February 8, 2023 | Tablet
As Netanyahu tries to manage relations with a fracturing American empire, he would do well to read Isaiah
February 8, 2023 | Tablet
As Netanyahu tries to manage relations with a fracturing American empire, he would do well to read Isaiah
Israeli leaders, beginning with David Ben-Gurion, are famous for reading the Bible as the history of their people, and in particular as a record of the last Jewish experiment in nationhood. Given that many of the constraints on the behavior of states and kingdoms in the Levant have remained more or less constant for the past 5,000 years, looking back to the writings of ancient Jewish prophets and scribes for wisdom about present-day statecraft is in fact a sensible exercise. Indeed, it can be easier to see the geopolitical realities of today from the vantage point of the past than from articles by modern-day think tank analysts and reporters. Benjamin Netanyahu, himself a voracious reader, should take note.
The book of Isaiah, for example, relates the story of a geopolitical dilemma faced by Hezekiah, king of Judah, in the eighth century. The Assyrian empire, the dominant regional power at the time, had conquered the Levant, the land in between great powers, sacking Samaria and incorporating the northern Kingdom of Israel into the Assyrian realm. Under King Ahaz, Hezekiah’s predecessor, Judah began paying tribute to Assyria, becoming a vassal state, like other statelets of the Levant. When, under Sargon, Assyria became preoccupied closer to home, with trouble in Babylonia in the south and in eastern and central Anatolia in the north, the small Levantine states sensed an opening, and Judah found itself smack in the middle of a great power struggle of the type that has shaped and reshaped the Levant innumerable times since the Iron Age.
The Philistine city-state of Ashdod rebelled against Assyria, and tried to enlist Judah. Hezekiah wisely held back, heeding the Prophet Isaiah’s advice against any fantasy of gaining support from Egypt, the major power center to the southwest. Sargon marched on Ashdod and crushed its rebellion, turning the city-kingdom into an Assyrian province. Judah was spared, having paid its tribute on time, but Hezekiah’s impulse to revolt persisted.
Isaiah, by contrast, continued to warn against reliance on Egypt, now under Kushite rule, and which soon would look to back agitation against the Assyrians in the southern Levant:
Woe to the rebellious children, saith the Lord, that take counsel, but not of me; … That walk to go down into Egypt, and have not asked at my mouth; to strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh, and to trust in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the strength of Pharaoh be your shame, and the trust in the shadow of Egypt your confusion. (Is. 30:1-3)
The decisive moment came with the death of Sargon in battle in Anatolia. With Babylonia still unsubdued, and possibly also nudging the Levantine statelets toward rebellion, Hezekiah finally went against Isaiah’s counsel, threw down the gauntlet and ceased paying tribute to Assyria. Worse still, he took prisoner the king of Ekron, an Assyrian vassal.
It was a terrible misreading of the balance of power. Sargon’s successor, Sennacherib, promptly marched on Judah, besieged and took the major city of Lachish, and deported its inhabitants, while also dispatching troops to Jerusalem, locking Hezekiah “like a caged bird” within the city, as the Assyrian account described it. Hezekiah was made to pay a hefty tribute, and release the deposed king of Ekron, who was also awarded territory seized from Judah. But Jerusalem remained in the Assyrian king’s sights.
The Bible’s account of the episode is sardonic. The emissaries of Sennacherib come up to the walls of Jerusalem to relay the great king’s message, which reaffirms Isaiah’s words: Egypt is a broken reed, “whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it.” And that’s what Hezekiah did. Only this time, the Assyrians, having secured Hezekiah’s submission and collected an even larger tribute, miraculously march off, leaving Jerusalem under Hezekiah’s vassal rule, thanks only to God. Although Jerusalem survived that particular encounter with empire, it fell a little over a century later, ironically at the hands of none other than Assyria’s Babylonian rival.
The big lesson from the episode is that a small Levantine power that is tempted to play off bigger powers against each other risks absolute ruin if it chooses wrong. This is a lesson the Kingdom of Judah would relive in future encounters with external great powers—in which the inherent risks of being located at the crossroads of empire would be compounded by the dangers of internal Jewish factionalism. But there is also a corollary lesson to be learned, along with the one about not leaning on broken reeds that might pierce your hand. And that is that what may be decisive is simply the whim of the emperor—and there is nothing that the client can do to influence it.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the relevance of ancient lessons of statecraft in the Levant, whether drawn from the Bible or from Assyrian and Babylonian annals, yet remains constant. To be sure, Israel today is no longer the weak biblical statelet it once was. While structural vulnerabilities of size and geography remain, Israel today is a middle power, a technological leader that fields an advanced military with powerful capabilities. It has defeated every attempt made by hostile neighbors to inflict defeat and destruction upon it. More to the point, Israel chose wisely in the contest of great powers during the Cold War, and has helped amplify and project U.S. power, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean.
