For the first time since he regained the Prime Minister’s Office several months ago, it appears that Benjamin Netanyahu has a plan. And it looks like the escape path for which he has been searching runs through Saudi Arabia.
Until now, Netanyahu has seemed to simply be playing for time. The issue of judicial oversight, which he had largely ignored throughout his decades in public office, has become the bait that he has needed to keep the most conservative members of his coalition on board. But recognizing that Israeli public opinion is strongly against the reform plan, Netanyahu has been slow-walking the policy changes through prolonged negotiations and incremental progress.
The prime minister knows that continuing to push the extreme agenda of his party’s base will almost certainly cost him his job before too long. So he has been trying to decelerate the process enough to find a way to become less dependent on the ultra-conservatives to maintain his governing majority.
Up until now, his former center-right allies have demonstrated no interest whatsoever in working with him again. Centrist stalwarts like Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid and their followers are still angry about Netanyahu’s efforts to avoid the various legal challenges he has faced. So Bibi has been stuck with the hard right as his only way to stay in power and has adopted aspects of their agenda—most notably the court overhaul—as his own.
But negotiations between the Biden administration and Saudi Arabia over a sweeping Middle Eastern security agreement, which seemed like a long shot earlier this summer, have now become more serious. The prospect of the Saudis formally recognizing Israel’s existence and establishing a public alliance against Iran would provide a level of safety and stability that the Jewish state has never experienced in its 75 years of existence. Such a historic achievement would be of immense political benefit to Netanyahu.
But in addition to significant additional military support from the United States, the Saudis’ other major precondition for such a deal would be measurable progress towards a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. A two-state solution is certainly a bridge too far on the current political landscape. But the deal would still require Israeli concessions that Netanyahu’s current governing coalition would never support, but that the centrists who have rejected his overtures might consider.
Imagine Netanyahu approaching his old partners to tell them that a momentous Middle Eastern peace was now possible—but only if they are willing to set aside their objections to his personal legal strategy for the time being. They still may want to see Netanyahu in court at some point in the future, but perhaps they would put that aside for a breakthrough of this magnitude. (As a sweetener, some of the controversial judicial reforms that have deeply divided the country could be weakened or withdrawn with a new majority coalition that wouldn’t require the participation of the ultra-conservative cohort.)
There is no way to predict whether Netanyahu’s erstwhile colleagues would be receptive to such an appeal. Their relationship with him has been badly damaged and may be beyond repair. Further, the odds against a Saudi deal are still considerable, as all three countries’ leaders would be required to make difficult decisions—over considerable domestic political opposition—for this to happen.
But the prospect of such an agreement is tantalizing, for the countries involved and for broader Middle Eastern and global interests. Israeli leaders who have dedicated their lives to the safety and security of the Jewish state would be forced to give serious consideration to such a tradeoff. This is the type of environment in which Netanyahu has historically excelled and which requires the deal-making skills that have been the hallmark of his career.
Bibi’s political antenna, which has served him exceedingly well in the past, seems to have let him down throughout this current controversy. He has repeatedly underestimated the depths of the anger against him and his governing partners. But the old magician might still have one more ace up his sleeve.
Originally published by the Jewish Journal.