Netanyahu casts a shadow over Israeli politics

Lionel Barber is the former editor of the Financial Times. He is the author of “The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times”.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been the subject of countless political obituaries, but Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has always had the last laugh.

The Israeli parliament’s vote on June 13 to oust Netanyahu, or Bibi as he is universally known in Israel, from office may not prove conclusive. The 71-year-old strongman has lost his grip on power with one voice and continues to define Israeli policy.

The eight-party alliance that will form the next Israeli government is left-to-right, secular and religious. He looks and seems unstable. But with its inherent fragility come several notable firsts for the Jewish state.

The new government includes the first religious Sabbath-keeping Jew to rule the country, the first to share power with an Arab-Israeli Islamist party, and the first prime minister – Naftali Bennett, a former special forces soldier turned multimillionaire – to become the first minister minister with only six seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

What unites this rainbow coalition is its hostility to Netanyahu, who was prime minister for 15 years, the last 12 without interruption. It is a testimony to the political toxicity of man and to a formidable heritage.

For his detractors, Netanyahu is a ruthless operator ready to trample democratic institutions and a free press in order to stay in power, lately adopting all the tricks of the book to escape accusations of bribery and corruption. In the end, they say, he lacked the courage to take on the Israeli settlers determined to seize disputed territory from the Palestinians. He must therefore share the responsibility for the failure of a lasting peace in the Middle East between Arabs and Jews.

There is, however, another side of the story that makes Netanyahu the driving force behind the creation of the modern Israeli state. Under his leadership, Israel has grown into a major regional power, earning the respect of leaders from Chinese Xi Jinping to Russian Vladimir Putin.

Netanyahu was the guarantor of Israeli security in a hostile neighborhood. He held on as a civil war in Syria raged across the border. He clashed with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and confronted Iran itself as a new regional power following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

At home, after the Second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, when Israeli citizens were at daily risk of suicide bombings, Netanyahu oversaw the construction of a security fence near the Green Line separating Israel and the West Bank. The fence copied a similar wall around Gaza. Although controversial, he canceled the national terrorist threat.

Israel’s West Bank Wall, pictured in July 2014, is a separation barrier along the Green Line. © NurPhoto / Getty Images

Less well known is that Netanyahu, when he was finance minister and later prime minister, helped modernize the Israeli economy, championing the creation of world-class technology companies, many of which originated in the IDF.

Israel’s vibrant tech sector has attracted interest from Xi and Putin, as well as US intelligence agencies concerned about the risk of technology transfer. It also served as a wake-up call to Arab states whose oil-rich economies remain one-dimensional relics of the mid-20th century.

The digital revolution, as much as the frustration with the Palestinian leadership and concern over Shia Iran, explains the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Sunni Arab states, led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It may be premature to speak of a regional realignment, but it signals a shift from the Arab position challenging the legitimacy of the Israeli state.

The recent explosion of violence in the West Bank, coupled with multiple rocket attacks on Jerusalem, does not fundamentally change this strategic equation. Nonetheless, it is a warning that Israel’s security dilemma remains acute.

For Israeli citizens, the violent clashes between Arab-Israeli citizens and Jews were the most shocking, though the hail of rockets from Hamas forces in Gaza came just behind. Most have been stopped by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, but the missile threat remains. And not just the occupied territories but also neighboring Lebanon, Syria and, longer term, Iran.

The IDF’s assessment of its operation in Gaza remains positive: the destruction of 100 km of underground tunnels used by Hamas, the targeting of a number of mid-level Hamas commandos, including those with expertise in cyber, bomb making and missile production; and a global tally of more than 250 members of the Hamas militia, at the cost of the life of an Israel Defense Forces soldier.

Yet these grim statistics fail to take into account long-term trends that are not necessarily in Israel’s favor. Some Israeli politicians and commentators have argued that the demographics point to a growing Arab population and a future binational state, although the respective Palestinian and Jewish fertility rates and their implications remain disputed.

Netanyahu’s cruelty, his determination to deal from a position of strength, managed to postpone the day of judgment. He could always say that the Palestinians were not credible interlocutors. Since Yassir Arafat, leaders have always succumbed to the illusion that there was a better deal in sight.

Perhaps the next generation of Palestinian leadership will be a little smarter. The other potential change is that right-wing Israeli Jewish parties have agreed to serve in a government of national unity that includes an Arab-Israeli Islamist party.

With this broken taboo, there is a chance to improve relations between Arab Israelis and Jews, and maybe just with the Palestinians themselves, as Tom Friedman of the New York Times wrote.

Netanyahu’s exit therefore creates a narrow window for diplomacy. Whether the still suspicious Israelis, Arabs or the United States seize the opportunity is another matter.

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