Yet despite the enduring strength of the U.S. as a global superpower and local patron, Israel’s strategic environment has changed in critical ways over the last decade. And save for a brief interregnum, which coincided with the first two years of the Biden administration, Benjamin Netanyahu has been at the helm, navigating Israel through this new terrain.
During this decade, Israel saw some long-standing threats sharpen, namely the threat from Iran, and security challenges on Israel’s borders become more acute. Israel’s strategic environment changed radically with the return of the Russian military to the region, ensconced in the same theater of operations as Iran on Israel’s northern border. While Russia is a shadow of its Cold War self, it is still a formidable nuclear power. But Russia, in itself, has not been Netanyahu’s toughest challenge. The Israeli leader’s biggest problem, rather, has been in managing relations with his superpower patron.
The prevailing Democratic Party narrative tells a different story, of course. That narrative holds that Netanyahu committed a cardinal sin—a variant of King Hezekiah’s offense—by leading a rebellion against his American suzerain. In the Democrats’ telling, Netanyahu came to Congress at the invitation of the Republican Party and colluded with them to challenge a sitting Democratic president. In so doing, he factionalized Israel’s position in the U.S., turning it into a “political football,” or a Republican equity.
The problem with this version is that, unlike Hezekiah, Netanyahu didn’t pick a fight with the empire. The empire picked a fight with him, and with the country he leads.
Barack Obama entered the White House with a clear vision for how he wanted to reposition the U.S. in the Middle East. He envisioned creating a “new equilibrium”—that is, rearranging the balance of power—in the region by realigning the U.S. away from the states that the American global power had traditionally included in its alliance system, and toward Iran. Such were Obama’s declared aims, in order to achieve a goal that he called “balance.” That is, to move the U.S. closer to an expansionist regional middle power that’s been in conflict with Israel, and whose explicit objective is the Jewish state’s destruction.
After decades of operating under a set of rules in a mutually beneficial arrangement with the global superpower, Israel woke up to find that the new emperor had changed his mind, and decided that he would now empower Israel’s enemy and partner with it in multiple theaters throughout the region. In fact, Russia’s return to the Levant, and the expansion of Iran’s entrenchment there, emerged not as a result of a confrontation with the U.S., but rather with its acquiescence and protection. It must be stressed that while the motives for these actions may be open to interpretation or debate, it is simply a fact that they happened. Realigning the U.S. away from Israel and toward Iran is what Obama decided to do, and he did it.
By the time Netanyahu flew to the imperial seat in March 2015 to deliver his speech about Iran, Obama’s realignment plan was already in its final stages. The distaste and contempt the U.S. president and his team had for the Israelis had become quite explicit. Famously, senior officials called Netanyahu a chickenshit, gloating about how they successfully prevented him from taking action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. The new emperor personally spoke with palpable disdain for formerly allied regional clients, denigrating them as freeloaders who wished to leverage the power of the empire for their narrow sectarian goals. Years of undermining Israel’s actions in its own defense with deliberate intelligence leaks were capped by Obama knifing the Israelis at the U.N. as he prepared to hand over power to his successor.
Netanyahu’s petition to Congress was a desperate cri de coeur, an appeal to sanity in the imperial capital by a loyal ally who, even as he knew that realignment was a done deal, could not fathom the emperor’s irrational whim. And indeed, the deal was done a few short months after Bibi’s speech. In other words, far from constituting a nefarious plot to somehow thwart the emperor’s campaign, the episode was an expression of impotence by a man who had been unable to change the course of empire and therefore looked to history for whatever measures of vindication or solace.
Netanyahu could not have imagined that Donald Trump would defeat the emperor’s anointed successor, and that within a couple of years in office the Republican president would trash Obama’s deal with Iran, halting realignment in its tracks. In turn, Trump’s single term fostered a belief that things might return to the way they had been before. Unlike the fantasy of a U.S. alliance with a resurgent Iran—a country whose economy was a shambles, and whose internal politics was organized around hatred of the U.S.—America’s former arrangements had a clear grounding in reality. Israel could offer its patron the fourth most powerful army in the world and a highly innovative tech sector, while the Gulf States, who were equally threatened by Iran, controlled OPEC+, and a large share of the world’s oil and gas. It is to acquire assets like these that great powers bother with local politics in the first place.
