One week after Israel’s Syrian explosion comes the Munich Security Conference. Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu plans to attend and warn the world’s leaders that Israel will not allow Iran to become militarily entrenched in Syria. But Bibi is very much a wounded politician; it’s not just his potential bribery and fraud charges at home that have weakened the prime minister. The root of Netanyahu’s (and Israel’s) problems go much deeper. They involve Israel’s global diplomatic isolation on the JCPOA and the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin needs a strong Iran in Syria in order to protect his multi-year investment in Assad and Damascus.
Bibi is wounded because he lacks a coherent strategic framework toward world politics. And Syria has now become the epicenter of world politics. North Korea remains dangerous — and it could portend an Iranian nuclear situation less than a decade away — but at least the two Korean states are talking. Iran and Israel, on the other hand, are a hair trigger away from a dangerous missile and air confrontation. Not only are they not talking, they both view each other as existential threats. But this is exactly the same way that 21st century Russia views the NATO alliance, as an existential threat.
Bibi travels to Germany without any discernible viewpoint on the Russian global situation. Putin could talk to the late Israeli President, Shimon Peres, about NATO expansion and America’s uni-polar approach to the post-Cold War configuration in modern Europe. The Russian president complained to his Israeli counterpart about Washington. Putin had the clear understanding that at least Peres understood that Russian support for Assad and Iran was directed more toward the German-American alliance than toward Jerusalem.
But Bibi is hardly as worldly as was Shimon Peres. World leaders are not knocking on the prime minister’s door to ask his advice. On the contrary, world leaders don’t trust Netanyahu because throughout his career he has embraced both the two-state solution and the Judea-Samaria settlement project — a contradiction in reality. And Bibi has no alternative to the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) other than to return Israel to a war footing. Europe, Russia, and China simply cannot accept the trashing of the JCPOA without a genuine alternative follow-on approach.
Plus, Bibi doesn’t know if he is on his own in Syria or if he has the backing of the Trump administration in Washington. Trump appears schizophrenic with regard to Putin. He would like better relations with Moscow, but the neophyte American president has little control over his own Congress, the State and Defense Departments, and the US intelligence agencies with regard to Russian policy.
Trump is also fighting for his very political life because of his so-called “collusion with the Russians” during the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s original claim that NATO was “obsolete” was prescient. However, I’m certain that this statement triggered a multitude of alarm bells across the US capital. The US deep state has boxed in Trump so that his only recourse has been to trash the JCPOA without any alternative. But now the American president has been forced to accept an entirely “establishment” view of America’s new defensive posture toward both Russia and China. This new policy has once again placed the world powers on the old global ladder of both nuclear and conventional escalation.
Putin told Bibi to back down over Syria last week, while Washington issued a terse statement about “Israel’s right of self-defense”. But the Trump administration has no clear policy on Syria. Trump himself appears reluctant to challenge the Russians or Assad. But the US Defense Department maintains a significant air presence in eastern Syria. Hence, terse statements from Washington are hardly reassuring for Israel. What would Netanyahu do in the face of a clear Russian response to Israeli military action over Syria? What would Trump do? The signals are murky at best.
Germany has said throughout the Cold War and in the post-Cold War era that Israel’s security is its paramount interest. But an Israeli-Russian confrontation over the skies of Syria could trigger an escalation leading to a potential third world war. Is this the message that the Israeli prime minister would want to bring to Munich? And how would such a message be received? Both Moscow and Tehran will be listening closely. So too will Germany and all the countries of the NATO alliance.
The Kremlin and Putin are locked into a face-off against the West with Syria and Assad. So are the Iranians. Both countries perceive their western flank as highly vulnerable to US and NATO encroachment. Putin is not trying to restore an eastern European empire, but he is acutely conscious of Russian history. NATO has claimed to be a non-threatening entity, but the memory of Hitler and Napoleon are extremely strong in the Russian psyche. Iran has threatened Israel with state genocide, but like Russia in Europe, the Iranians fear hegemony to their west far more than they fear a small Jewish state. Against the prospect of US and NATO domination, Tehran’s hedge has become Russia, Assad, Hezbollah, and the potential of missile development for nuclear weapons. Now the world is truly situated on a knife’s edge.
So what should Bibi Netanyahu say at Munich? If he merely repeats his red lines, he will show himself to be a pedestrian politician. But at this moment Israel and the world need a great statesman, a statesman everyone will listen to with respect, a statesman in the mold of Shimon Peres. Bibi must address the Germans directly. He must explain that NATO expansion has been a terrible mistake, because it has caused a great geopolitical fissure across Europe. This fissure cannot possibly be in Germany’s interest. And this division in Europe is leading the world toward the potential for a nuclear apocalypse. Unfortunately, Israel and the Middle East (like the Balkans a hundred years ago) might just be the trigger for such a world conflagration. Netanyahu must explain that Europe, like the Middle East, is in desperate need of an entirely new security architecture. And he must elucidate these new structures.
Yes, NATO has become obsolete. But what will replace it? Benjamin Netanyahu has been nicknamed “Mr. Security” in Israel. Now, for his potential last act, he must show everyone the peaceful meaning of the word “security”. This peaceful meaning must include both the future of Europe and the Middle East. For the world, there can be no better place for a Jewish prime minister (or president) to alter history than at Munich, Germany.