On February 15, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald Trump held their first official meeting. Strangely, they held their press conference prior to the meeting. During that press conference, in answer to the question, "Mr. President, in your vision for the new Middle East peace, are you ready to give up the notion of <sic>two-state solution that was adopted by previous administration <sic>?, Trump said, "So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one."
That statement, seemingly reversing long standing American policy, captured all the media attention after the press conference. That was the line everyone reported and talked about.
But the dazzling media spotlight focussed on that statement threw another equally important one into the shadows. The other statement went unnoticed, though it was repeated by Trump and Netanyahu seven times: four times by Trump and three by Netanyahu. Each of them mentioned it in their scripted opening remarks and each of them reiterated it in answers to reporters.
In answer to a reporter’s question, Trump said, somewhat cryptically, "And I think we’re going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand."
A "bigger deal . . . than most people . . . even understand?" What did Trump mean by that? He gave the key to the cryptic remark in his opening remarks. There he said, "Our administration is committed to working with Israel and our common allies in the region towards greater security and stability. That includes working toward a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians."
In his opening remarks, Netanyahu picked up on the same theme: ". . . for the first time in my lifetime, and for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but, increasingly, as an ally. And I believe that under your leadership, this change in our region creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and advance peace."
Trump referred to "our common allies in the region," and Netanyahu identified those allies as the "Arab countries in the region" who see Israel "as an ally." Both leaders then clearly included those Arab nations in the peace process; hence, the "bigger" deal.
Netanyahu made the new inclusive approach clear when he said, "And I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach from involving our newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace and peace with the Palestinians."
Trump seemed surprised when Netanyahu stated that publicly: "So I didn’t know you were going to be mentioning that, but that’s — now that you did, I think it’s a terrific thing and I think we have some pretty good cooperation from people that in the past would never, ever have even thought about doing this." But, he wasn’t surprised: he referred to the idea in his own opening remarks. And those opening remarks were not just the Trumpian spontaneous remarks that we have grown accustomed to and don’t know whether to take seriously. They were the offspring of pre-meeting discussions with Netanyahu: "And we have been discussing that, and it is something that is very different, hasn’t been discussed before." And the discussions were not just impromptu discussions. Trump later referred to their "new concept" as something "we’ve been discussing actually for a while." Trump then joined Netanyahu in making the new approach – the new partnership – explicit: "And it’s actually a much bigger deal, a much more important deal, in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory."
And what common interest unites the new partnership of the many countries in the region? That final significant detail of the "new concept" was left for Netanyahu to articulate. The interest shared by the new partnership is Iran: "let me say this very openly: I think it’s long overdue, and I think that if we work together — and not just the United States and Israel, but so many others in the region who see eye to eye on the great magnitude and danger of the Iranian threat, then I think we can roll back Iran’s aggression and danger."
Trump and Netanyahu’s new concept is to bring the Sunni Arab countries in the region into the peace discussions on Israel’s side by trading resistance to Iran for a deal on Palestine.
Though this may be new to America, it is not new to Israel. It is the logical corollary of Netanyahu’s most significant contribution to history.
The single most clarifying lens through which to view Israel’s foreign policy history is the lens of the doctrine of the periphery. The doctrine of the periphery can be traced back to two leaders of Mossad: Reuven Shiloah and Isser Harel. But its central premise, that political compromise with the Arabs is impossible, may be traced back even further to Vladimir Jabotinsky. According to this perspective, Israelis look out from a tiny land to find themselves surrounded by Arab nations who are not only hostile to them but whose differences with Israel are so essential that compromise and friendship are impossible. This impossibility of political ties with her neighbors drives Israel to reach for alliances with non-Arab states just beyond the circumference of her neighbors: to the periphery. This local world view was adopted by David Ben-Gurion and became his doctrine of the periphery. It has been the dominant piece in the Israeli foreign policy puzzle ever since. Four of the most important partners in the alliance of the periphery have been South Africa, Turkey, Ethiopia and, perhaps most importantly, Iran.
The Israeli foreign policy pendulum has swung from the dominant periphery alliances to the occasional neighborhood alliance. But it never allows itself to be caught with enemies on both sides.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, swung the periphery doctrine to the amplitude of enmity with Israel’s Arab neighbors and alliance with the periphery. Ben-Gurion’s approach to foreign policy dominated Israeli history until the administrations of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. They began the second great period of Israeli foreign policy, pushing the pendulum to the opposite amplitude: enmity with the periphery and warming of relations with the neighborhood.
It is often held that Israel’s relationship with Iran soured when the Shah was deposed. Surprisingly, it did not. Israel’s relationship with Iran did not immediately sour after the Islamic Revolution. So far did Israeli-Iranian relations after the revolution go that the Israeli’s actually began working with Iran to modify an Israeli missile so that Iran could have a missile with the longer range of two hundred miles. Incredibly, these weapons were capable of being fitted with nuclear warheads. According to Iranian expert Trita Parsi, though the two countries did not exploit this possibility at the time, Iran read Israel’s signals "as indications that this possibility could be explored down the road". According to General Hassan Toufanian, then in charge of Iran’s military procurement, secret Israeli documents left "no doubt about it". The pendulum had not yet swung.
