By Murat Ulgul*
In his two-day visit to the United Kingdom, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced what are now considered ordinary protests against him as 300 protestors in Whitehall demanded that the British authorities arrest him over his government’s policies against the Palestinians.Yet, these kinds of protests never change the fact that during their meetings with foreign leaders, Israeli leaders focus on what they perceive to be existential threats to their nation rather than the criticisms that are being slung against them.
Although in his meeting with the British Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that he is ready to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority (PA) without any conditions, the main topic Netanyahu preferred to talk about was the Iranian threat. “The Middle East is disintegrating under the twin forces of militant Islam: The militant Sunnis led by ISIS and the militant Shiites led by Iran,” Netanyahu warned and asked for the cooperation of his British counterpart against these threats.
Netanyahu’s equating Israel’s existential threat – Iran – with an evil force – ISIS – is not unfamiliar. Fourteen years ago when the Al Qaeda crashed hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it was the Israeli rightand its leader Ariel Sharon who developed the “Arafat is bin Laden” formula in order to avoid talking with the PA. “[Palestinian attacks] against Israeli citizens are no different from bin-Laden’s terrorism against American citizens,” Sharon cried while reminding the international community that Arafat was the one who “legitimized the hijacking of planes” several decades ago. Even though, unlike radical terrorists, Arafat was a rational actor and even told bin Laden not to hide behind the Palestinian cause, the Israeli right managed to delegitimize the PA and Arafat, which paved the way for Operation Defensive Shield in 2002.
The result of this policy was the growing power of Hamas in Gaza while the PA started to lose its influence over the Palestinians year by year. Since 2007, the PA has had no control in Gaza, while in the West Bank it is not as popular as before. Therefore, the PA Netanyahu tries to talk to today is not as influential as Arafat’s PA fifteen years ago. If Netanyahu is honestly seeking a solution for the Palestinian question, he needs to talk to Hamas as well. Yet, he pursues a confrontational approach in Gaza, which makes the Palestinians there more radical. As the recent International Crisis Group report shows, since Operation Protective Edge oflast year, Salafi-jihadi groups in Gaza are “growing and emboldened” because the Palestinians there live under the “worst [conditions] since Israel conquered the territory in 1967.” Ten years ago, Israel confronted the PA, and as a result Hamas was empowered. Today Netanyahu confronts Hamas, and as a result radical Islamists are empowered. There are always worse enemies.
It seems that the Israeli leaders take no lesson from the past as they demonize Iran at the expense of regional order and stability. Today the main evil in the international community is ISIS and Netanyahu uses every chance he gets to equate the Iranian regime with the radicals. Yet, unlike ISIS, and similar to the PA, Iran is a rational actor. As Peter Beinart argues in his opposition to the equation of Nazi Germany and Iran – yet another analogy Israeli leaders like to make to demonize their enemies – Iranian officials do not have ISIS’s and Nazi Hitler’s maniacal bloodlust and they often act based on interests rather than ideology.
Indeed, this understanding is what is behind Obama’s intention to make a nuclear deal with Iran. If Iran integrates into the international community and has something to lose, the American administration believes, its officials will act more rationally. Moreover, if dialogue becomes efficient, Iran can become a strong ally against the ISIS threat. But, if a confrontational position is adopted, as Netanyahu prefers, Iranian officials will have no choice other than pursuing their interests by force. In this scenario it is more likely that we will see an increase in sectarian conflict and more disorder and instability in the region.
All Netanyahu has to do is to look at the recent past of Israel’s Palestinian policy. In this region, confrontational policies only lead to the emergence of more radical actors. The Israeli government does not see Hamas as a negotiating partner but it is a fact that Hamas is more rational than some radicals. Now ISIS seems to top the radicalism scale in the region. Yet, among the Shiites more radical actors may emerge if Iran is not brought into the international community or, worse, if its regime collapses suddenly as a result of military action.
*The author recently earned his doctoral degree from the University of Delaware. His research interests are ethnic conflict, civil-military relations, U.S. foreign policy as well as Turkish and Israeli politics.
 James Cusick, “Protests Set to Continue as David Cameron Meets Benjamin Netanyahu for Talks,” The Independent, 9 September 2015 (accessed 10 September 2015).
Cynthia Blank, “Netanyahu Ready to Enter Negotiations with PA ‘Immediately’,” ArutzSheva, 9 September 2015 (acccessed 10 September 2015).
 Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “PM Sharon Addresses the Knesset’s Special Solidarity Session,” 16 September 2001 (accessed 15 August 2014).
 Ian Fisher, “Arafat Disavows bin Laden, Saying ‘He Never Helped Us’,” New York Times, 16 December 2002 (accessed 10 September 2015).
 International Crisis Group, “No Exit? Gaza & Israel Between Wars,” Middle East Report No. 162, 26 August 2015 (Accessed 29 August 2015).
 Peter Beinart, “Iran Isn’t Nazi Germany,” The Atlantic, 6 August 2015 (accessed 7 August 2015).