In fact, the Trump interval would only underscore that there was no going back. What had happened wasn’t that Netanyahu had “politicized,” which is to say factionalized, American foreign policy. In reality, the American empire had fractured and was now projecting its own factional divisions onto the world outside its borders. In place of prior unitary conceptions of “America’s national interest,” there were now only the interests of parties, which saw the world beyond America’s borders in terms of friends and enemies in their own internal battles. Having publicly staked nearly the entirety of party leader Obama’s second term on Iran, Democrats would now be friendly to Iran and hostile to Iran’s enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia—regardless of whether Iran, Israel, or Saudi Arabia were themselves friendly or hostile to America, a concept that had increasingly become an abstraction. As National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan described it, “We’ve reached a point where foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy.”
The fracturing of empire is a seismic event that creates a ripple effect. America remains a global superpower. Whatever it projects outward is felt acutely. And now it’s projecting its fracture onto the world, which it views and classifies according to the categories of its domestic fissure. The foreign ally of the faction out of power becomes the foe of the ruling faction. The ruling faction also fosters its own loyalists abroad against those it perceives to be allied with its domestic rivals. We’ve seen this manifested in Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as in other states like Hungary and Poland in Europe and in Venezuela and Brazil in South America.
Netanyahu has already faced an attempt to unseat him funded by Obama’s State Department in the 2015 election. But in the years since, the Obama faction has developed a new playbook for political warfare against its domestic opponents, which now, inevitably, is deployed abroad.
The Obama faction’s sustained, multifaceted campaign against then-President Trump seamlessly fused the domestic and the foreign. The faction organized the campaign around the conceit of protecting “democracy” (or “our democracy,” with its implicit opposition to and delegitimation of any system, democratic or not, in which “the other side” wins) against the onslaught of “authoritarianism,” or more crudely, “Putin.”
The initial conceit, which drew its original force from the now-discredited conspiracy theory in which the Russian leader was alleged to have “stolen” the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton by buying ads on Facebook and through “bot farms” that amplified false stories (“fake news”) on Twitter, was then developed into a universal taxonomy that organizes foreign states into friends and foes: The forces of democracy against the club of regressive anti-democrats. People like Donald Trump and his pals—Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Mohammed bin Salman, and, of course, Benjamin Netanyahu—are the foes of democracy, i.e., Putin’s friends. “Our friends” are those factions that align themselves financially or ideologically with the Democratic Party in the United States.
In turn, foreign allies of the empire’s ruling faction utilize this American-made conceit and its American-designed tools (the anti-Trump playbook), thus showing that they are de facto Democrats. According to the empire’s new system of classification, the domestic rivals that they run this playbook against are therefore identified as allies of the American ruling faction’s own domestic rivals, i.e., Republicans. All of international relations, and internal political competition within states, can therefore be neatly reduced to the question of Democrats versus Republicans.
All of international relations can be neatly reduced to the question of Democrats versus Republicans.
In Israel, we caught a glimpse of this integrated American-Israeli messaging machine last year, when Team Obama-Biden worked with its preferred prime minister, Yair Lapid, in the final months of his tenure, to ram through a deal between Jerusalem and the Hezbollah-run Iranian equity to the north. That was an example of how the Democratic Party’s Washington-based comms infrastructure can promote its approved policies together with local client state political and media cut-outs (such as the reporter Barak Ravid, who is part of an internal U.S. partisan influence operation cultivated by Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, who continued to reside in Israel after his tenure ended) to advance the American ruling faction’s regional priorities.
We are witnessing this enterprise at work again today in the fight over judicial reform in Israel, which is exactly the type of domestic concern that in the bygone American “national interest” framework could be expected to have exactly zero impact on Israel’s client-state relationship with the United States. Now, it is easy to universalize such local squabbles, both for ideological reasons and because it is profitable for both local clients and partisan patrons to do so.
The twin of the “democracy” buzzword is “values.” Israel must continue to adhere to the values of the empire’s ruling faction, as defined on any given day, or face consequences. The “values” tool allows the Obama faction to launch endless campaigns against the undesirable, if democratically elected, leadership in Israel. “Values” can cover anything from “democracy,” to “inclusivity” and “tolerance,” to “racism,” to settlements, and, of course, the Palestinians.
