Middle East

The Middle East's New Peacemaker: Israel

The U.S. and Russia need a middleman. Enter Bibi Netanyahu.

Let's make a deal?

Photographer: Ivan Sekretarev/AFP/Getty Images

The liberation of Mosul in Iraq and the imminent collapse of the Islamic State's Syrian capital of Raqqa are wins for President Donald Trump. He was elected on a promise to pound the terrorists into submission, and that is happening. Trump is a believer in hard power, which is the only kind that works in the Middle East.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

The president scored another win with the partial cease-fire in southwestern Syria he negotiated with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sideline of the G-20 talks in Germany. The truce probably won’t last, but it marked a significant moment.

Yet history has a warning here. A century ago, in the midst of World War I, Great Britain and France set about dividing the Ottoman Empire between themselves. They did not consult with their allies, much less the people who lived in the lands from the Persian Gulf to North Africa.

The Trump-Putin confab in Hamburg signaled that the contemporary superpowers are able to work together. The American press has demonized Russia, partly in the cause of bringing down Trump, but the U.S. and the Kremlin are not really enemies. They are rivals, yes, but both sides understand that cooperation is preferable to an unscripted, wholly disastrous military confrontation over some worthless real estate in the Middle East.

So there needs to be a deal. And for that, there must be a broker.

China isn’t interested. The Western Europeans are too interested. The Saudis and the Iranians are busy with their medieval blood feud. The Arab League is a joke. The United Nations is, as always, useless.

Enter Benjamin Netanyahu, matchmaker.

The Israeli prime minister is acceptable to both sides. The American-Israeli strategic partnership is longstanding and, under the new administration, highly valued. During his visit to Jerusalem in May, Trump declared his love and respect for Israel. Love is an unreliable emotion in international relations. Respect matters, especially when it derives from the sort of military, economic, technological and diplomatic assets that Israel has, coupled with its willingness to act independently when it feels the need.

Putin, like Trump, respects Israel, for the same reasons. He has demonstrated it during his Syrian intervention by keeping an open line to Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (who was born and raised in the former Soviet Union and whose first language is Russian).

The Russian president’s attitude was also on display last summer, when he celebrated the 25th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel by hosting Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at a gala performance of the Bolshoi Ballet. Putin praised the intimate connection between Israelis and Russians (roughly 25 percent of Israeli Jews have Russian ancestry), but the relationship is based on much more than kinship, or tactical coordination.

At the Bolshoi, Putin proclaimed that the two countries enjoy “a solid foundation of trust and understanding to rely on as we make plans for the future.”

Netanyahu’s consistently realistic appraisal of the Middle East contributes to the confidence both sides have in him. In the late 1970s, long before he entered politics, he presciently warned that Arab terrorism against Israel, if tolerated by the West, would eventually morph into a worldwide epidemic. Twenty years later, he correctly dismissed the Oslo Accords as an effort to paper over insuperable differences between Israel and the Palestinians, and predicted it would lead to bloodshed.

As prime minister, Netanyahu recognized that the “Arab Spring” was nothing more than media euphoria that would lead not to democracy but to disaster. He called out the Obama administration’s misguided policy of supporting a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo (today even the Saudis concede that the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization).

He has been right in insisting that Iranian aggression is the most acute problem in the Middle East; and when the Saudis and the other Sunni Arab states reached the same conclusion, Netanyahu reached out behind the scenes to construct a de facto front against Teheran.

Of course, the prime minister is not a disinterested party. He has his own agenda.

It includes retaining Israeli control of the territory west of the Jordan River, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem; striking a peace deal with the Arab world that does not involve establishing a fully sovereign Palestinian state; getting Iran out of Syria and Lebanon; and re-establishing strong sanctions that will stick until the Iranians stop supplying the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah with weapons, drop their genocidal rhetoric against Jews, and abandon their attempt to build missiles and non-conventional warheads capable of hitting Israel.

This agenda is not identical to American or Russian policy, but does not conflict with the basic interests of the two powers. The U.S., no matter who is in the White House, wants primarily to protect its allies and their oil fields, to obliterate terrorist organizations, and to keep a lid on the region -- all goals Israel shares.

The Russians want to project themselves as a superpower, support Syria's ruling Assad family (in whom they have a 50-year investment), get their share of the oil in Iraq, fight terrorism they think may inspire their own restive Muslim population, and, most of all, keep its Mediterranean naval base in Tartus, Syria.

All this is of a piece with Russian strategic aspirations since the time of the Czars. Israel can live with Russia achieving these goals, especially if Syria is broken into independent spheres of influence and Assad is confined to a fiefdom in Syria's northwest.

And so, Netanyahu finds himself in the role of the acceptable man, a go-between respected by both Putin and Trump (or, if worse comes to worst for the U.S. president, Mike Pence). He is, in a word, necessary.

This has not escaped the world's attention. Earlier this month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Jerusalem, called for an alliance against terrorism, glaringly omitted any mention of a Palestinian state in the West Bank (a cause India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population, has fervently supported for decades) and issued a “warm invitation” to Netanyahu to visit. Such an invitation would have been considered geopolitical science fiction only a few years ago.

A similar change has come over the French government. Ten days after Modi’s visit to Israel, Netanyahu travelled to Paris to participate in a ceremony commemorating Vichy complicity in the Holocaust. The newly elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, used the occasion to proclaim that “anti-Zionism is a reinvention of anti-Semitism” -- a startling statement of Netanyahu’s oft-mocked mantra.

Washington and Moscow will be the deciders in the Middle East; that’s how it works. But no one wants to be left out of a once-in-a-century reshuffle -- and if that means staying on the right side of the Israeli matchmaker, it is a price the second-tier powers of the world will very likely be willing to pay.

(Corrects location of Trump-Putin meeting in fourth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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