Experts react: Bibi is back—back again for now

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MENASource

November 2, 2022

Experts react: Bibi is back—back again for now

By
Daniel B. Shapiro, Barbara Slavin, Mark N. Katz, Richard LeBaron, Thomas S. Warrick, Jean-Loup Samaan, Carmiel Arbit, Ali Bakir, David Daoud, Andrew L. Peek, Ariel Ezrahi, Yulia Shalomov, and Jonah Fisher

The Israeli election on November 1 signals the likely return to power by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Following the year-long experiment of a mixed right-center-left-Arab coalition, the election results mark a decided shift to the right in Israeli politics, with implications for Israel’s relations in the region, its ongoing tensions with the Palestinians, and relations between Jews and Arabs in Israeli society. A new Netanyahu prime ministership, backed by a far-right/religious center coalition expected to hold sixty-five out of 120 Knesset seats, will dramatically affect Israeli policy in each of these areas, even as Israel’s democratic institutions endure the stress tests being felt in many of the world’s democracies.

We asked our experts to weigh in on what’s in store for Israel’s democracy, its ability to balance opposing domestic forces, and its relations with regional partners.

Jump to an expert reaction:
Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro: Netanyahu’s effect on growing Arab-Israeli relations in light of the Abraham Accords
Barbara Slavin: Netanyahu’s impact on the Iran nuclear deal
Mark N. Katz: The impact of Netanyahu’s prime ministership on Russia-Israel relations
Richard Le Baron: Bibi’s message to prospective regional Arab partners: ‘There’s nothing to see here’
Thomas Warrick: Prioritize joining the US visa waiver program
Jean-Loup Samaan: Netanyahu’s far-right alliance might imperil the Abraham Accords

Carmiel Arbit: Perils of an extremist coalition
Ali Bakir: Netanyahu’s victory on progress in Turkish-Israeli relations
David Daoud: Netanyahu willing to kick out the Israeli democratic system’s guardrails
Andrew Peek: For Netanyahu, safety secures trust and victory
Ariel Ezrahi: The prospect of regional climate change efforts in light of new Netanyahu leadership
Yulia Shalomov: Netanyahu’s too far right-hand man?
Jonah Fisher: Splintering of center, left, and Arab parties paves way for far-right Israeli government

Netanyahu’s effect on growing Arab-Israeli relations in light of the Abraham Accords

Israel’s election results did not resolve the sharp divide among Israelis over Benjamin Netanyahu’s suitability for leadership. But they did deliver Netanyahu a plausible coalition due to greater cohesiveness in his camp and greater division among his opponents. That cohesiveness through the election will be challenged when governing, posing possible challenges for Israel’s ability to expand its growing relations with the Arab world.

Netanyahu, of course, signed the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain while prime minister in 2020, and added a normalization accord with Morocco later that year. But he did so as the head of a coalition that included centrist elements, like then-Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. They provided critical restraint on policies—such as the proposed annexation of large portions of the West Bank—that could have stymied Israel’s relationships with its new Arab partners. The UAE, ahead of its normalization deal, made that trade-off explicit.

There will be no such restraints in the likely coalition to emerge, unless they come from Netanyahu himself. Far-right members of the coalition, like the Religious Zionist party’s Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose popularity has risen in parallel with a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks, do not prioritize expanding Israel’s relations with Arab states. They will demand policies that make the preservation of a future two-state solution with the Palestinians impossible. Netanyahu, dependent on them for his coalition and possibly for legislation to shut off his corruption trial, will be challenged to navigate their demands, and the messages he will receive from Abu Dhabi, Manama, Rabat—and Washington. If Arab states believe they will be embarrassed by close ties with a government of this character, progress on deepening the Abraham Accords, and expanding them to new countries, will be an uphill climb.

Daniel B. Shapiro, director N7 Initiative and former US Ambassador to Israel.

Netanyahu’s impact on the Iran nuclear deal

Netanyahu’s likely victory is more bad news for the Iran nuclear deal, which was already hanging by a thread because of Iranian intransigence and domestic turmoil. Given his long obsession with Iran,

Netanyahu can be expected to increase pressure on the Joe Biden administration to intensify sanctions enforcement and to work with Israel to prepare more violent options to try to degrade and delay Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu will also derail any US hopes for a more enlightened Israeli policy toward the Palestinians while pressuring Washington to help expand the Abraham Accords.

