Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy has been, by his lights, a resounding success. The United States is in his pocket, at least until Donald Trump presents his “deal of the century.” Europe is mostly engaged with itself, Brexit and immigration, and in the meantime Netanyahu is forging a formidable pocket of resistance with the four Visegrad countries, in exchange for an Israeli pardon for past and present anti-Semitism of some of its members. His idyll with Vladimir Putin may have been marred by the downing of a Russian plane over Syria, but the astounding progress in ties with Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries, and even Chad more than makes up for it.
Netanyahu must be proud of his achievements, but his pleasure is compounded by the refutation of the dire predictions of his rivals and critics. The diplomatic catastrophe that they envisaged failed to materialize. Instead of the world forcing Netanyahu to change his views, it has embraced them. Whether he is a sagacious prophet or simply lucky beyond his wildest dreams, Netanyahu’s stars have aligned perfectly: A U.S. president who thinks, speaks and acts like a ruffian fan of the notorious Beitar Jerusalem football club, an adventurous if not megalomaniac Saudi crown prince and a wave of nationalism, ethnocentrism and barely-disguised anti-Muslimism, in which Netanyahu swims like a fish in the water.
Pushing Trump and his administration to abandon the Iran nuclear deal is Netanyahu’s most prominent accomplishment but his efforts to diminish the Palestinian problem are, from an ideological point of view, far more significant. Netanyahu believes that he has arrested the “reversal of causality” which he pointed to a quarter of a century ago in his book “A Place Among the Nations”: He has undercut the clichés instilled in Western public opinion by “Arab propaganda” about the Palestinians being the crux of the Middle East problem and the one that held that only by resolving it will Israel be able to find its place in the region. “Our relations with Arab countries, which are predicated on Israel’s strength and worth, are actually stronger and more stable,” Netanyahu told the Knesset on Tuesday.
Isolating the Palestinians and rendering them irrelevant is a central pillar of Netanyahu’s campaign to push them into a corner, crush their aspirations, smash their expectations and bring them back, with a thud, to a reality in which they must make do with the status quo for the time being and with an administrative autonomy, at best, as a permanent solution. In order to weaken the Palestinians further, Netanyahu is playing divide and rule between Gaza and the West Bank, even if this requires an accommodation with Hamas that disappoints his right-wing base.
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The fatal flaw in the Netanyahu doctrine is the assumption that the Palestinians will stick to the script he’s written, that they will come to accept the destruction of their dreams and that the pressure cooker into which they have been pushed won’t blow up in Israel’s face. The relative lack of the violence that was expected to break out in the wake of the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem in May has emboldened Netanyahu to believe that the Palestinians are under control. The fact that both intifadas broke out against a backdrop of frustration and resentment among Palestinians doesn’t faze him. On his watch, the Palestinians will remain docile.
Everyone is now waiting for the publication of Trump’s ultimate peace plan. Even if he won’t like it, Netanyahu is banking on his ability to maneuver Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership to reject the plan first. Only then, when it becomes clear that the peace process is irrevocably moribund, we’ll be able to ascertain whether Netanyahu has confounded his critics once again or opened up the gates of hell instead. If Netanyahu happens to lose the elections as well, it will be left to his successor to try and clean up the mess.