Netanyahu's Israel: Strategic Fatalism and Disaster

On the road to his inevitable re-election, Benjamin Netanyahu has pursued a policy that politically isolates Israel further and ends hopes for a two-state solution. It will be the Israeli Prime Minister, not the surrounding Arab states, who threatens the very existence of the state itself.

Although putting together a ruling coalition will take some time, Benjamin Netanyahu is set to be re-elected today as Israel's prime minister; the only question mark is the composition of his coalition. But the man who campaigned on the slogan of a 'strong premier for a strong country' and who already has the satisfaction of being the second longest-serving Israeli leader since David Ben Gurion, the country's founder, will be remembered by history in quite a different personage: as someone who led his country to a disaster of catastrophic proportions.

For the first time in decades, the danger that the Jewish state will disappear is now privately discussed by military planners and politicians - including US ones - and the chief culprit for this doom is none other than 'Bibi', as he likes to be called, a man of big words but small vision.

Chilly Regional Winds

It is impossible to over-estimate the grave strategic challenges already facing Israel. In an age when Middle Eastern public opinion suddenly matters, the one thing certain to galvanise Arabs is deep loathing of the Jewish state. It does not matter that Israel is not the reason for the Arab world's social and economic ills.

Nor does it matter that various Arab leaders are cynically exploiting anti-Israeli sentiments. For the reality is that, 66 years after its creation, Israel is still regarded as an alien body in the Middle East and no Israeli government, NGO or broader international Jewish organisation has ever succeeded in engaging with the 'Arab street'.

As a result - and depressingly - younger Arabs now reject Israel even more than their predecessor generations. And, as the Gaza conflict in late 2012 indicated, hatred of Israel is the only issue on which both Shias and Sunni Muslims unite: Shia Iran supplied the Gaza militants with their rockets, while Sunni Qatar and Egypt provided the money. Only Israel could have achieved such a cross-confessional alliance in the Muslim world.

Neighbours and Old Peace Treaties

Be that as it may, most Israelis remain supremely uninterested in what they neighbours think or do: they are content to continue their 'villa-in-the-jungle' existence, enjoying life in a land of plenty surrounded by violence and squalor, importing labourers from Thailand, Mongolia or Moldavia, rather than giving jobs to poverty-stricken Arabs who live in their midst and who, ultimately, affect their security.

However, this is becoming less feasible. The occupied territories remain a tinderbox; as Israel's own intelligence services have warned, it may now be only a matter of months before the Palestinians launch another rebellion, the third Intifada. Mr Netanyahu evidently thinks that he can weather this challenge; the Israeli military has been training for this eventuality for months. But the consequences of a new intifada in the age of the Arab Spring and with the explosion in media outlets and public expression habits will be very different than the previous two Palestinian rebellions.  

Egypt and Jordan continue upholding their separate peace treaties with Israel; however, a new Intifada will put a huge pressure on both of Israel's key neighbours to sever their formal links with the Jewish state; Egyptian president Morsi could put the peace treaty with Israel to a popular referendum, and get a national mandate for cutting off links with Israel, the kind of mandate which the US will be unable - or perhaps even unwilling - to question. Either way, the result will be that the 40-years' lull since Israel last engaged in a state-to-state confrontation with its neighbours could come to an end. This does not mean than inter-state wars will erupt. But it does mean that Israel would have come around full circle to the strategic position it had half a century ago: surrounded by enemy countries and obliged to deploy its regular troops in all directions.

Meanwhile, regardless of how the confrontation with Iran develops, Israel will face some existential choices. A military strike on Iran's nuclear installations will unleash years of small proxy wars in the Middle East, as well as exposing Israel's own population to retaliatory attacks from Iran. But if Iran ultimately succeeds in becoming a nuclear power, Israel will have to contend with a new regional arms race in which the Jewish state's military superiority can no longer be taken for granted.

No Serious Political Debate

Given such awful scenarios, the expectation was that Israel's general elections would be dominated by debates about strategic options. Far from it: both prime minister Netanyahu and his opponents said next to nothing about the shifting regional landscape or relations with the Palestinians. Surprisingly, even the Iranian nuclear threat - hitherto Mr Netanyahu's signature tune - got no airing during the campaign.

Electoral tactics provide one explanation for this surprising silence. Mr Netanyahu's centre-left opponents chose to concentrate on bread-and-butter issues where they believed the government to be vulnerable, rather than on strategic concerns where the prime minister is perceived to be strong. That was a dubious proposition which, as the election results today will indicate, is likely to end in electoral failure. But it was also a symptom of a divided, rudderless centre-left opposition, of a group of parties which once led Israel along the path of a Western-style democracy, but which have now completely lost their bearings.

