Binyamin Netanyahu has few admirers among America’s foreign policy elite. Predictably, “Bibi”s recent UN speech—in which Netanyahu hammered home his favorite comparisons between Hamas, Iran, ISIS and the Nazis—was widely panned as crude. But the constant denigration of Netanyahu’s style obscures what may seem a surprising observation: that Netanyahu is a statesman of elite capacities, with an established track record of managing his political surroundings with expert deftness, and who moreover is executing a potentially transformational strategic vision.
Reconsider that UN speech. Certainly, the nationalist-islamist character of Hamas contrasts with IS’s global jihadist brand, and there are obvious problems with Netanyahu’s likening of Sunni IS to Shi’ite Iran (not to mention the Nazi’s). So foreign policy’s “twitterati” are correct that Netanyahu’s speech might not pass muster as a thesis in Middle Eastern Studies.
But fortunately for Netanyahu, his intended audience is not comprised of college profs and pundits. Who was Netanyahu talking to? The safe bet is Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. That is, Netanyahu’s speech was directed in its entirety at his newfound Arab allies, both in the speech’s negative aspect of attacking Iran and Hamas, and in its positive aspect of inviting Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Once placed in this context, Netanyahu’s speech appears ingeniously crafted. After all, from Al-Sisi’s perspective, associating Hamas with ISIS mirrors Egypt’s own rhetoric concerning the Muslim Brotherhood, the pater familias of Hamas’ political family. And to King Abdullah, Netanyahu’s likening of Iran to ISIS will, if anything seem insulting to the Sunni Jihadists.
Which illustrates Netanyahu’s most impressive and under-emphasized achievement as an Israeli statesman: to securely root support for the Jewish state in the most unlikely context of all—the very halls of Arab power.
Consider the overarching existential goal of the Zionist project since its inception: to establish a permanent Jewish presence in the Middle East, a state among states, a power among powers—a Jewish wielder of sovereignty, no more or less constrained to act in its interests than other nation-states. But Israel has perennially faced a dilemma in achieving this aim: a region of Arab states who see it as foreign bacillus, to be scorned if not expelled. In this context, Netanyahu’s policies have brought Israel a significant step closer to solving its founding dilemma.
Netanyahu’s policies stand in particularly stark relief when contrasted with Israel’s traditional approach to the Middle East. Pioneered by Israel’s early leaders—Ben Gurion prominent among them—Israel has long pursued a so-called “peripheral strategy”: an alliance with the Middle East’s outlying non-Arab states (think Turkey, the Shah) that can be convinced to work with Israel in order to counterbalance the region’s dominant Arab states. Relying on such far-flung and widely reviled partners has always had its limits. But ever since Turkey and Iran decisively turned against Israel, the “peripheral strategy” has in effect been dead weight.
In contrast, Netanyahu’s regional vision can be summed up as Israel’s “central strategy”. Supplanting Israel’s reliance on remote Middle Eastern powers, Netanyahu has associated Israel with the Middle East’s core powers like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu has realized that to these Arab states—who face a region infinitely fraught with conflict and danger, ranging from Shi’ite competitors to marauding Jihadists—Israel stands out as a power of unparalleled strength and stability, whose resources, moreover, are largely untapped. Thus Netanyahu has enticed Arab states to view Israel in a new light: as a potential partner, a resource to be exploited, as opposed to an alien body to be expunged.
The centerpiece of Netanyahu’s “central strategy” has been his sound pessimisim concerning the prospects of the Arab Spring. At the same time that the Obama administration was speaking about “standing on the right side of history”, Netanyahu presciently mentioned “tremors shaking the region from Gibraltar to the Khyber pass” and a looming “Islamist winter”. While the President spoke of hope and American values, Netanyahu went out of its way to caution against any rash optimism. As often with Netanyahu, this rhetoric was singularly poorly received in Western intellectual circles. But one can safely bet that the opposite was true for the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
Paradoxically, Netanyahu’s strategic courting of Arab states has also included his periodic defiance of the Obama administration. To understand Netanyahu’s relations with the Obama administration, it is important to reflect on the fact that among America’s allies, the Sunni Arab powers have been especially aggrieved by Obama’s policies, in particular the grand bargain-style rapprochement with Iran. Accordingly, Netanyahu knows that in exactly as much as Israel stands up to Obama, it stands out to Arab leaders as a potential regional partner—an influential voice in the American Congress, moreover, that might help Arab states in their anti-Iranian and anti-Islamist efforts.
Of course, Netanyahu’s regional strategy begs the question of the peace process. But here, too, Netanyahu has acted more prudently than most observers are willing to acknowledge. Netanyahu knows that even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not ultimately irresolvable, on the short term any Israeli action in the West Bank will come at immense costs, especially by complicating Israel’s domestic politics and Netanyahu’s security legacy. Just consider the Middle East’s recent “Hezbollahfication.” While in the past terrorist outfits were military amateurs aimed at high-profile attacks on civilians, more recently these groups have followed Hezbollah’s example of developing impressive ground capacities. This allows militant jihadist organizations to hold ground and threaten adjoining territories. In this “Hezbollahfied” context, any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would be hazardous, not to mention that it occur in a context where Israel already borders Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusra on the Golan, Hamas in Gaza, and Ansar Beit al Maqdis in the Sinai. In other words: an Israeli withdrawal is unlikely to happen, and Netanyahu realizes it’s best not to antagonize domestic supporters for aims that are bound to remain elusive, diplomatic costs notwithstanding.
To be sure, Netanyahu’s Israel faces a complicated future ahead, replete with challenges both military and diplomatic. Clearly Netanyahu’s policies could not hope to resolve these various challenges in one move. But Netanyahu’s prudence lies in the realization that, in a region where murderous Shi’ite and Sunni extremists face off in desolate moonscapes and bombed-out cities, Israel stands strongest when surrounded by friendly powers. Should Netanyahu permanently secure Israel’s place in such a “central” Middle Eastern alliance, this would be an achievement worthy of one of Israel’s greatest prime ministers.