3 Jan 2023

The new Israeli far-right government’s foreign policy toward big powers in the international system

Mohamed Aldhuhoori

Undoubtedly, the political arena in Israel is witnessing a dramatic shift with the new far-right government in 2023, which resulted from the fifth election in four years for the Knesset, held in November 2022.[1] The members of the coalition formed by Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) have raised concerns among the international community due to the sensitivity of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict on the one hand and the US’s efforts to reduce Arab countries’ differences with Israel on the other. However, the most important question that must be answered—as with all international concerns about Israel—is what Israeli foreign policy will constitute for the big powers that play a significant role in navigating the international system and how it might reflect on Israel’s interests internationally with the new shifts in the world. Such questions cannot be answered without showcasing the correlation between the internal and external politics in Israel, which essentially drives Israeli foreign policy. This relationship is key to illustrating Israel’s international relations, whether with big powers or other countries linked with Israel, friend or foe.

Accordingly, this paper aims to make sense of Israel’s internal and external politics by focusing on Israeli decision makers’ perceptions of foreign policy, Israel’s view of the big powers’ game and rivalries, and the role of Bibi’s personality in Israeli politics in tackling the internal and external obstacles that face Israel in its relations with the international community.

Israeli decision makers’ perceptions of foreign policy

Decision making is inordinately complicated in the Israeli parliamentary political system, where politicians follow certain perceptions when forming their foreign policy perspectives. Most of these perceptions are linked to Israeli internal politics. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy.”[2] Thus, it is rare to find slogans in the electoral programs of Israeli political parties during elections that mention Israeli foreign policy. These perceptions center on three aspects: the ideology of Zionism on which the country was established, internal stability with regard to the electoral threshold, and geopolitical factors.

  1. The notion of Zionism

Despite the differences between Judaism and Zionism, there is no doubt that Zionism served Jews in making their own state. Hence, Israeli politicians follow a strict approach to enhancing this notion by promoting relations with countries that have a Jewish population. The point of this approach is to promote relations with non-Israeli Jews, which plays a significant role in international economics from one angle. Another angle relates to motivating them to migrate to Israel to secure the superiority of the Jewish population vis-à-vis the Arabs inside of Israel. In September 2022, the population of Israel stood at 9,593,000, of which 7,069,000 were Jews, 2,026,000 were Arabs, and 498,000 were ‘others’.[3] However, if we balance the number of Arabs collectively inside Israel and in Gaza and the West Bank, the population of Arabs rises considerably. If we compare 2021 numbers, the population of Jews inside Israel was at 6,982,000, with 1,995,000 Arabs, while the population of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza reached 4,922,749.[4] Consequently, there were 6,917,749 Arabs in these three places, which is close to the number of Jews in Israel.

In addition, Israel has blended the Israeli state with the principle of fighting anti-Semitism. Israel is keen to maintain international sympathy for the country following the Holocaust of the Second World War and the persecution and suffering that Jewish people have faced in recent centuries. Correspondingly, this perception is very clear in the behavior of Israelis in international organizations when they insist on working against anti-Semitism to promote peace and security for the Israeli people.

  1. Internal stability

Securing a government from collapse is one of the issues that politicians consider when making any decision. The main obstacle for Israel in this sense is the electoral threshold to get into the Knesset, which rose in 2014 to 3.25% of the total number of votes in elections.[5] This percentage gave small parties the chance to obtain seats in the Knesset. Simultaneously, it removed the opportunity for big parties to gain a majority in the Knesset. However, the diverse differences between party members in terms of their principles, either right or left, are the whole reason why coalition governments in Israel are unstable. The Benit–Lapid government, for example, did not complete its four years due to disparities in the coalition in different cases that led some members to withdraw from the coalition in the Knesset and eventually vote on the dissolution bill, which passed with a majority vote of Knesset members.[6]

After the decline of left-wing parties, starting in 1977, when the Likud came into power for the first time,[7] the clashes between political parties were more between the left and right. However, after the second intifada, the right-wing parties took over the political scene, especially the Likud. Now, the political differences are not between the left and right-wing parties, but among the right wing itself, and to some extent between party leaders based on their personal interests.

