Netanyahu has driven Israel forward on the basis of a coherent strategic worldview and improved Israel’s fortunes.
No one yet knows whether the current police investigations will land Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in court or bring about a change in government. But what is intolerable is the false narrative of diplomatic delinquency that is being hurled at Netanyahu, in complete contradiction to the historical record.
Day and night, opposition critics and left-wing ex-security types attack Netanyahu for “doing nothing.” They assail his decade-long leadership as having “achieved nothing” and especially for having “missed opportunities for peace.” They claim that Netanyahu has left Israel “isolated.” They say that he is driven only by personal calculations, or alternatively, by messianic ideologies – and is thus incapable of protecting Israel’s interests.
Such criticism stems from a misreading of Israel’s strategic situation, and belies a total unwillingness to consider Netanyahu’s intelligent long-term strategy for securing Israel’s security and global standing. This is unfortunate, because an honest look at Netanyahu’s record suggests significant strategic accomplishment.
AS PRIME MINISTER, Netanyahu has been confronted by the following questions: How does Israel steer clear of Arab civilizational chaos while defending its borders in an extremely unstable and unpredictable security environment?
How does Israel prevent runaway Palestinian statehood; the emergence of a radical state that prolongs and exacerbates conflict with Israel instead of ending it?
How should Israel handle an impatient world community that has gotten into the habit of punishing Israel for the absence of currently-unrealistic diplomatic progress with the Palestinians?
And how does Israel stymie the rise of Iranian regional hegemony and prevent its development of nuclear weapons?
Netanyahu’s approach to these challenges can summarized thus: Apply caution alongside creativity. Navigate warily, yet maneuver innovatively.
Netanyahu has sought to ride out the Mideast storms by strictly securing Israel’s borders; by refraining as much as possible from bloody wars; by seeking out and securing new security and diplomatic alliances; and by forestalling grandiose and dicey diplomatic experiments in Israel’s heartland. At the same time, he has kept all Israel’s options open, while ensuring domestic government stability and the growth of Israel’s economy.
Wise and important actors around the world have, in fact, come to accept central Netanyahu’s strategic platform: the assertion that the main game in the region is no longer Israel versus the Palestinians or Israel versus the Arabs. Instead, the main basis for defense and diplomatic activity in the Middle East is an unofficial alliance between Israel and most of the Arabs (together with Western powers), against the Iranians and the jihadis. It’s the forces of stability and moderation, against the forces of violent and radical Islamic revolution.
Wise and important actors around the world have, in fact, come to appreciate Netanyahu as one of the free world’s finest statesmen. From China, India, Russia and Africa, in addition to North America and even Europe, they are beating a path to Netanyahu’s doorstep in Jerusalem seeking opportunities to cooperate with Israel, not to isolate her. Behind the scenes, Israel’s relations with Egypt and key Gulf states have never been better, according to all reports.
So there is an Israeli “grand strategy” of sorts, and it has been largely successful. It involves steadfastness, patience, and looking over the horizon. It involves being both flexible and firm. It involves positioning Israel as an anchor of sanity and a source of ingenuity. For many years, it involved bobbing and weaving around then-US President Barack Obama in order to keep America on Israel’s side.
Alas, there is a big chink in this contention and in Israel’s armor, which is the growing power of Iran and its allies (Hezbollah and Hamas) on Israel’s borders. Netanyahu was unable to stop Obama’s terrible deal with the mullahs of Teheran, and as a result Iran is more belligerently adventurous than ever. Israel’s account with Iran, and with those in Washington and the West that continue to pump for Iran, remains open.
MANY IN LIBERAL circles will acknowledge Netanyahu’s acumen in advancing a broad strategic vision, but find it awkward to defend his policy towards the Palestinians. They fail to understand that the Israeli public elected Netanyahu largely in order to put a brake on the failed Oslo process. Netanyahu represents a majority of Israelis who felt that that the repercussions of breakdown in a bad peace process were incalculably less worse than its continuation.
It’s obvious that the Palestinians have been radicalized, and suffer from chronic leadership deficit. Their cloying victimhood clogs their ability to think straight. No Palestinians truly accept Israel’s deep historical and religious rights in the Land of Israel. Gaza seems permanently locked in the jaws of Hamas, and Islamists would capture the West Bank, too, if the IDF halted its nightly raids into Hebron and Nablus. This makes neat territorial deals and grand treaties of reconciliation with the Palestinians nearly impossible, and adds to the long-term fragility of Israel’s frontiers.
So Netanyahu’s go-slow posture in relation to the Palestinians makes a lot of sense. Anyway, the “Palestinian problem” has been marginalized as a priority issue for Middle East Arab leaders. In relative terms, and viewed in broader context, Palestinian nationalism is one of the more controllable problems that Israel faces. The frictions can and are being managed.
Beyond this, Netanyahu is essentially making an additional argument on Israel’s behalf: That Israel should be judged on its many successes (in promoting regional stability, and in immigrant absorption, education, democracy, human rights, hi-tech, bio-tech and cyber-tech, etc.), rather than its failures in peacemaking with intransigent adversaries.
Evelyn Gordon wrote last year in Mosaic that when Israel’s left-wing politicians “encourage the world to judge Israel on its peacemaking credentials rather than on the myriad positive goods Israel provides, they invite the perverse and false conclusion that the Jewish state has been a failure rather than a resounding success.”
“Peace is obviously desirable, but Israel doesn’t exist to achieve peace. It exists to create a thriving Jewish state in the Jewish people’s historic homeland” and by extension to contribute to the world in numerous ways. Israel is doing so famously.
An overwhelming majority of Israelis ascribes the last decade of stability and triumph to Binyamin Netanyahu’s leadership. He may not be the ultimate paragon of virtue; what politician is? But his prudence and professionalism have best served Israel’s strategic needs.
Netanyahu has not been “just playing petty politics in order to survive,” nor has he mainly spent his time monkeying with the media or smoking cigars and drinking champagne. He has driven Israel forward on the basis of a coherent strategic worldview and improved Israel’s fortunes.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.