The Not-So-New Kid on the Block

Benjamin Netanyahu should do better to resign his premiership and prepare for his day in court, where he stands trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.  However, he apparently does not intend to do so, and despite the many demonstrations calling for his resignation, critical public mass has not accumulated sufficiently enough to bring about his retirement. On the contrary, we see street signs with a North Korean touch highlighting the people’s love for their prime minister. In these circumstances, it seems that, for at least a few more months, he would continue to lead this country throughout the crucial months during which President-elect Joe Biden will be forming his staff and policies. It may be better to try making lemonade out of these lemons.

Netanyahu dismisses with contempt the assertion that he damaged the traditional bipartisan support for Israel in the United States. He mocks his critics by saying that they cannot teach him anything about the Democratic Party. Undeniably, he does know the American system well, which makes his blatant and reckless preference of the Republican side even worse.

Former Ambassador Martin Indyk tweeted on November 8 that “it’s true that Netanyahu has known Joe Biden for nearly 40 years, but it’s also true that Joe Biden has known Netanyahu for nearly forty years.”  President-elect Biden confirmed a previous assertion, in which he said, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say but I love you”. Nevertheless, Biden will pursue a very different foreign policy than that of his predecessor, Donald J. Trump.

The outgoing U.S. administration interpreted the Trumpian ideology of “America First” as “America Alone”, withdrawing from a long line of international treaties, agreements and institutions. Thus, the United States withdrew from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. In matters closer to Israel, the US abandoned the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that have indeed proven to be unfair towards Israel, or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Above all, there looms the May 2018 US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Netanyahu’s Israel had loudly applauded this move but U.S. allies, such as the UK, France and Germany, did not follow through, although none of them had any illusions regarding Iran.

The Biden administration is likely to commence its return to at least some of the international instruments that Trump has jettisoned, including the Climate Change Treaty. Likewise, it may resume the nuclear deal with Iran, albeit in a different configuration and with stricter adherence to eliminating Iran’s subversive and missile activities.

The justified delight on both the banks of the Potomac and the Jordan Rivers with regard to the recently signed agreements with the United Arab Emirates, could be seasoned by the return of the a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, as the Biden administration is likely to seek promoting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This vision is unpalatable for at least some of the components of the Netanyahu government.

Netanyahu has become a vociferous critic of the two state solution. Nonetheless, history proves that he has an impressive ability to artfully collapse in the face of real pressures, be they external or internal. He had done so in the transfer of Hebron to the Palestinians, in the massive release of terrorists in exchange for Gilad Shalit and, more recently, in the issue of opening educational institutions for the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students while most everyone else had to keep zooming at home. This is the Netanyahu.

He would not be eager to confront a determined American administration, especially in light of his original preference for its political rivals. Some in the democratic administration may take their time in overcoming Netanyahu’s siding with the republicans. Others may demand their (Israeli) pound of flesh, claiming that it was their own “progressive” squad that ensured victory. Netanyahu may also encounter American-Jewish indifference and lack of willingness to bridge, once again, over the gap between a right-wing Israeli government and a democratic administration. He will have to mend many fences in Washington and it is not going to be easy.

In a strange “grin of history” and beyond Netanyahu and his persona, it may very well be that Israel needs a center-left government to adopt a belligerent policy, and a right-wing one to promote peace. Thus, the Israeli right wing had enthusiastically mobilized for war (such as in the Six Day War), but viciously cut short the days of a center-left government trying to reach agreements with the Palestinians. Indeed, it is in these gloomy November days that we remember so painfully the assassination that took place 25 years ago. On the other hand, a right-wing government that would promote peace agreements would always enjoy, albeit grudgingly, the support of the left, as it happened with the 1979 Camp David Accords.

It is likely that if a center-left government will attempt to renew the political process, the right wing, led by Mr. Netanyahu, would deluge it ferociously. Nevertheless, if a right-wing government is in power, Mr. Netanyahu will be able to issue even a second “Bar-Ilan speech”, accepting a two-state solution. In such a case, the right wing, perhaps with the exception of some extreme and delusional circles, would hesitate to attack its own Messiah (“King Bibi!”). The battle hardened Security Services should handle these lunatic circles, according to law, and Israel could continue on its way as a modern and advanced start-up nation.

Mr. Netanyahu may still have a historical role to play. He will have to stand before his judges and respond to the indictments leveled at him, but in the meantime, he can serve as a prime minister who could facilitate, though reluctantly, political moves proposed by the Biden administration. Along the way, Mr. Netanyahu could also act (if he so wished) to calm the socio-political turmoil he has promoted in Israel. Does this sound like too much to expect? Maybe, but hey, there is a not-so-new kid on the block now!

Note: a previous version of this post, in Hebrew, was first printed in Zman Israel.

About the Author
Ambassador (ret.) Barukh Binah is a policy fellow at MITVIM, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. He has served in a variety of diplomatic positions vis-à-vis the United States, including Spokesman in New York, Consul General in Chicago, Deputy Head of Mission in Washington DC and Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem,  heading the North American Division. He also served as Israel's ambassador to the Kingdom of Denmark.
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