The Politics of Israel: Hold on for a Bumpy Ride

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory in Israel's elections at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv March 18. "What he did is comparable to a landslide,” Gil Tamary, Washington Bureau Chief for Israel’s Channel 10 News, told the New Atlanticist. (REUTERS/Amir Cohen)

While Americans observed the Memorial Day holiday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conceded to demands by his education minister (and former chief of staff) Naftali Bennett that cleared the way for the approval of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister. Bennett has long wanted better access to information reserved for Israel’s security cabinet, but his willingness to break Netanyahu’s government over the issue seemed to be motivated by a mix of personal and political ambition that is the hallmark of members of coalition governments in Israel.

Netanyahu’s appointment of Lieberman as defense minister does not appear to have had much to do with Lieberman’s hardline right-wing views. It was, however, vital to ensuring the survival of the prime minister’s coalition. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon quit as Netanyahu offered his job to Lieberman. Ya’alon had earlier expressed disgust over the treatment of the Israel Defense Forces by Netanyahu and some of his right-wing allies. This followed the killing of a captured and wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron by an IDF soldier, and the IDF’s decision to put the soldier on trial. Ya’alon resented the prime minister’s initial support for the soldier’s actions.

Netanyahu also appears to have employed the cabinet change to sabotage an emerging effort by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, in league with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, to repackage the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Herzog hoped to make the initiative palatable to Netanyahu and was willing to form a new coalition with the prime minister to pursue the idea. Netanyahu got cold feet and decided to go with the Lieberman option pointing in the opposite direction. While both Netanyahu and Lieberman profess to still support a two-state solution, at least in Lieberman’s case, it is on terms that would be unacceptable to the Palestinians.

Lieberman is likely the most conservative defense minister ever appointed in Israel and starts out with a rocky relationship with the IDF, widespread criticism of his appointment in the Israeli and international media, and limited experience on defense matters. All this is unlikely to matter much for two reasons: first, Netanyahu’s government remains shaky and there is a low likelihood of this permutation enduring for long, and second, Netanyahu will take the key decisions on defense matters. Nonetheless, the events surrounding Lieberman’s appointment have sparked a debate in Israel about the role of the military and how it relates to protecting not only Israeli security but also Israeli values.

In some ways more interesting is what is not being discussed much right now in Israel. A year ago, Netanyahu was in an all-out battle with the Obama administration in an effort to defeat the Iran nuclear agreement. That agreement hasn’t made much news recently mainly because it seems to be working, with confirmed Iranian compliance with its major early provisions. Netanyahu’s controversial speech to the US Congress in March of 2015 seems a distant memory. An even more distant memory that may have some relevance over the coming months was Netanyahu’s preference in 2012 for his former Bain Capital colleague Mitt Romney to be president of the United States.

This US election season may be a little bit more complicated for the Israelis and their leaders. Some will delight in the report this weekend, quoting the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump’s son, Eric, that deep concern over the Iran nuclear deal convinced Trump that he needed to run for president.

But many in Israel will also be skeptical and wonder how Trump’s promise to nix the Iran deal would actually advance Israel’s interests. And while bipartisan US support for aid to Israel seems firm, it is not clear in what direction Trump’s “America First” foreign policy might careen should vocal Trump constituents begin to focus on the levels of aid Israel receives from the United States. Meanwhile, a vein of anti-Semitism that seems to combine with anti-immigrant views of some Trump supporters has not gone unnoticed in Israel. All this is complicated further by the ongoing negotiations to renew the US-Israel ten-year defense agreement, where Netanyahu seems to be trying to figure out whether he should drag the negotiations out until there is a new US president.

There also could be room for some confusion about where the Democrats stand on issues facing Israel, with much being made of the recent appointment of two supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to the Democratic convention platform committee. Sanders is viewed as more sympathetic to the Palestinians than his Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, but his views certainly do not stray too far from the mainstream. It remains to be seen just how much political capital Sanders wants to spend on Middle East issues during the Democratic convention versus his seemingly more pressing interest in US economic matters.

Former President Bill Clinton remains enormously popular in Israel. It is too soon to say whether that glow will make much difference to Hillary Clinton’s prospects, but her views have the value of being well known to the Israelis and to Jewish voters in the United States.  She has a long history of interacting with Israel and the American Jewish community as a senator, secretary of state, and first lady.  

The foreign policy unpredictability that Trump views as a virtue, including his on again/off again decision to visit Israel before the election and his notion that his negotiating skills will be equal to the task of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, may not be a virtue in this case. Clinton now views as a mistake her call as secretary of state for a settlements freeze in 2009. This will probably not be much of an issue as the Israelis could blame it on US President Barack Obama.

The next chapter in the US electoral contest to see who can be most supportive of Israel will likely come when the French convene an international conference in June (if it is not postponed again) to try to create some movement towards negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are invited to the conference, which has made it simple for Netanyahu to oppose the meeting. The United States plans to attend. Criticism or support of that decision will likely become yet another divisive issue in both Israeli and US politics.

Richard LeBaron is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv.