Don’t Expect New Directions in Israel’s Foreign Policy

Ellen Laipson

AFP photo: Alaa Marey

In Israel’s recent elections, neither Likud’s bloc nor the new Blue and White coalition achieved a 61-seat majority, so any government will require a coalition with smaller parties. Many pundits in Israel and beyond consider the early results a repudiation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure as Israeli prime minister. It may be too early to rule him out, given how hard the government formation process will be, but most Israeli political observers believe Bibi will be either on the opposition benches, or in prison, when the dust settles.

This election, called when Netanyahu failed to form a government in May, revealed deep fissures between him and his party, and a general disapproval in the public at large with his behavior and the corruption charges pending against him. Secular conservatives in Israel also believe he had given too much power to the Orthodox parties over the years, undermining even a prospect for preserving a multicultural society that would accommodate the Arab minority and support an eventual settlement with the Palestinians.

Should Benny Gantz, leader of the Resilience party and head of the Blue and White coalition, succeed in forming a new government, it would likely include Avigdor Lieberman’s conservative nationalist Ysrael Beitenu party, not the Orthodox allies who pulled Netanyahu’s government further and further to the right. Gantz campaigned on a message of healing Israeli society from the cleavages that Netanyahu exploited. He focused on domestic issues, pledging to save Israeli democracy from extreme polarization and promising an end to Netanyahu’s imperial style that led to deep concerns among Israel’s international friends about the credibility and integrity of Israel’s democratic institutions. So Gantz promises to not abuse power, and to return the Israeli style of government to the more egalitarian political culture of the past. His personal modesty and even his occasional gaffes on the campaign trail have endeared him to many Israelis, who have tired of Netanyahu’s excesses and alleged corruption and abuse of power.

So what does this mean for Israeli foreign policy? Overall, a Gantz premiership might not differ from the recent past in many respects. Gantz, who served as army chief of staff, represents the national security professionals. He would continue to be very tough on Iran. In recent months, Israel has expanded its low-intensity conflict with Iran by targeting Iranian supply depots and other military facilities in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, with virtually no adverse repercussions.  Gantz may share the view that Israel has to act on its own to establish deterrence against Iran, setting red lines with Iran’s revolutionary forces in ways that play to the strengths and capabilities of Israel’s armed forces. Gantz has not hinted that he would depart from current policy on Iran.

On the Palestinians, Gantz has sometimes appeared to agonize over this existential issue, to avoid alienating the cynical Israeli electorate who have low expectations of peace. He is presumed to favor compromise and territorial concessions and has courted Israeli Arabs to support his coalition. But Palestinian leaders don’t see much difference between the two finalists, calling it a choice between Pepsi and Coke. Palestinians are also despondent about any serious prospect for peace talks, and Gantz’s avoidance of the issue during the campaign does not augur for any dramatic shift. Should the Trump administration finally roll out its “deal of the century,” however, Gantz as prime minister would have to navigate the turbulent waters between pleasing the White House and demonstrating a fresh approach to Palestinian rights and expectations of a path to statehood.

It’s in relations with Washington where a more interesting divergence could take place under Gantz. The depth of the bond between Donald Trump and Bibi cannot be overstated. On Wednesday, Trump declared that the US was “with” Israel and not any particular leader, already hedging on the election results. But he and Bibi reinforced and validated each other’s instincts in unusual ways. During the campaign, Netanyahu trashed his country’s media, judiciary and fellow politicians in ways that were remarkably close to Trump’s approach, and Trump made more concessions to the Israeli right than any other US president, with no commitments to peace talks in exchange.

It will be in Gantz’s interest to have a cordial and productive relationship with Washington. The most striking change that could occur is a restoration of a more bipartisan relationship between diverse American constituencies and Tel Aviv. Netanyahu politicized the relationship by identifying with the Republican party to an extent that worried historic friends of Israel. A more balanced and normal US-Israel bilateral relationship could be the most noteworthy international effect of a new lineup in Tel Aviv.

Ellen Laipson, a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council, is currently director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former president and CEO of the Stimson Center in Washington.