Essay: Bibi the Strategist?
Sep 5, 2016 | Lazar Berman
Israeli foreign policy under Netanyahu
In June, the Israeli journalist Amir Tibon wrote an article for Politico detailing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s long-standing and bitter fights with Israel’s defence leaders. Former IDF chiefs of staff and spymasters described Netanyahu as messianic, driven by personal calculations, and incapable of protecting Israel’s interests. His former defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, said the Prime Minister’s conduct had caused him to lose faith in Netanyahu, and ex- Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin said he “represents six years of constant failures.”
What, then, might Diskin have made of the accord Netanyahu reached with Turkey right around the time the Politico piece appeared? Six years after Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel and took to obsessively condemning the Jewish state, Netanyahu convinced Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to drop his key demands and agree to resume full diplomatic relations with Israel. That victory for Netanyahu’s statecraft is one example of many that highlight an enduring contradiction between his reputation for ineptitude and his record of achievement. And considering what Israel is up against, almost any foreign-policy success would be noteworthy.
Since Netanyahu regained the premiership in 2009, Israel has faced a multitude of challenges – from Turkey’s hostile turn, to Iran’s nuclear program, to Hamas’ cross-border tunnels, to rocket attacks on civilians, to a rash of terrorist knifings and automobile attacks. Any one of them would try the sharpest strategic thinkers. What’s more, Egypt and Syria both collapsed into turmoil during his time in office. The civil war in Syria turned Israel’s quietest border into an ungoverned zone filled by rival jihadist groups. The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt meant that a Muslim Brotherhood government temporarily bordered the Gaza Strip and could give aid to its Palestinian faction, Hamas. And while Egypt’s current leader, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sissi, has since fought Hamas aggressively, the Sinai Peninsula has become an ungoverned home to terrorists who pledge allegiance to ISIS.
Then there’s the United States. With the election of Barack Obama, America’s approach to the Middle East changed in drastic ways. Determined to build bridges to the Muslim world, Obama saw Israeli settlements as the central obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. Thus, he instituted a policy of maintaining “daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem in hopes of wearing down Israel’s supposed obstinacy on settlements. To make matters worse, Obama and his advisers evinced a strong animus against Netanyahu that only escalated as time progressed.
Washington scaled back its influence at the same moment that Sunni-Shia, tribal, and ethnic battles began gutting Arab states. Iran capitalised on the resulting power vacuum to expand its reach in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and beyond. As for Iran’s nuclear program, Obama and the Islamic Republic entered into the P5+1 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. What has become known simply as “the Iran deal” has both enriched and rehabilitated the regime, while leaving its nuclear program largely intact and free from serious scrutiny.
How has Netanyahu handled this dizzying constellation of threats?
The Border with Syria
Problems generated by the Syrian civil war have exploded outward in every direction. To name a few: Refugees have spilled over into Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Europe. Terrorist groups inside Syria, especially ISIS, pose a strategic threat to Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. Additionally, ISIS continues to carry out major terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe.
Yet Israel, on Syria’s western border, remains effectively out of the fray.
Although Syria was long an enemy of Israel, its collapse posed a major strategic challenge for Israeli leaders. Before Syria spiralled out of control, Israel had hoped for (and repeatedly tried to attain) a peace agreement with Damascus. With the Syrian state in chaos, this was no longer even a remote possibility. And with ISIS taking the lead in the fight against Assad, it was clear that Israel couldn’t support either side. In any event, Israel had to deal with more immediate threats emerging from the meltdown. Some of the terrorist groups fighting Assad – including the Al-Nusra Front and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade – had gained a foothold along Israel’s Golan Heights border with Syria.
There were (and are) still more complicating factors. Mortar fire from the conflict occasionally strays into Israel. Druze residents of the Israeli Golan Heights maintain close ties to family members and other co-religionists on the Syrian side and have vowed to take action if jihadist groups threaten Syrian Druze. And Hezbollah and Iran have tried to take advantage of the chaos to open a new front against Israel in the Golan.
