only five seats and disbanded before the third round of elections on March 2 of this year. But Barak’s proverbial homelessness has freed him up to hop from one Israeli TV studio to the next, where he rants and raves, veins a-bulging, against his nemesis, Netanyahu.
His criticism of the prime minister is extensive. It includes, but is not exclusive to, claiming that Bibi is killing the economy with lockdowns on the one hand, and letting citizens die of COVID-19 on the other – both in order to avoid standing trial.
According to Barak and the many thousands of disgruntled “anybody but Bibi” demonstrators who gather each week near the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, Netanyahu “only cares about himself, and does nothing for the country.”
NOW, IT’S true that the pandemic has thrown most world leaders, including Israel’s, for a loop. There is also no question that the constant bickering among ministers and health officials is enough to nauseate even Netanyahu’s greatest champions.
But the assertion that he’s too preoccupied with his personal problems to navigate defense and foreign affairs is simply ludicrous. Despite the spread of coronavirus among IDF soldiers, troops have been carrying out delicate operations along and beyond Israel’s borders, striking Hamas targets in Gaza and Hezbollah and Iranian bases in Syria.
Meanwhile, Bibi has been busy making regional peace deals that were inconceivable a very short time ago. Yes, the “New Middle East” of late Israeli statesman Shimon Peres’s fantasies is unfolding at record speed, thanks to Netanyahu’s tenacity, US President Donald Trump’s backing and Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.
What makes the current peace process different from its predecessors is that it does not depend on Palestinian cooperation. And thank God for that. From the minute that they openly embraced warm relations with the Jewish state a few short weeks ago, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have wasted no time putting their signatures to good use – stunningly, with Saudi Arabia’s tacit approval and other Muslim-majority nations flirting with the possibility of following suit.
It is unfathomable that any of this would have happened without Netanyahu at the steering wheel. Anyone arguing that “Bibi’s not looking out for Israel’s interests” is living in an alternate universe.
This brings me to the second reason that I was reminded of my friend’s pre-electoral comment more than two decades ago. People assumed that he was politically conservative because his work involved exposing the virulently anti-Israel and antisemitic content of Arabic-language periodicals in various Middle Eastern countries.
The idea that a member of the Left would do such a thing, when it might affect attitudes about the prospects for peace between Israel and its neighbors, was implausible. My friend didn’t see it that way.
His sense of Israeli politicians as being indistinguishable from one another where waging war and making peace were concerned meant that they all took Arab hostility for granted, and dealt with it accordingly, regardless of their party affiliations.
It is amazing to consider how different the Middle East has become on this score since Trump took office in January 2017, and began to promote an anti-Iran alliance in the Arab world.
To his credit, his administration grasped and acted upon Netanyahu’s rejection of the failed “land for peace” formula with the Palestinian Authority, in favor of forging broader regional ties and inducing Ramallah to get with the program or be left behind.
The Arab press is beginning to reflect the shift in perspective toward Israel. It certainly is expressing exasperation with the Palestinian Authority. It feels like a miracle, but it’s actually a vindication of Netanyahu’s long-standing doctrine.
So, no, Israeli politicians are not “all the same sh*t when it comes to defense and foreign policy.”
Nor are those two realms disconnected from domestic concerns. On the contrary, prosperity brings peace and peace brings prosperity, as the name of Trump’s plan suggests.
Netanyahu reiterated this point on Wednesday, during a digital international symposium on the Abraham Accords, hosted jointly by the Kohelet Policy Forum, Shiloh Forum and the Israel Hayom daily.
“We can already see the [economic] fruits of this peace,” he told the virtual gathering of prominent figures from home and abroad, among them US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and US Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz.
“Just recently, the Haifa Port welcomed its first-ever Dubai merchant vessel, [which means that] we have a new trade route from Israel and the UAE [that] will bring Israel better and cheaper products.”
In addition, he said, “The skies are now open over Saudi Arabia and Jordan. All planes, including Israeli aircraft, have overflight rights back and forth. Israeli planes can now fly through that path eastward to India, Asia and, of course, to the Gulf states.”
Meanwhile, he continued, “The second-largest energy company, Chevron, has entered Israel, and this is no coincidence. It has internalized the change that has taken place here. It will help us extract the natural gas from the sea, and this will allow the Israeli treasury – the people of Israel – to rake in tens of billions, perhaps even hundreds of billions, of shekels.”
We Israelis are in a state of collective and individual malaise these days, due to COVID-19 morbidity and accompanying financial ills. But we must not let this condition immunize us to the enormity of the hour, or to the fact that foreign policy matters.