Great nations do not always have the leaders they deserve. This is the case of the Israeli nation, the only democracy in the Middle East, which distinguished itself in the first two decades of the 21st century by two remarkable achievements: the successful integration of a million Russian Jews, and the building of a very high value-added economy based on digital technology, biotechnology and advanced weapons.
But this energetic, innovative and moral nation has not found a strategist worthy of it in Benjamin Netanyahu. In power since 2009, after holding office from 1996 to 1999, the Prime Minister, who hails from the centre-right Likud party but is allied to parties of the extreme religious and nationalist right, is responsible for an unprecedented collapse in the internal and external security of the Jewish state.
Never before in its history has the Jewish population of Israel had to endure such a terrible pogrom as the one committed by Hamas on 7 October 2023, which killed twice as many Israelis as IDF soldiers killed during the 1967 Six-Day War. These massacres did not take place in remote West Bank settlements, but within Israel’s internationally recognised territory. The politician who has made his entire career presenting himself as the Jewish State’s Mr Security No. 1 has been unable to protect the peaceful inhabitants of the kibbutz in the extreme south of Israeli territory.
Netanyahu’s strategic error is his inability to place himself in the minds of his Palestinian enemies. He failed to anticipate what their next move might be, even though his intelligence services kept telling him that Hamas was up to something – without, of course, knowing what.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s security strategy was, and still is, wrong three times over. In the short term, in the medium term and in the long term.
In the short term, he put his faith in the brand new, automated wall that was to enclose the two and a half million Gazans in their 365 km2 territory, and he emptied the troops of the division responsible for defending the southern front, sending them to guard the illegal settlements that he had sown in the West Bank.
In his military response to the attack of 7 October, which involved massive bombardments and the forced displacement of the population, Netanyahu fell into the trap set for him by Hamas. Images of destruction and bloodied Palestinian children have replaced those of people being tortured in Israeli kibbutzes.
Netanyahu has succeeded in getting a billion Muslims around the world to rally behind the Hamas flag.
Israel is an open trading power with no interest in falling out with its neighbours. The India-Emirates-Saudi Arabia-Jordan-Israel-South Italy economic corridor project, which Netanyahu welcomed in September, seems well and truly dead. The best external security for a country will always be its integration with its neighbours.
In the medium term, Netanyahu’s strategy was to sweep the Palestinian problem under the carpet and concentrate on the Abraham Accords. The agreements signed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – and those that were to be signed with Saudi Arabia – were excellent, because they integrated the Jewish State into its Arab-Muslim regional environment.
But Netanyahu should have used them to relaunch discussions with his Palestinian neighbours, rather than continuing to divide them. There is evidence that Netanyahu encouraged Qatar to finance Hamas, in order to strengthen the Islamist movement at the expense of the PLO.
Netanyahu’s mistake was not to understand the time bomb represented by a young population that has been totally confined since 2009. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has allowed the most extremist settlers in the West Bank to systematically humiliate their Palestinian neighbours.
Why has Netanyahu pursued a policy of dividing the Palestinians? Because he is obsessed with never creating a Palestinian state. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in September 1993, providing for the gradual accession of the Palestinians to a state in the territories of the West Bank and Gaza, Benjamin Netanyahu launched a horrible smear campaign against him, calling Rabin a “traitor”.
This campaign bore fruit, because Rabin, who had the wisdom “to fight terrorism as if there were no negotiation and to negotiate as if there were no terrorism”, was assassinated in November 1995 by a far-right religious Jew.
This extreme religious right is now part of the Netanyahu government. Like the Israeli Prime Minister, this right wing does not understand that it is not the Iranian atomic bomb that threatens Israel but rather the Arab demographic bomb within the borders controlled by Tsahal.
Netanyahu’s long-term strategy is clear: to make life impossible for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, in order to drive them into exile. But these families have nowhere to go, because neither Egypt nor Jordan is prepared to take them in. But there is no question of Israel falling out with them, the first two Arab nations to have made peace with it.
Netanyahu had adopted a strategy of concealing the Palestinian problem. It has resurfaced in a terrible and now uncontrollable way.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.