Too Much Politics Harms Israeli Foreign Affairs
Israel has had two elections in five months, but has actually been in “election mode” for over a year. Dramatic foreign policy developments have coincided with an election cycle widely thought to be do-or-die for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has exploited the “bully pulpit” of incumbency to the maximum.
The crux of his campaign? That he is “in a different league” from his opponents: a foreign policy savant, able to stand with world leaders and win unprecedented achievements for Israel.
This claim has some traction: Israel’s position has improved markedly under Netanyahu, with expanded relations with Russia, China, and India, as well as with African and, discreetly, some Arab states. His message is, however, contradictory: it says simultaneously that Israel’s international position has never been better but also that it has never been more threatened.
It has been difficult over the past year to separate strategic, political, and personal motivations in Israeli policy.
There have been authentic national security issues to manage: rounds of escalation with Hamas, as well as attack preparations and capacity-building by Iran and Shia militia satellites, which required Israel to strike in its ongoing “Campaign Between Wars.” What changed is the level of exposure: Israel pursued until recently a policy of ambiguity regarding military activities in Syria and Lebanon. This lowered political and prestige costs for Iran and for the Assad regime, dampening their need and motivation to respond to Israeli actions; it also enabled Russia to turn a blind eye.
In January, Israel began taking credit for strikes in Syria. The strategic benefits of this change are not clear: enemy motivation and efforts to respond against Israeli territory seem to have increased since the veil was lifted. However, the political benefits of a higher profile policy for the ruling party and its leader are clear. Reports of Netanyahu’s intention to launch an operation in Gaza the week before the September elections — possibly accompanied by their postponement — raise similar questions regarding which side has primacy in this intermingling of the strategic and the political.
Exposure, apparently for political gain, also exists regarding relations with Arab states who don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, which have traditionally been little discussed publicly.
Hardly a month goes by since Netanyahu’s publicized visit to Oman in October without mention of a meeting between an Israeli official and a senior Gulf interlocutor, leaks regarding the blase attitude of Gulf states towards the Palestinians, details of “secret” cooperation against Iran, etc. Here too, overexposure can yield negative results. The leaks and public statements often induce the Arab side to issue denials. The need to distance himself from a publicly-trumpeted alignment has led Saudi King Salman to stress several times (contradicting positions attributed to his son, the Crown Prince) his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.
This year, the government has also made statements for political reasons — to throw “red meat” to its base — that affected external relations. One example is Netanyahu’s statement three days before the April election on expanding Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements and his declaration, a week prior to the September elections, of his intention to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the Northern Dead Sea areas.
Such steps forced ostensible Arab allies (and Russia) to condemn them and clarify their official positions on issues such as Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood, which then harmed Israel’s claims of convergence on regional issues.
One of the most noticeable foreign policy developments of the past year has been the near-total symbiosis between the Netanyahu and Trump administrations. Trump has actively promoted Netanyahu’s candidacy. He provided recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights three weeks before the April election; bruited a mutual defense treaty two weeks before the September election; and delayed the publication of his peace initiative, apparently due to fears about a negative impact on Netanyahu’s chances in the elections.
If Netanyahu remains in office, Israel’s connection with liberal and progressive forces in the West will be problematic, since Netanyahu is seen — even if imprecisely — as a key ally of the Trump administration, and as a member of the “authoritarian internationale.” More than ever, Israel’s international and regional image will be that of an annexationist occupying power, despite the fact that Netanyahu has, in deeds rather than rhetoric, been extremely cautious on the ground in the territories. And Israel’s credibility on vital issues may be more in doubt, due to widespread suspicion of ulterior political motivations and spin.
It will take time, and no little effort, for the coming leadership to regain an even keel. It is difficult to see this happening if a third election is in the works, or even under a strained, unnatural two-headed “rotating” unity government. This means that there may not be a “hair of the dog” in sight for the electoral hangover in Israel’s foreign policy.
Joshua Krasna is a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, and a former Israeli diplomat in Jordan and Canada.
This piece has been adapted from a longer essay available at The Fathom Journal.