Netanyahu was no saint, and he failed to adequately address several explosive Israeli identity issues. But the former prime minister had a grand strategy for Israel and successfully implemented it, tuning Israel into a regional powerhouse. Prime Minister Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Lapid would do well to embrace Netanyahu’s strategic doctrines (even giving him some credit), and in so doing lead Israel towards ever-more-robust security and diplomatic achievements.
Whatever one thinks about Binyamin Netanyahu’s political conduct over recent years (which led to his ignominious defeat by the Bennett-Lapid coalition), I believe that history will recognize Netanyahu as one of the great leaders of the State of Israel and one of the most astute global strategists of our time.
The main reason for this is that he made Israel strong, and used this strength to anchor Israel’s independence. He advanced a total reworking of the regional strategic architecture and of attitudes towards Israel – based on respect for Israel’s strength, stability, and utility in the civilizational battles against Islamist radicalism; battles which are the grand challenges of the early 21st century.
From his earliest days in diplomacy and going back to his very first book about Israel and the world (A Place Among the Nations), Netanyahu understood that Israel could survive and would be respected only if it became very, very strong. Aside from raw military power, there were two additional elements of strength that were central to Netanyahu’s strategic thinking: economic success and diplomatic maneuverability.
Throughout his terms as prime minister, Netanyahu acted to free the Israeli economy from its earlier socialist shackles, to encourage entrepreneurism, and to open the economy for international business partnerships. He knew that this was critical for Israel’s ability to maintain its civilian and military industries (which in turn are critical to maintaining Israel’s military power), and to making Israel an attractive place for global investment.
In this, he succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest imaginations, drawing-in the involvement of giant global conglomerates from Intel to Chevron.
Israel’s economic attractiveness overwhelmed the nefarious BDS movement, which sought to isolate and economically strangle Israel. Economic success also was one of the key ingredients of last year’s Abraham Accord peace treaties. Gulf Arab nations marveled at Israel’s technological and economic success and pined to partner with it.
Onto this, Netanyahu layered global diplomatic outreach, aimed at developing new political alliances and business markets for Israel – ranging from India and China to Africa and South America. He also expanded Israel’s diplomatic ties to Russia and eastern Europe. All this has provided Israel with a more broad-based diplomatic oeuvre than ever before, allowing Israel to maneuver on the global playing field for strategic advantage.
Netanyahu did so without losing sight of the fact that the United States is and must remain Israel’s greatest diplomatic and military ally. He stickhandled the US-Israel relationship, with prudence I believe, through eight difficult years of Barak Obama’s presidency and four chaotic years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
He did so without succumbing to Obama’s often-ugly pressures for perilous withdrawals on the Palestinian front, while succeeding in obtaining additional US military aid from Obama and important diplomatic gains from Trump (such as the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of the Golan as Israeli territory, the Pompeo declaration on historic Jewish settlement rights, and more).
Throughout these challenging years, Netanyahu maintained and expanded Israel’s diplomatic independence. The ultimate expression of this was his speech to Congress in 2015 against Obama’s dangerous nuclear deal with Iran. Despite the centrality of the US alliance for Israel, Netanyahu spoke-out unambiguously and bravely against administration policy when he felt that Israel’s most existential security interests were at stake.
This is what the leader of a truly independent country does – the prime minister of the first sovereign Jewish state in 2,000 years – when the chips are down.
I doubt that this was what Netanyahu was thinking about at the time, but numerous public figures in the Arabian Gulf have told me that more than anything else it was Netanyahu’s defiant speech in Congress which drove their leaders forward towards open diplomatic relations with Israel.
With the US withdrawing from its commitments in the Middle East, and Iran threatening, these Arab leaders discovered a new strategic partner in the independent State of Israel. They recognized that Israel is the only country in the region engaged in concrete daily combat against the Iranians, through covert intelligence operations and targeted strikes.
Because of the political earthquakes of the past decade (like the Arab world meltdown and rise of ISIS) and thanks to Netanyahu’s wise diplomacy, important actors around the world have come to accept one of Netanyahu’s central strategic arguments: The assertion that the main “game” in the region is no longer Israel versus the Palestinians or Israel versus the Arabs.
Instead, the main basis for defense and diplomatic activity in the Middle East is an unofficial alliance between Israel and most of the Arabs against the Iranians and other jihadis. It is the forces of stability and moderation, against the forces of violent and radical Islamic revolution.
It is in this context that Netanyahu’s policies on the Palestinian file need to be viewed. Upon collapse of the Oslo process due to Palestinian rejectionism, Netanyahu understood that Israel must prevent runaway Palestinian statehood; the emergence of a radical state that would prolong and exacerbate conflict with Israel instead of ending it.
He worked to dial back the unrealistic and foolhardy “international consensus” whereby Israel was expected to swiftly broker full-fledged and effectively separate Palestinian states in the West Bank and Gaza; especially under Palestinian regimes that are radicalized, dictatorial, and corrupt. (For a short while, he had the praiseworthy cooperation of the Trump administration in this regard.)
The bottom line is that whether they liked Prime Minister Netanyahu or not, allies and adversaries knew that they faced formidable and determined Israeli leadership. US presidents Obama and Trump, Russian President Putin, German Chancellor Merkel, Egyptian President Sisi, Turkish wannabe-sultan Erdogan, and Palestinian and Iranian leaders too – were forced to acknowledge Israel’s clear security red lines and resolute diplomatic principles.
They knew that Israel was led by someone who was cautious in the use of force but did not flinch from confrontation when truly necessary. At the very least, this bought Israel grudging respect, and again, considerable strategic flexibility. This allowed Israel to conduct with relative impunity a forceful “war between wars” against Iranian and Shiite militias in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and apparently inside Iran too, without this erupting into comprehensive war.
This was Netanyahu’s “grand strategy,” and it largely succeeded. It involved steadfastness, patience, and seeing far over the horizon. It involved positioning Israel as an anchor of sanity and a source of ingenuity in an unstable world.
Of course, Netanyahu was no saint, and he failed to adequately address several explosive Israeli identity issues. He has burdened the next generation of Israeli leaders with economic inequalities, religious-secular and Israel-Diaspora divides, legislative-legal imbalances, and democratic deficits.
But Prime Minister Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Lapid would do well to embrace Netanyahu’s strategic doctrines (even giving him some credit), and in so doing lead Israel towards ever-more-robust security and diplomatic achievements.