Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also known as “Bibi,” has occasionally been placed on the list of “populist” leaders who have mobilized the support of their economically distressed and culturally marginalized population against the ruling “globalist elites,” supposedly representing the forgotten people who adhere to traditional values, unlike the secular, Westernized population that feels more at home in New York and London than in the small towns of their own countries.
India's Narendra Modi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Poland’s Lech Kaczyński, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have personified this kind of populism through their political careers and conduct, their commitment to religious values, their yearnings for mythical pasts, and their rejection of contemporary liberal values, particularly multiculturalism, gay rights, and secularism, if not the entire Enlightenment.
But that isn’t Bibi, who is a proud resident of the “state of Tel Aviv,” the cosmopolitan urban area stretching from Tel Aviv to Haifa that members of the country’s intelligentsia and high-tech industry call their home. Indeed, Bibi is a millionaire who lives in the affluent suburb of Caesarea.
Raised in the United States, Netanyahu graduated from MIT, speaks fluent American English, and prefers to schmooze with his buddies in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor and Silicon Valley rather than with the lower-middle-class “Mizrahim” (immigrants from Arab countries) who reside in the social-economic peripheries of Israel and constitute the electoral base of his Likud Party.
The thrice-married Netanyahu rarely visits a synagogue and has been accused of consuming non-kosher food, entangling him in the “pig-gate” and “shrimp-gate” scandals. Bibi probably feels the same way about the ultra-Orthodox who help provide him with a majority of votes in the Knesset as former President Donald Trump does when it comes to his Evangelical Christian supporters: disdain.
If the longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history is indeed a populist, he has yet to declare his break with the free-market gospel like former British prime minister Boris Johnson or introduce a new economic nationalist agenda a la Trumpism.
All of which raises questions about the notion that Netanyahu hopes his new coalition government—which includes radical ethnoreligious and homophobic politicians, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Khanna, and the far-right politician Bezalel Smotrich, as well as the leading Haredi parties—will turn Israel into a Jewish replica of theocratic Iran. Nominating a proclaimed Mizrahi gay, Meir Ohana, who is married to a man and is raising two kids, as the chairman of the Knesset, is clearly not a sign that the new government intends to persecute members of the LGBTQ community. In fact, much of the controversial legislation proposed by the religious parties is unlikely to win support from the mostly secular Likud lawmakers.
As in the case of Trump and Johnson, Netanyahu’s rebirth as a populist and his partnership with political figures who are considered to be beyond the pale reflects his opportunism.
It’s not a secret that Bibi would have preferred to form a coalition with the leaders of two centrist parties, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz. But they refused to join a government led by a politician who is standing for a criminal trial, accused of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Partnering with two far-right activists was the only way open for Bibi to become prime minister.
But Netanyahu believes that, trial or no trial, with Itamar Ben Gvir or with Gantz, his mission in life remains to save Israel and the Jewish people from the global forces standing against them and aiming at their destruction. A radical Islamist Iran planning to drop a nuclear bomb on Israel. Tehran’s Hezbollah allies, who intend to launch thousands of rockets into Tel Aviv. A Palestinian leadership that would never agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Europeans who appease these modern-day Hitlers and the Democrats who want to engage with them.
Recognizing that President Joe Biden and his aides will not give him a green light to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, and may even try to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, Netanyahu believes that the only way to change the status quo and force the Americans and the West to confront the Islamic Republic before it is too late is to form a diplomatic and military front with Saudi Arabia and its Arab-Sunni allies. According to press reports, Netanyahu has met in the past with Saudi crown prince and prime minister Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and discussed the potential for cooperation between the Saudis and the Israeli in containing the shared Iranian threat.
The hope in Jerusalem has been that in addition to facilitating trade and investment, the so-called Abraham Accords will become the first step in the process of creating a rapid response force modeled after NATO and consisting of Israel and the Gulf states, or perhaps an arrangement like the Asian Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, that would involve cooperation under U.S. leadership.
But since the signing of the Abraham Accords, the world has changed in a way that has forced both the Israelis and the Saudis to consider the new international reality, in which growing U.S. military commitments in Europe and Asia are reducing the U.S. ability to sustain its long-term presence in the Middle East. These developments are making it unlikely that Washington would be ready to go to war against Iran if it decides to build a nuclear bomb.
At the same time, the growing tensions between MBS and Biden over the Saudi refusal to pump more oil to reduce global energy prices amid the fallout from the Russo-Ukrainian War and Western sanctions have put Riyadh in a very difficult situation. The Saudis are trying to balance their economic interests, which run contrary to those of the United States, with their continued reliance on U.S. military support.
Moreover, the Saudis are facing growing hostility in Washington from members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, who, in response to Saudi human rights violations, are calling for a reexamination of the U.S. partnership with the Saudis. As it happens, they are also urging a reassessment of the American “special relationship” with Israel.
MBS and Bibi, both close buddies of Trump, likely recognize that a Trump restoration in 2024 isn’t going to happen and that, at a minimum, they will have to find ways to work with the Democrats in Washington. From that perspective, Israel and Saudi Arabia share an interest in ensuring that the United States remains militarily engaged in the Middle East. But at the same time, they also have to prepare for the eventuality that the Americans will start reducing their military commitments in the region and create a strategic vacuum, requiring the Israelis and the Arab Gulf states to maintain a common military front to deter Iran.
The conventional wisdom is that MBS will refrain from establishing a full diplomatic relationship with Israel as long as his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, an Arab nationalist and a long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause, remains alive. But it’s possible that in the face of the changing global and regional balance of power, MBS will be more inclined to take steps toward a diplomatic détente with Israel, which could help him restore his bruised reputation in Washington. Moreover, the image of MBS and Netanyahu signing a peace accord at the White House would be regarded as a major diplomatic triumph for Biden and reduce the odds that the Americans will revive the nuclear deal with Iran.
A peace deal with Saudi Arabia would certainly amount to a political victory for Netanyahu, shifting attention from his controversial cabinet members and his unstable coalition that may not survive longer than a year.
It’s doubtful, however, that MBS would agree to make a deal with Netanyahu without some concessions on the Palestinian issue, such as re-committing Israel to the two-state solution and leaving the status of the holy sites in Jerusalem open for negotiations. But that could actually prove to be a good political move for Bibi. By making concessions to the Arabs, he would leave Ben Gvir and Smotrich no choice but to resign from the cabinet and open the door for Gantz and Lapid to join it to ensure that the Knesset approves the peace agreement with the Saudis and can form a national unity government to confront the expected challenges from Iran.
A Saudi prince may therefore hold the key to Bibi’s political survival and that of his government, demonstrating how the Middle East is rapidly changing.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and global affairs analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).