UAE Agreement Demonstrates That Netanyahu Is the Master Peacemaker | Opinion

As far as most Democrats are concerned, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one of their least favorite world leaders. Though not all of them go so far as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who scorns him as a "reactionary racist." But even those who consider themselves pro-Israel stalwarts draw the line at expressing support for Netanyahu.

Their allies in the media and the foreign policy establishment agree. Most pundits and so-called Middle East "experts" believe the Likud Party leader and his policies to be the principal obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. Many American Jews also deprecate him as a foe of liberal values whose refusal to compromise and alleged corruption is a threat to Israeli democracy.

But in the wake of the historic agreement reached last week between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to begin negotiations to normalize relations between the two countries, it's time for Netanyahu's detractors to acknowledge a truth they'd rather deny or ignore. Far from being a hard-liner or an obstacle to peace, Netanyahu is the most skillful and successful diplomat in Israel's history.

Few would dispute that as the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, Netanyahu is a master politician whose ability to stay on top is nothing short of remarkable.

It's also true that despite his truculent reputation, Netanyahu has been the most cautious of Israeli prime ministers when it comes to the use of military force. Unlike virtually all of his predecessors, he has been reluctant to use the Israel Defense Forces in all-out campaigns to silence attacks in the south, from Hamas-run Gaza, or in the north, from Hezbollah. Indeed, domestic critics from the left and the right have often criticized him for being too soft on terror, rather than being the warmonger depicted in the international press.

But the greatest misnomer about Netanyahu is the claim that his bluster is isolating his country.

Israel gets a vastly disproportionate share of international media attention compared to its small geographic size. But the most under-reported story in the Middle East, and perhaps the world, in the last decade has been Netanyahu's unbroken string of diplomatic successes.

Throughout the last 11 years, during which he has served as Israel's leader (he also served an earlier three-year term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999), both enemies of Israel's existence and those who claim to be its friends have consistently bashed Netanyahu. Nevertheless, during that time, he achieved wonders in establishing ties with third-world countries, as well as Eastern European nations, that were once committed to liberalizing relations with the Jewish state.

Few expected Netanyahu would be welcomed in African capitals, or that he would establish close ties with India and Eastern Europe, when he returned to power in 2009. It has been on Netanyahu's watch that Israel has achieved the unthinkable. He turned the ice-cold peace with Egypt into a close alliance. Even more astonishing has been his success in establishing de facto relations with Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, that were once vociferous opponents of Israel's existence.

Yet by making the leap—with the Trump administration's assistance—from under-the-table economic and security cooperation to full-on normalization with the UAE (with others perhaps following soon), Netanyahu has demonstrated the sort of diplomatic skill that marks him as among the most able statesmen of the era.

This is not something most Democrats—or even the majority of American Jews, who are politically liberal and identify with Netanyahu's domestic opponents—find easy to accept.

Netanyahu clashed repeatedly with President Barack Obama despite his willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians. But his insistence on stating the fact that the "land for peace" formula has been tried and proven a failure because of Palestinian intransigence and repeated rejections of peace offers is deeply irritating to those who prefer their illusions about peace over the harsh on-the-ground realities of the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

His 2015 address to a joint meeting of Congress, during which he attempted to convince the House and Senate to oppose Obama's disastrous nuclear deal with Iran, still rankles many Democrats. The prime minister has also made no secret of his closeness with President Donald Trump, who has reciprocated by being the most pro-Israel president ever to sit in the White House.

But what his American critics really can't stand is that it is Netanyahu whose ability to leverage Israel's economic and military power has broken down resistance to the Jewish state among states like the UAE.

He has had help in achieving this diplomatic miracle.

Thanks in part to rampant anti-Semitism, Israel remains unpopular in Arab and Muslim countries. But the leaders of most Arab states understand now that the Palestinians are never going to make peace, either under their current leaders or under any possible successors. They are no longer interested in giving them a blank check to continue a futile century-old war on Zionism and veto a rapprochement with Israel that is in their best interests. If their former allies have abandoned them, it is because Palestinians have shown themselves unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn.

Obama's campaign to appease Iran also pushed many Arab governments into Israel's arms. The Gulf states are even more fearful than the Israelis of Tehran's quest for regional hegemony and a nuclear weapon, which Obama's deal made more rather than less likely in the long run. With Obama beginning, and Trump continuing, a policy in which the United States is pulling back from the region, the Sunni Gulf states look to Israel as a strategic ally against Iran, as well as a trading partner.

In the hands of a less adroit leader, this opportunity might have been squandered. But Netanyahu carefully nurtured the openings with the Arabs, and it is now likely that eventually most states in the region not allied with or controlled by Iran will have open relations with Israel. Indications are that other Gulf states like Bahrain and Oman may soon follow the UAE. Morocco, which has had fairly close ties with Israel for many years, is also likely to upgrade to full diplomatic relations.

Netanyahu has his faults. After 11 years in power, many Israelis are tired of him; his arrogant ease with power has led to corruption charges, which, though legally insubstantial, demonstrate the case for term limits.

But the claim that he is an opponent of Israeli democracy is absurd. Such accusations stem mainly from the fact that his liberal opponents, who largely control the country's media and judicial establishment, are frustrated by his winning democratic elections.

Democrats may look forward to a possible Biden administration that will return to the Obama policy of seeking more "daylight" between the two allies and cling to illusions about saving Israel from itself. But should he be elected president, Biden would be wise to work with Netanyahu, rather than against him, to achieve regional stability.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

UAE Agreement Demonstrates That Netanyahu Is the Master Peacemaker | Opinion | Opinion