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Alex Brummer - Netanyahu's re-election: A triumph of tenacity Featured

WJC, Benjamin Netanyahu’s democratic election to a record fourth term as Israeli prime minister last week - in a region bereft of free elections - was, in one sense, a triumph of tenacity.

He may be regarded by critics in Washington and other Western capitals as a divisive figure who will damage the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But on a political level, it is hard not to admire his fierce rhetorical skills in defense of the Jewish state, and his ability to swing his way one of the most disputative and well-educated electorates in the world.

Aggressive talk on the stump can be a dangerous business, though, when you wield such far-reaching influence. For Israel is at the epicentre of a mighty struggle between faiths which sets it against the Arab nations that surround it. And it is a struggle which has immense global implications thanks to the allies ranged on either side.

For decades, Israel has been a close friend of America, while the Palestinians receive unwavering support from the Islamic leaders of Iran, who in turn were for years implacable enemies of the ‘Great Satan’ across the Atlantic.

Netanyahu may have won an election - but the way he went about it has set the Middle East on a perilous course once more.

Had he enjoyed a clear lead before the vote, he might not have felt it necessary to lurch to the Right. But the opinion polls suggested it might all be over for Netanyahu’s Likud Party. So he sought to frame the election in terms of national security, taking to the international stage in a controversial effort to derail American-led talks which are seeking a rapprochement with Iran (which now finds itself on the same side as the US in the battle against Islamic State).

His opponents in the new centrer-left Zionist Union Party fought on the domestic issues of widening social division, high food prices and the runaway housing market. But while those are all of critical importance to Israelis, Netanyahu has always recognised that when push comes to shove, the safety of a nation will always trump everything else.

No one in the Jewish state ever forgets that Israel is surrounded by unstable dictatorships and warring terrorist and jihadist movements.

Last week, Netanyahu’s tactics - playing on the deep Israeli suspicion of its Iranian and Arab neighbours and the two million Palestinian-Israelis who live in Israel - worked like a charm. It may have been brutally effective, but for many people in the Jewish community, both in Israel and elsewhere, the fears - some would say prejudices - Netanyahu sought to exploit are deeply troubling.

Jews in both the US and Britain fear for the impact of Netanyahu’s rhetoric on the reputation of Israel among the community of nations, and their own ability to defend its actions.

Not only did he insist that Israel would continue building settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, but he was willing to place the long-held US-Israel relationship at risk by being so aggressive about the need to rein in Iran. And in flatly ruling out the prospect of establishing a Palestinian state, he dismissed the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem which is at the core of British and U.S. relations with Israel.

Little wonder that when he results emerged, an exasperated President Obama declined to call Netanyahu to congratulate him. Indeed, a White House spokesman offered only a sharp reference to the ‘divisive rhetoric’ which he employed to help claim victory.

Obama pointedly waited 48 hours before speaking to Netanyahu, with whom he has a fraught relationship. When they did speak, he took the opportunity to directly admonish Netanyahu for the divisive language he used to secure victory.

At the heart of this worrying breakdown of relations between Israel and Washington was the speech Netanyahu gave to a joint session of Congress three weeks ago. Firstly, he breached protocol by accepting an invitation from the Republican Party leadership without clearing the issue with the Democrats in the White House. He then used the forum, which was boycotted by 50 Democratic members of Congress, to try to demolish an outline deal on Iran’s nuclear programme which is being negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Switzerland. Kerry hopes Iran will limit its nuclear ambitions in return for a relaxing of crippling Western sanctions.

As well as arguing passionately that any American rapprochement with the Iranians would make the world a less safe place, the Israeli PM also pointed to Tehran’s role in supporting terror movements around the world, from Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, to Hamas in Gaza, and Boka Haram in Africa.

Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice accused Netanyahu of being ‘destructive’, while the President, bunkered in the White House, called him disrespectful.

Obama advisers pointed out that Netanyahu was being particularly bullish towards a friendly leader in the White House who has provided $20 billion of military aid to Israel since taking office. America has also committed to supplying Israel with cutting-edge F15 fighter jets that would maintain its technological edge over all other military forces in the region.

This week, the cooling relationship took a further dramatic turn for the worse when American officials accused Israel of spying on its negotiations with Iran. Furious US officials see the security breach as a clear attempt by the Jerusalem government to undermine American diplomacy.

It has sparked a dangerous stand-off which can only serve to make the Middle East more unstable - and it leaves Israel, a beleaguered state at the best of times, without the unqualified support of its more important ally. Some observers fear that if Netanyahu feels utterly isolated, he will be more likely to launch a reckless attack on a regional enemy, possibly even using nuclear weapons.

What is also deeply troubling administrations in London, Washington and other capitals is the way in which a desperate Netanyahu, in the final days of campaigning, pledged to the electorate that he would not agree to an independent Palestinian state sitting alongside Israel.

In doing so, he disavowed his own 2009 speech in which he committed to the two-state solution which has been a core tenet of Western and Israeli foreign policy since accords were signed in 1994 by the Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Though David Cameron did ring Netanyahu to congratulate him on his election win, there is deep disquiet in the British diplomatic community over such provocative language. Speaking to the weekly Jewish News, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said there was international concern over ‘what looks and feels like deliberate attempt to sabotage the two-state solution’.

Britain was fully ready to back an initiative known as ‘Kerry 2’ (named after the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry) to get direct talks with the Palestinians started again as soon as whoever was elected in Israel had stitched together a durable coalition. Now, that hope seems damned to fail.
In short, Benjamin Netanyahu has scrapped his way to victory by risking Israel’s crucial relationship with America, and now threatens to set the Middle East peace process back by years.

The tone of the language he used will be disturbing to Israel’s friends around the world. Yet those friends might also remember that it was another Likud prime minister, the late Menachem Begin, who signed a peace deal between Israel and Egypt, and that it was Netanyahu himself who ended the Israeli occupation of Palestinian cities such as Nablus.

Nevertheless, he now has a huge amount of work to do to repair the damage he has inflicted in recent days. Already, the Palestinian leaders have said they will seek to press ahead with unilateral steps towards independence. They also say that in the next fortnight they will file war crimes charges at the Hague against Israel for military actions in Gaza and the West Bank.

More menacingly, there is strong evidence that the Islamist forces of Hamas in Gaza are rearming with rockets, ready for a fresh assault on Israeli population centers.

And so the likelihood of a devastating cycle of violence increases once again - and the implications for the wider world could not be more chilling.

The journalist Alex Brummer is a vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

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