From a societal perspective, the rise of the right wing has undoubtedly affected Israeli society drastically. According to a survey conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute, the percentage of Jewish voters who described themselves as right-wing reached 62% in August 2022, compared with 46% in April 2019.[8] The leader’s perspective, on the other hand, has been clearly demonstrated by Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit party; Bezalel Yoel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party; and Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-orthodox party Shas.[9] These leaders took advantage of being within the government coalition led by Bibi by demanding from him certain ministries and the passing of specific bills to secure themselves a seat in the government, such as the bill passed to allow Deri to serve as a minister. Despite Deri’s suspended sentence for tax fraud, a preliminary reading for a bill was approved by the Knesset Plenary to amend the Basic Law, namely “The Government”, to remove the stigma from those sentenced to suspended prison terms and to apply the stigma only to those sentenced to actual imprisonment, enabling Deri to be a government minister. Now, the perception here clearly favors the interests of coalition members, not international views or concerns, for the sake of stability so that the government is able to complete its four-year term.

Conversely, domestic differences due to polarization have also been explicit and reflected in society. One person who warned about this issue was former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who said “Israel’s greatest threats are internal, not Hamas or Iran.”[10] Even though these kinds of practices can harm Israel’s external relations due to the damaging policies that extremist personalities adopt, a governmental leader will obviously opt for the internal stability of his or her government over the country’s external relations. Hence, it is ill-advised in Israel to take a route in foreign policy that might clash with the interests of the political parties that belong to the coalition.

  1. Geopolitical factors

If we locate Israel on a map, it is easy to discern that it is a small state of around 20,000 square kilometers, similar in size to New Jersey or Slovenia. Israel is in the Middle East and surrounded by Arab–Islamic countries that have opposed its existence from the beginning.[11] Some eventually signed peace treaties with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan, and some confronted the country either directly or indirectly by engaging in warfare against it, like Syria. These threats shifted from being directed from neighboring countries to other regional countries that have projects to hegemonize the region, such as Iran, through its proxies. From the point of view of the decision-maker, the matter is straightforward: the geography of Israel is not secure at all. Israel must live with and mitigate constant threats to its existence in the international system.

If we focus on the Israeli fronts, we observe that the internal front is threatened by Iran through the Islamic Jihad Movement, which is the Iranian proxy inside Gaza, and to an extent the terrorist organization Hamas, which is not an Iranian proxy but has strong ties with Iran. On the northern front, Hizballah in Lebanon and Iranian militias on the border of the Golan Heights clearly threaten Israeli soil. On the southern front, Houthis militias are threatening Israel from the Red Sea, which is vital for Israel to connect and communicate with African countries to enhance its interests. It is these threats that determine Israeli decision-makers’ perceptions of the sensitivities surrounding Israeli geography. These decision-makers must shape their country’s foreign policy according to the existential threat that their country faces on all geographic fronts.

Israel’s view of the big powers’ game

The international system is witnessing new shifts in terms of the rivalry between the big powers, which might eventually affect the polarity of the current unipolar system. Undoubtedly, the US is the only superpower, using its hard and soft power to navigate international trends. However, some big powers, especially Russia and China, are moving to change the status quo of the international system from unipolar to multipolar. The current rivalry between these powers is different and complicated, and the US has no prior experience in managing its rivalry with these two big powers simultaneously in two places. As John Mearsheimer noted, the current international system is driven by two conflicting dyads. The first is the US–China dyad, and the second is the US–Russia dyad, which is different for the Americans compared with the Cold War period, where there was only the US–USSR dyad.[12]

From an Israeli perspective, this rivalry is the main challenge that Israel will face in 2023, according to the IDF intelligence annual assessment.[13] Unlike previous years, they did not consider Iran the first challenge they would face. They placed it second, with first place going to the global trends affecting Israel and its security, pointing out that instability outside Israel originates mainly from the rivalry between the US and China, which is expected to continue more widely. This was the first time the Israelis thought outside the box, where there were certain interests for Israel with all those powers. Correspondingly, managing Israel’s relations with these countries is exceedingly important to sustain the country’s interests, which are linked with its internal stability and national security.

