Lenin once observed that there are “decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” If the statement has become almost a cliché it nonetheless retains aphoristic value. The Twentieth Century closed out with a decade where, relatively speaking, nothing happened. On 9/11, history restarted once again; and the twenty-first century has given us many weeks where perhaps multiple decades have passed.
Nowhere is this more acutely manifest than in the Middle East. When Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in January 2011, he also ignited a chain reaction that left Libya and Syria destroyed and Egypt slowly imploding. The Arab Spring congealed into a long winter that saw the Islamic State emerge to butcher its way around the region. Iraq, of course, has only continued to fracture. And all the while, Iran has danced with the world over its nuclear ambitions.
Where in all this is Israel? Well, it hasn’t stood idly by. In the last ten years it has fought two wars, Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Protective Edge in 2014, both against Hamas in Gaza. But most striking has been not its weaponry but its diplomacy. Benjamin Netanyahu took office (for the second time) on 31 March 2009 and has remined there ever since. It’s been a bumpy ride. He is under criminal indictment, faces trial and seems willing to do almost anything to stay in power. He swells with megalomania by the day.
But for all that Netanyahu remains an impressive politician. If he riles the transatlantic political and media classes, he has also overseen diplomatic success elsewhere. Israel’s participation at the June 2017 51st summit of the Economic Community of States of West Africa (ECOWAS) in Monrovia marked its return to the African continent, while he has personally cultivated warms relations with India’s Narinder Modi. Given that India only officially established relations with Israel in 1992, and most African states spent the last 70 years championing the Palestinian cause in the name of anti-Imperialism, these are impressive diplomatic achievements.
Netanyahu has also proved adept at turning enemies into allies closer to home. In 2020 Israel made peace with the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan. There are rumours that – the big beast – Saudi Arabia may soon follow. Much of this is to do with Iran – a shared fear over Iranian nuclear ambitions has brought together Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbours. What was once unthinkable has become a fact: (almost) out of nowhere and without much diplomatic prevarication.
Now into the mix comes the new US President Joe Biden. People are worried. As Obama’s VP he supported the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the so-called Iran Deal that enraged Netanyahu and disconcerted his new Gulf allies. When Trump walked away from the deal in 2018 Iran restarted uranium enrichment (its easiest path to a bomb) in response. Biden must fix this mess and the world knows it. They fear he will cave to the Mullahs as they claim Obama did.
But how likely is that in reality? The World is changing and – say it quietly – it is doing so in Israel’s favour. The de facto Israel-Gulf alliance that provided a backdrop to Obama’s Iran negotiations is now an overt one. This matters. Already Biden has said he won’t lift sanctions on Iran to get it negotiating again. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem an Israeli civil servant can pick up the phone and talk openly to their opposite number in Abiu Dhabi or Rabat for the first time in either state’s history. And on from there, opportunity stretches outwards from Delhi to Kigali.
None of this is to say that Israel no longer faces threats. It would be striking if all the Arab peace deals hold, even over the medium term. And Iran’s Supreme Leader is not about to embrace his Jewish enemies. But as 2021 dawns, Israel can look around at a recalibrated world that took if not weeks, then certainly not decades either, to reconfigure.