Underrated: Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel's 'hawkish' prime minister is a wise pragmatist with a deft touch amid regional chaos

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Netanyahu: Underrated
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Emanuele Ottolenghi
On 4 September 2013 18:30

Everybody loves to hate Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

When he appeared at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2012 to warn the international community about Iran's impending nuclear threat with a graphic depiction of a bomb, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt dismissed it as "confusing". New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called him "a local party boss".

In 2011 former US President Bill Clinton blamed him for the failure of the peace talks with the Palestinians. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was famously caught on a live mic telling President Obama "Netanyahu, I can't stand him. He's a liar." Obama replied: "You are sick of him, but I have to deal with him every day."

Since taking office for his second term as a prime minister in March 2009 (he is now into his third), Netanyahu has had to contend with the reputation of being a hardline hawk bent on sabotaging rather than seeking a peace deal with the Palestinians. His rhetoric on Iran has only enhanced the view that he is a warmonger.

Detractors even speculated that Netanyahu was under the intellectual spell of his late father Benzion Netanyahu, former secretary of the revisionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky and noted historian of the Spanish Inquisition. It was said that  Benzion's commitment to the revisionist idea of a Jewish state on both banks of the river Jordan blocked his son's route to a territorial compromise.

Yet his critics fail to grasp the true nature of a leader caught between the push of history in a region in turmoil and the pull of his country's byzantine politics.

Netanyahu is not the ideologue many presume he is. Although he opposed the Oslo Agreement of the early 1990s, he signed off the Hebron Accords in 1997 — relinquishing Israeli authority over one of Judaism's most important holy cities — and the Wye River deal a year later, which put another nail in the Greater Israel coffin.

His opposition to the Peres-Rabin peace plan earned him international scorn, which intensified after Prime Minister Rabin was assasinated by a far-Right gunman. Yet, quite aside from the fact that much of his criticism of Oslo later proved justified, Netanyahu has approached relations with the Palestinian Authority pragmatically.

His stint as finance minister (2003-05) earned him little praise abroad, yet he rescued Israel from financial ruin. He also initiated enough structural change to free the country from the shackles of its overburdened welfare state. He resigned from the government in 2005 over the plan to withdraw from Gaza because it would allow a base for Islamic terrorism, a practical consideration borne out by Israel's subsequent clashes with Hamas in 2006 and 2009.

As prime minister, Netanyahu has been much more cautious than most of his predecessors. The more centrist Ehud Olmert and his foreign minister Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu's former rival, got embroiled in two wars (in 2006 against Hezbollah and in 2009 against Hamas) while Netanyahu has avoided or sought to limit violent confrontations on Israel's borders.

Despite his ramped-up rhetoric on Iran, Netanyahu has also been cautious on the issue he views as most critical for his country's long-term security. He has not ordered the airforce into action and has patiently worked to push the international community to pressure Iran through sanctions. His best weapon has been bluff — the widespread belief that he is ready to pull the trigger, though his actions show that he is guided by prudence.

Nowhere is this truer than with two other big challenges he faces — the Arab Spring and the peace process. He has tried to walk a fine line between American pressure for a return to talks, Palestinian rejectionism, diminishing international sympathy for Israel, and the fickle nature of his coalitions. 

His Bar-Ilan speech in June 2009, embracing a two-state solution, was never fully appreciated by his Western detractors, who could not grasp the dramatic departure it offered from his ideological roots. His ten-month settlement freeze was unprecedented — yet earned him no credit. 

His recent readiness to free 26 Palestinian prisoners — mostly murderers who carried out terrorist offences — to jump-start peace talks contradicts his previous stance on terrorism. It is also a sign of incredible flexibility for a man who understands the importance of keeping American support amid regional pandemonium. 

Netanyahu has acted carefully as the tumult has submerged allies like Hosni Mubarak and created vacuums for Israel's worst enemies to step into in Syria and the Sinai. To date, he has avoided being sucked into the mess and maintained Israel as an island of stable ground.

Netanyahu has few fans among liberal pundits or Scandinavian politicians. But he has captained the ship of state wisely and for long enough to deserve high praise.

Emanuele Ottolenghi, a Contributing Editor to The Commentator,  is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of Iran: the Looming Crisis (Profile Books: 2010)

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