Call him a crook, call him a warmonger, but who other than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could boast two successful summits with both US and Russian presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, all within two weeks of the Israeli elections?
His immediate motives are clear, but there is something beyond his obviously shrewd use of diplomacy for electoral gain. There are greater strategic implications of such high-powered statesmanship.
So how did a politically challenged, corruption-ridden leader of a tiny state get the world superpowers to do his bidding and on his schedule?
The answer lies in a three-way bromance that has been blossoming for some time, and could potentially shape the Middle East for years to come.
The ‘chess master’
It all began with a meeting at Trump Tower in late September, 2016.
Netanyahu, who was in New York City for the annual UN summit, dropped in for an introductory meeting with Donald Trump, the Republican candidate in the US presidential race.
The meeting quickly turned into a “master class” in world geopolitics, according to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. The seasoned four-term Israeli premier coached the billionaire political novice about the importance of US-Israeli relations in the shadows of the bitter realities of the Middle East.
The two hit it off. Bigly.
Netanyahu not only answered all of Trump’s questions satisfyingly, he also rationalised and systemised Trump’s random foreign policy instincts about security, immigration, terrorism, Islam, etc. – even the advantages of a border wall.
He distilled and focused it all into a simple formula: Iran, not Russia, is “our” main enemy. In fact, the Russian president is uniquely positioned to help us against the ayatollahs and radical Islam.
According to Vicky Ward, the author of bestseller Kushner, Inc, Netanyahu is in fact the “grand chess master“, who lobbied Trump to court Putin and improve relations with Russia.
It was all music to Trump’s ears. He was already exchanging personal compliments with the Russian president to the horror of his detractors at home and in Europe. Now he was armed with a strategic doctrine that involved forging new partnerships with like-minded strongmen.
It was an easy alliance on a personal level. Benjamin, Donald and Vladimir actually seem to like one another and are on the record praising each other. They may have different pasts and different styles, but they are made of the same fabric.
The three old white men are macho populist nationalists with a mean streak. They’re widely seen as deceptive, polarising figures, with a knack for acting with impunity. They also dislike free press and an active independent judiciary.
The trio’s original rallying cause, their ultimate nemesis, the man they hated most is none other than Barack Obama and everything he represented: be it multiculturalism, liberal ideals or liberal foreign policy.
Soon after entering the White House, Trump began to tear down everything that Obama built at home or abroad, trampling all over international law and international agreements to the cheers of his two buddies and an increasing number of special fans around the world.
He walked away from the Paris climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, and lent his unconditional support to some of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East and beyond.
The trio has attracted and inspired a new league of aggressive hyper-nationalists who worship power from Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Trump and Putin may lead the pack, but Netanyahu is indeed their “enthusiastic enabler“.
The three leaders have sought to evict liberalism and progressive thought to usher in populist plutocracy. But their success in leading a new worldwide populist trend couldn’t obfuscate their failure to translate their bromance into closer US-Russian relations.
Neither Trump nor Netanyahu could convince the US foreign policy establishment to embrace Putin, not even as a way to counter Iran.
Iran may be seen as a bad regional actor, but both the establishment Democrats and Republicans consider Russia to be a dangerous global enemy.
It’s the tragedy of great power politics that superpowers will continue to compete in an anarchic world, even at the risk of war, regardless of their leaders or system of government.
In that way, Russia has returned to the global stage as a major independent geopolitical player, most often as US antagonist. This has become evident in Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine and Syria and by his latest decision to begin deploying Russian troops to Venezuela in a direct challenge to Washington in the Western hemisphere.
While Putin and Trump think alike, their countries seem to be on the opposite side of everything: from cyber warfare, nuclear proliferation, regional security in Europe and the Middle East, and of course Russian interference in US elections.
But they do agree on Israel – or at least, Putin and Trump agree on Netanyahu, an affection the Israeli prime minister cannot be accused of taking for granted.
Trump and Putin have had one summit, which ended in relative failure, and four short encounters. Netanyahu has had five successful meetings with Trump in two years, and 13 equally successful meetings with Putin in the past four years.
Netanyahu, a star networker, knows which rings to kiss. He has persisted in cultivating close relations with Putin despite a number of setbacks because Russia is the only power that has open dialogue with every major player in the Middle East, including Hamas and Hezbollah, regional rivals like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and Egypt.
Netanyahu has exploited Russia’s eagerness for Washington’s recognition of its superpower status and its areas of influence, by leveraging his special relationship with Trump to extract concessions from Putin, starting with Syria.
The Russian president seems to have quickly gotten over Israel’s role in the downing of a Russian military plane that killed 15 Russian nationals in September 2018, and has already agreed to set up a working group with Israel to look into removing foreign forces from Syria.
He has also acquiesced to regular Israeli violation of Syrian airspace and its open-ended bombing of Iranian targets there.
The Kremlin went as far as asking Netanyahu recently to mediate a grand withdrawal bargain between the US, Syria and Iran, which the Israeli prime minister had to reject because the proposal calls for the early lifting of sanctions against Iran.
Having it both ways
It has been a bit of diplomatic poker play at times. Netanyahu invested so heavily in Russian relations that he was warned by leading US Senator Lindsey Graham to “be very careful” making agreements with Russia on Syria that could “affect US interests”.
Nevertheless, his warning rang hollow when a few months later, Graham stood by Netanyahu on the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and called on the Trump administration to recognise the Israeli annexation.
Trump obliged happily, disregarding international law and traditional US policy in the process. In response, Putin did nothing and apparently said nothing about it during his last summit meeting with Netanyahu.
Russia might have needed some courting, but Netanyahu couldn’t have dreamt of a better partner at the White House. Trump has totally embraced Israel’s position on Iran, and the occupation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
Next comes the West Bank. Netanyahu promised last week that he will begin the annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories if he wins the elections. And again, expect Trump to lend his support, and Putin to lend his silence.
In sum, Netanyahu might have failed so far to get the US and Russia to work together to reshape the Middle East, but he has clearly succeeded in getting Trump and Putin to work for Israel as it reshapes the Eastern Mediterranean.