By Ronen Hoffman*
(FPRI) — This past May was one of the most tension-filled periods for Israel in recent years due to a unique convergence of explosive events, with each one potentially resulting in a large-scale conflagration. In the North, Israel engaged for the first time in a direct confrontation with Iranian forces stationed in Syria. On the Gaza Strip border, there were clashes between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and a large number of demonstrators, who tried to cross the border fence. Tensions in the West Bank grew, with the potential of erupting into riots due to the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For the time being, none of these events have escalated into a major clash.
Considering all the dire warnings leading up to these events, this “relative” calm can be viewed as an impressive success for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership image and security policies. His image was further burnished by the exposure of the Mossad operation to obtain material on the Iranian nuclear project, by the United States’ announcement of its withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, and by the invitation extended to Netanyahu by President Vladimir Putin to attend the Victory Day military parade in Moscow. That visit was subsequently followed by Russian support for Israel’s demands that Iranian forces withdraw from the border between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights.
This series of events has provided Netanyahu with considerable political maneuvering room in which he can operate without facing any serious political challenge from his coalition partners—even though he has long been the subject of extensive police investigations into allegations of personal and public corruption. It appears that he currently enjoys unprecedented political power in all that pertains to foreign policy and security affairs, which coincides with his efforts to enhance the structural powers and purview possessed by the Prime Minister. Netanyahu concomitantly is eroding the strength of the decision-support mechanisms commonly found in Western democracies. One of the most salient examples of this effort was the coalition chairman’s attempt to pass legislation that would have allowed the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense to declare war without approval of either the cabinet or the security cabinet.
In his current (the third successive) term in office, Netanyahu has managed to weaken mechanisms and primarily individuals who might challenge his policies and decisions—including his decision not to decide. In contrast to his previous coalitions, Netanyahu currently heads a right-wing government that (lacks the dialectical moderating coalitional discussion) has limited dialogue with figures from the center of the political map. Moreover, in the course of the near-decade in which he has been in office, Netanyahu has successfully shaped substantial parts of the bureaucratic apparatus to conform to his positions and worldview. The bodies that were designed to improve decision-making processes and to create structural pluralism were excluded from playing an active role in shaping and implementing policy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been run without a minister for almost three years, as was the National Security Council, which lost even the scant relevance and power that it possessed in Netanyahu’s first years in office.
The Netanyahu “doctrine,” from which Israel’s foreign policy is derived, is essentially reactive, and Israeli policy since the beginning of 2011 can be explained as a reaction to the unstable environment of the changing Middle East. The changes in the Middle East include, among other things, the transformation of Palestinian politics, which Netanyahu and his government believe has the potential to shift toward religious extremism that will preclude any peace with Israel. As part of this doctrine, Israel has tried to refrain from any major proactive public initiative or involvement in regional issues.
However, alongside this strategic passivity, Israel has been proactive in establishing a series of red lines in the military-security sphere. Within that context, it seems like Israel has drawn red lines for Iran and Hezbollah on the northern front, as well as red lines for Hamas on the southern front. On the northern front, according to Israeli officials’ statements, the red lines pertain to the introduction of new weapons systems and military capabilities that are liable to produce a fundamental change in the balance of power between Israel and its adversaries in the arena (Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran). Aside from effective deterrence, if Israel needs to create room for action in the event that its red lines are crossed, Israel needs political leverage with other powers operating in the region, especially Russia and the United States, since Israeli activity in Syria and Lebanon is liable to result in friction with them. On the southern front, Israel has established vague lines about rocket and mortar-shell fire on unpopulated areas and strict red lines on offensive tunnels. On both fronts, Israel has been obliged to act on its threats and to attack several times in Gaza and Syria.
The absence of wide escalation reflects how effective the coupling of Israeli deterrence with accurate risk management calculation has been—thanks to excellent intelligence and exceptional operational capabilities. These successes have won Netanyahu, for the time being, significant support within the Israeli public. According to recent polls, Netanyahu has amassed unprecedented public support. This might prompt him to call early elections, motivated by the rationale that a renewed victory in popular elections will help him hedge against the criminal investigations into his conduct.
Under Netanyahu, Israel’s proactive policy is limited to using a narrow perspective that assesses any national defense issue solely on the basis of military-tactical considerations. This analysis leaves no room or demand for a broader and more inclusive perspective that takes foreign relations and long-term assessments into account as well. This has prevented the creation of an integrated political-military “smart power” system that would serve Israel’s broader national security interests. Although no large-scale violent confrontation has erupted since 2014, the events in May demonstrated the explosive potential on Israel’s multiple fronts.