Netanyahu’s trickiest topic will be Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, given his long association with President Putin. US-Israel relations will remain close but are likely to be bumpier, especially if Bibi tries to put his thumb on the scale of US politics in support of Republicans as he has in the past.

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

The impact of Netanyahu’s prime ministership on Russia-Israel relations

If Benjamin Netanyahu resumes the prime ministership, as now seems likely, he may not be able to have as good a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin as he did before. During his long previous stint as prime minister, Netanyahu frequently met Putin in person and talked with him on the phone.  Russian-Israeli relations were basically good, despite Moscow’s close ties with Tehran. As a result of the deconfliction agreement between Russian and Israeli forces regarding Syria, Moscow turned a blind eye to Israel targeting Hezbollah and even Iranian positions there. But while Tehran previously had to put up with this, Putin’s dependence on Iran for armed drones for use in Ukraine may put Tehran in a position to demand that Moscow be less tolerant of such Israeli attacks in Syria. 

Netanyahu may argue to American audiences that he cannot afford to do much to help Ukraine for fear of how Moscow might treat the vulnerable Jewish population in Russia. But Netanyahu will not want to antagonize Washington as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have done by collaborating closely with Moscow either. With the war in Ukraine having led to Russian ties with Iran becoming much closer and the Russian-American relationship becoming much worse, Netanyahu may be less able than he was before to have the same good working relationship with Putin or to successfully maneuver between Washington and Moscow.

Mark N. Katz, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Bibi’s message to prospective regional Arab partners: ‘There’s nothing to see here’

In a recent interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, the presumptive new Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that his “chief diplomatic goal” will be normalization of diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu contended that Riyadh is inching towards normalization anyway, with its authorization of Israeli overflights in 2018. He also noted that there was “no way” the Gulf states that have normalized ties with Israel—the UAE and Bahrain—could have done so without the “approval of Saudi Arabia.” Bibi contended that the Saudis overriding interest is defense against Iran and that they will not allow a Palestinian veto over their actions.

When asked in the same interview whether ultra-right anti-Arab parties in his coalition would be a liability, Bibi said, “I decide the policy.” He claimed that his party’s thirty seats in the Knesset and his prior history of controlling coalition partners would be determining factors. So basically, Netanyahu is saying to its present and prospective Arab partners, “There’s nothing to see here; the elections don’t matter in terms of our relationships.”

Given the fragility of recent Israeli ruling coalitions of all stripes, Arab governments and observers might be a bit skeptical about where relations with Israel go from here. The radical right elements of Bibi’s coalition don’t have much interest in foreign policy. They don’t believe Arabs have any place in Israel, which they define as extending far beyond current international boundaries, and they will need to balance expedient subservience to their prime minister against expectations of the people who voted for them. They also are not above direct actions to pursue their objectives. Arab diplomats in Jerusalem have their work cut out for them in analyzing how their countries’ interests are best served in this new environment.  

Richard Le Baron, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Prioritize joining the US visa waiver program

One piece of unfinished business the new Israeli government will need to prioritize, whoever leads it, is making the final changes to Israeli laws to allow Israel to join the United States Visa Waiver Program.

This valued program, run by the US Department of Homeland Security, allows visa-free travel from many European and other democratic countries to the United States without the hassle or expense for most of their citizens of traveling to a US embassy or consulate to get a business or tourist visa. Israelis want this, and the Biden administration is committed to working with Israeli officials to understand what it will take to fulfill the program’s requirements.

However, as US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, has said publicly, necessary legislation was blocked in the Knesset these past few months by the party of the next likely Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu. Moving from opposition to government often causes political parties to change positions when popular programs are on the line—and that is exactly the case here. The new Israeli government, whoever leads it, should prioritize the changes to Israeli law that will allow Israelis, and the United States, to benefit from Israel joining the Visa Waiver Program.

Thomas Warrick, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.