But a deeper explanation for the absence of a proper debate during the electoral campaign is that, just as the Arab Spring radicalised public opinion in the Arab world, it also radicalised opinion in Israel. For, as recent opinion polls indicate, much of the Israeli public now appears to have concluded that the best policy their country can follow is to have no policy, to just sit it out. The so-called 'Peace Index' compiled by researchers at Tel Aviv University earlier this month showed that 67 per cent of all Israeli Jews believe that the lack of peace in their region 'has nothing to do with Israel', and that 'there is no chance of progress in the foreseeable future'. The day when Israelis were happy to discuss peace settlements appears to be over.

Mr Netanyahu knew how to capitalise on this sentiment by combining the language of a bully with the action of a mouse: his frequent blood-curdling military threats to Iran were calculated to sustain the macho rhetoric which is so much part of Israel's psyche, but at the same time he alarmed few voters, because he took no action.  The result is an eerie atmosphere which permeates Israel today: the nation considers itself as living under a tight siege, but at the same time is persuaded that there is nothing which it should or could do to change the situation.

This curious mood, akin to a sort of strategic fatalism, is best illustrated in the 'achievements' which Netanyahu listed during the election campaign. He takes pride in the construction of Iron Dome missile defence systems which intercept rockets, the erection of electrified fences around Israel's borders to keep infiltrators out, and the occasional targeted assassination of people Israel does not like. In short, Netanyahu's chief accomplishment is to provide the necessary props for Israel's total regional isolation.

Killing Off the Two-State Option

Many Israelis are attracted to Netanyahu's strategic fatalism not because they believe it to be durable, but because they assume that this gains Israel time, and still allows for a peace settlement with Arab neighbours at some future date. But that's not what Netanyahu and his coalition allies have in mind: they want to use this period to kill, once and for all, the idea of a two-state solution in which both Israel and the Palestinians have their separate states.

The rising star of these Israeli elections is Naftali Bennett, a dot-com millionaire whose party wants to annex 60 per cent of the occupied Palestinian land without granting citizenship to any of its residents. The next Israeli government is almost certain to include Mr Bennett and his ilk; the last ministers identified with the two-state solution inside Mr Netanyahu's own party will be leaving the cabinet. Indeed, the promise to create a Palestinian state is not even mentioned in Mr Netanyahu's current electoral manifesto.

Officially, the Israeli prime minister remains committed to a two-state solution, as he promised in a speech made back in 2009. But Mr Netanyahu's real objective is to expand Jewish settlements on occupied territories until an independent Palestinian state is no longer viable; Palestinians will be huddled into 'native reservations', allowed 'complete autonomy' - as Mr Netanyahu's supporters often call it - just like some prized zoo beast can roam freely within its cage.  

This approach is almost identical to the policies which South Africa pursued during the Apartheid regime: seize the lands and huddle their inhabitants into 'Bantustans', postage stamp-size enclaves where they remain powerless. In South Africa's case that resulted in the end of that country's democracy, and a vicious civil war; the same awaits Israel. And Israel's isolation is now complete: at last year's UN General Assembly vote on granting Palestine a special legal status in the international organisation, only 7 states in the world voted with Israel, and this included two island archipelagos in the Pacific which only sided with Israel because they could not withstand US pressure. That is the real extent of Israel's diplomatic isolation.

'Standing Up' to the US?

The question is whether the US, the ally which Mr Netanyahu always seems to take for granted, will tolerate such a policy. Mr Obama's disdain for the Israeli premier is out in the open: 'Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel's survival; Israel's own behaviour poses a long-term one' is what the US president appears to have said, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, an American columnist often used by the White House as its unofficial spokesman. Mr Obama's appointment of senators John Kerry at the State Department and Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon are also clear warnings that US patience with Israel is wearing thin.

Still, Mr Obama has no more than two years to put pressure on Mr Netanyahu before the US president becomes a lame duck. And Mr Netanyahu will try to waste these two years by either continuing to prevaricate, or by trying to shift US attention to Iran. It is virtually certain that, the moment his coalition is complete, Mr Netanyahu will re-launch his charm offensive in the US, claiming to be closely aligned to the Administration but at the same time sabotaging every step taken by Washington in the Middle East.

There are a few people in Israel who realise how risky this is. 'We must not lose the support of the United States', Israeli president Shimon Peres warned recently. 'What gives Israel bargaining power in the international arena is the support of the United States.... If Israel were to stand alone, its enemies would swallow it up'.

Sadly, Mr Peres has no power; he is the ceremonial head of a nation now ruled by a prime minister who seems bent on walking over the cliff.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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