Shmuel Sandler, the Yehuda Avner Professor for Religion and Politics at Bar-Ilan University, Senior Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and author most recently of The Jewish Origins of Israeli Foreign Policy (Routledge, 2017) briefed the Middle East Forum in a conference on March 27, 2018.
Last month’s crisis over the contentious Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription bill that threatened to bring down the Netanyahu government was swiftly defused as none of the coalition partners wished to risk early elections given Likud’s persistent surge in the polls despite the ongoing investigations into Binyamin Netanyahu’s actions. Yet while the government’s survival has apparently been secured until the attorney general decides whether to indict Netanyahu (something that is not expected before early 2019), the convergence of several developments raises the specter of heightened domestic and external tensions.
For one, Hamas’s mass protests along the Gaza-Israel border, which have already driven Jerusalem unto the defensive and attracted sharp European criticism, are likely to intensify in the coming weeks as Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary (dubbed al-Nakba, the catastrophe, by Palestinians) and the U.S. embassy moves to Jerusalem. For another, Washington’s threatened measures against the Iranian nuclear agreement could precipitate an Iranian-induced conflagration on Israel’s northern border, not least given Tehran’s growing military entrenchment in Syria, Israel’s outspoken commitment to prevent this development, and Moscow’s decreasing interest to rein in its Iranian war ally given the growing tensions in Russian-Western relations.
Gregg Roman, director of the Middle East Forum, briefed the Middle East Forum in a conference call on April 3, 2018.
Netanyahu’s lingering police investigations have left the prime minister with no reliable coalition allies and made it difficult for him to resolve key issues before next year’s general elections as he puts the stability of his government ahead of problem solving. Yet it is difficult to see how this will harm his immediate reelection prospects. Ultimately, the Israeli voter’s priority centers on security and the economy - fields where Netanyahu has a marked edge over current challengers - with regional and international developments, another Netanyahu forte, strongly influencing poll results.
A conflagration along Israel’s northern border, for example, will largely reduce domestic political considerations given the public’s need for a seasoned center-right leadership with a proven record on security and strategic affairs. Likewise, Netanyahu’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority has been substantially strengthened by Mahmoud Abbas’s frontal confrontation with the Trump administration, on the one hand, and the evolving strategic alliance between Israel and the Sunni Arab states vis-à-vis the Iranian threat, on the other. This alliance has received a major boost by President Trump’s regional strategy, which, in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor’s appeasement of implacable U.S. enemies at the expense of longstanding allies, seeks to create a common denominator among America’s regional allies that will allow them to contain Tehran’s hegemonic drive and broker Palestinian-Israeli peace.
Netanyahu’s deft handling of Israel’s regional and global affairs, notably the intensification of bilateral relations with India and China and the establishment of a strategic dialogue with Moscow over the hazardously complex Syrian situation, may provide a counterweight to his investigatory woes in any future elections. Whether this will allow him to survive an attorney general’s indictment is far less certain.
Summary accounts by Marilyn Stern, Communications Coordinator for the Middle East Forum