Israeli election result unnerving for the region
Last week, as protocol requires, representatives of all parties elected to the 25th Israeli Knesset met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and recommended whom he should ask to form the next government. As expected, considering the election results, they overwhelmingly recommended the former — and most probably next — prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to carry out this task. For his part, he did not wait to be officially nominated and began informal negotiations with his possible partners in the next coalition government. For now, the likely outcome will be, sooner rather than later, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history: a prospect that is deeply troubling not only for many Israelis, but also for the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and blockade, and those well beyond Israel.
It is ironic, or more accurately a tragic turn of events, that the Israeli electorate, nearly three-quarters of a century after the country gained independence, has opted to elect some of the most far-right, religious messianic politicians to represent it at a time when the state of Israel has reached unparalleled recognition, formal and informal, from the major powers in the region.
Most of Israel’s borders run alongside countries that it signed peace agreements with decades ago; relations were normalized, following the Abraham Accords, with the UAE and Bahrain and separately with Morocco and Sudan; and cooperation with other regional powers on issues of common interest regardless of the lack of diplomatic relations is an open secret. If one sought logic in politics — albeit this can often be mere wishful thinking — Israel would have opted for a government that could build on its improved relations with the Arab world, consolidate its common interests with countries it has close relations with already and, by returning to the Arab Peace Initiative, which was first proposed in 2002, put to bed once and for all its conflict with the Palestinians.
Instead, Netanyahu is looking to form a government with those who harbor despicable maximalist objectives in relation to the Palestinians; goals that vary from annexing the entire West Bank to transferring people, not only Palestinians but political rivals too, out of the country if they are classified as “disloyal.” Paradoxically, although these far-right elements paved the way for Netanyahu’s return to power, they are the people he least wants to share power with, knowing that they will try to push him to positions that are bound to lead to confrontation with Israel’s friends in the region and the rest of the international community.
Netanyahu is looking to form a government with those who harbor despicable maximalist objectives in relation to the Palestinians
Until the Palestinian issue is resolved peacefully and to the satisfaction of all sides involved, the situation will remain susceptible to outbreaks of hostilities that will have to be handled with extreme caution to avoid implosion in the West Bank and Gaza. Whenever there is an outbreak of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, whether in Gaza, the West Bank or even inside Israel, strains in relations with the Arab world are almost inevitable.
The inclusion of the most extreme anti-Palestinian and generally anti-Arab elements in the driving seat of Israeli politics — idealogues who believe that force is the only way to deal with the Palestinians and would like to pursue such policies with even more zeal — is also a threat to relations between Israel and other countries in the region.
It would be naive to argue that Palestinians ever held much hope of reaching a peace deal with previous Israeli governments, or even for their daily situation to improve one iota, but dealing with a government that is openly racist and directs hate and derision toward Arabs generally and Palestinians in particular will push many of them deeper into despair, with all the consequences that might derive.
Additionally, there are demands among right-wing parties in Israel to change the status quo on Al-Haram Al-Sharif, which has previously been the cause of violent clashes not only in Jerusalem, but a trigger for prolonged conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, including Gaza, and in the mixed cities in Israel. This could provoke another flashpoint.
It is the case that some of those who aspire to senior positions in the next government, such as minister of public security or minister of defense, are the ones who claim Israeli sovereignty over what they call Temple Mount, as over the rest of the West Bank, and would like to provoke hostilities with Muslims, and by doing so probably ignite a dangerous confrontation with the entire Muslim world. In the immediate vicinity of Israel, it is Jordan that is particularly concerned with Israeli policies in Jerusalem, which could instantly affect stability within the Hashemite Kingdom and strain to a breaking point the peace between the two countries.
It is also the case that Netanyahu has been highly critical of the recently signed maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon. He spoke out mainly for electioneering reasons, knowing full well that it was a good agreement that benefits both countries’ security and economy. Despite promising on the campaign trail to withdraw from the agreement should he return to power, it is very unlikely that he will follow through. However, this still strongly indicates an opportunistic leader, whose partnership with the most extreme elements in Israeli society and his dependence on them to slow down or bury his corruption trial altogether easily eclipses his judgment and makes him susceptible to pressure to pursue aggressive and irresponsible policies.
After more than six years of a police investigation that led to indictment and a prolonged trial, which is expected to continue for years, it is impossible to know if Netanyahu is capable of distinguishing between what is good for the country and what might help him avoid a jail term.
The Iranian threat to regional stability, for instance, brings together Israel and most countries in the Middle East. However, there is again the danger that a radical right-wing government led by Netanyahu might end up embarking on a military operation against Iran, whose flawed nature and timing might risk an all-out war for a mixture of ideological and personal reasons and not necessarily for operational and long-term strategic purposes. This lingering suspicion of the true motivations of an Israeli government tainted with extremist ideology is unnerving for the entire region, and will remain so for as long as it is in power.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg