Observations of an ex pat: Netanyahu – opportunity or setback?

Netanyahu has won a fifth term as prime minister of Israel.  On the face of it this is terrible news. Benjamin Netanyahu (“King Bibi” to his supporters) is a right-wing, ultra-nationalist, militarist populist who is the biggest single obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Or is he? And if he is, is that good or bad?

Modern history has shown that the most obstinate political leaders are sometimes the best ones to achieve the required breakthrough compromise.  Richard Nixon’s history as a hardline anti-communist meant that he was the only one who could open the door to Mao’s China. A similar move by a Democrat liberal would have been attacked as a “sell-out”

 It required compromise by hardliners Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin to end decades of war between Egypt and Israel.  In Northern Ireland tough men Ian Paisley and IRA leader Martin McGuinness were the only two who could have struck a workable compromise.

While Netanyahu has been beavering away at the hustings, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his former lawyer Jason Greenblatt have spent two years hammering out a Middle East peace proposal. The plan is wrapped in the tightest of secrecy cloaks. The only ones who know the details are Kushner, Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israeli David Friedman and Kushner and Grenblatt’s aide Avi Berkowitz.  President Trump is regularly briefed on the broad brush, but his twittering fingers are kept away from the details.

Having said that, a few general thoughts have emerged. In a Washington Post op-ed in July Kushner, Grenblatt and Friedman floated the idea that the Palestinians abandon the long-held principle of the right of return in favour of a Marshall-type plan for Palestinian areas. Whether those areas involve a one-state, two-state, or even no-state or three-state solution is being kept under wraps. There is also meant to be an interesting new proposal on Jerusalem in the works.

The plan was meant to be tabled last autumn, but the Trump Administration put it back on the shelf because the likelihood of total rejection by one or both sides was too great at the time. Officials have said, it will remain on the shelf until Kushner and Co think the political stars are in the perfect alignment required for success.

The re-election of Netanyahu is seen by the Trump Administration as one of those stars. One diplomat said that Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; his withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Accord, the  closure of the Washington diplomatic office for the Palestinians; and the drastic  reduction in aid for the Palestinians can be seen as part of  a plan by Trump to convince Netanyahu that the American president is the best—possibly the ONLY—chance of a pro-Israel peace.

Set against that is the fact that Netanyahu has consistently opposed peace talks. The current stand-off suits him just fine. The Israelis are clearly the top dog. The Palestinians are not so much the underdog as the abandoned untermenschen of the Middle East.  As such, Kushner and Co hope that the Palestinians are being backed into a corner where almost any agreement would be preferable to the current downward spiral of corruption, poverty and perpetual war.

There are also factors which could cause the stars to shift against peace. Netanyahu could go to prison on any one of several corruption charges. There is also the strong possibility that Iranian forces in Syria could throw a spanner into the works.

There are historical examples of hard-nosed, obstinate political leaders who have used the public perception of their policies to secure a legacy of peace. Unfortunately they are the exception rather than the rule. There is nothing in Netanyahu or Trump’s history which indicates that either of them will turn from the politics of fear and division towards peace. But they are uniquely positioned to do so. If either ignores the opportunity than the election of Bibi is the major setback it appears on the surface to be.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” was published on 15 October.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Stanley Wilkinson 12th Apr '19 - 9:09am

    The point about Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness is fundamentally wrong. It was John Hume of the SDLP and David Trimble of the UUP who delivered the Good Friday Agreement with strong opposition from

  • David McDowall 12th Apr '19 - 2:03pm

    Tom Arms’ optimism is misplaced. He thinks Kushner’s cunning plan can succeed because Trump and Netanyahu are hotsie-totsie, while the abandoned Palestinians will swallow whatever is less bad than what they currently endure.

    How can a durable peace settlement emerge from anything so unjust? Arms seems unaware of the relevant basic rules of international conduct, rules forged out of bitter historical experience and ones to which the UK and EU are committed:
    (1) no state may lawfully annex captured territory (any argument about it being lawful if captured in a defensive war – even were that true – remains legally invalid);
    (2) the territory captured by Israel in 1967 remains ‘Occupied’ and under international law the Occupier’s prime duty is the welfare of its indigenous inhabitants, so settlement of its own citizens and acts of collective punishment remain illegal;
    (3) a people has the right to self-determination within their own territory, is another obligatory principle (inherited from the Atlantic Charter), in this case defined by the land occupied in 1967.

    Trump and Netanyahu are strangers to the foregoing or the idea of lawfulness, but we would abandon such principles and laws at our peril. We would, in effect, be party to the dismantling of the international order. The only way forward, however one imagines the end solution to be configured, must uphold equal rights for all who inhabit those lands, within the framework of international law.

  • Laurence Cox 12th Apr '19 - 6:27pm

    I think that Tom Arms needs to read Robert Fisk’s article in The Independent yesterday: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/israel-elections-benjamin-netanyahu-saudi-us-coalition-palestinians-a8865626.html

    Even if Benny Gantz’ coalition had won, their language about the Palestinians hardly differed from Likud’s and they would either need to work with Likud or with even more extreme right-wing parties.

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