It can be hard to see the difference between the relationships formed by leaders and the geopolitical relationships of states. Leaders can be friends; they can trust one another, they can hate one another, they can kiss one another. That’s because two leaders sitting in a room can function just like two dudes sitting in a bar moaning about their wives. But states, most of which are made up of thousands if not millions of people and are supported and enabled by millions more, can’t do that.
Wise leaders are the ones who spot how power is fluctuating and go with the tide. Bad leaders are the ones who can’t.
And that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu is getting left behind, and why Obama is, for once, actually following the right trends.
The problems of ruling Canaan
I refer to the area by its super old name not to delegitimize Israel. Rather, if you think about the place as Canaan, or, even better, a place with no name at all, you get rid of all that clap-trap regarding holy sites, chosen peoples, and God smiting this or that. Dump all that and all you’ve got left is a small, vulnerable, mineral resource-poor strip of land with lovely beaches, few mountains, and a historical tendency to get taken over by bigger neighbors.
Independent states have only existed in the land of Canaan under one or two conditions: either there’s tons of regional chaos that creates weak states, or there’s a larger, more powerful state that distantly supports and enables a native ruler. The original kingdom of Israel existed when Egypt was in disarray and no power had yet united Mesopotamia; when either sorted themselves, Canaan ended up under the rule of one or the other.
The second example – when a powerful state supports a native ruler – is best shown by the Crusader states, who drew their top troops and rulers from Western Europe, and which weakened pretty rapidly once interest waned in the whole affair.
Today’s Israel has both conditions: a totally messy Middle East and a superpower sponsor. Which may help explain why Netanyahu feels he can do whatever he wants.
Alas, the sea is against him
There is no path forward in the Middle East where a Greater Israel will survive. A Greater Israel – one with the West Bank under its power permanently – cannot demographically absorb the soon-to-be-more-numerous Palestinian Arabs within it. Should Israel annex the West Bank permanently, it will have two unpleasant choices: become an actual apartheid state or give the vote to Palestinians. If the former, it will eventually be ostracized and lose the critical outside support of the United States. If the latter, the Palestinians will no doubt vote a name change.
Moreover, Israel’s usefulness to America is waning. Once upon a time, Israel was a fine balancer against Soviet-aligned Egypt and Syria. Egypt is now firmly in the pro-American camp and Syria has cannibalized itself, so what good is Israel anymore? The two now have clearly different visions: America wants to reorder the Middle East into stable, predictable states broadly aligned with its interests and, if at all possible, its values, while Israel wants to land grab its way into ancient borders that make sense only to hard right Israelis and doesn’t care who it pisses off along the way.
Since existential threats are pretty weak against Israel these days, its supporters around the world don’t rally as they once did
The Arab states once could wipe Israel out; no more. Jordan and Egypt can’t upset the U.S., their arms supplier. Syria, as noted, barely counts. Iran is far away and it may well soon give up its nuclear program, or at least the weaponization of it. So rallying the faithful around Israel is harder than ever. Grasping at Hamas and Hezbollah looks weak since those two factions lack the tanks, jets, and heavy equipment needed to actually conquer Israel. All they can do is harass Israelis; they can’t actually defeat the IDF, and that’s becoming more and more obvious with each airstrike.
Which means in the U.S., the rallying call in favor of Israel doesn’t generate the votes as it once did. With each election cycle, Israel’s grip on Congress will weaken; worse, a lame-duck president will soon have a free hand to do as he likes once this November election passes (in likely defeat). And he does not, according to more than a few, care for the prime minister.
Hearken back to 1991, when George H.W. Bush understood what Israel really meant to the U.S.
George H.W. Bush was, in many ways, a master of understanding geopolitics. His war against Saddam and his relationship with the dying Soviet Union were all top notch actions – not because H.W. was shaping events, but because he saw the right trends and followed them.
It was he who realized that a few important things with the end of the Soviet Union, the realignment of Egypt into the American camp, and the coming American dominance of world affairs. Israel had been a finer balancer in the Cold War-era Middle East, but the Cold War was over. A new threat was emerging; Islamist terrorism, inspired often by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. So Bush did the wise thing and pushed Israel – or, rather, threatened it – to make a peace accord, knowing that a peaceful Canaan was better than an Israeli-dominated one from America’s perspective.
Alas, H.W. was a shit politician and lost the election of 1992. Bill Clinton was a better politician but much worse at grand strategy; he finished off the peace process for political points, then let it founder once it fell off the front pages.
Two decades later, the geopolitical conditions haven’t changed; Israel’s occupation is a strategic liability to the U.S. What has changed is that a president has come along that agrees with H.W.’s old viewpoint. Obama is wrong in many places, but on Israel, he, for once, is seeing ahead.
Israelis can thank God they’re in a democracy
Unlike autocratic states, where a leader and a state can be too deeply tied together, Israel has a self-correcting democracy that will eventually expel Netanyahu once too much pressure is brought to bear on it. Israel has a long history of razor-thin coalitions; part of the reason Netanyahu does what he does is to keep his right-wing from walking out.
This whole experience is illustrative of how personalities and geopolitics don’t always flow the same way
Leaders ignore great trends at their peril; their own ego, arrogance, and short-term political maneuvering can cause them to make decisions that end up harming their own states. They can make day-to-day decisions that create an appearance of their being in absolute control, but geopolitics is a glacier, inexorably moving downhill. Great men may ride such a glacier to much effect, but what makes them great is not creating the glacier but knowing where it’s going.