These are not the easiest of days for Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime-minister is faced with a growing nuclear threat from Iran, collapsing relations with neighboring Arab countries and the worst crisis in U.S.- Israeli relations since the 1956 Suez War. And just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, along comes demands for him to attend a Washington D.C. conference on nuclear security where, he is told, Israel’s supposed best friends in the region are going to demand that Israel sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Someone give this man an aspirin.
It is certainly not the first time the Israeli PM has come under unrelenting pressure from multiple directiosns. In November, 1998 during his first prime-ministership, Bill Clinton, pressing the full weight of his presidential office on Netanyahu, instructed him to sign the Wye River Memorandum, which was an updated version of the Oslo Accords, detailing security arrangements, IDF redeployments and economic matters between Israel and the PA. The Memorandum would never be implemented. IDF withdrawals from contested areas were not met by the stipulated reciprocal responses from the Palestinians – particularly with regard to the collection of weapons and the cessation of incitement. Two years later, the outbreak of the Second Intifada made it all but irrelevant.
Yet at that time, Netanyahu was seen largely by his own constituency on the Israeli right, as a dupe. He had signed an agreement which had given gratuitous concessions to a reprobate Palestinian dictatorship and made Israel seem weak. His coalition partners had still not forgiven him for surrendering 50% of Hebron to Palestinian control the previous year and within a few weeks, having lost the confidence of his Knesset majority, his government fell.
Netanyahu has spent ten years nursing the bruises received from those encounters and in the interim seems to have learned some important lessons. The first of them is that his political survival in Israel is dependent on his country’s projection of strength. When it comes to Israel’s security, he now seems to understand that he should insist on his country’s right to reject any proposal that compromises it. Second, he now appreciates that U.S. Presidents will place their own priorities before that of Israel’s welfare, in order to accelerate broader policy goals. ( Clinton, we might remember, pegged his chances of earning a coveted Nobel Prize to Middle East peace). Third, peace is not going to come to Israel and the Middle East through Israeli concessions but rather through a demonstration of Israeli power respected by Arab regimes – forcing them to concede that they have no other choice but to come to the table.
Although the summit is intended to focus on nuclear security, leaving other broad topics such as non-proliferation and disarmament to different fora, there will be an inevitable drift of discussion to those issues. Netanyahu is aware that demands will be made on Israel by erstwhile friends Egypt and Turkey (who have been given lately to describing Israel as ” the greatest threat to peace in the region”) to sign the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty. He is also aware of the deep ambivalence of the Obama administration towards his government. There could be little relish for the idea of being dressed down again by Hilary Clinton.
Netanyahu’s aversion to attending the conference is, however, more than mere discomfort at the thought of being confronted by Israel’s antagonists. Perhaps alone among world leaders, he recognizes that his country stands as a hedge against Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons – which he rightly regards as the greatest calamity to befall our civilization . He sees no evidence that the world is seriously tackling this issue and is convinced the United States government is more at ease castigating Israel about building Jerusalem apartments than dealing effectively with the threat. He recognizes that within a short while Israel will be forced to launch a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities or else expose Israel and the world to the destabilizing reality of a nuclear Iran.
So Netanyahu’s Israel may soon become the very kind of rogue state that the Nuclear Security Summit will be trying to identify and outlaw. If and when Israeli planes strike Iran, no world leader will praise Netanyahu. Instead, he will be excoriated from Whitehall to Foggy Bottom as a lawless provocateur, attempting to instigate World War III. Secretly, however, they will all concede that what he authorized had precisely averted such a catastrophe – even if it takes memoirs written many years into the future to produce such an admission.
Having learned the lessons of Wye then, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have matured into a world leader who knows how to handle international pressure. His tacit understanding that Israel must be left to make decisions about its own security and that Middle East peace is illusory without a demonstration of Israeli power, vouchsafe his suspicion that his presence at the conference will only damage Israel’s image and encourage continuing international lassitude on the matter of Iran.
Benjamin Netanyahu is not winning many popularity contest anywhere in the world. Except, perhaps, in Israel – where he is beginning to demonstrate the way a world leader, in a time of crisis, should act.