Israel’s political instability hampering tighter cooperation with US — experts

More than the potential election of a leader Biden is politically at odds with, it’s the continued uncertainty that stymies the US president’s ability to expand ties, analysts say

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Then US Vice President Joe Biden on his way to speak to the press at the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Debbie Hill, Pool)
Then US Vice President Joe Biden on his way to speak to the press at the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Debbie Hill, Pool)

Ahead of last week’s elections in Israel, a senior US official was asked if Washington would prefer an extension of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule or that a new lawmaker to replace the longtime leader.

The official, who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, went with the diplomatic answer, insisting US President Joe Biden would work well with whoever forms the next coalition.

“Hopefully there’ll be an end to the deadlock,” the official added.

The remark, made somewhat in passing, underscored what analysts say is the one scenario that Washington was hoping to avoid more than any other — continued political paralysis.

An election campaign billboard for the Likud party that shows a portrait of its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and opposition party leader Yair Lapid. Netanyahu’s portrait is defaced with Hebrew that reads, “go home,” in Ramat Gan, Israel, Sunday, March 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

With every vote counted, neither the pro or anti-Netanyahu blocs have the majority necessary to form a coalition. Preventing a fifth election in just over two years — an increasingly likely scenario — will require a peculiar alliance of Netanyahu loyalists and pro-Palestinian Islamists or, alternatively, a motley crew of opponents who share little save for their desire to send the premier packing.

Washington-based experts who spoke to The Times of Israel explained that while Biden would be pleased to work with an Israeli leader with whom he is politically aligned, more than anything his administration seeks an end to the ongoing political instability, as it deprives the US of an ally that can be relied on to advance long-term policy.

There are still areas on which the sides can cooperate even if Israel continues to be ruled by a transitional government, but on thornier issues that are not a matter of consensus in the Jewish state, Washington may well be forced to hold off on taking a position.

To Bibi or not to Bibi

“This makes things a lot more difficult for the Biden folks,” said the Israel Policy Forum’s policy director Michael Koplow. “The longer this goes on, the more difficult it becomes for any administration to do any type of long-term planning with the Israelis on anything that isn’t an emergency, when you have a transitional government and there’s no idea who’s going to be prime minister.”

Brookings Institute Center for Middle East Policy senior fellow Tamara Wittes concurred. “The overarching concern is uncertainty… that in and of itself is a challenge for any partnering nation,” she said.

Central Election Committee members count ballots in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The longer uncertainty continues, the harder it is to sustain common effort on issues, especially on matters on which there are some differences between different parts of the Israeli political spectrum,” Wittes added.

The Brookings scholar said that just as the question of whether Netanyahu can remain in power has sucked all of the oxygen out of the Israeli political system, it has manifested itself in US-Israel relations as well.

“Increasingly on the US side, my concern is that Americans are going to talk about Israel only in terms of liking Bibi or not liking Bibi, and not in terms of where our common interests, shared values and shared concerns are,” she said. “It does over time become more and more of a challenge for an effective, broad-based bilateral relationship.”

However, the US Institute of Peace’s Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program director Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen noted it was important to keep concerns over extended Israeli political instability in perspective.

“In a broader contextual sense, the US administration is disinclined to give any priority to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy,” she said. Beyond the administration’s commitment to the two-state solution and resuming ties with the Palestinian Authority, “under any realm of possible electoral outcome, one would not have expected a robust embrace of this particular foreign policy issue.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses his supporters on the night of the election at Likud campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, March 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“In some sense, therefore, the renewed Israeli political deadlock puts no pressure on the US to reassess this light-touch approach,” she added, noting that in any case “the administration clearly sees too many obstacles on both sides to make a proactive diplomatic posture appealing.”

Iran policy — in

Another reason to downplay concerns over the Israeli political deadlock can be found when looking at policy vis-a-vis Iran.

Koplow pointed out that the US and Israel have had no trouble coordinating on this issue, reconvening the strategic working group of national security officials that met during the Obama administration to mitigate public spats.

Since IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi openly criticized White House plans to return to the Iranian nuclear deal days after Biden entered office, senior Israeli officials have avoided publicly calling out Washington, Koplow noted. “It’s hard not to notice.”

Michael Koplow. (Israel Policy Forum)

He also cited the increasing number of phone calls between senior American officials and their Israeli counterparts, relative to other allies, to discuss Iran as a further sign of encouragement.

Brookings’ Wittes explained that a key reason the sides are able to continue cooperating on the issue despite the transition government in Jerusalem is the strong degree of consensus on Iran across the Israeli political spectrum.

It was the caretaker government, led by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, that agreed to reestablish the strategic working group on Iran, which has already begun meeting.

On other security issues, such as countering Hezbollah and limiting Iran’s presence in Syria, the differences between the various candidates for Israeli prime minister on their willingness to take risks or use force are mostly marginal, Wittes said.