It was Rabin and Peres who were largely responsible for the change in policy that turned Iran into the archenemy of Israel and the Western world. In 1992, the Labor Party won a landslide election that brought first Rabin and then Peres into power. Peres was first the Foreign Minister and then the Prime Minister. Several important geopolitical changes brought about by the Intifada, alterations in demographics, shifts in regional powers and the now warmer relations between especially Egypt but also Iraq and the west, led Rabin and Peres to see the doctrine of the periphery in a new way.
Rabin and Peres pushed the pendulum. For them, the threat no longer came from the Arab vicinity, but from the Iranian periphery. In their "New Middle East," Israel would move closer politically and economically to the Arabs and push Iran out of the neighborhood.
It was Rabin and Peres, to the total shock of the Iranians, who first cast Iran in the role of Israeli enemy and international threat. This bold move as casting director produced a total shift in Israel’s foreign policy and world view. It represented a complete realignment of the periphery doctrine. Rabin and Peres, who had until recently been pushing the Americans to improve relations with Iran, would now attempt to make friends with the Arab vicinity and vilify the Iranian periphery. Consistently, this push led to the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
The third, and current, swing of the periphery pendulum occurred in the third great period of Israeli foreign policy: the period dominated by the reign of Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the beginning, Netanyahu rejected Rabin and Peres’ "New Middle East." In A World of Trouble, Patrick Tyler says that Netanyahu "savaged Rabin," said he had "gone crazy" and compared his swing of the pendulum to the "blatant stupidity" of Neville Chamberlain." According to Trita Parsi, Netanyahu even briefly tried to rethaw relations with Iran on the periphery. Consistent with the Periphery Doctrine, Netanyahu decreed that "there will never be a Palestinian State," according to Tyler, and, believing that peace with the Arabs in the neighborhood was impossible, returned to seeking alliances with "the Middle East’s non-Arab states – that is, a return to the doctrine of the periphery," according to Parsi.
Soon, though, Netanyahu would be ratcheting up international tension against Iran and referring cryptically to Israel’s Arab neighbors who had more in common with Israeli interests than they had conflict with Israel. In a September 2014 speech at the UN, Netanyahu said, "After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy, leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that together we and they face many of the same dangers: principally this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world. Our challenge is to transform these common interests to create a productive partnership. One that would build a more secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East."
But Netanyahu’s push at the pendulum was not the traditional one of Ben-Gurion and his successors. The pendulum swing for Netanyahu was no longer merely bipolar. As the old doctrine of the periphery split the Arab neighborhood from the non-Arab periphery, Netanyahu now split the Arab neighborhood into the Arab states and the Palestinians. For the first time in the history of Israel, Netanyahu made enemies of both Iran and the Palestinians. Keeping his eye on the periphery doctrine’s intent of never making enemies of everyone at once, Netanyahu accomplished his foreign policy innovation by severing the Palestinians from the rest of the Arab neighborhood, regarding the Palestinians as now too weak to constitute a danger. As he said to the UN, those Arab neighbor could be united with Israel against the common threat of Iran.
Netanyahu’s version of the doctrine of the periphery would ally the Arab neighborhood with Israel against the threat of Iran, and then "transform these common interests to create a productive partnership. One that would build a more secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East." Netanyahu refers to his doctrine as "outside-in": first you ally with the Arabs outside of Israel, offering them support against their Iranian enemy, then, in exchange, you extract a peace plan that you then present to the Palestinians.
"Outside-in" is Netanyahu’s signature contribution to Israeli foreign policy. And it is precisely the peace process that Netanyahu and Trump referred to seven times in their recent press conference. When Trump says that this "new concept" "hasn’t been discussed before," he may be right if he means by Israel and the US But, he is wrong if he means that it "hasn’t been discussed before". It has been discussed by Netanyahu. It has even been presented by Netanyahu. When Netanyahu told the UN that "leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that together we and they face many of the same dangers," and then, crucially, added that "Our challenge is to transform these common interests to create a productive partnership. One that would build a more secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East," he was saying the same thing as when he said in the press conference that ". . . for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but, increasingly, as an ally. And I believe that under your leadership, this change in our region creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and advance peace." He attributes a share in the idea to Trump, but the position expressed by Trump and Netanyahu has been Netanyahu’s foreign policy position all along.
The doctrine of the periphery is the single most useful lens through which to view Israel’s foreign policy, and Netanyahu’s signature contribution to Israel’s foreign policy is his innovation on the doctrine of the periphery that ushered in the third and current era of Israeli foreign policy. The position recently presented to the world on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by Trump and Netanyahu is the corollary of that position.
For Netanyahu and Israel, this convergence means a US administration at last that is plastic enough to take the form of Netanyahu’s foreign policy. For America, it means an administration inexperienced enough in the region and in enough disarray to have a Middle East policy pushed on it while thinking it its own or compliant enough with Israel not to care. Either way, it means the sidelining of the US from the peace process: a sidelining that has also been suggested by Trump’s refrain that he is "happy with" whatever plan "that both parties like," a formulation that equates with Israel getting whatever plan it wants, since relationships that are asymmetrical in the extreme do not produce mutually beneficial compromises. For the Palestinians, it means one of two hopeless outcomes, depending on whether the Israeli-American strategy takes root, which is not certain, since Muslim nations have historically been reluctant to negotiate a separate peace or impose a peace on the Palestinians. If the strategy fails, the Palestinians are left with a US administration that is not necessarily committed to a two a state solution or, therefore, to a Palestinian state; if the strategy works, the Palestinians are abandoned with Israel and Saudi Arabia ganging up and forcing a solution on them.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.
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