Netanyahu’s far-right alliance might imperil the Abraham Accords

Although Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power was expected, the strong result of the Religious Zionism party alliance of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich was the real big news of Israel’s election—making them the third largest party in the Knesset. Their likely participation in the next government will have implications beyond domestic politics: Israel’s far-right leaders not only rejected the idea of any territorial concession to the Palestinians, but also made West Bank annexation a cornerstone of their platform.

Netanyahu already promised to annex parts of the West Bank in 2020, before retracting it after signing the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain. Since then, Netanyahu has repeatedly played around with the idea to appeal to far-right voters.

The resurgence of such a plan could have dramatic consequences for Israel’s foreign policy. It would stir unnecessary tensions with the Biden administration at a time when the Iran nuclear conundrum should be the focus of attention. More importantly, the annexation of the West Bank could also derail the rapprochement between Israel and Arab countries, who back in 2020, explained to their population that the signing of the Abraham Accords prevented West Bank annexation.

Officials in Abu Dhabi and Manama have already expressed concerns about Netanyahu’s alliance with the religious Zionist movement. If a new coalition government in Jerusalem returns to the 2020 plan, this would be perceived as an affront to Israel’s Gulf partners, who may have no choice but to put rapprochement on hold. Likewise, it could also damage Israel’s recent efforts toward reconciliation with Turkey. This scenario is not inevitable. When facing the risk of jeopardizing one of Israel’s biggest foreign policy achievements in recent years and one he actually worked for, Netanyahu may favor strategic pragmatism instead of campaign tactics. 

Jean-Loup Samaan, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Perils of an extremist coalition

After the brief tenure of one of Israel’s most diverse governing coalitions in history, Israel is now on the precipice of forming its most extreme. Absent a surprise compromise with the center, the new coalition will be made up of right-wing, ultra-Orthodox, and extremist parties. Gone are the Arabs, women, and Druze whose participation in the last government presented a fresh face of Israel to the world. That the right—which continues to grow in size and influence—would secure a victory in this election comes as little surprise.

The left is shrinking in population size, and its parties—which refused to ally to form larger blocs that would ensure their inclusion in the government—are in disarray. So far, both sides also refuse to pursue a national unity government, creating a vacuum for extremists to reign. The results will be suboptimal for Netanyahu, who would prefer to helm a strong centrist government, so long as it keeps him out of prison. He knows a far-right government will be difficult to govern and strain Israel’s international relationships.

Ben Gvir and Smotrich are caricatures of how Israel’s enemies view it. Their hate-mongering and extremist positions have been widely censured—by the Biden administration, Democratic members of Congress, and Jewish leadership alike, both publicly and privately. The new Israeli government may find allies among a projected Republican-led Congress, and extreme voices in the party are likely to find kinship in their Israeli counterparts. But tensions with Washington will ensue and be reminiscent—if not worse—than tensions between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama.

Israel’s new coalition may find strengthened alliances in like-minded far-right or authoritarian governments—but those partnerships come at the expense of alliances with the rest of the free world. At home, Israel’s democracy has already been struggling from paralysis and instability alongside threats to core institutions like the judiciary. Under the leadership of a new far-right coalition, Israel would join a growing club of democracies cannibalized by extremist elements, leaving the country only further in peril.

Carmiel Arbit, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Netanyahu’s victory on progress in Turkish-Israeli relations

Netanyahu’s likely victory is not necessarily a pleasant development for the Turkish–Israeli relations. During most of his period, Turkish-Israeli relations deteriorated significantly. One primary reason is Netanyahu’s aggressive policies towards the Palestinians and his involvement in an anti-Turkey bloc in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. The absence of chemistry between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Benjamin Netanyahu adds to the poisonous equation. The two leaders often engage in a war of words, further complicating the ties between their countries.

The defeat of Netanyahu in the previous general elections removed a significant obstacle from the normalization process between Ankara and Tel Aviv and accelerated diplomatic efforts. Additionally, the recent normalization between the two countries boosted security cooperation and coordination on matters of regional urgency, especially concerning Iran.

