The DEBKA-Net-Weekly team picks Israel and its political and military leaders as the losers in the Middle East of 2009.
For most of 2009, Israel was ruled by a duo, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Their style of leadership high-handedly cuts almost all of the 30 ministers in the government coalition out of real decision-making, including even the outspoken foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.
In theory, the two partners should have formed a strong core of governance leading Israel to high achievement, like the two-consul regime in ancient Rome, or the power-sharing arrangement in the Kremlin between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
But in practice, Netanyahu and Barak have presided over a decline in Israel's military and diplomatic rating in the Middle East.
Most analysts attribute this weakness to their personal shortcomings. The prime minister is seen as folding under pressure, pandering to public opinion, refusing to grasp nettles and idle, while the defense minister, a gifted general, is deaf to advice and clings obsessively to bad decisions governed by poor timing.
In his first nine months in office, Netanyahu backed down on four matters of principle – not out of conviction, but as pragmatic gestures for building ties with the incoming US president Barack Obama.
Netanyahu never put his foot down on Iran
1. In June, Netanyahu yielded on his fundamental opposition to a Palestinian state and came around to supporting a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine to live side by side, thereby breaking the promise which got his Likud elected in February 2009.
2. Five months later, on November 9, at his second White House meeting with President Obama, Netanyahu gave ground to Obama on action against a nuclear-armed Iran.
After giving the US up to year's end to achieve diplomatic progress on Iran's nuclear program, he now gave Obama another six months to get painful sanctions in motion, including an embargo on gasoline and other refined petroleum products. During that time, Israel undertook not to attack Iran.
Obama wanted the extra time for a chance to get sanctions passed by the UN Security Council, failing which he promised to impose them unilaterally.
Tuesday, December 15, US Congress approved legislation to impose sanctions on foreign companies that help supply gasoline to Iran. The bill, which won overwhelming 412-12 endorsement, authorized the president to levy sanctions on energy firms directly selling gasoline to Iran. With no Senate action on the legislation scheduled in the near term, the House vote was more cautionary than practical.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington report that Obama also promised Netanyahu not to take American and Israeli military options off the table during that period of grace.
US lobby against military action burgeons
However, by giving the US president until May-June 2010 for his non-war plan of action, the Israeli prime minister also awarded Iran the gift of six months for progress toward nuclear armament and preparations for war with Israel.
In this Netanyahu was solidly backed by the defense minister.
On Monday, December 14, Barak paid a surprise visit to International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna to meet the nuclear watchdog's new director Yukia Amano and the inspection team leaders dealing with Iran and Syria. He handed them an updated Israeli intelligence dossier along with his briefing.
But later, he lightened the sense of urgency he brought to Vienna by telling reporters attached to the IAEA: “There is still time for diplomatic action to stop Iran.”
He was not representing the real facts of Iran's progress (as outlined in a separate article in this issue), but helping Netanyahu keep up his end of the bargain with Obama.
Israel's irresolute handling of the Iranian menace, often described as an existential threat to the Jewish state, is nourishing a burgeoning lobby in Washington for contesting any military operation against Iran, whether American or Israeli. Netanyahu and Barak present the repeated postponements as necessary for securing American support for an eventual attack. But the truth is, none of Netanyahu's concessions to the US president has bought Obama's support thus far. Any residual sympathy in the White House is likely to have waned still further by the time the six-month grace-period is up in mid-2010.
Israel will have lost a war by not fighting it.
Netanyahu's policy yields negative results militarily and diplomatically
3. From the White House, where he met the US president on November 9, the prime minister informed the nation that he had surrendered to his host and a ten-month freeze on construction in West Bank settlements would go into effect shortly. He pledged its enforcement by every means at his disposal.
On November 25, Netanyahu ordered the moratorium to go into effect after its endorsement by the security cabinet. His critics, including at least half a dozen of his ministers, accused him of going back on one of his most fundamental principle, never to make one-sided concessions to the Palestinians or Arab governments without concrete returns. They reminded him that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has consistently refused to join him at the negotiating table in ways that were insulting.
A favorite Netanyahu' phrase in public speeches is this: “One thing Israel will never compromise on, and that is security.”
It is in the very field of security that Israel has fallen back sharply since Netanyahu entered the prime minister's office in Jerusalem.
Not only has Iran been permitted to take big strides towards its nuclear objectives but it has been given time to draw a girdle spiked with missiles around Israel's borders, to be fired as Tehran's first response to an Israeli attack.
The missiles and rockets filling Hizballah and Hamas arsenals can reach almost every corner of Israel. They are amplified by anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, delivered to both for the first time this year.
The Netanyahu-Barak duo has not raised a finger to stem the massive influx of Iranian weaponry and its deployment around Israel's borders. For the first time, Israel is menaced on four fronts from Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas, with Tehran's finger on the master switch for activating them separately or in concert.
In the course of 2009, the Netanyahu government has let Israel sink militarily to the level of Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states and Egypt, seeming to share their inability to stand up to a belligerent Iran.
The extremist, Iran-backed Hamas, scenting the way the wind is blowing, plays ducks and drakes with Israel over the almost-done deal for swapping the Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit for nearly 1,000 jailed Palestinian terrorists.
Not too long ago, moderate Arab states trusted Israel as a potent power with the only fighting force in the region capable of contesting Iran's expansionist drive. Now they are not so sure.
Over-pragmatism for no diplomatic dividends
Has Netanyahu's submissiveness made Israel more popular internationally or won diplomatic respect?
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the Netanyahu administration more than once for concessions to the Palestinians never made by any other Israeli government. But the world's diplomats just shrugged; they were not impressed. In fact, they use every tool to hand to point the finger at Israel, whether the one-sided Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes in the Gaza operation, or the arrest warrant a London court issued for Israel's opposition leader, the former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, on the same alleged grounds.
UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and foreign secretary David Miliband hurried to apologize and voice outrage over the incident, which caused Livni to cancel her visit to London, but are unlikely to do much to repair this legal peculiarity. By potentially targeting half of Israel's cabinet ministers and all its generals if they ever step on British soil, this law makes the United Kingdom the first western nation to implement the anti-Israel Goldstone Report.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyep Recip Erdogan has trashed a long strategic friendship with the Jewish state, openly avowing his new alliances with Tehran and Damascus. Sweden is trying to drag the European Union into supporting the Palestinian and Muslim claim to historic Jerusalem, Israel's capital. Anti-Israel campaigners are gaining ground in Western universities.
Losing foreign friends but doing very nicely at home
In general, although the diplomatic dice is weighted more heavily that ever in favor of anti-Israel elements and Western democratic powers are increasingly gravitating toward extremists, Netanyahu has contributed to this trend by his lack of diplomatic initiative, including his failure to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table and forge relations with the Arab world.
Concessions do not necessarily equal statecraft.
Conversely, Binyamin Netanyahu is doing very nicely at home, illustrating once again Henry Kissinger's old aphorism: “Israel has no foreign policy only a domestic political system.” In an opinion poll published Thursday, Dec. 17, the prime minister's approval rating stood at 61 percent compared with his defense minister's 54 percent. This result may reflect appreciation for an economy which has recovered in Israel faster than in most countries and, although disturbed by the hostile vibes from Iran and its allies, the average Israel appears to prefer a measure of stability to another war.
Interestingly, Netanyahu also won the support of 60 percent of the opposition Kadima party, only 36 percent of which were satisfied with their leader Tzipi Livni.
Netanyahu and Barak are rumored to have struck a pact to form a new centrist party to run in the next election. The former would have to distance himself further from the right and the latter abandon his left-leaning Labor for the chance of swallowing up Kadima and other moderate factions.