The Wisdom and Follies of Netanyahu of Arabia

Why does a statesman who’s doing so well in the Middle East repeatedly fail in the North Atlantic region?

Benjamin Netanyahu at the ceremony celebrating the return of an Israeli tank that was used in the first Lebanon War, June 8, 2016.
Haim Zach, GPO

The reconciliation agreement with Turkey illustrates once again that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one of the only statesmen in the immediate vicinity. As opposed to many of the security cabinet ministers, he knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Unlike many leaders in the national camp, he doesn’t think in populist terms of national honor and humiliation. Unlike many leaders on the left, whose responses to the agreement were shameful, the prime minister doesn’t merely make lofty pronouncements about peace. Trenchant critics of Netanyahu like me must be the first to express appreciation for the wisdom, vision, responsibility and courage he finally displayed.

The agreement is not devoid of context. A peace envoy who recently visited Cairo and tried to elicit criticism of Netanyahu from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi came away empty-handed. Sissi is in love with Netanyahu, as are no few other moderate Arab leaders. Netanyahu has established himself as an ally of the Sunni Muslims in their war against the Shi’ites, and has racked up a lot of regional credit. There is no doubt that Netanyahu has succeeded in managing Israel’s strategic maintenance — preserving ongoing security while avoiding unnecessary wars. But he has done even more than that; he has spun a network of relationships in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean basin that make him a close albeit covert friend of the Arab world.

But Netanyahu’s success in Arabia stands in marked contrast to his colossal failure in the West. In 2012 he misread the American electoral map and bet badly and scandalously on Mitt Romney. In 2015 he again did not read the American map correctly and gambled poorly and recklessly that the Republican Congress would confront the Democratic president and halt the nuclear deal with Iran. From 2009 to this day he has not even read the European map; he’s belittled Europe and brought Israel’s relations with it to crisis levels.

Now Netanyahu is about to pay in spades for all these mistakes. On the one hand, U.S. President Barack Obama and the Europeans will work together to pass a UN resolution that Israel will have a hard time living with. On the other, Israel will no longer enjoy the close strategic cooperation with the United States that it needs to maintain its power. Netanyahu’s failure with the West is liable to cause significant harm to Israel’s diplomatic and security strength.

So the question is, what’s the difference between Netanyahu of Arabia and Netanyahu of the West? Why does a statesman who’s doing so well in the Middle East repeatedly fail in the North Atlantic region?

The answer is the spirit of the times, from which Netanyahu is totally disconnected. The son of Prof. Benzion Netanyahu is, at his core, a 19th-century Victorian who loves high-tech but does not share 21st century values. In the depths of his soul, the student of Thomas Hobbes prefers stability over freedom, strength over justice, and power over rights. That’s why he’s more comfortable in the company of Vladimir Putin than with Obama. That’s why he deals better with tyrants (whether Arab, Russian, Chinese or Turkish) than with democratically elected leaders.

In the dog-eat-dog world of the Middle East, which is fashioned by crude interests and callous power relations, Netanyahu is a king. By contrast, in the delicate and refined world of the enlightened West, Netanyahu is an outsider. A fossil. An incomprehensible and loathsome relic of another era.

There’s a great irony here. Netanyahu is not a man of peace, but he is closer today to many of our Arab neighbors than the declared peaceniks. Netanyahu is a graduate of Boston’s MIT, but he has nothing at all to do with a contemporary American cosmopolitan city. While our English-speaking leader has been integrating us into the Arab world in an unprecedented fashion, he is distancing us from the free world in an unprecedented and dangerous way.