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Israel Under Netanyahu III: International Isolation Or Integration? – OpEd

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In a volatile Middle East, Israel matters greatly. So the path Israel takes – for instance, either caring for international norms or egotistically upholding national security interests – will have profound implications for all major global developments.

By Hriday Ch. Sarma*

Bibi vis-a-vis all political actors in Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu has yet again proven his political acumen by forming a new national government and serving as Israel’s prime minister for a third time in a row. This qualifies Netanyahu as a seasoned and bold politician who has the ability to manoeuvre and adapt to a changed political climate, internally and externally, in order to further the country’s national interests. Defining these national interests, however, is a complicated task given the different groups who have staunchly advocated their own versions. Moreover, each of these versions vary from the various peace plans painstakingly worked-out by various experts and organizations.

The pre-election period witnessed a head-on collision between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the Zionist Union, the main opposition party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. The latter was formed in December 2014 as a merger between the Herzog-led Labour party – a center-left party that has been a recognizable force in the country since its inception in 1965 – and the Livni-led Hatnuah – a party espousing a two-state solution. This new alliance ran almost neck-and-neck with Likud. Moreover, all opposition parties went gung-ho in attacking Netanyahu before the elections, with many attempting to demonize him. Netanyahu, for his part, resorted to a hawkish tactic of inflating the security problems Israel currently faces – internally and externally – in a concerted attempt to entice the electorate. This tactic paid-off, with Netanyahu’s party securing 30 of the 120 seats in the unicameral national legislature. Hence Likud has yet again emerged, despite all the odds, as the single largest party in the Knesset.

The post-election political situation, however, has never prevailed before in the course of Israel’s history. First, the Ayman Odeh led Joint List – a united bloc of three prominent Arab parties (United Arab List, Ta’al, Hadash and Balad) – has emerged as the third largest party in the Knesset; a resounding achievement for Arabs residing in Israel. Any prospective collapse of the reigning government would automatically qualify them as ‘kingmaker’. Second, the right-wing nationalist camp – once considered natural allies – has ceased to remain so. Avigdor Libermann, the former foreign minister of Israel and leader of Yisrael Beytenu, a ultra-ring political party, pulled out of coalition negotiations two days before the final deadline to form a new government. Addressing the media, Libermann cited ideological differences with the coalition and accused the would be government of being one of “opportunism and conformism.” Third, the left parties, led by Zionist Union, are ready to unsettle and depose the new government in the near-future. Amid this prevailing political imbroglio, Netanyahu has set sail his new government, which hinges on a razor-thin majority of 61 Members of the Knesset (MKs) out of 120, raising serious concerns about the new government’s longevity.

Avraham Diskin, a professor (emeritus) at the Hebrew University, has put forth a counter argument to popular criticism against the new Israeli government. Speaking to New York Times, Diskin stated that, “small governments had actually proved stable around the world because members know that anyone who makes too many problems really directs the gun at his own head.  It’s going to be more cohesive than the previous government”.  As per this argument, Netanyahu will reign with relative ease over others in the new government unless he attempts to pass any new legislation that directly impinges on the fundamental values of any coalition parties. Netanyahu will, however, have to frequently face minor challenges from restive individuals and political parties in the coalition, like Naftali Bennett and his religious Zionist political party, HaBayit HaYehudi, and Moshe Kahlon. Netanyahu is, by and large, the decisive factor shaping the internal milieu of Israel and its political-military (dis)-engagements with Palestine.

Externalities affecting Israel’s future trajectory

High-up on the new government’s agenda is the Iran issue; namely, preventing a final agreement between Western powers and Iran over the latter’s controversial nuclear (weapons) program. In April 2015, a historic nuclear framework agreement was reached between six major Western powers, including the US, and Iran that limits the latter’s enrichment capacity and stockpiles, and subjects it to regular inspections, which will reduce the possibility of it developing a nuclear weapon.  In return, the present economic sanctions against Iran will be terminated, on condition that Iran upholds its commitments. A deadline for reaching a final comprehensive agreement between the two parties is scheduled for 30th June – which seems to be softening at the moment as negotiations over technical intricacies continue.

