Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States during the first decade of the 20th century, described his foreign policy with the phrase, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” The events of the past few weeks illustrate once more the advantages of this approach, which the makers of Israel’s national security policy would do well to adopt.
Israel has a big military stick, but over the years its leaders have learned its limits as well as the price of wielding it with a heavy hand. The trauma of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which was also a product of outsize confidence in our strength; the heavy price exacted by the first Lebanon war, in 1982, a war of choice; the first intifada, which showed that the occupation has a price; and the dismal way that the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, ended, were all important chapters in this learning experience.
It’s no wonder, then, that on the three occasions between 2010 and 2012 that Benjamin Netanyahu sought to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, military officials and intelligence chiefs made every effort to dissuade him from getting tangled up in a war as long as “the sword was not at our throat.” The caution with which Israel operates in the Gaza Strip is largely a result of the experience gained in similar operations against Hamas.
But caution in applying force is not a substitute for the advice with which Roosevelt’s adage begins: Speak softly. Israel has ignored that part for a decade, and consequently we now find ourselves contending with significant strategic difficulties that could worsen in the future. The individual who bears the greatest responsibility for this is Netanyahu, who throughout most of his time as prime minister, at least since Ehud Barak left the Defense Ministry, has conducted Israel’s national security policy nearly on his own. Netanyahu did not speak softly; rather, he acted crudely, particularly in three areas.
The first is Iran: Netanyahu put Israel at the head of the anti-Iran camp. He tried to advance an Israeli military attack on Iran, he voiced prophecies of wrath regarding the Iranian threat at every international forum and mocked the Iranians with the claim that Israel had learned their secrets. He threw all his weight against the Iran nuclear deal, even though most experts believed the agreement was effective in blocking Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. He persuaded U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accord and disclosed covert activity against the missile threat facing Israel. After a decade of unchecked action, Israel became an operative target of Iran. Its military power is on the rise, and Israel today is more vulnerable than ever to the threat of its missiles and those of its allies.
The second area is relations with the Palestinians. Unlike his predecessors since the start of the first intifada in 1987, Netanyahu did everything in his power to prevent progress toward an arrangement with the Palestinians. His policy expanded the Israeli presence in the West Bank, to the point where it seems that the two-state solution has become unworkable. But this policy will not eliminate the Palestinians’ aspiration for an independent state and their hatred of Israel, the product of living under occupation for more than 50 years. Netanyahu wasted 10 years of the rule of Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate Palestinian leader, and blocked all progress on the only model acceptable to the international community — with the possible exception of Trump, who even on a good day isn’t sure what his “deal of the century” is.
Progress on the peace process would have bolstered Israel’s position on the Sunni Muslim anti-Iran axis, weakened the propaganda effect of Iran, which portrays itself to the Arab world as the leader of the Palestinian struggle, and reduced the likelihood of a third intifada erupting after Abbas leaves the stage.
- Iranian threat to Israel is real, even if it serves Netanyahu’s interests
- Netanyahu on Iran: We appreciate U.S. support, but Israel ready to defend itself
- Iran has deployed missiles in Yemen that could hit Israel, Netanyahu says
The third area is Israeli relations with the United States. Instead of following Roosevelt’s advice, Netanyahu was like a bull in a china shop in the American arena, in his efforts to promote his objectives regarding Iran and his rejectionist policy toward the Palestinians. This led to the destruction of the excellent relations, built through hard work, with the Democratic Party, a prominent supporter of Israel since the state’s establishment in 1948, and the increasing alienation of American Jewry, which is distressed by how far Israel under Netanyahu has strayed from the values that American Jews holds dear. Netanyahu traded the support of both parties and the aid of U.S. Jewry for the crutch offered by Trump. But in light of the president’s actions, it would appear that even Netanyahu has begun to doubt whether he could count on him if push came to shove. And if the Democrats regain the White House in 2020, Israel will be left empty-handed. Even the American Jewish community would not hurry to rally around it.
The lesson to learn from the gathering clouds overhead is that nothing lasts forever. Israel must maintain a strong military and at the same time pursue a policy aimed at reducing the need to use it. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” should be the motto of the next government, which presumably will not include Netanyahu.
Prof. Emeritus Uri Bar-Joseph is the author of “The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel.”