Through it all, Israel has stayed safe. Israel has reached a stable – though officially unconfirmed – understanding with rebel groups on its border. These groups, including some jihadist factions, know they don’t have to protect their western flank from Israel. In return, they refrain from attacking Israel and keep others from doing so as well. In coordination with IDF forces on the border, rebel groups hand over wounded fighters and civilians to be treated in Israeli hospitals. Israel has also transferred aid to these groups, but it is unclear if this goes beyond food and medicine. There is likely intelligence-sharing as well.
Israel is also involved in protecting threatened Druze communities in Syria. “The State of Israel is acting on behalf of the Syrian Druze. These matters are being carried out quietly, and without publicity,” said Israeli Druze lawmaker Ayoub Kara in 2015.
When Russian forces entered the fight in September 2015 in support of Assad, new difficulties arose. While Turkey made an enemy out of Putin by downing a Russian plane that had strayed toward its airspace, Israel refrained from firing on the two occasions Russian jets flew over Israel. Top-level Israeli military and political leaders coordinate with their Russian counterparts to make sure Israel and Russia don’t fire on each other.
Notably, however, Netanyahu has failed to convince the Russians to keep advanced missiles out of Hezbollah hands. Hezbollah and Iran are doing all they can to strengthen their posture against Israel while Syria bleeds. Though Israel has not been able to stop Russian shipments to Iran and Syria, it has been bombing weapons convoys heading into Lebanon without inviting reprisals from Hezbollah, Syria, or Iran.
Israel’s Air Force also interfered with Hezbollah’s plan to threaten Israel from the Golan Heights. On January 18, 2015, Israeli jets struck a convoy moving through the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, killing six Hezbollah men and an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps general. One of the Hezbollah dead was the son of senior member Imad Mughniyeh. The convoy was reportedly part of a joint Iran/Hezbollah effort to develop a new unit that would kidnap Israelis, fire rockets, and attack soldiers. But Hezbollah made do with one attack on an IDF vehicle, killing an officer and a soldier.
In May 2010, Israel committed what seemed to be a catastrophic blunder. As part of a campaign to weaken Israel’s blockade on Gaza, a Turkish NGO organised a flotilla in hopes of either reaching the coastal strip or forcing Israel into an embarrassing mistake. IDF naval commandos succeeded in stopping the flotilla. But a group of activists on one ship, the Mavi Marmara, set upon the soldiers with stockpiled knives and pipes. In the ensuing struggle, nine Turkish activists were killed and ten Israeli commandos wounded. World reaction came down hard.
Relations with Turkey, already tense, deteriorated. Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and recalled its own. It threatened to deploy its navy to accompany future flotillas and to prevent Israeli “exploitation” of natural gas in the Mediterranean. Both sides flexed their muscles, with Israeli jets allegedly approaching Turkish naval forces and Turkish ships sailing provocatively close to Israeli waters.
Yet after the Mavi Marmara incident, the flotilla problem, expected to get worse, dissipated. Under Netanyahu, Israel used diplomacy, espionage, and appeals to international law to nullify the threat. When the NGO organised another flotilla in 2011, it never got out of port. Israel managed to create deep and broad international opposition to the campaign. Parties ranging from the UN and the Middle East Quartet to France and Canada came out against the planned voyage. Even Turkey’s Foreign Minister said that organisers should reconsider their plans.
Israel easily intercepted the one vessel that managed to sail toward its waters, with no violence or international opprobrium. A subsequent flotilla attempt in 2015 was also intercepted by Israel with no cost in blood or diplomatic standing.
