Netanyahu left Israel stronger

Netanyahu took the Clinton administration’s adage, 'it’s the economy, stupid', and projected it onto foreign policy


Group of heavy nuclear missiles isolated on white background. See also:

Benjamin Netanyahu is accused of being unprincipled. If it is meant in the moral sense, then you can make that argument, but if taken to mean “without principles”, then this is so wide of the mark as to miss his greatest strength — the ability to strip back complex issues to first principles. This clarity of thought, and ruthless ability to exploit it, does not necessarily justify his policies. But they do explain his successes. Nowhere is this truer that in the field of foreign policy.

Netanyahu, steeped in American politics, took the Clinton administration’s adage, “it’s the economy, stupid”, and projected it onto foreign policy. He understood that in a tough neighbourhood, Israel would have to be the toughest, smartest and most tech-savvy guy on the block. That would need enormous sums of money and that would require a strong economy, support for cutting-edge technology and state-of-the-art kit for the military and intelligence services.

The economic innovations he helped to introduce as finance minister from 2003 to 2005 contributed to a sharp rise in GDP, although his brand of ‘neo-liberal’ politics also hit the poorest. The ‘Start Up Nation’ has become a world leader in many fields, which in turn has helped make it not only the toughest guy on the block but one which some neighbours want to make friends with.

In 2017 he said: “You also need to open markets and the way to do this is to provide other countries with things they need.” China, India, Brazil, Hungary, Russia, Azerbaijan and a host of Latin American and African countries were among those subsequently forging closer relations with Israel amid multiple trade deals involving security expertise, cyber technology, and water efficiency in agriculture.

Critics accuse Netanyahu of cultivating relationships with authoritarian leaders. It’s true — but he is hardly alone in this.

Which brings us to President Trump.

Netanyahu had difficult relationships with Presidents Clinton and Obama, but persuaded the hawks in both administrations, and Congress, that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were a strategic threat to American interests. In 2009, he went behind Obama’s back and conspired with the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, to give a speech to Congress in which he undermined what the President felt to be his signature foreign policy success — the Iran nuclear deal. It was realpolitik, rude, and ruthless. It was also part of Netanyahu’s bid for history to remember him as the man who saw the gathering clouds.

The Iran nuclear issue saw another episode in which many analysts’ disdain for a man frequently considered an arrogant bully clouded their judgement as to his effectiveness. In 2012, during his address to the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu held up a drawing of a bomb and coloured in a red line reading “final stage”. The New Yorker magazine’s comment was: “If Wile E. Coyote ever gets hold of this, the Roadrunner is toast.” Looney Tunes was the take of the day — but headlines across the world and a focus on the alleged Iranian nuclear threat was the result.

With the arrival of Trump in the White House, Netanyahu knew he was pushing at an open door. This resulted in the US leaving the Iran nuclear deal (with the knock-on effect of President Biden now discovering how difficult it can be to get back in).

That diplomatic success needs to be seen alongside the Abraham Accords. Years before their signing in 2020, Netanyahu had read the future. He knew the leaders of many Arab countries had tired of the Palestinian cause. He realised that with the very slow US withdrawal from the region, some would become increasingly anxious about the Iranian attempt to project power across the Middle East and, as seen above, he knew they wanted some of what Israel has – military power and tech savvy.

The Israeli PM spent time quietly, and slowly, building better relations with Arab countries despite not giving an inch on the Palestinian issue. The arrival of Trump in the White House provided the opportunity to build on those foundations. Netanyahu could not have delivered an Israeli version of the Accords, but his understanding of the shifting sands in the Middle East and courting of the authoritarian in the Oval Office helped Israel to normalise relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. He also banked the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of the city as Israel’s capital and its sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

There is a price to pay. The Donald-Bibi love-in has resulted in a perception in large parts of the US Democratic Party that Israel’s relations are with the Republicans, not the US. Israel can expect increased hostility from the Democrats — albeit tempered by Biden’s pragmatism.

His hard-line approach and three wars with Hamas have damaged relations with Jordan and polarised opinion about Israel around the world. During the past few years, Netanyahu increasingly seemed to fall foul of the curse which overtakes many long-term leaders, believing “L’etat, c’est moi!” His behaviour and policies are considered by some to have weakened Israeli democracy, which in turn weakens support for the country abroad. There’s also the difficult fact that despite saying he was the man to stop the Iranian march to becoming a nuclear power, Tehran appears closer to that status that ever before. However, he leaves the international stage with Israel a greater power and more of a global player than it was when he first took office in 1996.

The Abraham Accords withstood their first major test, last month’s conflict, in which the attacks on Gaza received limited criticism from the Gulf States.

Asked once how he wanted to be remembered, he said, “Defender of Israel, liberator of its economy”.

If — and it remains an if — the Accords survive and are the foundation of similar deals, he may yet get his wish.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive