Israel’s Foreign Policy in Netanyahu’s Fifth Term: Continuity and New Challenges

Ellen Laipson

AFP Photo: Gali Tibbon

As Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, completes the government formation process in the coming weeks, foreign policy may not be on his mind. But the region’s enduring conflicts and geopolitical shifts will require some attention from Netanyahu and could lead to some adjustments in Israeli positions. Which coalition partner gets the foreign ministry won’t really matter; Netanyahu is such a dominant player and has been the architect of an indisputably effective Israeli diplomatic strategy in recent years.

Closest to home, the recent flare-up in violence in Gaza seems to be resolved, but Hamas’s ability to inflict fear and property damage on civilians in southern Israel keeps the Israeli security system on alert, and Israeli punishments set back any prospects for an improved atmosphere for the Palestinians that would lead to a more productive interaction with Tel Aviv.

The long-awaited US peace plan, if it ever materializes, is presumed to be so favorable to Israeli interests that Palestinians may feel compelled to resume their low-intensity conflict with Israel, and a new Intifada or other form of popular revolt could well engage much more than Hamas’s followers, affecting youth in the West Bank as well as in Gaza.

Israel and the Trump administration seem to believe they have lined up Gulf support, and financial largesse, for their plan. They have been working with the young leadership in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are signaling that they are less burdened with the existential Palestine question than their elders. Jared Kushner and other foreign policy novices are counting on their risk-taking counterparts in Arab capitals being ready to make a big break with the past, and being willing to cushion the blow for Palestinians with significant economic compensation.

But even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has a boss, and it’s clear that as long as the king and his generation are alive, they will not compromise on Jerusalem and other sovereignty issues that have been sacred causes for them for 70 years. The Palestinians get to speak first, and if they reject the plan, the Arab leaders who would love to be rid of this issue cannot make it happen. The logic of the US administration has been this “outside-in” strategy, but in the absence of any real coordination between the wealthy Arab countries and the disheartened Palestinians, it’s quite a long shot to imagine all the pieces falling into place.

Syria presents a different set of challenges, as the test bed for the containment of Iran, and, quietly, for a kind of normalization of relations between the surviving Assad regime and Tel Aviv. In late April, Israel released two Syrian prisoners in exchange, apparently, for the return of belongings of an Israeli soldier killed in a battle with Syrian forces in 1982. The Russians facilitated the return when Netanyahu was on one of his frequent trips to Moscow.

In truth, Syria is a place where US and Israeli interests diverge as much as converge.  Israel is quietly content with Bashar Al Assad’s survival, and has avoided the rhetorical formulas that have caused successive American administrations to stumble. Washington insists that Al Assad has lost legitimacy and peace requires a change at the top; Israel makes no such pronouncements and most Israelis in policy-making positions prefer a strong state as a neighbor to the uncertainties of a more open and chaotic political system.

On Iran, whether it is the matter of its presence in Syria or its possible breakout from the 2015 nuclear agreement, Israel is closer to the US position than to that of Russia or the EU. They prefer to contain Iran and keep the nuclear agreement intact, rather than pursue a more confrontational course. Netanyahu has been both lucky and effective in aligning his anti-Iran passion with that of the Trump administration. He was one of the sources of the early May alert by Trump officials of a heightened threat from Iran, for example, although few noted the connection between the Trump decision to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization and the Iranian pronouncement soon thereafter that it now considered the US military in the same way.

But one cannot assume, as the tensions ratchet up, that Israel and the US will be on the same wavelength. It could well be that Israel – and its newfound Gulf friends – expects that any use of force to either destroy Iran’s remaining nuclear facilities to prevent any new activity, or to punish Iran for any direct or proxy actions deemed hostile to the US, will be handled by the US alone, with any logistics support needed coming from the regional friends. Yet President Trump may have in mind that his strategy of robust support for Saudi and Israeli security requirements vis-a-vis Iran will empower them – the regional states – to share the burden. The US military prepares its contingencies to act alone as circumstances require, but the president’s political agenda still depends on avoiding new military adventures and entanglements.

To sum up, a confident Bibi with an unprecedented fifth term in office faces no immediate pressure to make major changes in Israel’s national security policies. But the political solidarity he enjoys with the Trump administration may not be sufficient to navigate the turbulence of the “day after” the Kushner plan or the new escalation in US-Iran tensions.

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. Prior to this, Laipson spent a quarter century in government service.