It appears that the Israeli establishment has been weakened by its inability to identify and leverage opportunities, including policy opportunities that could potentially contribute to long-term strategic stability, such as political progress with the Palestinians and the stability-seeking Sunni Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. At the same time, the Israeli bureaucratic apparatus has lost the flexibility, innovation, and imagination that is essential for shaping reality to serve the country in several spheres, including its long-term domestic social and economic wellbeing.
The calibration of the Israeli system to favor a continuation of the status quo is particularly salient in four issues of strategic importance:
- Mahmoud Abbas’s weakness and the anticipated war of succession in the Palestinian Authority. The stable low-violence security environment, the coalition structure, and the changes in the international community, which has lost interest in the Israeli-Arab conflict, have all removed the sense of urgency and any pressure to proceed beyond the status quo. Abbas’s ailing health and the impending war of succession, coupled with the Palestinians’ mounting discontent with their lives, all threaten the status quo. Israel must prepare itself for the day after Mahmoud Abbas’s departure and re-establish negotiations for a settlement that will be adaptive to the possible composition of the future Palestinian government.
- Gaza and Hamas: It is almost a unanimous consensus that the difficult living conditions in the Gaza Strip could potentially produce an eruption of violence. Although the risks are fully recognized and known, Israel has not initiated any action, international or otherwise, that might lead to Gaza’s rehabilitation. An initiative of this kind might include steps for Hamas’s disarmament that would strip it of its rockets and tunnels. Gaza is a striking example of the way in which Israel crafts a proactive military-security policy, while at the same time it is either incapable or unwilling to initiate action on the political and media level. This is also an example of a tactical success (the containment of the demonstrators at the border fence) that discarded any broader, or at least diplomatic, considerations. The death of more than 70 Palestinians in clashes near the fence has been severely damaging to Israel and has created negative momentum against Israel in many places around the world.
- Missing a unique regional opportunity: The regional shake-up, which Netanyahu has used for almost a decade to justify his passive and cautious policy, has produced unprecedented strategic positive changes for Israel. Iran has come to be a threat both to Israel and other neighboring countries, which also seek increased stability in a region filled with subversive reactionary forces. It is common knowledge that the state of affairs has created elaborate covert cooperation between Israel and some of its neighbors. There is an extraordinary political window of opportunity at hand for Israel to harness these ties to help resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict. Furthermore, these unique relations may be essential to ending the stalemate with the Palestinians that is likely to ensue if U.S. President Donald Trump’s anticipated peace initiative proves to conform to current Israeli policy. If that is the case, the Palestinians, frustrated by the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem and waiting for Mahmoud Abbas to step down, will reject Trump’s “deal.” If that happens, the possibility of a regional arrangement may end up being pushed even further into the distance and may be missed altogether.
- The Israeli response to the American decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA): The American withdrawal from the JCPOA has been construed as a show of tremendous U.S. support for Israeli policy, as formulated by Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s policy is another indicator of the narrow perspective that is used by the Israeli establishment, which tends to ignore more complex voices, including those of its own security officials and experts who support an improved nuclear agreement within the confines of the existing one. This is an example of excessive American support for Israel that has pushed Iran so far that it may well reject any supervision, a situation that is obviously not good for Israel.
The fact that the Israeli public supports the government’s security policy creates a dangerous temptation for Netanyahu to be attentive solely to the whims and wishes of his political base and to refrain from taking any political initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the region. This style of leadership has resulted in extraordinary opportunities—that were created by the numerous changes in the region—being missed. For the time being, Israel’s military-security policies are performing well.
However, Israeli diplomacy, and in particular public diplomacy, has been weaker than ever. The current pattern of policy and decision making fails to ensure any balance between considerations of foreign relations and security-dictated policy—and fails to use Israel’s military achievements as leverage to achieve political objectives. Even though Israel is the strongest military force in the region, beyond deterrence (which is an extremely important element unto itself), it has lost much of its “smart power.” Israel’s passivity has eroded many other dimensions of its power, such as its economic and cultural strengths, which could be used to create more awareness of Israel’s perspective. Wide segments of global public opinion have lost interest in the Israeli narrative. That deterioration is a direct result of the lack of political vision by the current government, which is directly affected by Netanyahu’s focus on his own political survival while facing corruption investigations and has led him to adopt populist policies that are aimed at appeasing the right-wing electorate and his political base.
About the author:
*Dr. Ronen Hoffman, a 2018-2019 Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, is an academician and former member of Knesset 2013-2015. He served as a member of Israel’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee as well as the chairman of the sub-committee on Foreign Affairs and Public Diplomacy.
This article was published by FPRI