What Biden Can Expect from a New Israeli Government
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The official toll probably won’t be known before Friday so it is too early to say that Benjamin Netanyahu and his electoral allies have won Tuesday’s close election. And yet it is already clear that Israel’s longest serving leader, and its most controversial, seems set to stick around for a while to come.
The latest Israeli election could still end in a statistical tie followed by a very prolonged and ultimately unsuccessful round of coalition bargaining. If so, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will remain in office until a new election, probably sometime in the fall.
More likely, however, Netanyahu will have enough votes to enable him to construct a narrow but ideologically cohesive government made up of Haredi, Zionist religious and ultra-nationalist partners. This would be the most right-wing government Israel has ever had and Netanyahu’s Likud party would find itself in the paradoxical position of being the most centrist faction.
But this would also be a more stable government than the previous coalition.
Netanyahu’s electoral strategy foresaw exactly that result. He did an exemplary job in providing Israel with vaccines (over 55% of Israelis over 16 have had their first dose and nearly half have had both doses), but that didn’t change many votes; he is too polarizing a figure to garner any gratitude from his entrenched political enemies. His campaign didn’t try to appeal to centrist voters or disgruntled ex-Likudniks. The narrow goal was expressed in the Likud slogan: “A Fully Right-Wing Government.”
A sixth iteration of the Netanyahu regime will look a lot like the previous one, only with less room for compromise. This may come as unwelcome news for members of the Biden administration hoping to restore an Obama approach to Middle Eastern diplomacy.
With coronavirus infections now under control and almost 60% of the population vaccinated, Netanyahu will be free to concentrate on the issues that matter most to him: foreign policy, national security and regional integration.
The Palestinian issue may loom large in the minds of some foreign diplomats, but Netanyahu is even less likely to compromise than previous versions of his government. He ignored a trial balloon from the U.S. State Department calling for a return to two-state diplomacy for the West Bank, accompanied by a freeze in Jewish settlement. Instead, he announced that Israel will be building and legalizing new settlements. Netanyahu remains ready to work toward the Trump Plan – which provides less than a fully independent entity on roughly 70% of the territory. But if Washington doesn’t want to go that way, he is happy enough with the status quo.
There may be a little more flexibility on Iran. During the campaign Netanyahu often featured his determination to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but he didn’t get into details. He is aware that the Biden administration wants to re-join the Iran nuclear agreement, known by its initials JCPOA, and he won’t fight a messy battle in Washington to prevent it. He will instead rally a bipartisan coalition to improve it by including limitations on the Iranian ballistic missile program, closer international inspection of nuclear facilities, a longer expiration date on the deal and an end to Iranian support for terror proxies. These were the terms proposed in a letter sent earlier this month to Secretary of State Antony Blinken by 140 Democrat and Republican members of Congress.
Israel will also continue its air and sea campaign against Iranian aggression in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. So far, he has had the support of both the U.S. and Russia and wants to keep it that way. After President Biden undiplomatically described Vladimir Putin as a soulless killer, Netanyahu declared neutrality, blandly noting that both leaders are his “personal friends.” Netanyahu, of course, praised Israel’s key alliance with the U.S. but added a practical coda: “Israel works every few days to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and our freedom of action there is preserved in part because of our relations with Russia.”
The EU, a consistent critic of Israeli policy, was also on Netanyahu’s campaign agenda. He took time out from the hustings to host the leaders of Austria, Denmark, Hungary and the Czech Republic in Jerusalem. They came to talk vaccine cooperation following the EU’s supply failures. This did not go over well in Brussels, but for Netanyahu, friends in Europe are a hedge against the EU’s unwillingness to see the Middle East his way.
The regional integration that began under the last Netanyahu government will likely continue. Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu highlighted the success of the four peace treaties, known as the Abraham Accords, which he signed with Arab countries and are popular with Israelis. In mid-March, he extracted a promise from United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to create a $10 billion investment fund for projects “in and alongside” Israel.
Netanyahu has alluded to more Arab states waiting in line to conclude their own deals. One is presumably Saudi Arabia. The time may not quite be ripe for that, but as a next step, Netanyahu announced that Israeli Muslims will soon be able to fly directly to Mecca for the annual Haj pilgrimage.
An Israeli political truism holds that the smaller the coalition, the more stable it will be. That is what Netanyahu is hoping for this time around. But if a far-right government doesn’t have the votes, he will try to seduce a couple of defectors to cross party lines. Either way, he plans to still be in office when the bell rings for the next round.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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