international analysis and commentary

Israel’s moderate repositioning in the Middle East arena

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The “Change government”, established by the Bennet-Lapid ticket on June 13, 2021 after four rounds of elections in only two years, was deemed to be shaky and contentious, unable to deliver the change it promised. However, four months down the line, it has proven to be much more closely knit than expected.

The eight-party coalition, despite huge internal differences, managed to vote by consensus on the annual renewal of the citizenship law (the law preventing Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza who marry Israeli citizens from living permanently in Israel). It also recently voted against making Arabic language studies compulsory, proving that it could overcome inner ideological rifts in order to pass the 2021-2022 budget bill, already approved in September and due for final approval in November. The budget is, in fact, the main test for the government coalition and its main deliverable to the public. It promises to step up social provisions, such as extra funding to the health ministry amid the Covid-19 crisis, economic benefits to elderly citizens, as well as a substantial rise of the minimum wage. However, it also advances some controversial bills, such as agricultural reforms aimed at opening up the internal market to competition reducing tariffs on imported fruits and vegetables and raising the retirement age for women to 65 years old.

United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas (right in the photo) joins the eight-party coalition government comprising Yair Lapid (left) and Naftali Bennett (center)

 

However, the main breakthrough led by the Change government has been in foreign policy. The new government marked a deep discontinuity with the previous 12 years of Netanyahu’s rule thanks to a basic understanding reached between the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yair Lapid, and the Miniser of Defense, Benny Gantz, on how to deal with regional issues while restoring Israel’s status in the Middle East arena as a constructive player. They both resumed talks and restored ties with neighboring Arab countries, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, with whom (despite the highly publicized “Abraham Accords” relationships had been eroded or strained since Netanyahu’s proposed Area C annexation bill in 2018 and Operation Guardian of the Walls in May 2021. They also signaled to the Palestinians the government’s will to boost the Palestinian Authority over Hamas, to the Egyptians its aim to turn the 1979 cold peace into a warm one, to Russia its readiness to ease tensions over Syrian raids and targeted killings, and to the UAE its commitment to deepen the Abraham Accord’s content through joint economic bids and joint space projects.

 

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Its gestures to Jordan have proven to be particularly concrete, ranging from selling an additional 50 million cubic meters of water per year to the Hashemite Kingdom in addition to the 55 million cubic meters already provided free of charge, plus allowing an increase of Jordanian exports to the West Bank. Even to the new Lebanese government of Prime Minister Najib Makati, Tel Aviv has made some openings, greenlighting the transfer of its Eastmed gas to Beirut through pipelines crossing Egypt, Jordan and even sanctions-ridden Syria according to a US-led initiative being currently brokered in Lebanon to supply the country with electrical power. In short, the Bennet government has made it clear to its regional partners that Israel is willing to cooperate to a larger extent than in the recent past. It has demonstrated a desire to smooth out conflicts and advance pragmatic solutions likely to benefit all parties and to prepare the ground for a more self-centered and self-sufficient Middle East – once the US achieves its pivot to Asia and leaves the region to dwell on its own.

Even on the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) with Iran – currently in diplomatic limbo –  the Bennet government has quietly made some inroads, signaling a willingness to exercise restraint, evaluate all options on the table and refrain as much as possible from unilateral moves. Even Prime Minister Bennet, who in the past had vocally supported Netanyahu’s hyperboles equaling it to a Munich Agreement, signaled to the EU during Angela Merkel’s farewell visit as Chancellor in October that Israel is waiting for Tehran to re-enter negotiations on different terms, thus no longer railing against the deal as a “historic mistake”. Israel seems to have acknowledged the Islamic Republic’s ability to survive Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and endure all the related sanctions, staggering but without collapsing, all while taking stock of the Biden administration’s less enthusiastic and unilateral stance towards Israel.

In fact, Washington shows strong aversion to hazardous military raids on Iran, which would likely spark a direct conflict between the two countries. Hence, despite nuclear talks with Tehran stalling since last June, Gantz has made it publicly clear that an enhanced nuclear deal could prevent Iran’s emergence as a new nuclear-weapon state. This would result in defusing the “existential threat” to Israel, de facto endorsing the opinions of 67 Israeli intelligence officers who, already in 2015, supported the agreement, highlighting its main advantage would be the postponing of Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb by 10 to 15 years. Denying Benny Morris’s apocalyptical prediction of Israel facing the dilemma of “either a missiles and bomb attack destroying Iran’s nuclear installations or living with a nuclear Iran in the years to come”, the current coalition government seems to be forging a third way in close cooperation with the US and Arab regional partners. This moderate course was also confirmed by Israel’s integration in the US CENTCOM command in January 2021 – a step that would have been impossible before the August 2020 deal with the Arab states and one that could feed into the main result achieved by the Abraham Accords, that is portraying Israel a regional military, as well as a soft power. This is the kind of normalization the Jewish state strived for no avail for 73 years.

 

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Against this regional backdrop, the Palestinians risk being left out of substantial dynamics and realignments taking place in the region, without reaping any fruit from their opposition. Operation Guardian of the Walls already showed that no Arab state is willing to jeopardize long-term relations with Israel for their sake, thus not going much further than calling for restraint or protesting single violent actions, such as house evictions in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood or infringement of the status quo on the Esplanade of the Mosques.

For a major player such as Saudi Arabia, normalization with Israel is still formally conditioned by the advancement of a fair solution for the Palestinians. However, in practice it is no longer dependent on a final status agreement, but gradually more on temporary freezes on West Bank settlement construction or any other measure of goodwill. As the Israeli Policy Forum experts rightly observed, “Normalization explicitly severed the chain linking Arab bilateral relationships with Israel to its actions in the Palestinian sphere”.

The same analysts offer a few reasons that support this structural change within the region: Arab States share a “perception of threat of Iran, the recognition that Israel represents a permanent fact in the region, appreciation for Israel’s technological capabilities, a renewed focus on stability after the Arab Spring uprisings and a desire to prepare for post-fossil fuel economies”. In addition, there is some degree of simmering rage against the Palestinian leadership, particularly evident in the case of the UAE (as shown by the UAE’s fluctuating donations to UNRWA between 2019 and 2020). Hence, despite the respective public opinions’ constant negative appraisal of Israel, more and more Arab states are looking at it as a helpful partner.

Against this background, the Bennet government feels even more entitled to take unilateral decisions towards the Palestinians in line with the coalition’s overarching objective of smoothing out tensions and restoring quiet and order in the West Bank and, to a limited extent, to the Gaza Strip, without touching on the two-state solution. In fact, all confidence-building measures advanced so far are concrete steps towards improving the conditions of Palestinian lives in the West Bank, while at the same time preventing or dismissing the ever-looming prospect of a Palestinian state. Indeed, the government has announced the release of 10,000 permits to workers from Gaza, the awarding of some 1,400 Palestinian identity cards to regularize residents in the West Bank, and the nearly-reached agreement with Hamas on the prisoner exchange (also known as the “Wafa al-Ahrar” – the “Faithful to the Free” deal). Nonetheless, in the meantime, the same government’s housing ministry has approved the construction of additional housing units in contested neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, such as Pisgat Ze’ev an Givat Ha Matos, in addition to disclosing plans for new buildings in the Atarot area.

Israel’s improved status in the Middle East does not seem to hinge any longer on Palestinian approval. In a changing regional setting, the Palestinians would be well advised to come to terms with new reality to strike out new strategies to reach their goals.