US–Israeli relations

Israel views the US as its main ally among the big powers, which is linked to the American commitment to maintaining and securing Israel from any threat that it might face in its region. All American presidents have maintained these commitments; in fact, they have been enhanced over time, especially in the last decade. During Donald Trump’s administration, Israel established new relations with Arab countries by signing the Abraham Accords, while the US moved Israel from EUCOM to CENTCOM, which clearly illustrates just how seriously the Americans take Israel’s issues.[14] Moreover, during former president Barak Obama’s administration, in September 2016, the US finalized a $38 billion package of military aid for Israel over the following 10 years.[15] Current US President Joe Biden signed the Jerusalem U.S.–Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration, which clearly stated that the US would never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, reaffirming America’s commitment to Israel’s security.[16]

Despite the ups and downs between Israel and the US concerning the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the principle of the two-state solution, especially with American democratic administrations, America’s commitment to Israel is clear, and the Israelis fully understand that. Thus, Israel cannot stray far from the US and lean on other big powers that do not protect it as the US does. Furthermore, after the end of the Cold War, only one state was able to influence most Middle Eastern countries, namely the US. This factor favors Israel, which is keen on avoiding military confrontations with other regional powers.

Israel’s view of the US–China rivalry

Before 2019, Israeli–Chinese relations witnessed a significant boost in terms of Chinese investments inside Israel. Israel knows that the mega-Chinese projects worldwide will make a huge difference to the dynamics in current international economics. Chinese foreign policy is based on geoeconomics, not geopolitics, like Russia. Thus, Israel opened itself to collaboration with China on economic and technological projects, which boded well for China since Israel is considered one of the best start-up nations with a high-tech foundation.[17] This move countered US trends aimed at targeting Chinese efforts to dominate the international economy. However, when the US expressed its position against the rise of bilateral relations between Israel and China, Israel did not take steps to appease the Americans, who had warned Israel about Chinese projects focused on Israeli infrastructure and 5G. Such projects threaten the national security of both Israel and the US. Accordingly, it is vital to dispose of projects that might give China the keys to harm Israeli and American interests in the future.[18]

The Israelis started deviating toward the American view after Trump’s pressure on them in 2019. Israel’s security cabinet decided to form an advisory panel on foreign investments in the country, which led them to freeze some Chinese projects. This had a significant impact on Israeli–Chinese relations, and was evident at the opening of the Israel–China Policy Center in Tel Aviv in August 2022, where the former Israeli general Assaf Orion said “the honeymoon in relations between Israel and China is over.”[19] Another indicator is what happened in the same month when Liu Jianchao, who heads the Chinese Communist Party’s International Affairs Department, warned Israel not to allow US pressure to damage its relations with Beijing.[20] It is clear that even though Israeli economic interests can be maximized with China, Israel will choose the US in the end. Israel’s security partnership with the Americans is far more important than its economic and technological partnership with China, as the former concerns the very existence of the Israeli state.

Views on the Russia–Ukraine crisis

At the beginning of the Russia–Ukraine crisis, the Israeli position was hectic: should it stand beside Ukraine, which is backed by the US and Europe, or should it stand with Russia, given the interests that bind the two countries as regards the Jewish people and the Russian–Israeli interests in the Syrian issue? The previous Israeli government had witnessed two prime ministers who tried to deal with the crisis that began in February 2022. The first, Neftali Benet, attempted to balance Israeli relations with the US and Russia by visiting Moscow to mediate between the Russians and Ukrainians to end the crisis whereas the second prime minister, Yair Lapid, was very clear in his position against the Russians. Nonetheless, Israeli support for the Ukrainians centered on humanitarian aid; it did not do anything beyond that despite Ukraine’s request for military aid and equipment.

