Love him or hate him, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a stargazer, a strategic thinker.
The son of the late Benzion Netanyahu, one of the state’s most preeminent historians, Mr. Netanyahu seems focused on nothing less than the ability of Jews to survive as a people and on Israel’s role in their survival. His insistence on producing Holocaust-related documents during his speeches is not exclusively the result of bad taste or cheap fear-mongering. Rather, the crux of Netanyahu’s strategic vision appears to be the imperative to prevent a second Shoa.
This is why he appears to be especially proud to have recently changed the international conversation about the Middle East. In large part because of his prodding, posturing, and threatening, much of the world has fully turned its attention to the threat posed by Iran’s reported nuclear weapons program. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, this marks a shift from the tactical nuisance that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – troublesome but utterly manageable – to a fundamental question that threatens the very existence of the Jewish state.
Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s sense of strategy has been dangerously limited, remaining transfixed on Iran, without expending equal effort or public appeal on the myriad other issues threatening Israel and Middle East stability. It remains to be seen whether this week’s dramatic reshuffling of his coalition makes a difference. But the new partnership with the centrist Kadima party could provide Netanyahu with the political cover necessary to address a broader range of questions.
The Iranian threat is but one part of a complicated regional puzzle for Israelis. The conflict with the Palestinians and the direction taken by the new regimes in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and, one hopes, before long, Syria are other pieces. The great challenge facing Israeli leaders is to figure out how these pieces fit together.
Consider this: Islamist political parties are set to take over most of the newly freed countries in the Arab world. This is worrying, but the Muslim Brotherhood – now one of the most powerful regional political movements – is more pragmatic than some of its Salafist competitors. Israel (like much of the West) has a strong interest in keeping the Brotherhood as moderate and pragmatic as possible. How will an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program impact the orientation of the newly emerging Arab regimes? How will it impact the prospects of maintaining the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan?
Israel also has a vital interest in strengthening moderate elements in the Palestinian territories. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his technocratic colleagues have kept the West Bank relatively quiet and prosperous in the last few years. How would attacking Iranian nuclear facilities influence the balance of power between moderates and extremists inside Palestinian Territories. What would it do to the credibility of Mr. Fayyad and his supporters? What, for that matter, would it do to the delicate balance between the most bellicose and more moderate elements inside Hamas (itself an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood)?
Israel’s most formidable challenge is to simultaneously manage the threat posed by a potential Iranian nuclear weapon and that created by a rising tide of Islamism in its immediate and intermediate vicinity. And these threats are intrinsically tied together.
A rash, premature attack on Iran will have a dramatic impact on the emerging governments in the Arab world and on the internal politics in the Palestinian territories. It would give a boost to the most extreme representatives of political Islam and divert the attention and resources of the new Arab polities away from much needed domestic reforms. It would also, most likely, lead to the cancellation of the already precarious peace treaties that Jordan and Egypt have signed with Israel.
Netanyahu’s seemingly singular focus on Iran has also obscured and pushed aside a host of domestic questions, all urgent and fundamental to the Jewish state’s future and integrity. The new centrist coalition agreements include promises to move forward on some of these fronts. Consider these examples.
Last summer, Israel’s cities erupted with social unrest. The state’s productive middle class was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with rigid free market economic policies. Over the last decade these policies resulted in growing levels of income inequality and a lack of access to affordable housing, education, and childcare.
Apart from a few stop-gap measures and pro-forma declarations, Netanyahu’s government has done little to meaningfully address these problems. Furthermore, the state’s dysfunctional electoral system warps its democracy by providing disproportionate power to small anti-democratic and anti-Zionist Jewish ultra orthodox parties.
Such distortions disenfranchise and alienate the majority of Israeli voters who are forced to watch their government subsidize an entire class of young men who refuse to serve in the military, or to become part of the regular economy. Again, Netanyahu’s government has, until now, done nothing to address this. And the focus on the Iranian question has provided the perfect excuse to take such troubling, uncomfortable questions off the table.
The new coalition frees Netanyahu from the chokehold of small ultra orthodox and extreme right parties. It enables him to make dramatic changes in the electoral system. It lets him pass long overdue social reforms that would distribute the state’s burdens of military and national service more fairly. And It provides him with the political backing to resuscitate talks with the Palestinians.
The question is whether the prime minister will fully seize these opportunities or simply use his broadened parliamentary support to secure the legitimacy of a future attack on Iran.
If he really is a stargazer, it is time for Netanyahu to take in the entire constellation. His excessive focus on Iran has not promoted Israel’s interests. The new coalition he stitched together with such exquisite political skill sets up a rare opportunity to reshape Israel’s domestic institutions and strengthen its regional standing. Whether or not Netanyahu takes advantage of this opportunity is the real strategic question facing the Jewish state.
Nir Eisikovits teaches legal and political philosophy at Suffolk University where he directs the graduate program in Ethics and Public Policy. His most recent book is "Sympathizing with the Enemy: Reconciliation, Transitional Justice, Negotiation."