Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped that his trip to the U.S. would keep his domestic troubles at bay for a couple of days. But he scored a spectacular own goal when, on board the plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport, he compared his opponents to supporters of Iran and the PLO.
Just for a moment, let’s put aside the insult to millions of loyal Israelis who genuinely fear for the future of their state, and let us wonder: Why did the prime minister opt to put aside all the issues that are of such importance to him and make a statement that only served to increase concerns over the future of Israeli democracy?
As a result of his remarks, Netanyahu has only intensified the protests he can expect to face wherever he goes. In his meetings, he will also encounter harsh criticism or, at the very least, concerned questions. He will discover that his favorite venue, indeed his favorite city, has become hostile towards him and that he has lost much of his power. He is exposed and vulnerable. Worst of all, the State of Israel, in the name of which he is visiting the United States, is not the best-selling brand it has been in the past.
In the past, a visit from an Israeli prime minister would be the occasion for genuine festivities. No matter who was the leader of the Jewish state, they were always considered a superstar in the United States, a welcome guest in Washington and a top-tier world leader.
That is not the case today. U.S. President Joe Biden refused to invite Netanyahu to the White House, deciding to make do with a sidebar meeting on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly. Numerous leaders suddenly found it difficult to pencil him into their busy schedules, while others stipulated that he would have to come to them for a meeting. Even senior Jewish leaders made it clear that they would meet Netanyahu out of respect for Israel but would say in no uncertain terms precisely what they think about the processes that Israel and its government are currently undergoing.
Netanyahu will have to draw on the full range of his rhetorical and political skills to successfully surmount those obstacles. This is important not because of his own personal and political problems, but for reasons of national importance. There is a long list of burning issues that require the attention of the world.
The list is topped by Iran, of course. In recent months, Iran has been feeling that it is in the driver’s seat as a result of its warm relations with Russia and China, the upgrading of relations with the Gulf States, and the unsigned agreement it reached with the U.S. As a result of this, Iran has been expediting its efforts to promote acts of terrorism against Israel. It is also adopting a much more brazen stance vis-à-vis the International Atomic Energy Agency, barring some of the Agency’s inspectors.
The only way to bring Iran down a peg or two, reverse the trend and deter it is via U.S.-led diplomatic, military and economic pressure. Unfortunately, that is not in the cards. Washington is busy with its own troubles and seeks quiet on the Iranian front. Back in the good old days, Netanyahu would have been able to wield influence on what goes on in the White House. This time, he needs to say thanks for the very fact that Biden agreed to meet with him. Israel is almost alone on this front and might have to raise the stakes in its war against Tehran.
The second most important issue is Saudi Arabia. The United States is keen to reach an agreement on normalization and Netanyahu is eager to move ahead. Having said that, Israel needs to ensure that in doing so it will not be required to pay an unreasonable price on two key issues: Saudi Arabia’s demands to enrich uranium for civilian purposes and to receive a dramatic military upgrade, including advanced capabilities and state-of-the-art weapons systems.
Israel must ensure that its national interests are not compromised and that it is awarded a significant compensation package—both in security and economic terms—as part of America’s strategic commitment to safeguarding Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME). This will be rather difficult, given the icy relations between Biden and Netanyahu. But the fact that Biden currently has one eye trained on his path to reelection in the upcoming 2024 presidential elections presents a golden opportunity that must be exploited as part of the overarching deal that Washington is working to sew up.
Israel also aspires to see greater U.S. involvement in the effort to deter Hezbollah’s activity along Israel’s northern border and prompt the Palestinian Authority into more vigorous action against terrorist cells operating in Judea and Samaria. Here, too, Netanyahu will have to face a U.S. counter-demand: To grant greater capabilities to the P.A. and rein in the more radical elements in the Israeli government who are involved in a constant effort to pour oil on the fire (and establish settlements) on an almost daily basis.
Let’s not forget the Silicon Valley circus and the meetings there with the high-tech moguls headed by Elon Musk. In the past, figures such as Musk would have looked at Israel’s prime minister with awe. Today, Israel is the one making the pilgrimage to them. To some extent, this is the result of a dangerous decline in the status of the Startup Nation. Netanyahu would do well to remember that, especially when we are currently facing a dramatic drop in foreign investment in the Israeli high-tech industry and deep concern over a potential mass brain drain.
This broad array of issues is sure to keep the media on its toes for the next week or so. They will not be able to capture all the headlines on their own, as Netanyahu would surely like them to, but will create a split-screen effect: On the one hand, what is happening in the Unied States, on the other what is occurring here in Israel.
This huge gap has been the story of our lives here in Israel in recent months: Instead of dealing with key issues, the entire country is being forced to deal with secondary concerns. It is being sucked down into dangerously threatening quicksand with the active encouragement of the prime minister.
Originally published by Israel Hayom.