Netanyahu cultivates uncomfortable allies abroad
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Lithuania to meet the leaders of the Baltic states has provided further insight into the manner in which he handles Israel’s foreign policy. In his conveniently over-simplistic view of relations between players in the global political arena, he divides the world between those who fully subscribe to his worldview, and everything and everyone else. The first are friends and can be trusted, and the rest are enemies who on the whole hate the Jewish state, or are at least extremely unfair to it.
It is sometimes hard to decipher whether his portrayal of the world along these lines derives from a deep inner belief in a binary world composed of those generally hostile to the Jewish state and anti-Semitic by nature, and those few-and-far-between friendly countries. Alternatively, it is all a show aimed at maintaining his power base by spreading fear and displaying what some Israelis like in a leader: a bit of bravado, standing up to world leaders and projecting a strong and defiant Israel.
One can see this in Netanyahu’s rhetoric both at home and abroad. When he aims to galvanize support at home, he rallies them around the supposed dangers originating from the region, especially the Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line and Iran, who are said to be conspiring to annihilate Israel as the home of the Jewish people. It is important not to ignore the very real threats and challenges, but severe as these may be, Netanyahu always presents them as existential ones; there is never a range of scenarios or options, and as a result he is forced into rigid positions with little flexibility and few alternatives.
Yet Netanyahu much prefers travelling abroad, seeing himself as a world leader in the forefront of the fight against extremism and religious fundamentalism. His relations with Donald Trump are as close as one can have with the current American president. While in the early days of the administration he was more apprehensive about Trump’s unpredictability, he feels Washington and Jerusalem are singing from the same hymn sheet. However, a major missing piece for him is the European Union, which he and many of his political allies feel is unfriendly to Israel, is pro-Palestinian and supports the nuclear agreement with Iran, and is thus harming the formation of a coalition that can contain Tehran and even bring about a regime change there. According to the Israeli government, this approach originates from Brussels and is most supported by the founder members of the EU and those around the Mediterranean. What works in the Israeli prime minister’s favour are the growing divisions between Europe’s more progressive forces, who are more critical of Israel’s policies in the occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza Strip, and the nationalist (sometimes ultra-nationalist) parties and governments, mainly in Eastern Europe, who are more sympathetic to Israeli positions.
Netanyahu’s diplomatic campaign is aimed at countering the elements in Europe opposed to rewarding Israel with preferential treatment while it keeps millions of Palestinians occupied and blockaded
Netanyahu is a seasoned politician and knows how to exploit these divisions to promote his agenda. It is in this context that his visit to Lithuania to meet the leaders of the Baltic countries should be seen. Before he left, he declared that the purpose of the trip was to counterbalance the European Union’s “unfriendly approach to Israel,” through directly targeting those European leaders who are more supportive of Israeli policies.
There is growing criticism of the Israeli prime minister’s habit of spending much time on excessively expensive trips abroad. However, Netanyahu also holds the foreign minister portfolio, which is clearly his favourite role in politics. He is experienced on the world stage and can operate best in an environment that aligns with his ultra-nationalistic views. Indeed, these trips also serve for him as a welcome respite from the police’s corruption investigation, helping him project the image of a statesman while his coalition members embark on another petty and parochial issue that serves their constituencies alone. However, such trips also allow him to advance a broader agenda. With the current anti-migrant and anti-Muslim environment in some of these countries, Netanyahu and some of his like-minded Cabinet colleagues see an opportunity to ally themselves with a number of them that harbour these opinions and hence support, or at least are not that critical of, Israel’s position regarding the Palestinians. It is not only the Baltic states but also Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a group of countries known as the Visegrad Group or the V-4, with which Netanyahu is cultivating relations. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán received a warm welcome and was described by Netanyahu as a “true friend of Israel.” This true friend of Israel is not only a populist ultra-right politician, but also someone who has unashamedly praised Nazi collaborators.
Netanyahu, in his short-sightedness, fails to see that some of his new-found friends are not only those whom he considers to be “the enemies of my enemies,” but some of them also embrace deep-seated anti-Semitic views. But in the short term his actions serve to lessen pressure from the EU on the Palestinian issue, and these countries also don’t condone the military, economic, political and cultural cooperation aimed at changing Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
Israel has a great need for new markets, and Europe is on its doorstep. Netanyahu’s diplomatic campaign is aimed at countering the elements in Europe opposed to rewarding Israel with preferential treatment while it keeps millions of Palestinians occupied and blockaded. Hence, Netanyahu’s trick is to keep the route open for Israeli business, especially the hi-tech economy, and with fewer questions asked about issues such as human rights violations and blocking progress in the peace process. It is left for the EU to decide how it will deal with this wedge driven between its member states on yet another crucial issue for its common foreign and security policy.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg