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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 April 2019

Netanyahu is a danger to his country and his neighbours

With the backing of the US and Russia, Netanyahu will continue to act with impunity, endangering his country and its neighbours

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara wave following his election victory. Ammar Awad / Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara wave following his election victory. Ammar Awad / Reuters

By re-electing Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel and endorsing his racist project – bolstered by his alliance with US President Donald Trump – the Israelis have voted for confrontation and instability. A segment of Israelis may have seen his arrogance as an asset for the historical reassertion of a Greater Israel, while others might have decided to begrudgingly accept the betrayal of Israeli promises and commitments under the pretext of living in a "tough neighbourhood".

Either way, the Israelis are set to lose their chance to coexist peacefully with their neighbours and any opportunity for mutual respect, by blessing Mr Netanyahu’s project to swallow what is left of Palestinian land and end the two-state solution. Meanwhile, the peace deal being peddled by Mr Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner will not secure peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, or Arabs and Israelis, as long as it focuses on property rather than the foundations of lasting peace.

Regionally, the Israeli-Iranian dynamic, while shifting from traditional truce to calculated confrontation in Syria, will not escalate to the point of direct war. Yet proxy war in Lebanon is now a stronger possibility – either as a result of miscalculation or conscious decision. This is another source of instability for the Israelis, even if Lebanon were to pay the biggest price for any conflict between Israel, and Iran and Hezbollah.

So what are the short and long-term implications of Mr Netanyahu’s victory? How will the enduring far right in Israel affect Jewish Americans and the Democratic party in the US? How will Gulf countries deal with Mr Netanyahu’s re-election and his regional projects? How will Russian-Israeli relations evolve? And finally, what will be the repercussions of the demise of the peace process?

In the US, the far right in Israel will bolster its ties with the American right, putting further pressure on Mr Trump to endorse Israel’s promised annexation of large settlements in the West Bank, just as he endorsed the annexation of the Golan Heights. Removing the label of occupation from Arab lands seized by Israel is now proceeding as a systematic, de facto, US-Israeli strategy, with the complicity of various establishments, including US media and think-tanks. But doing this in the West Bank eliminates the notion of a Jewish democratic state. Mr Netanyahu's priority is the "Jewishness" of Israel and not any democratic pretences.

In the coming phase, we will see a split in the ranks of Jewish Americans because of this tension. There will be a ripple effect inside the Democratic party, with which most American Jews associate. However, this might not ultimately impact the Trump-Netanyahu strategy that seeks to impose a Greater Israel in the rest of Palestine and the majority in Israel and among Jewish Americans will not object, especially if the pretext is Israeli security.

The peace process and the two-state solution came to an end some time ago. Practically, the peace process has been dead for five years along with the two-state solution, which Mr Netanyahu never really believed in. The Oslo promise was a ruse to lure Palestinians, who believed in the dream. The Palestinian intifada was contained with the help of the US and the peace process was part of that plan.

Israel and the US believe altering the facts on the ground succeeds and that Israel will come out victorious and safer, no matter how much it expands and disregards international law. They are also betting that Mr Netanyahu will overcome corruption charges against him, even if indicted.

One concern here is that Mr Netanyahu might need a war to distract attention away from his legal troubles, possibly in Lebanon. And this could intersect with an Iranian interest in war for other reasons: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), spearheaded by Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, need a war to reassert their role in Iranian domestic politics after crippling US sanctions. For this reason, Mr Soleimani might decide that inviting an Israeli war against Hezbollah in Lebanon would rescue his cause. Mr Netanyahu might decide that a war seeking to destroy Hezbollah’s Iranian-made rocket arsenal in Lebanon would rescue him from trial. In such a scenario, Washington will not intervene to protect Lebanon, given that the objective will be Iranian rockets and Hezbollah.

Some believe that Mr Netanyahu will be more cautious about Lebanon, because he does not want a new front, particularly as Israel focuses on countering Iran in Syria with US support and offers itself as a backer of the US strategy against the Iran. Some believe that Tehran, in turn, does not really want a direct confrontation with Israel in Lebanon, because it is not ready to use its most precious card: Hezbollah.

In the meantime, Washington is tightening the noose around both Iran and Hezbollah through economic sanctions, targeting them and those who provide them with political, economic, and security cover. Iran continues to protest but hopes to avoid any direct response.

Iran might benefit from Mr Netanyahu’s re-election, because his expansionist policies and provocations help the hardliners in Tehran justify their own policies. And the terrorists in ISIS, Al Qaeda and other groups are reassured by Mr Netanyahu, because his policies help them recruit, mobilise and justify their cause.

Those who stand to lose from his re-election include the ones who have been defending relations with Israel in Arab forums, led by Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi. Last week, Mr Alawi caused uproar during the World Economic Forum summit in the Dead Sea in Jordan, when he called on Arabs to “ease Israel’s fears for its future” in an Arab surrounding.

Mr Netanyahu has craftily spun exceptional relations with both the US and Russia, guaranteeing consideration of Israel among the two major international players shaping the Middle East. His strong relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin continues to boost his policies in Syria with regards to Iran’s presence there. And his relations with Mr Trump will encourage him to go to extreme measures in Palestine without fear of recrimination. In short, Mr Netanyahu has made himself the spoiled child of both Moscow and Washington, albeit in varying degrees.

But if Mr Trump and Mr Putin do not establish boundaries for Mr Netanyahu, they will find themselves bound by ambitions that undermine their other allies, invite a response and fuel the kind of extremism that both men claim to have defeated.

Mr Netanyahu is a danger to his country, neighbours and Israelis, as long as he continues to get what he wants and escape accountability. But none of this would have been possible without the encouragement and endorsement of Mr Trump and Mr Putin.

Updated: April 13, 2019 06:22 PM

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