Far from all these diplomatic circles, it is important to highlight that Israel has gained much from this crisis in terms of receiving more Jewish migrants, especially Jewish oligarchs from Russia and Ukraine. In 2022, about 70,000 people migrated to Israel from 95 countries, mostly Russia and Ukraine, which was the largest number of migrants to Israel in 23 years.[21] Although Israel does derive some benefits from the crisis, a prolonged war will not favor Israel and will eventually reflect negatively on external Israeli interests.

Russian–Israeli relations are very important since they are linked with the security interests of Israel due to its borders with Syria. Thus, there is an extensive possibility that, with the new government, Bibi will try his best to utilize his personal relations with Putin to come to a mutual understanding and reach a position that balances Israeli relations with the US and Russia so as to avoid harming Israel’s interests.

Bibi’s personality in Israeli politics

Although most analyses of the election results raised fears about the future of the Israeli government with the far right and ultraorthodox parties in the coalition, some illuminated the importance of Bibi’s factor in Israeli politics. Being the longest-serving prime minister in a complicated political system is not an easy feat that anyone can accomplish, especially in Israel, where achieving this feat made Bibi a controversial actor in Israeli politics due to his charisma and ability to persuade his circle about his decisions. The current events in Israel’s political arena have been predicted before, especially with the election map that appeared at the beginning of the last elections. Now, Bibi is expected to try to please his coalition members by giving them what they want to a degree that allows Likud party members to maintain superiority in the sensitive ministries that deal with other countries directly, such as the foreign affairs and defense ministries. Such movements and decisions to give the coalition members what they want, besides preserving ministries that work internationally, provide Bibi with some form of guarantee that his government will complete its terms this time—which is four years—where he can manage external affairs on one side and pass many bills internally from the other, which will shield him from accusations on certain cases after leaving the government – an example being Case 1000, where Bibi was accused of receiving $300,000 in gifts from 2007 to 2016 from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.[22]

Managing relations with big powers is another strength that Bibi has. His personal relationship with Putin,[23] for example, can help ease relations between the two countries, especially after freezing the work of the Jewish agency in Moscow after the Israeli position on the Ukrainian crisis.[24] Additionally, most Chinese investments arrived during Bibi’s periods as prime minister, which means that the honeymoon phase may return to bilateral relations but in a new way that balances Israeli interests with the US. Furthermore, most countries trust Bibi’s ability to manage their interests with his country; hence, it is expected that the Chinese will make new efforts to maximize their economic interests with Israel.

Coming to the most important country, the US, Bibi is the best politician in Israel to manage his country’s relations with the US. As he states in his book Bibi: My Story,[25] he studied in the US and gained a good level of experience in dealing with politicians in US Congress, as well as American media platforms. If we consider this aspect in recent months, we observe that from the start of the elections to date Bibi has conducted a significant number of interviews to convince American society about his policies.

Bibi has faced some criticism as regards his handling of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, but he has dealt with it before and will be able to deal with it again, even with the far-right government that he is leading. Some people might say that Bibi has some differences with Joe Biden that might negatively impact relations between the two countries. However, it is highly unlikely that this will be the case. Obama also had differences with Bibi, but in the end, he stood beside Israel due to the Israeli position in the American calculation; Biden is expected to follow suit eventually.

Conclusion

Although the competition between big powers is complicated and will continue, leading to new shifts in the international political area, Israel will try not to deviate from its security partnership with the US. Meanwhile, it will try to balance its relations with the US and other big powers to secure interests linked to its existence in the international system. Bibi’s approach to dealing with this changing strategic environment in the international system can help Israel. His personality will also bring stability inside Israel and reflect on Israel’s outside image, gaining the trust of international actors. However, there is still a chance that Bibi could lose his entire political future and the international community’s trust if his coalition members take steps to present controversial bills to the Knesset or escalate against the Palestinians, which would lead to a catastrophe for both the Palestinians and Israelis.

References

[1] Dan Williams, “Israeli PM Lapid Congratulates Netanyahu on Election Win,” Reuters, November 4, 2022, https://cutt.us/Hmp25.

[2] Asher Schechter, “The EU Boycott: The Price of Not Having a Foreign Minister,” Haaretz, July 24, 2013, https://cutt.us/jueIN.