Soli Shahvar, director of Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies in University of Haifa, while corresponding with the author, stated, “one loophole (of the deal) is about the visits of nuclear sites, which the USA says that Iran has committed to allow such visits, while the Iranians openly say that they did not, adding that they require a month’s notice before any visit takes place. One can ask, why they need a month if we are to believe that all their nuclear sites are for civil purposes, unless they want to clear up the site from any evidence that it’s actually for military purposes?!” He further added, “any nuclear deal with the Iranians would bring other countries in the Middle East to enter the nuclear race.”

Hence the new Israeli government, and in particular Netanyahu, will try to do whatever it can in order to change the attitude of the US and other Western countries to either derail or stall further progress on the prospective agreement with Iran. Furthermore, Israel will use its influence within Congress to make sure it rejects the deal. If all these attempts fail to produce a minimally-acceptable result for Israel, then it will not shy from launching a unilateral military mission. Although any such step will draw stern condemnation from different quarters, and might even lead to another war in the Middle East, Israel will do what it feels best for its self-survival.

The second main factor that is determining Israel’s course of activities, both national and foreign, is the durability of its fraternal relationship with the US.  President Barack Obama has long been on poor terms with Netanyahu, condemning the latter’s deeply-divisive politics during the elections. Obama did not immediately call Netanyahu after Likud’s election victory. Moreover, the US has excluded Iran and Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah, from the 2015 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community”, in an attempt to change its foreign policy outlook towards the Middle East. The US is currently re-assessing the underlying basis of its intimate alliance with a Netanyahu-led Israel.  The new Israeli government will, therefore, have to worry about securing the gifts associated with the US’s patronage, like veto immunity for Israel in the UN Security Council and $3.1 billion per year in military aid.

There are certain other external factors – some historical, some recent developments – that the new Israeli government will have to focus on. However, the government may still be able to avoid securitizing these factors in national political discourse in order to concentrate on solving two aforementioned concerns. Daesh (commonly known as Islamic State) is grows stronger by the day, and might in the future attempt to challenge Israel. Russia’s changed role of defending the Shia camp in the Middle East and its open support for Palestinian statehood is stoking conflict with Israel; though both maintains congenial ties at present. The list of such external factors of likely concern to Israel is a long one.

Israel’s near-future rational proposition

Israel does not remain in a vacuum in the present neo-liberal era. It is, in-fact, an integral part of a compact global system that persistently makes cultural, social, political and economic transactions at the micro-, meso- and macro-levels. Netanyahu cannot afford to further polarize Jewish and Arab communes within the country by pursuing steps that appear as apartheid practices from outside – like continuing to build Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem (a Arab-dominated area) and practically rejecting a ‘two-state solution’ while in principle agreeing to it – as this will increase global consternation against his new right-wing government. Even others in this new government – both individuals and political parties – understand the urgency of the situation whereby any local step executed for augmenting sectoral interests might easily translate into a backlash at the global level.

The Vatican recently recognized the state of Palestine in-line with the Holy See’s position – a step not politically motivated – as officially conveyed by Vatican government. The EU is set to vote on labeling goods manufactured in the Golan Heights and Israeli settlements in the West Bank in order not to mislead consumers with false information. An array of Boycott Israel campaigns are gaining momentum, whilst anti-Semitism is reviving in many places. Amid this intense anti-Israel global environment, the new Israeli government will endeavour to assuage the country’s sullying image and integrate with the global community. However, this will still remain a half-hearted attempt on the part of the government as it is a mere continuation of the Netanyahu-centric previous two governments.

In a volatile Middle East, Israel matters greatly. So the path Israel takes – for instance, either caring for international norms or egotistically upholding national security interests – will have profound implications for all major global developments.

*Hriday Ch. Sarma is a PhD Candidate in Energy Studies Program at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. He is also a Israel analyst.

TransConflict

TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

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