How may PM’s scan­dal im­pact re­gion?

Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - ANAL­Y­SIS • By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

When news of the cor­rup­tion scan­dal af­fect­ing Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu be­gan to be re­vealed on Wed­nes­day evening, the Mid­dle East was pre­par­ing for din­ner. In Egypt and Kuwait, ma­jor pa­pers re­ported the scan­dal on their home pages. But most of the re­gion has re­mained rel­a­tively in­dif­fer­ent.

One man from Gaza re­marked that Ne­tanyahu’s in­sis­tence on stay­ing in of­fice and “talk­ing about con­spir­a­cies” re­minded him of “some Arab rulers.”

It is a tes­ta­ment to Ne­tanyahu’s stay­ing power – al­most nine years in of­fice – that he has be­come one of the sta­ble land­marks of the re­gion.

Those os­si­fy­ing Arab dic­ta­tors who were in power when he re­turned to the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice in 2009 – Hosni Mubarak, Muam­mar Gaddafi, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tu­nisia and Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh in Ye­men – are gone. Two were bru­tally mur­dered. Such was the fate of Arab na­tion­al­ism.

The re­gion’s ris­ing stars, such as Qatar’s Tamim bin Ha­mad al-Thani (aged 37) and Crown Prince Muham­mad bin Sal­man in Saudi Ara­bia (age 32), are young com­pared to Ne­tanyahu, who is 68. Bashar As­sad, who has been in power since 2000, and King Ab­dul­lah of Jor­dan, who as­sumed the throne in 1999, are both in their 50s. In short, Ne­tanyahu is the el­der states­man of the re­gion.

The cor­rup­tion scan­dal casts doubt on his abil­ity to gov­ern in the com­ing years. For re­gional ac­tors such as Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates, this presents a prob­lem. Over the past sev­eral years there has been a grow­ing sense that Is­rael and these two Gulf states see the re­gion through a sim­i­lar lens. They fear Iran and its ten­ta­cles. Along with Egypt and Jor­dan, the two neigh­bor­ing coun­tries Is­rael has of­fi­cial peace with, there is a kind of block against the in­sta­bil­ity that spread with the “Arab Spring” and the rise of Is­lamic State.

With ISIS mostly de­feated in Iraq and Syria, and the US ad­min­is­tra­tion seek­ing to give wind to a post-ISIS Mid­dle East, Is­rael has a role to play. Ne­tanyahu sought to cast Is­rael in the role of the re­al­is­tic state that for­goes ide­al­is­tic no­tions of democ­racy spread­ing to the re­gion in fa­vor of hard-nosed poli­cies against Iran and talk­ing up fear of Is­lamist in­flu­ence. Mr. Se­cu­rity. King Bibi. But cor­rup­tion and bribery threaten those two pil­lars of iden­tity.

For Is­rael’s for­eign pol­icy, which has been in Ne­tanyahu’s hands since 2015 as he re­fuses to re­lin­quish the min­is­te­rial port­fo­lio to any ri­vals, the prob­lems now add up. Iran is near the Golan, and sev­eral Shi’a mili­tia lead­ers from Iraq have re­cently been in Le­banon. Hezbol­lah is beat­ing its chest af­ter the down­ing of an F-16 by Syr­ian air de­fense. The “axis of re­sis­tance” thinks it smells weak­ness in Jerusalem. Now all the fears that Ne­tanyahu has played on, his red­lines, his con­stant warn­ings, could be closer to com­ing true.

As the Ira­nian threat man­i­fests it­self, the man who was the fore­most op­po­nent of it, and some­one that some in the re­gion looked to for guid­ance on the is­sue, could be leav­ing power. Non­sci­en­tific sur­veys posted on Twit­ter show that many in the re­gion fear Ira­nian in­flu­ence and qui­etly ap­plaud when Is­rael strikes back in Syria. Ne­tanyahu is seen as the driver of that pol­icy, even if un­der other lead­er­ship Is­rael would likely main­tain the same pos­ture.

Ne­tanyahu out­lasted many of his op­po­nents, from Ah­madine­jad in Iran to ex­trem­ists like Nouri al-Ma­liki in Iraq. He also out­lasted the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. When US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump went to Riyadh to speak and called to drive out Hezbol­lah and Ha­mas, it was a speech Ne­tanyahu could have made.

At the pre­cise time that the re­gion seems to be partly cast in his im­age, his power base in Jerusalem could be tee­ter­ing. His fall from power would leave the Mid­dle East won­der­ing what comes next and whether Iran and its ten­ta­cles might ex­ploit the po­lit­i­cal process in Is­rael.

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