“We hope that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups. We have certain interests and values of ours,” State Department spokesman Ned Price, an old Obama hand, said in a briefing—the hand-wave vagueness at the end of the statement being at least half the point. Today, our values might demand the expulsion of any minister who made statements suggesting sympathy with “hate groups.” Tomorrow, they might demand drag queen story hour for Holocaust survivors at the municipal library in West Jerusalem—but not in East Jerusalem. The precise details of these demands hardly matter. What matters is whether you obey the party or not.
This ominous message got juiced up with the judicial reform proposal. “The U.S.-Israel relationship is based upon a lot of things. Democracy [and] shared values are certainly at the top of the list,” warned Team Obama-Biden’s ambassador to Israel in an interview with local, English-language media. The explicit threat followed: “We use those shared values to defend Israel at places like the United Nations,” the U.S. ambassador continued. “It is very important for everyone to understand” that these shared values are “a very big part of our messaging.” That is, the objectionable local faction might be democratically elected, but unless it commits to policies that advance the interests of its rival faction, favored by Washington, then the empire will target it some more.
The tactics of the Israeli opposition against the sitting Israeli government were immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the hallmarks of the Obama faction’s anti-Trump campaign. Israel’s proposed judicial reforms are a threat to democracy, “100 national security experts sign a letter cautioning against the descent into fascism,” “70 retail chain executives warn against the economic repercussions of Netanyahu undermining democratic institutions,” and so on. As factionalism is at the heart of the transformation in America, it’s little wonder that the fractured empire is now fostering factionalism in Israel, where it has found an elite eager and willing to align itself with winners in the U.S., even as, or because, it loses its political battles at home.
In addition to shunning certain Israeli government ministers, just like they do with Hezbollah ministers in Lebanon, senior U.S. officials now underscore that their itineraries include meetings with “members of Israeli civil society”—much like how the U.S. deals with authoritarian regimes when it wishes to show them up in public. Israel may be a democracy, of sorts, just like Orban’s Hungary, but it is not “our democracy.” At the same time as it amplified this internal pressure mechanism, the Biden administration was also pushing the “values” tactic through the familiar vector of the Palestinians. Following horrific terrorist attacks against Israelis, including one outside a synagogue, Secretary of State Blinken spoke of a “rising tide of violence” which “has resulted in the loss of many innocent lives on both sides.” Blinken not only drew this equivalence, and asked “both sides” to “de-escalate,” he actually implied that Israeli policy was the cause of Palestinian terrorism. While Netanyahu discussed his plan to disrupt the Palestinian “pay for slay” policy, Blinken announced increased funding for the Palestinians.
Part of the inherent sadism of the Obama ruling faction’s campaigns is the way they turn the target into the offender. From the Israeli perspective, the empire’s geopolitical initiatives are directly at odds with your national security, just as its requirements carry within them the seeds of your undoing. While it might appear that there is a set of requirements for you to meet in order to restore yourself to the good graces of your patron, in fact such a path is a mirage, since the ultimate request is for you to commit political suicide, leading to national self-destruction.
Faced with this formidable challenge, how is Netanyahu trying to avoid Hezekiah’s mistake?
For starters, despite this sustained attack that began with his electoral victory, Netanyahu has strategically projected an image of unshakable closeness to the empire, in part by appealing to the before time, i.e., the pre-Obama era. Hence, the Israeli prime minister has spoken repeatedly about how he has known Joe Biden “for 40 years, as a great friend of Israel.” He has spoken about his confidence in U.S. assurances on Iran, and on working with Washington to advance peace with the Obama faction’s other bête noire, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Does Netanyahu believe his words? Who knows? Either way, he has to say them. Not to do so would be foolish. There are two more years in this administration’s term, and there is no saying it won’t serve another term after that. Even Hezekiah was wise enough not to withhold tribute, at first.
Even Hezekiah was wise enough not to withhold tribute, at first.
As he does so, however, Netanyahu is looking around to see what moves he can make and where, so as to preserve his margin for maneuverability in case, or once, his stated confidence in U.S. assurances is shown to be unfounded. Take the recent strike against a defense facility in Isfahan, which officials of the American empire were quick to attribute to Israel and to distance themselves from. The distancing behavior of the Americans showed their hand, after the fanfare of the massive joint exercise between the U.S. and Israeli militaries, which was supposed to broadcast a message that the U.S. and Israel are in fact on the same page, even as the Biden administration continues to press for talks with Iran.
