Israel’s 2013 elections and key foreign policy implications

MAPIsrael

Contingent Security Services, Ltd., for Interport Police, 5 Feb 2013

 

Background and electoral outcome

Israel’s 22 January elections engendered a number of changes on the country’s political terrain. First, the joint ticket recently created between Netanyahu’s Likud and former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu suffered a setback with only 31 of the predicted 42 seats. Yet, it still maintains a clear lead and Netanyahu is as such expected to form the next government.

Second, two fresh trends simultaneously made their mark, one on the pro-settler religious right, the other in the secular center. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party garnered 12 seats up from 5 during the last elections, a remarkable achievement despite pre-electoral hopes. Bennett, who projects himself as ultramodern yet deeply attached to Jewish tradition was able to swipe votes from within the right-wing bloc and notably from Likud. Combined with outright rejection of a Palestinian state and calls to annex 62% of the West Bank, his party’s showing suggests a further right-ward shift within the bloc. This is corroborated by voting patterns in Likud’s recent primaries, when relative moderates including Dan Meridor and Benny Begin were voted out of the list altogether.

In parallel, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) emerged the dark horse with 19 unexpected seats compared to a year ago when it was non-existent. Like the trail blazed by his father Tommy with the reinvented Shinui party in the late 1990s, Lapid’s is a thoroughly secular platform pledging, among other things, draft equality and socioeconomic justice.

Third, the centrist Kadima founded by Ariel Sharon in 2005 dominated the two previous elections but has become a spent force with only 2 seats. Some of Kadima’s votes parted with Tzipi Livni, who established The Movement (HaTnuah) after losing the party leadership to Shaul Mofaz last year while the rest accrued to Lapid.

Finally, these elections marked the first time that security issues were decisively eclipsed by domestic and socioeconomic issues. On balance, the parties (loosely) identifying with the center, left-of-center and far left achieved numerical parity with the parties collectively situated to the right.

 

Coalitional bargaining

At the time of writing, Lapid (19) looks set to join Netanyahu (31), bringing the total up to 50 of the 61 seats required for a majority (provided Lieberman doesn’t break ranks from the Likud Beitenu alliance). Both could conceivably bring in Bennett (12) since all three in theory agree on much of the domestic issues. A fourth partner, a somewhat tepid Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima (2), is also probable. The recent tactical alliance between Ultraorthodox arch-rivals Shas (11) and United Torah Judaism (7) offers a counterweight to Lapid should Netanyahu decide to preserve his previous alliances. The second runner-up, Labor party chief Shelly Yachimovich is on record for refusing to join a Netanyahu-headed coalition, although this may yet change. While it is too early for predictions, one of three coalitional cores appears likely:

1) Likud Beitenu, Yesh Atid, Jewish Home, Kadima: 64

2) Likud Beitenu, Jewish Home, Shas/United Torah Judaism: 61

3) Likud Beitenu, Yesh Atid, HaTenua, Kadima, possibly Labor: 73

 

Implications for Israel’s key foreign policy areas

The United States

Netanyahu and a reelected President Barak Obama appear set to work with each other again for the next four years; although the tables have turned and Obama now maintains the upper hand. Obama’s newfound leverage is partially evident in his cabinet nominations for Secretary of Defense (Chuck Hagel) and Secretary of State (John Kerry, who was confirmed on January 31, 2013 by the Senate), both of which are widely interpreted to signal his preference for firmer diplomacy rather than military force in confronting Iran. A coalition with a more prominent centrist complexion is likely to soften differences between both countries (likewise with the EU), notably if Lapid takes over as foreign minister. But ultimately, policy directions on common substantive issues (e.g. Iran and Israeli settlements) may still determine the tenor of relations.

 

Iran

Israeli politicians are unanimous on the unacceptability of a nuclear Iran and disagree only on the method of dissuasion and prevention. Prominent figures in the political and military-security establishments including former heads of the Mossad and Shabak are also on record as opposing preventive strikes, at least without Washington’s support, leaving only Netanyahu and until recently, his outgoing defense minister Ehud Barak the main proponents of military force. The result has been protracted ambiguity even among Israel’s political elite.

In contrast, the electoral campaign hardly referenced Iran or foreign policy. In a recent Times of Israel poll, only 12% of respondents (i.e. 23% from the right-wing, 2% from the left-wing) cited Iran as the top concern. Greater coalition constraints mean less room for Netanyahu to claim a clear mandate for military action. Israel’s next governing coalition in itself is therefore not expected to deviate significantly from the status quo. Instead, external factors including relations with Washington, regional uncertainty and most importantly, decisions taken by Iran’s leaders in the coming months, will be prime determinants.

 

The Palestinian conflict

Apart from Tzipi Livni, no other political figure made substantive mention of reviving the two-state solution. Even Lapid has been unequivocal about his opposition to a divided Jerusalem (article 6 in Yesh Atid’s platform) although he has insisted on negotiations as a precondition to joining any government. While a significant number of Israelis prefer two states, most aren’t optimistic that the prevailing conditions – including the perceived absence of a viable Palestinian partner – are conducive.