Netanyahu has since developed a strategic partnership with Turkey’s rivals, Greece and Cyprus. The relationship was fed by massive Israeli and Cypriot natural-gas discoveries. A proposed “East Med Pipeline” would link Israel, Cyprus, Greece, and Italy, and the Bulgarian government has also thrown in its support. Not insignificantly, the project would bypass Turkey, foiling its ambitions to become the natural-gas hub for Europe. The rebalance has also produced fruitful military partnerships. In 2013, Israel’s Air Force joined its American, Greek, and Italian counterparts in Israel’s largest-ever multinational air-war training manoeuvres. Cancelled joint manoeuvres between Israel and Turkey were quickly replaced by exercises between the American, Israeli, and Hellenic navies.
Netanyahu, however, always kept the restoration of ties with Turkey as a strategic goal. In 2013, Obama arranged a telephone call between Netanyahu and Erdogan. The Israeli PM apologised “for any errors that could have led to loss of life” in the Mavi Marmara raid. The two leaders came to terms on compensation. Erdogan walked back comments criticising Israel and agreed not to prosecute Israeli officials for their part in the incident. And Netanyahu won on his major strategic concern: The Gaza blockade would remain firmly in place.
Ultimately a bumbling Turkey, not Israel, would become isolated. In 2016, Turkish officials, looking for a new source of natural gas in the wake of tensions with Russia, sat down to talks with the Israelis. On June 29, Israel approved the reconciliation agreement. Israel agreed to pay US$20 million to the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara.
Not surprisingly, Netanyahu received bitter criticism about the deal. “Netanyahu cares for Gaza and not for our soldiers,” said Zahava Shaul, whose son Oron was killed in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, his body still held by Hamas. Education Minister Naftali Bennett said the deal harms Israel’s resilience and national honour.
Netanyahu, knowing such attacks would come, maintained that it was in Israel’s strategic interest to resume ties with a powerful Muslim state from a position of strength.
Despite the conflagrations in the region, Israel’s ties with Sunni Arab states have generally grown stronger with Netanyahu in office. Shared concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and growing strength have paved the way for quiet but effective cooperation.
In Saudi Arabia, Iran’s most potent Arab foe, Israel sees a counterweight. Jerusalem has therefore offered greater leeway to the Saudis on various defence and strategic matters. In 2011, Israel gave the green light to Germany for the sale of Leopard 2 tanks to Riyadh. And when Egypt wanted to hand over the strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and the Sanafir Islands to Saudi Arabia, Israel registered no objection, noting that it had received written assurances from Riyadh that its freedom of passage would be guaranteed. In July, a retired Saudi General and ex-government adviser visited Israel publicly and met with Knesset members and senior Foreign Ministry officials.
Israel’s relations with Sissi’s Egypt have similarly grown warmer, after the brief but dangerous rule of Mohammed Morsi. Israel’s Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan has in fact called recent intelligence cooperation between the two countries “unprecedented.” In 2011 and 2013, Netanyahu assented to an increase in Egyptian troops in the Sinai to combat jihadist forces. When Egyptian jets violated Israeli airspace in 2015, defence officials dismissed it as “minor.” For the first time ever, Egypt voted for Israel at the UN, supporting its membership in a committee on outer space. Cairo returned its envoy to Israel in February 2016, filling a vacancy that had lingered since 2012. In July 2016, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry came to Israel for a rare and cordial public visit.
Israel’s security and economic relationship with its eastern neighbour, Jordan, has continued on relatively sure footing. In December 2015, the two countries unveiled an US$800 million plan to build a canal to save the Dead Sea. A month earlier, Israel’s Interior Ministry initiated a program to bring 1,500 Jordanian citizens to work in hotels in Eilat. Israel’s gas finds have also led to economic cooperation. In April 2015, Netanyahu approved a 15-year, US$500 million natural-gas deal with Jordan.
Israel also gave the Jordanian military 16 Cobra helicopters to help in its fight against the Islamic State. And the two countries maintain close intelligence ties, especially regarding terrorist groups in Syria.
It’s worth noting that in late 2015, Israel announced plans to open a diplomatic office in a renewable-energy agency in the United Arab Emirates, Israel’s first diplomatic presence in the Persian Gulf region since 2000.