The Isfahan revelation was valuable in itself—no, the administration is not working with the Israelis to develop military options against Iran’s nuclear program. And yes, Israel is capable of mounting large-scale operations inside Iran that the U.S. evidently did not know about before they happened, and was therefore unable to expose or stop.
The target of the strike was also a way for Israel to thread the needle. Netanyahu is facing pressure from Washington over Israel’s posture in Ukraine. After all, that, too, is a test of “shared values.” Are you a friend of Putin’s or of the forces of democracy? The play here is to trip Netanyahu up with the Russians, whom the Obama team helped park on his border in Syria. Now, however, the empire is demanding Israel antagonize Russia, which remains ensconced in Syria, and thereby damage itself—something Netanyahu has no interest in doing. By striking an Iranian military factory, Israel helped Ukraine without directly antagonizing Russia.
Problem solved? Not exactly, since the solution, for the U.S., is not strengthening Ukraine but weakening Israel. Naturally, Team Obama-Biden officials were quick to deny Israel any credit on the Ukraine issue, churlishly insisting to The New York Times that “they believed this strike was prompted by Israel’s concerns about its own security.” Never lacking in humor, Team Obama-Biden shortly thereafter renewed sanctions waivers that allow Russia and Iran to cooperate on nuclear activity at Iranian enrichment sites, which is to Russia’s benefit, and threatens Israel.
Staying the course outlined in his public commitments concerning Iran, both in terms of its regional tentacles and its nuclear program, is a strategic necessity for Netanyahu, especially in light of the Obama faction’s unwavering commitment to revive its deal with the Islamic Republic. Neutralizing the Iranian threat is the key move, both as it relates to Israel’s national security imperatives and also to Israel’s relationship with the American empire.
Other moves hinge on this decision. Along the way, Netanyahu can see whether or not he can accommodate the Saudis. Entertaining clever ideas about mediating between the U.S. and MBS is a waste of time that only affords the Obama faction more opportunity to sabotage both the Israeli prime minister and the Saudi crown prince.
Netanyahu will certainly want to deepen his alliance with India. Among other things, that alliance will further consolidate the agreements and relationships with the Gulf Arab States signed under the Trump presidency, building on the recent Israeli sale of the port of Haifa to a consortium led by India’s Adani Group, despite Chinese bids. The stronger Netanyahu’s alliance with India, the better positioned he is vis-à-vis China, without alienating either the latter or the Americans, including the faction currently out of power.
Isaiah’s counsel to King Hezekiah ultimately was based in a deep understanding of the power dynamic that governs the relationship between Israel and the small states of its geographic neighborhood, on the one hand, and the power centers that surrounded it, on the other. In contemporary terms, it was based in a fundamentally sound understanding of the nature of the Levant as the territory in between greater powers. What matters are the dynamics and alliance structures outside the Levant’s borders, among those larger powers who see it as an arena for power projection.
But what Isaiah’s counsel also tells us is that while these were enduring structural realities of the Levant—after all, Israel’s contending with Egypt and Mesopotamia/Persia bookends the Bible (and if you include the New Testament, you can add Rome)—the balance of power is never permanent, and smaller powers must therefore always continue to play the game.
Trying to divine why a great power takes interest in making a move in the Levant is not as important as the fact that it has made a move. What matters is the choice of how to deal with it without losing your head. Such choices can be thrust on you at any moment, whether you invited them or not. Similarly, struggling with the rationality behind a decision of the empire’s current ruling faction is an exercise in futility. All that matters is the current alignment of the pieces on the chessboard.
The ultimate measure of success or failure for Netanyahu won’t be whether or not he manages to maintain a good relationship with Joe Biden. Nor will it be whether he joins hands with the Republicans—a faction that shows no signs of returning to power anytime soon. Rather, it will be if he is able to internalize his recognition that the empire has fractured, and create an off-ramp that helps protect Israel from the inevitable ripple effects of this fracture, including the wrath of the Obama faction and Israel’s own internal splintering.
As a local client state, it doesn’t matter how many talents of gold and silver you offered to pharaoh, or whether pharaoh is right or wrong in his estimations. What matters is that pharaoh has gone to war with you. To keep his country Netanyahu now needs to show he can keep his country.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.