One wonders if Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a Trekkie. If not, it would be much harder to explain the recent decisions by the Israeli premier. Since Netanyahu’s resumption of power over four years ago, he’s embraced a two-state solution, frozen settlement construction, avoided military entanglements, negotiated with terrorist groups, and unconditionally released murderers from prison. In doing so, he’s been outflanked to the right by Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, and overrun in his own party by younger, less experienced politicians who criticize his every move. Some suggest this Likud prince is undergoing a similar conversion as his predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Has Bibi, Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister, who recently presided over Israel’s longest-serving government in over three decades, gone soft?
Far from it.
As the steady hand captaining the Israeli ship of state, Netanyahu is merely obeying, to appropriate Star Trek terminology, Israel’s Prime Directive: Do nothing that interferes with stopping an Iranian nuclear bomb. In Star Trek, the Prime Directive is the Federation’s guiding order and principle, forbidding Captain Kirk and his crew from interfering with the domestic cultures and jurisdiction of any planetary social system. Everything else is subordinated to and flows from General Order Number 1. During a recent visit by Chairman of the JCS General Martin Dempsey, Netanyahu explained that despite the many regional threats, “one dwarfs everything else, and that is the threat that Iran gets nuclear weapons.” In his quest to prevent a nuclear Iran, Bibi is making concessions that seemed unthinkable only a few years ago.
Dealt an American president who places greater priority on the creation of a Palestinian state than on preventing a nuclear theocracy in Iran, Netanyahu has risked his political future with his base in order to avoid a rupture with an American administration he believes he’ll need when D-Day—the day when Israel takes military action against Iran—arrives. Despite campaigning against the concept of a two-state solution, he announced his support for a Palestinian state, albeit with a number of caveats. Despite being seen as a leader of the settlement movement, he declared a unilateral, ten-month settlement moratorium, again with some exceptions, in order to defuse a crisis with the Obama administration and lure the rejectionist Palestinians back to the negotiating table. In a speech to Congress, he publicly acknowledged that “some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders,” a volte-face from his opposition to the Oslo Accords, the Gaza disengagement, and withdrawal from southern Lebanon. In a letter to the Israeli public this July, he justified the renewed diplomatic process as important “in order to establish Israel’s position in the complex international reality around us.”
Most shockingly, Netanyahu has even rewarded terror in order to adhere to the Prime Directive. In late 2011, he negotiated with Hamas and exchanged over one thousand Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier. Most recently, he even agreed to an unconditional release of convicted Palestinian murderers, including one who butchered a Holocaust survivor. Although only 26 of the projected 104 have been released, the Israeli Cabinet agreed to include Arabs who have Israeli citizenship in a future batch, a nod that the Palestinian Authority had some jurisdiction over nearly 20 percent of Israel’s population. Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, no dove and perhaps a future Israeli prime minister, suggested that “strategic considerations” lay behind the release, perhaps in an allusion to the Prime Directive. By removing a possible pressure point—an Israeli hostage—from Iranian retaliation and handing Obama and Kerry a diplomatic victory in the restart of peace talks, Netanyahu is striving to keep the American eye on the real game at hand: Iran.
Netanyahu has also been extremely cautious with the use of force, concerned that it could complicate the mission to stop the Iranian bomb. Despite massive popular support for dealing a harsher blow to Hamas during Operation Pillar of Defense last November, Netanyahu declined to launch a ground invasion, concerned that it could cause Egypt, then led by the Muslim Brotherhood, to abrogate the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Such a development could have doomed any American, coalition, or Israeli strike against Iran. Similarly, despite the sporadic Syrian shelling of the Israeli-held Golan Heights and the occasional rockets from Lebanon, Netanyahu has avoided taking on the Assad regime directly. Instead, Israel has limited itself to a proportional response to the border fire and targeted airstrikes against potentially game-changing weaponry, on which it refuses to comment on. He has sought to keep Israel out of any war that would impair its ability, diplomatically or militarily, to delay, degrade or defeat the Iranian nuclear challenge.
The Prime Directive also explains Netanyahu’s surprise “apology” last March, in President Obama’s presence, to Turkish premier Erdogan over the Gaza flotilla incident. Although a UN commission report essentially exonerated Israel’s action during the 2010 maritime raid and knowing that it was unlikely Turkish-Israeli relations would return to what they once were, Bibi swallowed hard and made sure that Obama did not leave Israel without a deliverable, as no progress had been made on the Palestinian front. While Turkey has yet to normalize ties with Israel and Erdogan’s farcical anti-Semitism is reaching a fever pitch—billboards in Turkey depicted the Mavi Marmara bookended by a diminutive Netanyahu and a radiant Erdogan—Netanyahu dimmed a regional tension, handed Obama a tactful accomplishment, and removed an immediate point of commonality between the Islamist regimes in Ankara and Tehran.
As an organizing concept, the Israeli Prime Directive has been fairly successful. Public tension with the Obama administration over settlements and peace talks has faded to the background. Meanwhile, the United States has enacted stringent sanctions against Iran and dramatically increased its funding of various Israeli missile defense systems, essential in the home front defense in day after scenarios of a strike. Furthermore, it has avoided being drawn into either the Egyptian or Syrian predicaments, and rocket attacks from Gaza are at historic lows. Netanyahu has made a series of tactical concessions in order to face the greater strategic imperative of a nuclear Iran.
As D-Day approaches, Netanyahu’s strategic dictum will be put to the ultimate test. Will the Obama administration defend and strengthen Israel, whether at the UN, among wobbly European allies and two-faced Arab ones, or on the day after an Israeli strike? Will Netanyahu’s attempt to defuse the Palestinian issue buy enough breathing space for Jordan, Egypt and the other conservative Arab states that fear Iran to give tacit support to Israeli actions? In the months to come, Netanyahu could yet make additional once-inconceivable concessions if he believes it would ease Israel’s ability to preempt Iranian nuclear progress.
“A starship captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive,” Captain Kirk once said. Netanyahu may also be mortgaging his political life to achieve the one thing that matters to him most: stopping the Iranian bomb.
Gabriel Scheinmann is a PhD student at Georgetown University and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, Inc.