A day ahead of Israel’s elections, while nobody can be sure who’ll emerge as prime minister, it’s pretty clear Israel will get a new foreign minister.
Having filled the post since 2009 — albeit with a short hiatus as he fought corruption charges — Avigdor Liberman, his Yisrael Beytenu party barely clearing the electoral threshold in some polls, is highly unlikely to retain it. Even if a right-wing government comes to power — dominated by Likud, Jewish Home, Yahad, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu — other leaders are likely to stake more powerful claims to the post.
Even Liberman himself, asserting in defiance of all surveys that his party will win 10 or more seats, says he has his eyes on the Defense Ministry.
But who might succeed him in the post? And how might the elections affect Israel’s diplomatic strategies and tactics, and international attitudes to Israel?
Who might replace Liberman?
With a center-right/far-right coalition, it is more than possible that the Foreign Ministry will remain with Likud. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home is projected to win double digit-seats and as the Likud’s senior coalition partner, he could demand any ministerial portfolio. But Bennett, a former junior officer in an elite infantry unit, will likely choose the Defense Ministry.
Moshe Kahlon, whose Kulanu is expected to garner eight or nine seats, has made plain he wants to be finance minister and Benjamin Netanyahu has already promised him that post. Yahad’s Eli Yishai, with a projected four to five seats, would be in no position to demand the Foreign Ministry, and probably wouldn’t want it anyway. (He might push to return to the Interior Ministry.)
This scenario could, therefore, allow Netanyahu to appoint a Likud MK to the helm of Israel’s diplomatic apparatus. Silvan Shalom already served as foreign minister, from 2003 until 2006, and would surely covet a comeback. Gilad Erdan, who mulled leaving the security cabinet last year to become Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, and current Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi would also eagerly accept the job.
Former ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, of Kulanu, would seem a likely candidate for the post of deputy foreign minister.
By contrast, if Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog manages to establish the next government — with the help of Yesh Atid, Meretz, Kulanu and/or either Shas or Yisrael Beytenu — Yair Lapid would seem a shoe-in for the job of foreign minister. Projected to receive up to 12 seats, Lapid’s centrist party would be the Zionist Camp’s senior coalition partner and he could choose any ministerial position. While Lapid said during the campaign that he’d like to return to the Finance Ministry, it wouldn’t be surprising if he opted for the far more prestigious foreign portfolio, leaving behind the thankless task of financial management.
In another scenario, if Likud invited Zionist Union to serve as its junior partner in a national unity government, the Foreign Ministry position might go to Herzog or Tzipi Livni. If the roles were reversed, and the elections gave Zionist Union the votes to play senior partner in a unity government, Herzog would become prime minister, Netanyahu might step down as Likud leader, and whoever succeeded him could be foreign minister. A Herzog-Netanyahu rotation agreement could also see Livni return to the Foreign Ministry, where she served from 2006 until 2009.
With his outspoken, undiplomatic approach to foreign policy and his unorthodox views regarding the peace process with the Palestinians, Liberman is no darling of the international community. Thus almost any of the potential candidates to replace him would likely find an enthusiastic welcome in allied capitals.
However, it is the prime minister more than anybody else who determines the country’s foreign policy, and most governments in Europe, if not all, wish for Netanyahu to be replaced by someone who promises more flexibility on the Palestinian issue.
If Netanyahu were to be reelected and build a right-wing coalition, the European Union is sure to increase pressure on Israel. European diplomats don’t say so on the record, but in private conversations they readily predict that even Jerusalem’s closest friends in the EU — Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands — would be hard pressed to defend Israel against efforts from others in the EU to turn the screws on another Netanyahu government. Even governments usually supportive of Israel will be “empty-handed” in seeking to deflect such pressure if a right-wing government comes into power and prevents any progress on the peace talks, a senior European official told The Times of Israel recently.
If a new right-wing government were perceived to be actively diminishing the prospects of progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement through continued settlement construction, the EU would take concrete measures to make its displeasure felt in Jerusalem, the official said. Certain possible sanctions are already being discussed in Brussels, including the introduction of a special labeling of goods produced in the settlements.
Netanyahu is aware that he’s unpopular outside Israel’s borders. There’s an “enormous campaign here from abroad, enormous, nothing short of that, in an unprecedented way, trying to get out the Arab vote in vast numbers, get out the left vote in vast numbers, and conduct a negative campaign against me on an unprecedented scale,” he told The Times of Israel last week.
In another interview, he cited the opposition of Scandinavian governments to his reelection. And it is no secret that the Obama administration would not be heartbroken if Netanyahu went home after Election Day, especially after his contentious speech to Congress lobbying against the emerging Obama-backed deal with Iran two weeks ago. Asked if he thought the US administration would like to see him ousted, he told The Times of Israel: “Well, it’s not a tremendous leap of imagination, don’t you think?”
What to expect from Washington
If Herzog wins, the Americans are likely to push again for final-status negotiations with the Palestinians. They might even do so if there is a unity government.
Herzog and Livni have said they’re keen on resuming talks and there’s no reason to assume the secretary of state won’t try to get them into a room together with Palestinian Authority.
However, this does not by any means herald the imminent signing of a peace accord. Herzog has avoided so much as uttering the word “peace” throughout the campaign lest he raise unrealistic expectations. Unsure about the PA’s willingness to abandon its unilateral steps at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, the Labor leader is clearly willing to give negotiations a try, and has spoken of the imperative to dismantle isolated settlements, but he’s also warned that he doesn’t know which Mahmoud Abbas he’d encounter — the PA chief who promises he seeks peaceful co-existence alongside Israel, or the one who denounces Israel for “genocide” in Gaza and seeks a unilateral UN Security Council resolution on statehood.
Rhetorically, at least, Netanyahu and Herzog are both committed to a two-state solution but insist on a united Jerusalem, recognition of Israel’s Jewish nature and control over the Jordan Valley — positions that, when set against Abbas’s declared stances, render a final-status agreement exceedingly unlikely. But while Netanyahu boasts of his ability to “withstand international pressure,” Herzog and Livni’s strategy is based on showing goodwill and readiness for painful compromises.
If Netanyahu stays in power, Washington, busy with an Iran deal, Syria, Ukraine and Cuba, might be less inclined to focus its efforts on Israeli-Palestinian peace, especially if Israel is ruled by a right-wing government without the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid. In the outgoing government, Livni was keen on negotiating with the Palestinians, and Lapid wholeheartedly supported the attempt. If the new government were to include the ultra-Orthodox and Kulanu — Kahlon defines himself as a member of the “national camp” — chances for a resumption of talks are close to zero.
However, even in such a scenario the Americans will not just give up and let Israel maintain the status quo. President Barack Obama might conceivably not veto, or even back, a UN Security Council resolution that would enshrine certain principles in international law, such as the need for a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps.
As for the Iranian nuclear program, efforts to thwart it will not be greatly affected by the election’s outcome, as the six world powers currently negotiating with Tehran seem determined to sign a deal if they can. Neither Netanyahu nor Herzog will like the agreement but neither one will be unable to do anything about it — not via diplomacy, at any rate.