In July 2016, Netanyahu returned from a resoundingly successful tour of Africa. The trip highlighted growing relationships that had previously passed below the media radar. Netanyahu walked away from the trip with real accomplishments. Ethiopia and Kenya publicly supported restoring Israel’s observer status at the African Union, which had ended in 2002. Muslim-majority Guinea renewed ties with Israel that had been suspended since 1967. Finally, Tanzania said it planned to open an embassy in Israel.
In strengthening these ties, Netanyahu sees an opportunity to gain allies and shatter the Palestinians’ automatic majority in international fora. “It might take a decade, but we will change the automatic majority against Israel. That’s something that has never been possible in the past,” he said. A lofty goal, perhaps even too ambitious, but it shows his interest in original solutions in dealing with the Palestinians.
A long-term peace deal with the Palestinians is simply not in the offing. Until the Palestinian leadership has more to gain from recognising Israel’s right to exist than it does from claiming victimhood, a lasting peaceful solution is a dream. Thus the problem remains unsolved, with all that entails: rockets, terrorism, lawfare and international condemnation.
On the other hand, since the Israeli victory in the Second Intifada, Palestinians outside of Gaza have not been able to threaten the State of Israel in any serious way. Periodic outbreaks of violence inevitably lead commentators to warn that the third intifada has arrived, but these episodes fail to gain widespread support. Nor do the attacks change anything for the Palestinians. As ghastly as the attacks are, they are strategically ineffective.
The Palestinian Authority’s major effort against Israel has taken place in international bodies, and while this causes headaches, it has failed to change anything on the ground. Initiatives hailed as game-changers have raised expectations without much to show for it. The Palestinian plan to gain full recognition as a UN member state, for example, ran into opposition from Western leaders, and stalled. PA President Mahmoud Abbas succeeded in gaining recognition only as a non-member observer state. The “diplomatic tsunami” Israel was supposed to face never materialised.
In April 2015, the PA made good on its threat to join the International Criminal Court, but even Palestinians understood there would be no action against Israel. “I don’t want to disappoint our people, but the ICC procedures are slow and long and might face lots of obstacles and challenges and might take years,” said PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki.
In the meantime, Abbas’s approval plummeted; it reached 16% in 2015.
Palestinians have lost faith in their national movement. Young Palestinians who attack Israelis “are battling … the growing Palestinian realisation that their national movement has no answers, no narrative or political vision that offers a way forward to better days,” wrote the Times of Israel‘s Haviv Rettig Gur. “These young killers are striving, in their kamikaze fervour, to rekindle the idea among Palestinians that straightforward victory remains possible, if only because the alternative – the possibility that Israel cannot be dislodged, that the nostalgic vision of an undivided, unfettered Palestine cannot be reclaimed – is simply too monstrous to accept.”
But in Gaza, the menace of Hamas continues to grow even in the face of Israeli operations meant to damage the group and restore deterrence. The organisation’s willingness to fight Israel every few years shows that Israel has not been able to deter it for long. What’s more, Hamas comes back improved in every round. It has developed the Nuhba Force, several thousand strong, to carry out raids through tunnel networks into Israeli territory. In 2014, Hamas forces killed 66 soldiers during Operation Protective Edge. It even managed to shut down international traffic into Ben Gurion Airport for a day. The range of Hamas’ rockets is expanding, and it’s now able to threaten Tel Aviv and Jerusalem almost at will.
Hamas isn’t the only threat that Netanyahu has failed to stymie. Despite years of effort, he was powerless to prevent the P5+1 powers from concluding an Iranian nuclear deal in 2015. Netanyahu was the most vocal world leader opposing the deal, and he was willing to let the already cold relationship with Obama get worse as he pressed his case. He made a series of high-profile speeches condemning the deal, including a controversial March 2015 address to a joint meeting in Congress, against the wishes of the White House and most of the Democratic Party. It was all to no avail.
