The Daily Telegraph

Beware exit of the peace-making dream team

The Middle East will be more dangerous now that Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump have gone

- jake wallis simons

The final fall of Benjamin Netanyahu, by far Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and an icon on the world stage, has left a gargantuan hole at the heart of geopolitic­s. Internatio­nal pundits, cartoonist­s and politician­s have been left desolate – he was such a good bogeyman! – and are already transferri­ng their wrath to his successor, “ultranatio­nalist” Naftali Bennett.

But for the region itself, his absence will be felt differentl­y. Netanyahu had a reputation among Western “liberals” as a warmongeri­ng hardliner who wished to occupy Ramallah and bulldoze the Al-aqsa mosque. In truth he was a rather risk-averse war leader and shrewd statesman, who knew how to build alliances and keep a lid on a conflict. Most of all, the 71-year-old was a peacemaker.

In the first seven decades of its existence, Israel made peace with only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. Under Netanyahu it added another four to the list, including the powerful UAE. Donald Trump’s unique willingnes­s to burn the diplomatic playbook and take a pragmatic, deal-making approach played an important role. But Netanyahu had been working towards this moment for years.

His “outside in” peace strategy involved first normalisin­g relations with countries on the periphery – India, Brazil, Japan – and then courting the outer circle of the Arab world. Once a centre of gravity was establishe­d in the wider Middle East, he hoped, Palestinia­ns would find themselves surrounded by cordiality and get on board.

The toppling of Netanyahu has left the project half-complete. Although the new Israeli administra­tion will pursue the same goals, there is a sense of post-freddie Mercury Queen about the whole idea (especially as Mossad chief and Netanyahu ally Yossi Cohen, instrument­al in the Abraham Accords, also left office this month). To make matters worse, Trump, Netanyahu’s spirit animal, is gone, and his successor represents a return to the discredite­d Clinton-obama consensus of the diplomatic elites. Rumour has it that the very words “Abraham Accords” are unwelcome in the court of Biden.

Despite his internatio­nal reputation, at home, Netanyahu was considered a cautious war fighter. In the last few dust-ups with Hamas, he stood against voices in the cabinet who demanded harder action, and de-escalated the violence at a relatively early stage.

In 2014, his future successor, Naftali Bennett, had advocated a more aggressive military campaign to target the terrorist tunnels. But Netanyahu resisted, taking the more dovish route.

This safety-first approach was mirrored in his “campaign between wars” pinpoint air strikes on Iranian assets in Syria, designed to prevent the need for war in the future without triggering all-out conflict now; a high-stakes balancing act, only possible with an experience­d pair of hands.

Which brings us to the Islamic Republic of Iran. At times, Netanyahu seemed almost obsessivel­y concerned about Tehran’s nuclear project. But his fears were supported by Mossad’s theft of Iran’s secret nuclear archive in 2018, which confirmed the scale of its nuclear ambitions. This led to Netanyahu’s hardline position against the Obama-tehran deal, which was later trashed by Trump. Now the Biden administra­tion is working to reheat it, and Israel has so far determined­ly resisted.

How will a Bennett administra­tion take all this forward? The Israeli security establishm­ent has always been split on the Iran question, with some wanting to cooperate with the Americans and others opposing them. The Biden camp is involving the Israelis more closely with the negotiatio­ns than Obama did, shifting the rules of the game.

Will Bennett, who sits astride the most politicall­y diverse governing coalition Israel has ever seen, have the ideologica­l consistenc­y to maintain a firm line? Will he exhibit the same sensitivit­y and skill in limiting conflict? Will he have the ability to maintain calm on the home front, while continuing to reach out a hand to the Arab world?

The absence of easy answers to these questions shows how the Netanyahu-shaped hole in the Middle East will not be easily filled.

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