Netanyahu’s triumph and the future of Israel  

Brian M Downing 

The US recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel is bringing angry protest in many parts of the world. Most of it is easing, giving way to realization that the Israeli prime minister and his Likud predecessors have outmaneuvered the Palestinians. There will be no Palestinian state as people as different as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat had worked for.

What does Netanyahu’s success mean for the West Bank, the Palestinians, and for Israel itself? The Palestinians are certainly losers, but many Israelis see Bibi’s triumph with ambivalence.

The West Bank in Netanyahu’s ambitions

The occupied territories serve four purposes. First, they provide defensive depth. Israel is about seven miles wide at its narrowest point. An enemy could break through IDF positions and cut the country in two. The West Bank expands the width five-fold.

Several Israeli generals dismiss the need for strategic depth. There is no enemy to the east capable of such a drive. Jordan is an economic and strategic partner. To the northeast, the Syrian civil war is easing but sectarian hostilities will linger for decades, precluding a strong military.

Second, religious groups in Israel and the United States, Jewish and Christian, see the West Bank as an integral part of Israel. Many of them see the lands in millenarian terms: important for the coming of the Messiah or the return of Jesus. Netanyahu is not religious but he uses the faithful as parts of his coalition, popular base, and American support.

Third, the West Bank is an important source of water. The population and agricultural sector need more and more of it. Desalination plants are technological marvels but expensive. The aquifers provide relatively inexpensive water.

Fourth, economic and military power require a growing population and that in turn calls for more housing, businesses, and land. Coastal cities are already densely populated. The south is arid.

Fifth, a partisan political dimension is at play. Population growth is highest among the ultra-religious. More land for them, their children, and immigrant brethren will strengthen the Israeli Right. Their numbers may make them politically dominant within a few decades if not less.

Likud foreign policy

Over the last decade or so, Netanyahu and other Likud members have warned of rising Iranian influence in the region. The warnings have been overstated in an effort to play upon the religious hatreds of Sunni rulers.

The alignment has been in place for at least ten years when the threat of an American or Israeli airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities seemed close at hand. The Saudis were willing to allow Israeli fighters to refuel over their airspace. The alignment has firmed in recent months as Shia power in Syria and over Kurdistan has strengthened.

The clearest sign of a strong working relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia is the latter’s muted response to the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The move all but ends hopes for the two-state solution and signals the Sunni monarchs’ abandonment of the Palestinians.

The partnership has two significant consequences, at least one of which was intended. First, Iran has stepped up support for the Palestinians and antagonism toward the Sunnis and Israel. In an effort to foment unrest in Sunni countries, its media (Fars, Press TV) decry the partnership and the betrayal implicit in the American embassy move. Iran is more antagonistic to Sunni powers now than it was a month ago. Its appeals to the Sunni people make it more dangerous as well.

Second, the alliance and embassy move have strengthened popular support for the mullahs and generals who govern Iran. Reform is on the back burner. The public is ready for conflict.

The Palestinians 

Meaningful discussion of the Palestinian question has been on hold for years. It’s now over. Recent American administrations, Democratic and Republican, have acceded to the Likud, and Sunni monarchs see Iran as much more important. Only Iran, Qatar, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood support the Palestinians. None of those entities can restart negotiations. The EU will protest and demand them but the Israeli government will not budge.

Netanyahu is positioned to impose a settlement. His negotiations were not with the Palestinian Authority, they were with the Saudis. The Palestinians must settle for a confederation of towns and villages. No meaningful state will be permitted and existing and perhaps worsening divisions will make coalescence of one impossible. The economy will be weak and dependent on foreign subsidies, mainly from Saudi Arabia. Should the Palestinians resist, Saudi subsidies will shrink. The Palestinians will face the dilemma of further immiseration or emigration or terrorism. The latter can be contained – and plays into Netanyahu’s hand.

* * *

Netanyahu’s triumph is celebrated across Israel but many see troubles coming. The foreign troubles are clear, the domestic ones less so – especially in America. Over the years Netanyahu and his movement have been changing their country. The founding ideology of secularism, social justice, and searching for peace is being replaced by one based on blood and land, a fusion of fundamentalism and nationalism, and unrestrained military might.

In recent years statesmen and generals have drawn parallels to 1930s Europe. In a country created after that period’s ruinous denouement, they do so advisedly. The country they see ahead is based less on the principles of Herzl, Weizmann, and Ben-Gurion and more on the orations of Jabotinsky, Sharon, and Netanyahu.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.