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Netanyahu’s No Statesman, and His Iraq-Iran Policy Proves It

Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Golan Heights.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Golan Heights.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon

If there’s a consensus about the controversial person who is Benjamin Netanyahu, it lies in his skills as a statesman. When his father Benzion said in an interview with Ari Shavit that Bibi could be “an excellent foreign minister,” Netanyahu’s opponents and supporters all agreed. Bibi himself cultivates an image as a statesman in an entirely different league.

I tended to agree too until a conversation I had with Prof. Zvi Ben-Dor Benite of New York University’s Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. “If there’s a thing Bibi definitely isn’t, it’s a statesman,” he said, and laid out a less popular theory that becomes keenly important in light of the speech by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi on the military's new front in Iraq.

Netanyahu is actually a bad statesman, because in the early ‘90s, as he himself wrote in his book “A Place Among the Nations,” he recognized the looming threat to Israel from Iran. The truth is, Iran, in its various forms as a great eastern power, has been a dominant force in the Middle East since biblical times. Hence the need to ally with it, as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion did in the ‘50s, or contain it.

If after the Khomeini revolution in 1979 Israel couldn’t continue its relationship with Iran, the Islamic Republic could have been confronted, or at least curbed. Until 2015 Netanyahu was threatening military confrontation. But the entire Israeli defense establishment disagreed, and Donald Trump’s America didn’t dare choose the option of direct war – notwithstanding the United States’ assassination of Quds force chief Qassem Soleimani on Friday. So opposition to war became the prevailing position.

All that remained to be done, and it would have been done if Netanyahu were a prescient statesman, was to cultivate some entity to balance Iran. Until the 2003 Iraq War, that entity was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The need for a stable Iraq to balance Iran also stood behind George H. W. Bush’s decision in 1991 not to topple Saddam’s regime after throwing Iraq out of Kuwait.

But in 2002 it was Netanyahu pushing for another American war on Saddam’s republic. For two hours this “expert on terrorism” harangued Congress, proposing another invasion of Iraq. His speech, in later years uploaded to YouTube, was proudly featured in Likud election propaganda.

If Netanyahu really was a profound statesman for anticipating the danger from Iran, he wouldn’t have so ardently pushed for the war that brought down Iraq, leading to Iran’s creeping takeover of its western neighbor. For Israel, the upshot is that in 2020, as military chief Kochavi said in his speech, Israel’s front against Iran has expanded to Iraq.

Netanyahu is therefore a very short-sighted statesman who failed badly on the very issue he identified as most critical. Who did he get this dubious talent from? Maybe his father, who met Ben-Gurion after returning from the United States in 1956 and presented himself as an expert on America.

Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary that Benzion Netanyahu suggested that Israel fight the American left and cultivate ties with a young man in the Conservative leadership in America: Barry Goldwater. Ultimately Goldwater failed in his presidential bid and has gone down in history as supporting Joseph McCarthy and opposing civil rights. Happily for Israel, Ben-Gurion ignored the advice.

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