There were some bright spots in the campaign against Iran. Somebody – many think the Israelis – orchestrated a series of assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists. The Stuxnet computer virus, allegedly jointly developed by Israel and the United States, wreaked havoc on Iranian computers at the Natanz uranium facility in 2009 and 2010.
Yet, the dangerous deal is now a reality. Since it was reached, Iran has enjoyed the release of billions of dollars in frozen assets, encouraged by the United States. America is even buying millions of dollars’ worth of heavy water from Iran. The country’s nuclear program remains a threat.
With two major exceptions, Hamas and Iran, Israel has been on a successful foreign-policy streak under Netanyahu. How has it managed to navigate flotillas, wars on its borders, tensions with powerful former allies, and terrorist threats? For one, its leadership has shown patience – something not traditionally seen as an Israeli strength. Decision-makers have not run after solutions that aren’t there. They have been comfortable letting situations emerge, showing a confidence that policy will be flexible enough to change with events. Netanyahu didn’t panic over Erdogan’s newfound hostility. He was willing to suffer insults while keeping the door open for Turkey’s return. And when the time came, Netanyahu showed diplomatic finesse.
Netanyahu has also managed to analyse complex situations and determine the country’s interests. Israel wisely chose not to pick a side between Assad and the rebels. The willingness to risk working with rebel groups on its borders and provide humanitarian aid served the country well.
At the same time, Israeli policy has been firm. Netanyahu was willing to strike deep inside Syria and Lebanon to keep weapons out of Hezbollah’s hands. Rebel groups on the Golan know that if they begin attacking Israel, they will face a painful response.
What, then, about Hamas and Iran? What do these problems tell us about Netanyahu’s decisions? Though often portrayed as a warmonger, Netanyahu is extremely cautious around military campaigns.
Netanyahu, recall, did whatever he could to avoid a ground incursion in Gaza in 2012. After eight days of bombing, he made significant concessions to Hamas in order to end the flare-up instead of deploying ground troops. He also sought repeated cease-fires before ordering a ground invasion in 2014. And despite massive support for an expanded push into Gaza, Netanyahu made do with a limited incursion to deal with Hamas’ tunnel network.
In dealing with Hamas, he has also shown some of the other traits mentioned above – patience, for example. The Palestinian Authority isn’t coming back any time soon, and Hamas is an entity Israel knows how to pressure. Remove Hamas and you would get the chaos of rival Islamist groups. Whether this approach is wise remains debatable. Israelis are frustrated by the lack of clear victories in Gaza. But, still, Netanyahu has not sought to invent a solution that doesn’t exist.
On Iran, Netanyahu unquestionably failed to achieve his desired outcome. Again, perhaps he was too cautious about taking action to disable Iran’s nuclear program. In any event, Obama was determined to reach a deal. So why did Netanyahu come to Washington and criticise Obama’s unstoppable policy before the US Congress? As critics have noted, the speech risked alienating Democrats and damaged whatever trust remained between him and Obama. But from Netanyahu’s perspective, the vocal effort against the nuclear deal cost him little that wasn’t already lost. He angered congressional Democrats who weren’t well-disposed to him in the first place, and Obama had already decided that Netanyahu was part of the problem.
Netanyahu’s campaign against the Iran deal did reap some benefits. Millions of Americans saw him on TV eloquently making his case in front of hundreds of applauding congressmen. And he gained credibility among Sunni Arab partners who were equally concerned about Iran’s nuclear program.
Like any leader, Netanyahu makes some decisions for domestic political gain and some for reasons that are hard to discern at all. But critics fail to appreciate the complexity of the challenges facing Israel, and how it is forced to quickly adapt to changes that render existing assumptions meaningless. Under Netanyahu, Israel has managed to stay out of wars that sucked others in, improve its diplomatic position while isolating rivals, remain flexible on policies but firm on red lines, and keep its residents safe. In the Middle East, and increasingly beyond, these are no small accomplishments.
Lazar Berman is a writer and researcher based in Israel, focusing on military theory, Middle East security, and Kurdish affairs. © Commentary magazine, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.