From the beginning of the Obama administration’s efforts to strike a deal with Iran and halt the latter’s growing nuclear capabilities in return for relieving international sanctions, Benjamin Netanyahu fiercely objected. Even when it meant straining Israel’s relationship with its primary ally, the USA, and its democratically elected leader, Barack Obama, Netanyahu persisted and was highly criticized in the domestic and international media. While people might have different opinions about Netanyahu’s policies and whether he uses Iran as a tool to strengthen his base of support, and maybe even deflect attention from the political stagnation with the Palestinians, it is clear that he cares deeply about the issue and strongly believes he is doing the right thing for Israel’s sake.
Netanyahu, who was raised in an acclaimed Zionist family – the son of a professor of Jewish history, a bereaved brother of a military hero, and the nephew of a Supreme Court Justice – isn’t faking his anxiety or discontent with the possibility that Iran may go nuclear. He genuinely believes that as a responsible prime minister he must do whatever he can to safeguard Israel against any existential threats. Nowadays, when the borders with Jordan and Egypt are secure thanks to the peace agreements, Iraq is no longer a regional superpower, and Syria is preoccupied with an ongoing civil war, Iran and its allies pose the most ostensible threat.
Iran is not an easy adversary. On the contrary, it is doing the best it can to slowly surround Israel and target it from multiple points. Since 2006, Hezbollah has been restocking its weaponry to prepare for the next military campaign, and the IDF acknowledges that the next armed conflict will be bloodier than the previous one, especially on the home front. With Syria slowly crumbling and Iran using Russia to get a larger foothold close to the Israeli border, the north will be put in jeopardy. Furthermore, Iran’s latest rapprochement with Hamas also stipulates that Hamas will not stay silent when a campaign in the north is underway, and they will attempt to turn the battle into a double front war and strike from the south. While the situation already sounds bleak, the IDF is preparing for such scenarios using topnotch weaponry and technology, trying to mitigate the potential damage.
A nuclear Iran turns the tables. Netanyahu and the top brass of the security establishment know this and are doing whatever they can to prevent Iran from reaching superpower status vis-a-vis nuclear weapons. Speaking about the Iranian threat over and over in the UN General Assembly and appealing to the US Congress to reject the deal serve this purpose and also remind Iran that Israel remains vigilant in monitoring Iran’s compliance with its obligations.
However, the methods that Netanyahu uses to deter Iran from obtaining the bomb are incomplete. While Netanyahu proved he does not shy away from using every possible trick in the book, or even inventing new tricks, he refuses to use the most substantial and dominant resource – the regional alliance.
As Iran attempts to strengthen its alliances and projection of power in the Middle East by creating a Shi’ite crescent, Israel focuses on trying to influence Europe and the US to back away from a deal they already committed to. However, it is not only Israel that is deeply concerned by Iranian nuclear progress – Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE share the same fears since a nuclear Iran threatens them as Sunni Muslim states. Saudi Arabia, which is considered the dominant Sunni state, has been fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen for the past two years, and has threatened to develop its own nuclear capability should it need to match Iran’s.
The underlying question is – why doesn’t Israel cooperate with the other regional actors to create a stronger alliance against Iran? If all the tools seem to be applicable when it comes to deterring Iran, why is this tool left untouched?
The long answer is that attempts for Israeli-Arab rapprochement are constantly being made by Israel, and some of them even bear fruit when it comes to specific covert security measures and operations. The short answer is the Palestinians. Until there is a mutually negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians based on the ‘67 borders with sensible adjustments, no Arab leader will be amenable to strike an official alliance with Israel. Much criticism can justifiably be directed against the Arab countries that for years mistreated the Palestinians in their territories, and how the Palestinian cause was cynically used to continue the crusade against Israel. However, while it might feel hollow and cynical that the Arab leaders wave the Palestinian flag every time Israel is mentioned, especially as their shared interests are conspicuous, they are obliged to do so in order to maintain their status in the eyes of the public. In the post-Arab spring world, where Arab leaders know they can be ousted if the civil uproar is potent enough, neglecting the Palestinian cause can eventually cost them their remaining legitimacy, and perhaps even their seat.
The Arab League has recognized that Israel will not be easily removed and already declared its intent to normalize relations with Israel and put the bad blood behind them if Israel was to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. In addition to the prosperity attainable by potential expansion of regional trade, commerce, and tourism, normalization with the Arab world would substantially constrain Iran’s power. Not only can the combination of military might in a unified region serve as further deterrence, but it will also demonstrate that Israel is not the enemy of Islam and can cooperate based on shared interests. Iran will have an arduous time mobilizing people against Israel when the latter establishes relationships with most of the Arab countries, opens embassies, and engages in cultural exchange.
So why does Netanyahu continue to promote policies that further hinder the possibility of peace with the Palestinians, and more important, with the region? If Netanyahu is so adamant to combat Iran’s potential nuclear capabilities that he is willing to put Israel’s relationship with its most significant ally at risk, why does he not do whatever he can to promote a regional alliance?
At the end of the day, Netanyahu is a politician and not a leader. While he claims to stand up for Israel’s interests in the world and meets with world leaders in Latin America or Asia, he also wants to make sure he gets re-elected. Like every other politician, he is restricted by his base and coalition considerations. Few politicians in Israel’s history were willing to make the switch from politics to leadership and put their career and status on the line of fire for a cause they were devoted to. Although Netanyahu’s cause is definitely dear to his heart, he is not willing to do whatever it takes to promote it. Politically, as the Israeli public leans more to the right of the political map, sacrificing his career by signing a deal with the Palestinians is not worthwhile for him, even if it might be in Israel’s best strategic interests.
If Netanyahu really wishes to be a leader, to be remembered in the Israeli pantheon of great men and women alongside his brother, as the prime minister who defended Israel from Iran, he must show courage and willingness to sacrifice. He must resolve the conflict not for the sake of the Palestinians, human rights, or for the left-wing voters’ support, but to allow Israel to fully combat Iran and avoid a looming existential threat.