The Silver Lining: Chuck Hagel, Meet Naftali Bennett
It was ironic that back in 2009 soon after the United States voted one of the most dovish Presidents in its history to power, its key ally Israel lurched in the opposite direction, electing the relatively hawkish government of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Now, with Obama’s recent cabinet nominations, and an Israeli general election just days away, a whole new level of irony is set to be introduced.
President Obama, free of re-election concerns is building his dream cabinet with an eye to his legacy and the implementation of his first-term-stifled ideals. Israelis, facing regional instability and increasing belligerence from local Arabs are focused on security and look set to grant the governing mandate to the ‘security first’ parties led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.
Specifically there are two individuals, one in Israel and one in the United States whose meteoric rise to the forefront of national consciousness embodies the direction in which Obama and Netanyahu respectively are likely headed.
In the U.S., Obama has plucked former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a political outlier, from relative obscurity to present as his nominee to head the Pentagon. Despite his pre-senate-hearing protestations, Hagel’s ideas about foreign policy, America’s place in the world, Israel, Iran, terrorism, the Arab Spring, nuclear proliferation and military spending are far out of the mainstream in this country and represent an emphatic leftward movement from the President such as has not been seen in modern U.S. history. It is almost impossible to make the case that Obama selected Hagel despite his views and therefore, now that Chuck Schumer, the last man that may have stood in the way of his appointment has quickly packed in his opposition, Hagel’s worldview will soon saturate American military and foreign policy.
Israel’s prominent new arrival is a choice of the Israeli voter. Naftali Bennett, the affable, bald and ideologically confident new leader of Israel’s Jewish Home political party is set to secure a presence in Israel’s next Knesset which is simply to voluminous to be ignored.
Although President Obama was recently reported to have insisted that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are,” the truth is that Israeli voters are among the most educated in the world, specifically on the key security issues on which they are voting. A very large percentage of Israel’s electorate has served in the military, is signed up to the reserves or has fulfilled two years of national service. Exposure of this kind to real life scenarios and on the ground decision making leaves Israelis well educated on the challenges their country faces and with an understanding of effective approaches to confronting them.
The Israeli public knows exactly what it wants; it wants Naftali Bennett, whose worldview is just about as diametrically opposed to Chuck Hagel’s as is possible.
With his elite military background, it is also possible, although unlikely, that Bennett will end up being Israel’s next defense minister, if he emerges as a key coalition partner for Netanyahu. This would effectively make him Hagel’s point man in the new Israeli government.
The rise of Hagel and Bennett is likely to further set the U.S. – Israel relationship into a mode that can perhaps best be described as adolescence, marked in many ways by the turmoil that we all faced as teenagers. Rebellion, trouble with authority, insecurity, trial and error with friends and romantic relationships, real life education, maturity and ultimately balanced independence.
There will undoubtedly be moves from the U.S. to impose various policies and to directly and indirectly hang the specter of international isolation over Israel’s head. Obama, Hagel and Secretary of State in waiting John Kerry will be hard, sharp, and relentless in their drive to force territorial and security concessions from Israel. The Jewish state however, simply will not have it. Israelis have moved on. Today, any Israeli leader that attempts to drive a land for peace agenda is simply signing his own political death warrant.
The result will be uncomfortable diplomatic conflict, and a period of insecurity. But Israel has much to offer and will find other powerful and influential friends who fully appreciate the game changing value of what Israel brings to the table in any bilateral relationship.
Importantly, although Hagel’s positions involve little sympathy for Israel, he also favors along with his likely new boss a general withdrawal of American impetus from the world stage. As America begins to reorganize, others will leap to fill the space and Israel will need to secure its position in the new emerging global order.
It was no co-incidence that when Prime Minister Netanyahu announced in December from a Jerusalem hilltop that “All Israeli governments have built in Jerusalem. We’re not going to change that. That’s a natural thing,” he lined up the ambassadors of China, India, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Australia, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka beside him.
It is also unlikely to be accidental that the book pictured on Bibi’s airplane table in a photo, released by the Prime Minister’s office during his flight to the U.S. in September to address the United Nations General Assembly, was entitled ‘On China’ by Henry Kissinger.
India and China can source their crude from elsewhere, but Israeli minds can only be found in one place. Israel is developing an almost mythical status in the view of those countries that recognize the value of innovation as key to their growth above all else, and they want what Israel possesses in droves.
It will be a turbulent four years wrought with challenge and uncertainty. Both the United States and Israel will suffer significant diplomatic and material losses. But with hard work and focused political courage, Israel can emerge more self-reliant, confident and indispensable than ever.