Until about a week ago, it looked like Benjamin Netanyahu had a good chance of disproving the adage that “all political careers end in failure”. His grip on power in Israel was weakening. But even if he lost office, Netanyahu would still leave politics as Israel’s longest serving prime minister ever — and one of its most consequential.
Last year, Netanyahu secured a historic breakthrough in the Jewish state’s relations with the Arab world. The Abraham Accords normalised relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Israel under Netanyahu was at peace, prosperous and breaking out of its international isolation. The long and often bloody struggle with the Palestinians was out of the headlines. A world-beating Covid-19 vaccination programme had further burnished the country’s image. There was just the small matter of avoiding conviction in a corruption trial and a possible jail sentence — and his legacy would be secure.
But over the past week, Netanyahu’s plan for securing Israel’s future has collapsed. The Israeli prime minister’s hope that the Palestinian issue was safely sidelined has proved to be a delusion. A dispute which started with clashes between Israeli police and Muslim protesters in Jerusalem has escalated — with rockets being fired at Israeli cities, Israel bombing Gaza and violent clashes between Arabs and Jews breaking out across Israel.
With the encouragement of the Trump administration, the Netanyahu government had followed what some called the “outside-in” strategy. This was the idea that Israel should pursue agreements with the outside world, above all the Arab world, to help solve its internal conflict with the Palestinians. This was a reversal of the more traditional “inside-out” approach to the conflict — which held that Israel first had to secure a settlement with the Palestinians; and only then could expect to achieve a durable peace and international acceptance.
The signing of the Abraham accords was brandished as evidence that the outside-in strategy was working. Israel hoped that Saudi Arabia, the most powerful country in the Arab world, would be next to establish diplomatic relations.
As for the Palestinians, the hubristic hope in Netanyahu’s circle was that, deprived of Arab and international support, they would lose the will to resist. Human rights activists could continue to support their cause but the wider world would move on, allowing Israel to impose its own terms on a weakened and dispersed Palestinian population. Some Israelis speculated that the Palestinians might end up like the Tibetans — a people whose national aspirations look increasingly forlorn and forgotten.
The rockets raining down on Israel’s cities from Gaza have inflicted grave damage not just on property and citizens, but on that strategy too. The hope that Netanyahu’s policies had rendered the Palestinian issue irrelevant now looks foolish. International condemnation of Israeli actions has revived, spurred on by civilian deaths in Gaza, including many children. Further Israeli diplomatic breakthroughs look unlikely.
Most serious of all, the brutal clashes between Jews and Israeli-Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of the population of the country, have brought the conflict inside the borders of Israel itself, leading to talk of civil war.
In recent years, many Israeli politicians had come to hope and believe that Arabs living inside the country were no longer identifying so strongly with the Palestinian cause. But the current crisis has brought a renewed sense of unity between Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel itself. The idea that the Palestinian problem could be safely walled-off, out of sight, is no longer credible. Instead, Netanyahu’s strategy may have increased the threat to his country — by inadvertently opening up a new front, within Israel itself. That threat will remain, even after the pummelling of Gaza has stopped.
The major flaw in the outside-in strategy was its assumption that Palestinian despair would lead to quiescence. In reality, the increasing boldness of the Israeli far right — which is determined to push ahead with further annexations of Palestinian property and land — eventually provided the spark that ignited the latest conflagration. The far right had itself been courted and legitimised by Netanyahu, as he sought allies in his efforts to hang on to power.
For Netanyahu himself, the current crisis does have one significant benefit. After the fourth inconclusive election in a row, his opponents were on the brink of forming a coalition government that would finally lever him out of power. Those negotiations have now stalled — and so Netanyahu looks likely to continue as prime minister.
A successful effort to cling on to power — and to fend off the corruption cases against him — would demonstrate that Netanyahu remains a master political tactician. But the upsurge of violence this week has gravely undermined his claim to be a statesman. His supporters boasted that his diplomatic strategy had provided a route out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — one that did not even require painful concessions on land and Palestinian rights. But Netanyahu’s route out of conflict now looks like a dangerous dead-end.