While it is still early to judge whether Netanyahu will opt to follow the same old policies and thus undermine the already achieved progress in Turkish-Israeli relations, or if he will choose to adapt to the current situation and maybe build on the progress, the current economic and intelligence cooperation between Turkey and Israel will likely continue in the same pace.

However, when it comes to political and diplomatic relations, Netanyahu’s actions towards Turkey, the Palestinians, and some hot regional issues, such as the case in the Eastern Mediterranean, will decide in which directions the relations will go following his ascendance to power. Netanyahu might also adopt a “wait and see” strategy towards Ankara until the outcome of Turkey’s presidential and general elections in June 2023 are clear.

Ali Bakir, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Netanyahu willing to kick out the Israeli democratic system’s guardrails

Benjamin Netanyahu will soon return to the premiership, his victory owing to his accomplishments for Israel’s security, economy, and regional and global acceptance. He is also undoubtedly an unrivaled campaigner, running a clever, personable, and at times funny campaign. Most importantly, he united a whole bloc of parties—beyond just Likud—around one message: Rak Bibi (Only Bibi).

To regain power and avoid a potential jail sentence, Netanyahu is willing to do the most dangerous thing in a democracy: kick out the system’s guardrails. Israel has endured much in its short history. One election cycle will not determine its fate or future—but its strength and durability depend on maintaining state institutions and the people’s trust in them.

The pro-Bibi bloc has targeted Israel’s judiciary and media, respectively, the pillar of human rights and check on the unbridled populism and majoritarian tyranny instincts of any legislative body, and the fourth estate in any democracy. While Bibi once hewed to Menachem Begin’s and Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s absolute respect for the rule of law, his personal interests now dictate otherwise, and his coalition seems intent on shrinking the judiciary’s authority without simultaneously constraining the Knesset through amending Israel’s basic laws. This would check one branch of the government, without a balance on the other.

This “judicial revolution” could change the very nature of Israeli democracy and erode the classical liberalism that its main parties once agreed was essential to its health. Bibi may continue to deliver material benefits and prosperity to Israel, but that is no substitute for eroding the institutions that have underpinned the Jewish state’s durability and longevity for almost seventy-five years.

David Daoud, nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

For Netanyahu, safety secures trust and victory

Bibi Netanyahu has made a political career out of keeping his countrymen safe. His return is due as much to the vagarities of coalition management as anything else, but it is a good thing for Israel’s security. The widely disparate political coalition that pried Netanyahu out of office in 2021 was united on little but a shared desire to see the end of him, and once he was gone, it was not long before collapsing.

That there are great changes afoot in the Middle East is without question. The perceived withdrawal of America from the region, a new generation of Gulf leadership, the growth of Iran’s regional presence, and the collapse of America’s military deterrent in the wake of Afghanistan have spurred local actors to look elsewhere for their security.  

Netanyahu can be a polarizing figure in the United States, and he has not always had a deft touch. He has been returned to office over and over because, at a fundamental level, Israelis trust him to keep them safe.  None of the region’s new structures have yet been tested in an extreme crisis. But surely it is better, when they are, for America’s closest friend in the region to have not just a tested leader that understands them, but a united coalition based around more than just someone they hate. For all of his faults, Israelis basically trust Netanyahu to do that, and that is why he is back.

Andrew Peek, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

The prospect of regional climate change efforts in light of new Netanyahu leadership

With the war in Ukraine raging, the Iranian threat to peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond, rising sea levels, raging fires, rising temperatures, major energy supply deficits,  and economies around the world heading toward a recession, this is a critical time for cooperation across political aisles and borders to face these gargantuan challenges. The new government in Israel does not seem intent on placing climate change at the top of its agenda. Already, future coalition partners are calling for abolishing the tax on disposable plastic plates (a common staple amongst the ultra-orthodox who are key coalition partners of the forthcoming government).

Additionally, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, who recently launched the Renewable Middle East Forum and has been pushing for regional cooperation in fighting climate change, may find himself distracted by infighting to safeguard the basic sanctity of the separation of the three branches of government, the rule of law, and avoiding civil strife in Israel. Renewed tensions in the Palestinian territories in the absence of any prospects for a political solution will likely hamper cross-border energy cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, and between Israel and its other Arab neighbors. This could stifle any prospect of cooperation in tackling climate change.