[3] Yaron Druckman, “Israel’s Population Nears 10 Million, Report,” Ynet News, September 20, 2022, https://cutt.us/NQqZp.

[4] The World Bank, “Population, Total – West Bank and Gaza,” https://cutt.us/7A3se (Accessed December 27, 2022).

[5] Evan Gottesman, “Crossing the Threshold: Israel’s Electoral Threshold Explained,” Israel Policy Forum, February 19, 2019, https://cutt.us/WYcHO.

[6] “Israeli lawmakers dissolve parliament, election set for November 1,” France 24, June 30, 2022, https://cutt.us/PhErT

[7] Barry Rubin, Israel: An Introduction (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2012): p200.

[8] “What the Far-Right’s Electoral Victory Means for Israel,” Stratfor, November 29, 2022, https://cutt.us/GwNcL.

[9] “Bill to Let Deri Take Ministry, Grant Smotrich Defense Post Passes 1st Reading,” Times of Israel, December 16, 2022, https://cutt.us/zkqr7.

[10] “Israel’s Greatest Threats Are Internal, Not Hamas or Iran, Says Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak,” CBC, June 5, 2018, https://cutt.us/QkL5T.

[11] Charles D. Frelich, “Security Challenges and Opportunities in the Twenty-first Century,” in  Understanding Israel: Political, Societal and Security Challenges, eds. Joel Peters and Rob Geist Pinfold (London: Routledge, 2018): p185.

[12] “John J. Mearsheimer: Great Power Politics in the 21st Century & the Implications for Hungary,” Századvég Alapítvány, YouTube video, December 5, 2022, https://cutt.us/XVtjy.

[13] Yoav Limor, “Exclusive: IDF Intelligence Estimate for 2023 Sees Worrying Trends amid Global Turbulence,” Israel Hayom, December 25, 2022, https://cutt.us/DnOtW.

[14] Marcy Oster, “Israel under CENTCOM: Why Does It Matter?” The Jerusalem Post, January 18, 2021, https://cutt.us/4i2B9.

[15] Peter Baker and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “U.S. Finalizes Deal to Give Israel $38 Billion in Military Aid,” New York Times, Sept. 13, 2016, https://cutt.us/TCdts.

[16] “The Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration,” The White House, JULY 14, 2022, https://cutt.us/Hi5uB

[17] Mordechai Chaziza, “Israel-China Relations in an Era of Strategic Rivalry and Great Power Competition,” INSS, July 2, 2022, https://cutt.us/XjHWC

[18] Shira Efron, Karen Schwindt, and Emily Haskel, Chinese Investment in Israeli Technology and Infrastructure: Security Implications for Israel and the United States (California: Rand Corporation, 2020), https://cutt.us/i3YE2

[19] Tal Schneider, “After Years of Blooming Trade, Some See Israel-China Relationship Start to Sour,” Times of Israel, August 3, 2022, https://cutt.us/VE7w6.

[20] Barak Ravid, “Scoop: China Warns Israel Not to Let U.S. Pressure Hurt Relations,” Axios, August 17, 2022, https://cutt.us/5zZ6E.

[21] Zvika Klein, “Israel Receives 70,000 New Immigrants in 2022, Highest Rate in Decades,” The Jerusalem Post, December 22, 2022, https://cutt.us/NYVby.

[22] Yonette Joseph and Patrick Kingsley, “Netanyahu Will Return with Corruption Charges Unresolved. Here’s Where the Case Stands,” New York Times, November 3, 2022, https://cutt.us/qH4JM.

[23] Daniel B. Shapiro, Barbara Slavin, Mark N. Katz et. Al., “Experts React: Bibi Is Back—Back Again for Now,” Atlantic Council, November 2, 2022, https://cutt.us/JNWqa.

[24] Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell, “Israeli PM Meets Putin in Moscow, Then Speaks with Zelenskiy by Phone,” Reuters, March 6, 2022, https://cutt.us/cbp54.

[25] Benjamin Netanyahu, Bibi: My Story (New York: Threshold Editions, 2022): p20-28.

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