JERUSALEM (JTA) — As the new Netanyahu government gets rolling, the early signs are that there will be significant changes in foreign policy. The Likud leader has strongly signaled that he intends to be more proactive in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat and has withdrawn his predecessor’s commitments to a two-state solution with the Palestinians and a pullback from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria.
At the end of March, in his first policy speech in the Knesset, Netanyahu put preventing Iran from producing a nuclear bomb at the top of the new government’s agenda. "It is a mark of shame on humanity that several decades after the Holocaust the world’s response to calls by Iran’s leader to destroy the state of Israel is feeble … almost dismissed as if routine," he declared. "However, the Jewish people have learned their lesson. We cannot afford to take lightly megalomaniac tyrants who threaten to annihilate us."
Indeed, for Netanyahu, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is almost a sacred mission. He sees a nuclear bomb in the hands of radical Islamists dedicated to Israel’s destruction as an existential threat and speaks in terms of preventing a second Holocaust. In public, he says it doesn’t matter how Iran is stopped, but privately admits he has little faith in diplomacy or sanctions. Confidants say he sees himself as a key player in Jewish history charged at a crucial hour with the responsibility of saving his people. Some contend that, as a result, he has already made up his mind to use force to set the Iranian nuclear program back several years.
Others in his inner circle, however, expect him to be far more cautious, pointing out that he would not have undivided backing from the defense establishment for a strike. On the contrary, some senior military officials argue that taking out key Iranian nuclear facilities is not something Israel should contemplate doing on its own. For one, they argue, an Israeli attack on Iran would almost certainly spark a major war with Tehran and its proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and possibly Syria as well. Even more importantly, the officials say, Israel would be ill-advised to act without an American green light.
Obviously, Netanyahu would prefer the Americans to do the job themselves. "The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons," he told The Atlantic in a late March interview. The Iranian nuclear challenge, he said, constituted a "hinge of history" and he added that "Western civilization" will have failed if Iran is allowed to go nuclear. The $64,000 question though is whether, if the United States fails to take effective action, Netanyahu will.
Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York who has been advising Netanyahu on U.S.-related issues, is convinced the prime minister will not want to act alone, and will seek maximum cooperation and coordination with the Americans. So much so that Pinkas thinks the Obama administration might use Israeli concerns about Iran as a lever to press Israel on the Palestinian track. "I think the Americans may well try to link the level of cooperation on Iran to progress with the Palestinians," he told JTA.
The second major foreign policy issue on Netanyahu’s desk is how to deal with his predecessor’s peacemaking efforts with the Arab world, especially Syria and the Palestinians. Outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert claims he was on the verge of direct negotiations with the Syrians and close to a final peace deal with the Palestinians. Early indications are that Netanyahu will want to restart both tracks from scratch.
According to Pinkas, Netanyahu’s attitude to negotiations with Syria will depend in the first instance on the outcome of the Obama administration’s current feelers to Damascus. Both Israel and the United States are well aware of the strategic advantage of detaching Syria from the Iranian axis as part of a peace deal with Israel, but so far Netanyahu seems unwilling to pay the price – complete Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights. Netanyahu’s hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman put it bluntly: Israel, he said, was prepared to discuss "peace in return for peace." For Syria’s President Bashar Assad, continued insistence on an Israeli presence on the Golan would almost certainly preclude even an initial engagement. Nevertheless, despite the heavy ideological baggage, pundits believe Netanyahu may well make a Syria move — especially if talks with the Palestinians are deadlocked and if Obama presses for dialogue with Damascus in the overall Iranian context. At the very least, it would be a way of gaining points in the international arena.
On the Palestinian track, Netanyahu hopes to launch an initiative for what he calls "economic peace," creating conditions for a political settlement through intensive economic development of the West Bank. "We do not wish to rule another people. We do not want to rule the Palestinians … Under the permanent-status agreement, the Palestinians will have all the authority they need to rule themselves," Netanyahu declared in the Knesset, promising a bona fide negotiation for a final peace deal on three parallel tracks — economic, security and diplomatic — but stopping short of commitment to the two-state model accepted by previous Israeli governments, the Palestinian Authority and the international community.
Netanyahu argues that he is not offering the Palestinians any less than previous prime ministers, only that he is being more honest about what is actually on the table. "He believes that most Israeli negotiators who dealt with this issue, after making the concession on Palestinian statehood up front, began subtracting powers in the course of the negotiations, like the airspace, the armed forces or the right to make treaties with neighboring countries, such as Iran. So the new prime minister is being intellectually honest when he says look, I want to tell you, these are our concerns," a member of Netanyahu’s inner circle told JTA.
Explaining such delicate nuances, however, could be much harder in the face of Foreign Minister Lieberman’s bellicosity towards the rest of the Arab world. "If you want peace, prepare for war," the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu leader declared on his first day in office, triggering a wave of Arab protest, especially in Egypt, where there is a move to have him declared persona non grata.
In his first speech as foreign minister, Lieberman sounded a more conciliatory tone on Egypt than he has in the past, saying, "Egypt is definitely an important country in the Arab world, a stabilizing factor in the regional system and perhaps even beyond that, and I certainly view it as an important partner." Lieberman drew headlines by insisting that Israel was not bound by any understandings reached at the U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian summit held in Annapolis, Md., in 2007, but was committed to the "road map" plan; in other words, Israel remains obligated to hold talks on the creation of a Palestinian state, but only after other issues, including terrorism, are addressed.
Lieberman continues to draw strong criticism from the Israeli Left. Dovish Meretz leader Haim Oron accuses him of courting disaster by deliberately turning his back on the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. In the first instance, Oron argues, this will unify the Palestinians and enable them to mobilize international support against Israel. Then a long stalemate could eventually erupt in Palestinian violence with a degree of international backing and maybe wider Arab involvement. "I do not share the illusion that the peace treaty with Egypt will withstand any crisis," he warns. In Oron’s view, all this adds up to a threat at least as serious as the Iranian bomb.
"Lieberman is closing all the doors to the Arab world, and I don’t know of anything more dangerous for Israel’s future," he told JTA.
Lieberman counters that it is those pressing the same diplomatic approaches who are endangering Israel. "Does anyone think that concessions and constantly saying ‘I am prepared to concede,’ and using the word ‘peace’ will lead to anything?" Lieberman said. "No, that will just invite pressure, and more and more wars."