Everything else — out

However, on more immediate issues regarding the West Bank and Gaza, the extended period of political instability is sure to complicate US policy plans, analysts noted.

Koplow said initial US plans to come to an agreement with Israel on limiting settlement construction and avoiding public quarrels on the issue will likely be placed on hold.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and members of his Likud party at an inauguration ceremony for a new neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Revava, March 23, 2021. (Roy Hadi/Shomron Regional Council)

“I don’t know how you [reach such an agreement] in the context of another election when Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to keep on running around for another five or six months talking about legalizing [West Bank outposts],” Koplow said.

The analysts also pointed out that the Biden administration has avoided taking a stance on the upcoming Palestinian elections — whether and how it will respond to a Hamas victory or push Israel to allow voting in East Jerusalem — at least partially to avoid influencing the Israeli campaign.

With the Palestinian legislative elections scheduled to take place in less than two months, the Biden administration will likely have to take a stance soon, drawing the various Israeli political parties to take more hardline positions on the issue as they continue their seemingly never-ending electioneering.

The US had also been waiting to move forward with plans to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem to the Palestinians until after the Israeli elections, recognizing that Netanyahu would be less likely to allow such a measure in the middle of a campaign, a US official confirmed to The Times of Israel earlier this month.

This Monday, March 4, 2019 photo shows United States consulate building in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Those plans could well remain on hold, Koplow speculated.

He also noted that the lack of permanent government in Israel may lead countries considering normalizing ties with the Jewish state to hold off on doing so until the political situation stabilizes.

The United Arab Emirates, which was the first country to forge ties with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords last year, appeared to lash out at Netanyahu earlier this month, intimating the premier was politicizing their historic agreement. The episode highlighted how the parties involved have little interest in being turned into a campaign issue.

At this point, they’ll take anyone

The analysts insisted that the political differences between the next potential governments are not what’s keeping Biden up at night.

“While [Yesh Atid chairman Yair] Lapid is obviously closer to Biden ideologically than Netanyahu is, I don’t get the sense that anyone in the administration can’t work with Netanyahu,” said Koplow. “Whoever it’s going to be, I think they’d prefer for it to be that person for at least some sort of known period.”

Yesh Atid lead Yair Lapid (L) and former vice president Joe Biden in an undated photo (Courtesy)

However, one issue on which Netanyahu’s continued rule, even in a caretaker government, is likely to worry Washington is Israel’s relations with Jordan.

“The Netanyahu-led government over the last several years has had a notoriously bad relationship with the Kingdom of Jordan,” Wittes said, noting Amman’s decision earlier this month to delay the takeoff of Netanyahu’s plane to the UAE after a spat over Crown Prince Hussein’s desire to visit the Temple Mount with a large security detail.

The continued breakdown in Israel’s relationship with Jordan “will matter a lot to the US because Jordan is such an important partner, not only on Arab-Israeli peace, but on a whole range of regional-security issues,” said Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs during the Obama administration.

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen. (US Institute of Peace)

If the Israeli parties are able to somehow cobble together a coalition in the coming weeks, two possible makeups — a far-right, religious government propped up by the Islamist Ra’am party, or a diverse anti-Netanyahu coalition that would require right-wing parties such as Yamina or New Hope cooperating with the majority-Arab Joint List or Ra’am — would mean prospects for sustainable, forward-leaning action toward negotiations with the Palestinians are unlikely, Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said.

In the meantime, the Biden administration is moving forward with some of its campaign promises regarding policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. Last week, it announced the pending transfer of $15 million in COVID-related humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, adding that additional funds were on the way.

“Israeli political deadlock, amid a still-strong right-wing mandate, doesn’t augur for a dramatic shift in this approach in the near term,” said Kurtzer-Ellenbogen.

Tamara Cofman Wittes (video screenshot)

Wittes maintained that broader themes of Biden’s policy, such as support for two states, will remain in place regardless of the political situation. “It’s more a question of whether they have an Israeli partner who is committed to opposing some of those preferences or do they have an Israeli partner who they can work with on behalf of those goals,” she said.

Naturally, Lapid would make things easier for Biden, given his opposition to Israeli annexation of West Bank land and willingness to enter negotiations with the PA. However, that doesn’t mean he’s the only leader Washington can and wants to work with.

Former prime minister Menachem Begin campaigned in 1977 on never relinquishing Israeli control of the Sinai Peninsula. “But that didn’t prevent the Ford and Carter administrations from pursuing negotiations that ultimately resulted in a peace deal with Egypt,” Wittes noted.

“It’s not as if the US closes the door on certain preferred policies because a certain leader gets elected, but it obviously changes the way you go about things,” she continued. “The real problem is the uncertainty and instability in Israeli politics, which makes it very hard to build a bilateral partnership on policy issues without the constant disruption of domestic politics.”

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