A Failure by Any Standard: The Foreign Policy of Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often been judged harshly by world leaders and the international media. Much of the criticism aimed at him has been targeted at his inability and unwillingness to move forward with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A related form of criticism has targeted his policy of construction in the occupied territories. This has resulted in strained relations with the EU, United States and to the recognition of Palestine by the United Nations. Recently, many invectives have been directed at the Israeli premier for the damage his policies have caused to U.S.-Israeli bilateral relations. This has surfaced in connection with his insistence on speaking before Congress despite the obvious opposition of the Obama administration. Finally, he has been criticized for his part in fostering the increased isolation of Israel in the international community.
With general elections in Israel coming up on March 17, it is opportune to examine the success of Netanyahu’s foreign policy on its own terms. It is important to remember that most Israeli voters, and the Prime Minister himself, do not share the values and conceptions of international observers of the Middle East. In fact most of his target audience does not blame Prime Minister Netanyahu for his inability to win over the international community. The Likud and its voters have long subscribed to the view that the international community is hostile and governed by anti-Semitism. Ilan Peleg described this approach as the belief that “the outside world is not only attitudinally hostile but actively involved in efforts to destroy Israel and the Jewish people.” Netanyahu is actually far less pessimistic and extreme than other Likud officials and most of its voters. After all, in his capacity as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, he excelled at representing the Israeli position in the international media. However, he believes that Israeli withdrawals and displays of weakness are ultimately detrimental to public perceptions of the Jewish state. As he wrote, “no nation in the world will choose to ally itself with Israel because it has returned to parading the Jewish virtue of powerlessness.“ With these beliefs in mind, a policy based on pursuit of the peace process and better relations with the international community would be futile.
In order to ascertain the success of the Prime Minister’s policy on its own terms, his books A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place among the Nations and several books on terrorism we can find his ideological blueprint for Israeli foreign policy.
The philosophy of the Likud, dating back to its roots in the Revisionist philosophy of Vladimir Jabotinsky which stressed the primacy of military power and force over other instruments of policy. Similarly, Netanyahu’s writing emphasizes the self-sufficient military power, in defense of the Jewish people, as the major raison d’être for the existence of Israel.
The self-sufficient might of Israel, the Likud leader tells us, is all that stands between the Jewish people and another holocaust. The lesson he drew from the holocaust is “we must not be complacent in the face of threats of annihilation. We must not bury our heads in the sand or allow others to do the work for us. We will never be helpless again.”
This raises a lot of questions regarding the Prime Minister’s policy on the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that possession of nuclear weapons by Iran is the primary threat to Israel and to world peace. In fact, he often compares the threat emanating from Iran to the holocaust. In a ceremony held at the Israeli holocaust museum, Yad Vashem said “the ayatollahs in Iran, they deny the Holocaust while planning another genocide against our people.” Significantly, he added that “Yet it is the government of Israel that holds the ultimate responsibility for the security of the one and only Jewish state. We must speak our mind about the dangers to our people and our state. This is something we could not do at the time of the Holocaust.”
In A Durable Peace Netanyahu writes that the one guarantee of survival against nuclear threats is Israel’s “own strength and capacity to deter and punish aggression directed against the state.” However, the actual strategy of Israel has been based on reliance on the international community to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would appear that the relative success of sanctions and doubt surrounding the efficacy of a strike led Israel to abandon plans to attack Iran in 2012. There are compelling reasons to believe that Israel will not launch an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities in the near or distant future. As a result, Netanyahu has been reduced to giving an increasing number of speeches, while the great powers have taken the lead in shaping an extensive sanctions regime.
Whatever the truth of these reports, the credibility of Israeli deterrence vis-à-vis Iran has never been lower. Few leaders or observers believe that Israel is willing to attack the Iranian nuclear program. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign minister, said “If the Israelis had wanted to attack us, and if they could have done so, they would have done so long ago.”
