Netanyahu is Israel's Master Incrementalist


Netanyahu is Israel's Master Incrementalist

Instinctually pragmatic, conservative and cynical, Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently asserted that any peace in the Middle East must be based on security for Israel.

Relations between Israel and the United States appear seamless under the Trump administration. Washington moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, stopped funding UNRWA, an organization that supports Palestinian refugees, recognized the Golan as part of Israel in March 2019, and has also left UNESCO in criticism of its bias against Israel. The United States has also shuttered the Palestinian mission in Washington and sought to revoke visas and remove Palestinian representatives from Washington. The Trump administration additionally promised to roll out a peace deal after the Israeli elections. The Palestinian Authority has said it won’t work with the United States under these circumstances. Meanwhile the United States has sought to focus on Gaza as well as regional players such as Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They support different factions, with Qatar paying salaries in Hamas-run Gaza, while the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt tend to be closer to the PA in Ramallah. Netanyahu prefers the status quo when it comes to Gaza and the West Bank being divided, rather than having to negotiate with a unified Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu has been a staunch and consistent critic of Iran’s policy in the Middle East. He opposed the Obama administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Iran Deal and his criticism in the United States helped make Israel into an increasingly partisan issue in Congress. The Trump administration, particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been very supportive of Israel’s demands regarding Iran leaving Syria.

If Netanyahu can avoid indictment or find a way to remain prime minister if he is indicted, he will have an unprecedented degree of power as head of Likud and head of government in the coming years. His main challenge is that his instincts are naturally self-limiting. He believes that peace is achieved through strength. But Israel has never been stronger, its defense industry and technology is some of best and most innovative in the world in numerous sectors. The Palestinians are weaker and more divided than in the past, the PA’s president Mahmoud Abbas is aging and it is unclear who will secede him after his fourteen years in power. Yet there is no peace agreement, despite this strength, and Netanyahu has even mentioned annexing parts of the West Bank.

Netanyahu has a regional Middle Eastern vision in which Israel shares interests with southern Arab states, while he sees a creeping Iranian corridor of influence gaining strength across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. While Turkey-Israel relations appear at a historic low, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a constant and harsh critic, Israel enjoys amicable relations with Russia and warm relations with India. Netanyahu now has a chance to fulfill the ideas he sketched out in 1996, weathered by years of experience. He will have to decide if this is the time to finally be less cynical and conservative in his moves.

Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is writing a book on the Middle East after ISIS. Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.

Image: Reuters