Netanyahu and the Arab world: a long and cynical story

Throughout his career, the Israeli Prime Minister, who again appears poised to form a new government after Tuesday's parliamentary elections, has done everything he can to shift the spotlight from the Palestinian question.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to supporters in Jerusalem. Menahem Kahana/AFP

On December 28 1968, at 20:37, three Super Frelon helicopters take off from Ramat David airbase, southeast of Haifa. They head north and do not change course until they reach their target. The three aircraft land at three different points in Beirut International Airport, and each offloads about twenty men. It is around 21:20 when the 19-year-old soldier Benjamin Netanyahu sets foot on Lebanese soil.

The majority of his military career remains classified and it is impossible to know if it was the first time he was participating in this kind of operation. The most comprehensive report published by the Israeli army on Operation T’choura (Gift) focuses on the technical details, and does not mention individuals or their actions, except those of Lieutenant-Colonel Cohen and Brigadier General Raphael Eytan, who were supervising the operation. Benjamin Netanyahu and approximately sixty-one other soldiers selected fourteen airliners, and placed explosives under their landing gear, and at the nose of each aircraft. Less than half-an-hour later, they were aboard the Super Frelons. The detonations went off during their flight back to Israel. The charred husks of the fourteen aircrafts, most of which were owned by Middle East Airlines (MEA), were an act of retaliation for the hijacking of El Al flights by commandos from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), in July and December 1968.

It was as a soldier that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu had his first contact with the Arab world. Within the Sayeret Matkal unit, which specialized in cross-border infiltrations for intelligence and reconnaissance purposes, he was operational across the region for four and a half years. In Egypt, in 1969, he came close to death. During a crossing of the Suez Canal, his commando was detected by Egyptian soldiers. Under fire, he jumped overboard. Weighed down by his equipment, he was sucked to the bottom, until four hands pulled him out of the water, saving his life.

His brothers, Jonathan and Iddo, also served in the unit. The first died in 1976 at Entebbe, in Uganda, during a raid that sought to free one hundred and six hostages held aboard Airbus A300B4, which had been hijacked by a German-Palestinian commando.

The memory of Jonathan Netanyahu is an inexhaustible source of inspiration and legitimacy to his brother. According to the story told by “Bibi”, the raid on Entebbe changed his life: the wish to honor his brother’s sacrifice literally threw Benjamin body and soul in the big political arena. The timeline is questionable though, as Benjamin Netanyahu was noticed a long time before his brother’s death, on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he tried to rally local Israeli diplomatic representation to his students’ campaigns to “raise awareness” about the Hebrew State and its cause.

However, in Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal story, the creation of the Yonathan Institute for the Study of Terrorism is the cornerstone of his commitment. In July 1979, Jerusalem hosted the first conference by the above mentioned think-tank, starring former CIA Director George H.W. Bush. The conference provided a preview of the main themes that would constitute Netanyahu’s future approach to the Middle East. The principal idea is that “terrorists” never act alone, but are always backed by a state. “Most of the international terrorism that damaged the world from the end of the 1960’s until the mid 1980’s were the products of an ad hoc alliance between the Soviet bloc and the Arab dictatorial regimes”, writes Netanyahu is his book “Fighting Terrorism”, published for the first time in 1995, and which represents the sum of his thoughts and reflections on the subject.

In Netanyahu’s writing, the Palestinian Fedayeen are an instrument at the service of the States, first Russian, then Iraq, and finally Iran. The political objective is clear: to delegitimize the Palestinian cause by associating it with the fight against terrorism. After the events of September 11, Netanyahu would not miss out on an occasion to develop his argument with Westerners, seeking to convince them that they are fighting against the same enemy.

The Alignment of Planets

Over the course of his career, Benjamin Netanyahu has adapted his arguments to the spirit of the times, but the ideological background for his position has been undeniably consistent. He reaped the first fruits in April 15 1986. After an attack at a nightclub in Berlin that killed three people, including two Americans, Ronald Reagan ordered airstrikes on military targets in Libya. The Palestinian man who had carried out the bombing using an explosive belt had been financed and overseen by the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, an accusation confirmed by a Berlin Court in November 2001. For Mr. Netanyahu, then Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, this was a godsend. He took great pleasure in defending the United States as it was largely isolated in the General Assembly, which passed a resolution condemning the strikes.

The first Gulf War, however, represents the perfect alignment of the planets.

On January 18 1991, the first round of Iraqi Scud missiles fell on the outskirts of Tel-Aviv. Yasser Arafat’s PLO had tied its fate to that of Saddam Hussein. But the major prize came along with images of Palestinians dancing on the roofs of their houses in the West Bank at the sight of the Scuds falling on Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu would not waste one minute of the war: it became his tool in front of the cameras in foreign TV studios. He insisted on keeping his gas mask on during the interviews, and ordered his interviewers to do the same, despite the technical adjustments needed to ensure their voices were audible.

“An Arab country (Iraq) invaded another Arab country (Kuwait) while threatening other Arab countries (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries). But Western diplomats still reiterate that peace in the Middle East is unattainable without the resolution of the Palestinian problem”, he said. In April 1993, five months before the handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn, he published his views on how to achieve peace in a book entitled “A Place Among the Nations”. The main idea is that peace with the Palestinians is impossible so long as the entire Middle East is not a bed of peace and democracy, because any attempt at reaching an agreement would be sabotaged by Iraq, Iran, or forces within the Arab world as they, according to Netanyahu, have an almost genocidal hatred towards the Jewish State. The settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will come after the ousting of dictatorial regimes, the destruction of Islamism, of malnutrition, cholera, the triumph of liberalism, and the education of all. In other words, according to “Bibi”, never.

Coherence and Cynicism

Benjamin Netanyahu’s history with the Arabs includes a topic that comes up time and time again, it seems to be an obsession that engulfs the whole narrative: Iran. The Islamic Republic may not be a part of the Arab world, but it is the main axis around which the Israeli Prime Minister builds his vision. Netanyahu has long made his fight against the Iranian “threat” his main talking point on the international scene, starting in 1996 with his first speech before the US Congress.

Netanyahu stands out from his predecessors through “raising the profile” of the Begin doctrine, named after the former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who swore that no adversary of the Hebrew State in the Middle East would ever be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. For Ariel Sharon, Iran should become the entire world’s problem, not only Israel’s, which, according to Sharon, should not be left alone to play the major role in the “battle”. But Netanyahu is convinced that Israel should sound the alarm about Iran. He has taken the showdown with Iran public, and has accelerated operations designed to stop Teheran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and never misses an opportunity to “alert” the international community to the Iranian threat. If Iran is the number one enemy of the Jewish State – due to its anti-Zionist rhetoric, and its support of many armed groups that carry out operations against Israel – the country is also perceived as a threat by part of the Arab world. It is in the name of this common vision that the Israeli Prime Minister will start a historical rapprochement with the Gulf countries whose twin objectives are to stand united against Iran, and to isolate the Palestinians. In the 1960’s, Israel forged alliances with Turkey and with the Shah of Iran in order to counterbalance the Arab world’s hostility. From now on, Israel will reach out to the “moderate” Arab countries in order to counter Iran’s hostility and to be able to continue to deal with the Palestinian issue as a matter of simple internal security. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arab history lacks neither coherence nor cynicism.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 9th of April)

On December 28 1968, at 20:37, three Super Frelon helicopters take off from Ramat David airbase, southeast of Haifa. They head north and do not change course until they reach their target. The three aircraft land at three different points in Beirut International Airport, and each offloads about twenty men. It is around 21:20 when the 19-year-old soldier Benjamin Netanyahu sets foot on Lebanese...