American officials seem to agree that Netanyahu is unwilling to launch an attack on Iran. One anonymous official famously referred to him as “chickenshit.” He added that “The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars…He’s got no guts.” The lack of a credible Israeli threat has been a major factor in shaping the contours of a possible agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers on the future of the Iranian nuclear program. Reports indicate that the deal shaping up is unfavorable to Israel and it seems that the Israeli government is not being informed as to the progress of negotiations. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear that he believes Netanyahu is uninformed as to the status of negotiations. If the possibility of an Israeli strike were still credible, the United States would be unlikely to disregard the Israeli position as easily as it has in the last few months.
There are similar discrepancies between Netanyahu’s stated worldview regarding the desirable strategy for counterterrorism and his actual policy. The Prime Minister wrote in the past that the objective of terrorism is not to facilitate negotiations with the state it is targeting, but rather to seek its capitulation. Therefore, he states that the main goal of counterterrorism is “to weaken and ultimately destroy the terrorist’s ability to consistently launch attacks.” The struggle is a zero sum game and therefore the worst mistake a state can make is to capitulate to the demands of terrorists. In fact, Netanyahu recommends that negotiations with terrorists should be completely avoided. The message governments should send to would be terrorist interlocutors is “the only deal I am willing to make with you is that if you surrender peacefully, I will not kill you.”
However, both rounds of clashes between Israel and Hamas during the Netanyahu years did not follow the zero sum logic so neatly elucidated in the books he had written in the past. In 2012 Israel was involved in an escalating confrontation in Gaza, which was supposed to end when a cease fire came into effect after five days of fighting. Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israel throughout the following weeks in violation of the ceasefire, but Israel was reluctant to respond. A few months later, fighting escalated into the much larger “Operation Pillar of Defense.”
Despite a great deal of grandstanding from members of the cabinet regarding the desirability of overthrowing Hamas, Israel maintained limited aims throughout the operation. It bombed Gaza heavily and ground troops entered the strip in an attempt to neutralize tunnels leading into Israeli territory. However, the Netanyahu government did not seriously contemplate a full takeover of the Gaza Strip. Israel and Hamas indirectly negotiated a ceasefire on November 21, 2012. This despite the fact that the rules of the game had been significantly altered by Hamas’s ability to shoot rockets at Tel Aviv and paralyze Ben-Gurion international airport.
Far from destroying the capabilities of Hamas, as his books would recommend, Netanyahu has accepted the continued existence of a Hamas led state within rocket range of the most strategically vulnerable sites in Israel.
The Prime Minister had previously violated his professed counterterrorism principles when he agreed to negotiate over kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit with Hamas. The group had kidnapped the soldier in 2006 but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been unwilling to pay the price demanded by the organization for his release. Netanyahu, elected in 2009 to the premiership took over the negotiations. In October 2011, a deal was struck which saw Shalit return to Israel safe and sound. The 1,027 Palestinians and Arab-Israelis released from jail in the exchange was the highest number of prisoners Israel ever released in exchange for one Israeli hostage.
The move was at odds with Netanyahu’s statement in his first book on counterterrorism. He had written that in these situations “whether or not such rescue is possible, governments must persist in refusing to capitulate. This is both a moral obligation to other potential hostages and, in the long view, the only pragmatic posture.”
It has become quite common to accuse Benjamin Netanyahu of failing to live up to the policy standards expected of him by the international community. Israel has not moved one iota closer to a permanent agreement during his five years in power. Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territories has spurred EU sanctions, the UN has recognized an independent Palestine and Israel-US bilateral relations are at an all-time low. However, what is less commonly observed is that the Israeli Prime Minister has similarly failed to uphold his own policy standards and the principles his voters hold dear. The Likud has abandoned its traditional stance of military self-reliance in favor of utter dependence on the United States to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons.
To make matters worse, it then proceeded to systematically undermine the bilateral relationship with the Obama administration. The Netanyahu government has also been surprisingly willing to bargain, albeit indirectly, with Hamas over prisoner exchanges and ceasefires in contravention of Netanyahu’s counterterrorism philosophy. It seems that Israeli voters, not often noted for consensual agreement, may agree on one thing: the foreign policy of Benjamin Netanyahu has failed.