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Aron Heller
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Netanyahu can’t deliver on Saudi Arabia; history has passed him by

It would be a sweetheart deal, but the PM no longer has the political capital, public support or moral authority for it
US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

As the son of a noted Jewish historian and the brother of Israel’s most legendary slain commando – not to mention his role as the country’s longest-serving prime minister – Benjamin Netanyahu has always had a keen sense of his place in history.

In the 27 years since he first came to power, he has often been pressed with the question of what will become his enduring legacy. His answer has usually been some vague version of defender of Israel or guardian of the Jewish people.

There’s a reason for the fuzzy narrative. Unlike other prime ministers who secured awesome military victories (David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol), signed long-lasting peace accords (Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin), or even orchestrated daring unilateral withdrawals (Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon), Netanyahu has remained bereft of a signature achievement of that scale. Political longevity has been his primary calling card.

Now he seems determined to finally complete a historic resume, with growing signs of a potential US-brokered peace deal with Saudi Arabia. Under normal circumstances, it would be a monumental triumph, wished for and lauded by even his most long-time, ardent political opponents.

But these are not normal times. His government’s assault on Israel’s democratic foundations and the unprecedented domestic crisis to which he has plunged the nation have deprived him of the ability to marshal through such a breakthrough. He doesn’t have the political capital, public support or moral authority for it anymore. Unfortunately, his legacy will not be about bringing Jews and Arabs together but rather about tearing the Jews themselves apart.

It’s a tragedy since, on the surface, what appears to be brewing would be a sweetheart deal for Israel. Twenty years ago, Saudi Arabia floated its Arab Peace Initiative that demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories it captured in the 1967 war and a “mutually acceptable” resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue in return for a long-sought normalization with the Arab world. Today, a similar offer is reportedly on the table, though one that would require of Israel less far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians.

But in Netanyahu’s current coalition, he doesn’t appear to have the votes to pay even minor lip service. His radical partners, even in his own Likud Party, can’t consider any concessions to Palestinians, let alone entertain the concept of statehood. Their goals these days are focused on expanding settlements, annexing the West Bank, and easing the incarceration conditions of a notoriously convicted Jewish murderer, whom one coalition member referred to as a “holy righteous man.”

The greater obstacle is that outside his cloistered coalition of zealots and sycophants, Netanyahu has lost the support of larger Israel. The judicial overhaul he has pushed forward has struck such a deep nerve in Israeli society that even those who would naturally support peacemaking can no longer trust the messenger. Such is the result of a concentrated effort to undermine Israel’s democratic institutions and to brand those patriotic Israelis resisting this crusade as traitors who have aligned with Israel’s enemies.

Therefore, it is no surprise that even as Netanyahu finally met with Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations to flaunt the Saudi prospects, hundreds of protesters made their way from Israel to continue to hound Netanyahu on the streets of New York. They continued to demonstrate loudly as he spoke inside the halls of the United Nations about his vision for “a new Middle East.”

Even with a friendly American president’s push for progress with Saudi Arabia, Israel’s more moderate opposition figures have been unable to voice their full-throated support, warning instead of the dangers of such a deal, particularly the potential to set off a Mideast nuclear arms race.

The strategic upside of a comprehensive peace agreement with Saudi Arabia, and the larger Arab and Islamic world, would certainly warrant considering such a risk. But to do so would require a leader who has the trust to speak for his people. Netanyahu does not. Facing trial for corruption, he has proved time and time again that when faced with the choice between his own good and that of the nation he will choose the former.

Eager to place his own stamp on history, Biden seems determined to push for an Israeli-Saudi deal to cap his first term in office. He seems to be pinning his hopes on his friend of 40 years seizing the moment, shunting aside his extremist partners, and making Mideast peace the foundation of a new election or coalition.

But Netanyahu today is not the same man Biden often fondly recalls. He has no other options because he has simply lied too many times to too many people. Well-intentioned Israelis won’t go with him anymore even if he is trying to do the right thing.

Given such a climate, Netanyahu does not have the moral authority to lead. Yes, the Israeli elite never much cared for him, but they always respected him and longed for the day when he would become a peacemaker. But that was before Netanyahu tried to upend their country by neutering the courts; before veteran reserve airforce pilots fearing a dictatorship stopped volunteering for duty and before businesses and even individuals began to consider a life for themselves elsewhere. Netanyahu broke something that may not come back, at least not under his watch. Therefore, sadly, history has passed him by.

This moment of reckoning comes precisely as Israel is grappling with the 50th anniversary of the last credible threat to its existence, the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The surprise attack and heavy casualties Israel suffered at the hands of Egypt and Syria before turning it around and emerging victorious, shocked the young nation, shaking its confidence in its leaders and creating a cascading ripple effect through society that ultimately brought Likud to power for the first time in place of the country’s Labor Party founders.

It marked the end of Israeli naivete, destroying the halo of Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and other icons. But however flawed those leaders may have been in their judgment and execution, few Israelis doubted their intentions and their resolve to counter foreign threats.

Israel’s primary threat today is internal and the public lacks faith in its leadership’s intentions and resolve to overcome that existential schism.

As long as there is no peace within, and Israel’s foundation as a Jewish and democratic state remains in the balance, Netanyahu can’t make peace with anyone else.

About the Author
Aron Heller is an Israel-based writer and broadcaster and a former long-time Associated Press correspondent and journalism professor. He's covered ten Israeli elections, four Mideast wars, dozens of other major world events and has been dispatched on assignments across five continents. A frequent on-air and on-camera contributor, he's previously reported for the Ottawa Citizen, NBC News and Haaretz and has broadcast professional sports games.
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