Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is irreplaceable. That is the main, and to a large extent, the only message conveyed by the Likud party and Netanyahu at its head. He, the supposedly experienced leader, is the best-known person in Israel. He meets with world leaders and counts some as friends; he maneuvers between East and West, thereby guaranteeing Israel’s interests. He is also shaping the new Middle East of which the late President Shimon Peres dreamed — without paying the price of territorial concessions in the West Bank and on the Golan Heights that his predecessors were willing to pay. The implicit message is that if he is indicted on charges of bribery and breach of trust, and even if the lengthy legal proceedings against him get underway, Netanyahu is still preferable to all those presuming to replace him.
However, ahead of the April 9 elections, Netanyahu actually appears to be struggling as he seeks to preserve this image. One of his primary stated goals in recent years is an Iranian withdrawal from Syria — not an Iranian troop reduction and not a pullback from areas along Israel’s borders, but a total departure. It is unclear whether he thought he could achieve his goal with the help of his so-called friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or of American pressure. In December 2018, he reportedly rejected a deal that was supposed to result in an American and Iranian troop withdrawal from Syria as a package deal. If the reports are true, his motive is hard to understand. In any case, he failed to avert the announcement by President Donald Trump of a US pullout from Syria, he has been unable to get the Iranians out of there, either, and he has failed to scuttle Russia’s transfer to the Syrian army of anti-aircraft S-300 rockets, which are of great concern to Israel. In light of these severe failures, Netanyahu is having to make do with pathetic leaks about Israeli bombings in Syria, much to the chagrin of Israel’s security agencies that prefer ambiguity about such operations.
Netanyahu had hoped that Trump’s Mideast peace plan would consist of broad autonomy for the Palestinians and generous economic terms without territorial concessions by Israel, the discussion of which would be postponed to a time in the far future. When he realized that the Arab Quartet (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE) was unwilling to accept the Likud’s peace platform (so to say) and that the Trump team’s peace plan would be rather similar to previous proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace, he sought to prevent its presentation to the sides. He was unsuccessful in that too. If, as reported here, the blueprint is indeed unveiled after the elections but before the formation of Israel’s next coalition government, and if Netanyahu is re-elected, the American peace plan could preclude a coalition with his preferred right-wing partners. Netanyahu will have a hard time categorically rejecting Trump’s plan, while his potential right-wing partners won’t accept any positive response to it.
Netanyahu has been preparing for the past 18 months to host a summit of the Visegrad States — the Central European members of the European Union that are distancing themselves from Western-style democracy — even though Israel is not a member of the forum. Netanyahu was eager for the leaders of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to meet and adopt a decision in Israel. However, on Feb. 14 he told reporters during a visit to Warsaw that Poles collaborated with the Nazis. Three days later, his newly appointed, bull-in-a-China shop, acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz said the Poles were suckled on anti-Semitism at their mothers’ breasts. The ensuing firestorm led Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to cancel his participation in the summit, which was then scrapped.
However, Netanyahu was successful on another front, creating one of the most severe crises in relations between Israel and American Jewry despite the fact that he is supposed to know better given his lengthy stay in the United States, of which he was even a citizen at one time. The rift stemmed from Netanyahu’s decision to renege on an arrangement that would have enabled women to pray as equals at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall. It was exacerbated by other events, including the government’s refusal to recognize marriages conducted by Conservative or Reform rabbis, and not even by liberal-Orthodox ones. Netanyahu appears to prefer the support of Christian Evangelists and is willing to risk not just the Democrats’ support of Israel but also that of American Jews.
Worst of all is his attempt to prove that he can make regional peace while bypassing resolution of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Not only because this is a gross misrepresentation of the truth, but also because even if it were possible, Netanyahu knows full well that at issue is not just Israel’s need for peace with its neighbors. He knows that absent an agreed-upon border between Israel and the Palestinians, the demographic imbalance will shift in the Palestinians’ favor and result in a Jewish minority ruling over a Palestinian majority west of the Jordan, and that will be the end of the Jewish democratic state.
Netanyahu is not Naftali Bennett, the head of the New Right party who advocates annexation of Palestinian territory. Netanyahu understands what is at stake. That is why he keeps reiterating his determined rejection of a bi-national state, and that was one of the reasons for his famous 2009 Bar-Ilan speech a decade ago, where he announced support for a two-state solution.
Netanyahu subsequently disavowed this changed perception and has instead focused on showcasing his good ties with Arab states, facilitated by their enmity toward Iran. The way he tells it, every meeting is a precedent, every conversation is a historical event, every handshake or photo op or seat next to an Arab leader are unique Netanyahu achievements. This, too, is smoke and mirrors.
Israel’s opening to the Arab world, beyond long-standing intelligence and defense links, began with the 1991 Madrid Conference on Middle East peace. Then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir felt compelled to participate under pressure from the George H.W. Bush administration. The conference led to multilateral talks on economic and other issues between Israel and 13 Arab states. The talks were slow getting started, but after the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993 and the peace treaty with Jordan a year later, negotiations flowed more freely and regional economic negotiations were added to the mix. The talks were covered widely, generating a sense that a new chapter had begun in the annals of the region. Many Arab states set up offices in Israel, Israel opened a quasi-embassy under the guise of an economic affairs office in the Gulf States and North Africa, and Israeli leaders conducted official visits to those countries.
This all came to a screeching halt when Netanyahu first took office in 1996 and halted implementation of the Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Soon after taking office, he also decided to open the Western Wall tunnels, a controversial move that set off riots in which some 100 Palestinians and Israelis were killed.
Not one of Netanyahu’s actions today is by way of setting a precedent. Anyone who thinks Netanyahu has achieved his goal of regional peace without a deal with the Palestinians should have been disabused of this notion by the former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal. In an important Feb. 13 interview with Israel’s Channel 13 Television, he kept repeating that there would never be normal ties between Israel and the Arab world without Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Netanyahu, after all, is no magician.
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