The recent maritime agreement brokered by the Biden administration was a striking example of national security necessity and pragmatism for Lebanon and Israel trumping over historic nationalistic tribal sentiments. With COP27 only days away, it is critical for Israel to consider what message it will be sending to the world on its priorities in years to come and how it proposes to tackle the impending national security threats from climate change to itself, the region, and the world at large.

Ariel Ezrahi, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Netanyahu’s too far right-hand man?

With most votes tallied, the outcome of Israel’s fifth election in four years hinges on the ability of a handful of minority parties—left-wing Meretz and the Arab party Balad—to clear the electoral threshold. Should they garner enough votes, Benjamin Netanyahu—whose coalition of religious and right-wing parties is currently poised to capture sixty-five seats—may be blocked from forming a governing coalition. But more is at stake than just Netanyahu’s return.

His coalition features far-right and extremist figures Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, who are almost certainly guaranteed to hold cabinet positions. Ben Gvir, who has requested control of the public security file, has promised a no-holds-barred crackdown on terrorism and increased police and border security presence, putting into stark contrast the previous government’s ‘economy for security’ policies which saw a relaxation of restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. RZP, which has consistently stoked domestic ethnic and societal tensions, may also push for a mobilization in settlement construction and erosion of Palestinian rights. Tensions in the West Bank, which have been steadily rising, will undoubtably grow.

The bigger question that looms is the impact such a coalition will have on the country’s normalization efforts. Originally instigated to thwart annexation of the West Bank, normalized countries, as well as longstanding partners Egypt and Jordan, have repeatedly stressed the Palestinian issue as a core tenet of normalization. Prospective countries like Saudi Arabia have likewise reiterated that normalization is contingent on a two-state solution, an increasingly remote reality under a Likud-RZP government.

Netanyahu’s new government will thus find it hard to separate domestic Israeli politics from broader regional goals. This puts Netanyahu in a precarious position, as he strives to balance the extremist demands of his coalition partners with Israel’s foreign policy needs, making such outcomes less deterministic and more beholden to day-to-day decision-making.

Yulia Shalomov, associate director N7 Initiative.

Splintering of center, left, and Arab parties paves way for far-right Israeli government

Following a historically diverse coalition government, the center, left, and Arab parties that managed to break Benjamin Netanyahu’s ten-year reign in the prime minister’s seat are paying the price for their unwillingness to play nicely in the sandbox together. With the astronomical rise of Itamar Ben Gvir’s far-right party, the unlikely bedfellows that kept Netanyahu out of power splintered into small sub-parties leading up to the election, rather than build a united front against the far-right political wave knocking on their door.

In many ways, the fate of the election was sealed on September 15 when the Arab joint list party disbanded, and the left-wing Zionist parties of Meretz and Labor decided not to run on a joint platform. With 85 percent of the votes counted, both Sami Abu Shahade’s Balad party and Zehava Gal-On’s Meretz party are falling below the electoral threshold. Although nearly half of overall votes went to parties committed to keeping Netanyahu out of power, the right-wing and religious parties are slated to build a stable coalition of sixty-five out of 120 seats due to the inability of the “Anti-Bibi” parties to overcome their differences and rally around a common cause.

Interestingly, when a recording surfaced of Ben Gvir’s running mate, Bezalel Smotrich, calling Netanyahu a “liar,” Bibi was quick to publicly forgive Smotrich, prioritizing their shared interests over their personal animus. The opposition’s inability to overcome their differences in this way ultimately cost them the election.

In the coming weeks, many fingers will be pointed between the center, left, and Arab political camps for failing to hold onto their fleeting dream of a Netanyahu-less Israeli government. However, if those leaders continue to place ego above strategy, they will watch from the sidelines as a religious, right-wing government centralizes power and erase their political gains.

Jonah Fisher, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Millennium Leadership Program.

Image: Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu waves as he addresses his supporters at his party headquarters during Israel’s general election in Jerusalem, November 2, 2022. REUTERS/Ammar Awad


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