What has resulted is growing resignation and greater inclination towards managing rather than solving the conflict. The demographic impact this will eventually have on Israel as a Jewish and democratic state remains front and center but stubbornly subjugated to short-term strategic vision. This impasse is heightened by the security implications of a sovereign Palestinian state at a time when transnational militant Islam is on the ascent region-wide, including neighboring Jordan. In addition, Hamas’ armed resistance and its ongoing rift with Fatah only provide further impetus for Israel to contain Gaza even as it weakens Fatah moderates by resuming construction in the West Bank. Ironically, the overwhelming recognition of de jure Palestinian statehood could also facilitate a degree of diplomatic inertia in both Ramallah and Jerusalem: after all, the Palestinian Authority will continue to receive foreign funding without the need to assume full responsibility over governance; and Israel gets to maintain the status quo in the short-run.

There is little indication that even a centrist government will refrain from accommodating “natural growth” in the settlements. Lapid, Netanyahu’s potential key partner, has also called for the retention of settlement blocs in an eventual land-swap arrangement. External pressures particularly from Washington and the European Union remain somewhat marginal unless translated into prospectively impactful disincentives. All this suggests that the coming coalition might restart negotiations but is unlikely to make significant headway towards resolution.

 

The “Arab Spring”

Developments in the Middle East and along Israel’s land borders could have a ratchet effect on Israel’s other policy positions. Although the deeper significance of the Arab uprisings has yet to be fathomed, Islamist, Salafist and Jihadist groups are clearly taking center stage in government and in armed opposition. So far under Netanyahu’s right-leaning government, Israel has adopted muted caution and somewhat reactive posturing.

Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi’s pragmatic slant, demonstrated in his approach towards Israel’s eight-day war with Hamas and the need for collaborative security in the Sinai Peninsula, belies the ongoing flux and street protests in his own country two years into the revolution. Syria’s civil war proceeds apace with no clear endgame while Bashar al-Assad slowly loses grip on his chemical weapons stockpile, perhaps with the eventual fallback plan of safeguarding them with Hezbollah in Lebanon or even with Iran. Syria’s armed opposition has come to embrace, for tactical reasons, a clutch of better-trained Jihadist groups including Jabhat al-Nusra whose ultimate intentions for the country (‘restoring the power of God on earth’, according to a founder) remain suspect to the international community.

The growing influence of these groups and most urgently these inside Jordan run the risk offsetting any political will towards the creation of a Palestinian State west of the Jordan River. An agreement along the June 1967 lines reduces Israel’s strategic depth to 16km at its narrowest point near Herzliyya, north of Tel Aviv, and places Ben-Gurion International Airport within sight and rocket-fire range of the hills northwest of Ramallah. In the event Amman transitions towards a post-Hashemite government, Israeli control of the Jordan Valley would still not guarantee immunity from direct and indirect fire originating from the east.

Surgical strikes on strategic threats, e.g. arms consignments intended for Hamas and Hezbollah are increasingly commonplace but clearly remain a matter of consensus in Israel. So would potential intervention aimed at securing Israel’s longer-term national interests. However, any coalition with the best of intentions to renew Palestinian talks will be deeply constrained by these developments.

 

Turkey

Jerusalem-Ankara relations suffered serious strains following Operation Cast Lead (winter 2009), the Mavi Marmara affair (May 2010) during which nine Turks lost their lives, and the ongoing Gaza blockade. Although bilateral trade continues, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has conditioned the restoration of full diplomatic relations on – among other things – the lifting of the naval blockade – a rather thorny ultimatum with ramifications for Israel’s immediate security.

Erdoğan’s position may be better understood in light of several converging factors: the shifting balance of power culminating in the Arab uprisings’ Islamist groundswell; an opportunity to capitalize on that shift and Ankara’s resulting realignment with rising fellow Sunni powers Qatar and Egypt; and the prominence among Turks (and more importantly, Arabs) of the Palestinian cause and Israel’s corresponding unpopularity. Furthermore, the gradual ascent of the Islamist Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) since 2002 has accompanied the emasculation of the secular military establishment, for years the anchor in Israel-Turkey relations.

Yet, by going so far as to name Israel a ‘terrorist state’ and the ‘main threat to regional peace’, Erdoğan risks forfeiting Turkey’s position as honest broker and may find he has climbed a rather high tree. For Israel, tight bilateral cooperation since 1996 represents clear strategic worth, and the more level-headed in government will seek to restore relations as they already discretely have under the outgoing government. A view exists that Turkey may forego the blockade condition provided Israel apologizes and compensates the families of the victims. Still, unless the present equation shifts considerably – real progress on the Palestinian file, deterioration in Turkey’s regional position or strategic cooperation vis-à-vis civil war Syria – a more centrist coalition in Israel may not necessarily portend a break in the impasse.

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