As Israel’s former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bows out, some of his ideas that have not only guided Israel’s security policies but also inspired America’s military interventions in the Middle East remain with us.
By sending a defiant message to the United States, emphasizing Israel’s refusal to play a role in its nuclear negotiations with Iran, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Israel’s chief of staff, and Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new prime minister, seem to be sticking to Netanyahu’s confrontational approach.
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With the risk of friction developing between President Joe Biden’s administration and Israel’s new leadership, it is therefore useful, if not critical, to look at Netanyahu’s policy legacy in the region and the hazards it poses.
Netanyahu has been offering advice to the United States about the Middle East for over two decades, and due to his influence in Washington, especially with Republicans, he will probably continue to do so.
In 2002, in testimony before Congress, he asserted that “we,” meaning he himself and Israeli intelligence, were absolutely certain that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons and that the United States must invade Iraq to destroy the facilities.
He also predicted that the other consequences of invading Iraq would all be favorable: “If you take out Saddam, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations in the region.”
But when the United States did invade Iraq in 2003, it failed to find any trace of a nuclear program. The Iraq War did not lead to “enormous positive reverberations in the region” or create a domino effect that ended with the fall of the regime in Tehran.
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But, it is not the intelligence fiasco that is the crux of the matter. Rather, it is Netanyahu’s approach to international crises.
From his perspective, military might, or “implementing power” as he called it, is the solution to international crises. His recommendation to use force was predicated on his optimistic assessment that it creates a virtuous circle of victory, of “winning and winning and winning.”
To make his point crystal clear, he elaborated before Congress what turned out to be one of the costliest policy recommendations in Middle East history: “[T]he more victories you amass, the easier the next victory becomes. The first victory in Afghanistan makes the second victory in Iraq that much easier. The second victory in Iraq will make the third victory that much easier.”
But the United States did not “win” in Iraq. Rather, it lost over 4,700 young men and women, buried over a trillion dollars in the sand, tore Iraqi society asunder, led to over a quarter of a million Iraqi dead and 5 million displaced. It did not achieve its goal, because there was nuclear program to eliminate. Nor did the invasion produce anything like “positive reverberations” throughout the region that Netanyahu promised.
Not only did the wild goose chase in Iraq impose painful costs on Iraq and the United States, it enhanced the power of America’s nemesis, Iran and Al-Qaida.
That is because when the United States toppled the Saddam regime, it opened the door for Iran to intervene. Iranian militias flooded into Iraq and helped establish the “Shia Crescent” that connects Tehran by land to its allies in Syria and to Hizbollah in Lebanon. That “Shia Crescent” greatly enhanced the Iranians’ ability to wage proxy wars and threaten Israel.
The second beneficiary of Netanyahu’s misguided advice was Al-Qaida, which had carried out the 9/11 attacks two years earlier.
Al-Qaida’s operatives understood what Netanyahu and other supporters of invasion did not – that political and military chaos create an ideal environment for terrorists. As the United States and Iran meddled in Iraqi politics, Al-Qaida began one of the most atrocious terror campaigns in Middle East history.
Over time, some of its leaders established ISIS, which would never have been possible if they had they not been so well entrenched in Iraq. Thus, part of the collateral damage of the invasion of Iraq was the creation of the world’s most notorious terror organization.
Netanyahu’s advice backfired once again in 2018, when he convinced President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
As a consequence, Iran stepped up its efforts to attain nuclear weapons and today is closer to reaching that goal than it was in 2018.
In both cases, Netanyahu advised the Americans who listened to him to use force, and in both cases these direct confrontations proved counterproductive, bringing about the opposite of what their advocates sought to achieve.
Netanyahu’s reliance on military intervention and arm-twisting have proven to be self-destructive. Israel’s military and political leaders would do well to reject his bellicose approach to international crises and shift toward a policy of cooperating, quietly, with the forces that oppose Iran’s nuclear program by devising realistic, yet creative, ways to stop it.
Nimrod Hurvitz is a co-founder of The Forum for Regional Thinking and teaches Middle East Studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.