Analysis'They don't care about Ben Gvir. They want Israeli tech'

Allies may worry over far-right’s election gains, but few can afford to shun Israel

US, UK express concerns over rise of Ben Gvir, set to be minister, and some may prefer not to work with Netanyahu, but shared core interests will likely rein in diplomatic fallout

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with then-US vice president Joe Biden at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2016, during Biden's official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with then-US vice president Joe Biden at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2016, during Biden's official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

With Benjamin Netanyahu returning to power at the head of a coalition that includes Itamar Ben Gvir on his far-right flank, some of Israel’s closest allies were displaying unease as the results of the November 1 Israeli elections were finalized.

“We hope that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price Wednesday in a thinly veiled criticism of some leaders in the pro-Netanyahu bloc.

The British sounded a similar warning. “We would call on all Israeli parties to refrain from inflammatory language and demonstrate tolerance and respect for minority groups,” said a spokeswoman for UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

An Axios report on Wednesday said that the Biden administration was likely to boycott Ben Gvir, a member of the far-right Religious Zionism faction that won 14 seats, if he is appointed to a ministerial post as expected.

Ben Gvir is a self-described disciple of extremist rabbi and former MK Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned and declared a terror group in the 1980s in both Israel and the US. Like the late Kahane, Ben Gvir was convicted in the past of supporting a terror organization, though he insists he has become more moderate in recent years and does not hold the same beliefs as the Kach founder.

With signs of nervousness coming even from Israel’s most reliable Western allies, could the Jewish state be facing years of diplomatic tensions with European and Middle Eastern countries that are far more critical of the Jewish state? Or do Israel’s partners have more pressing issues than the internal makeup of the country’s governing coalition?

Any discussion of Israel’s diplomatic future comes with a measure of speculation. No one yet knows for certain what the composition of the next government will be – Netanyahu could still cleave off members of Benny Gantz’s National Unity party or even the party itself – and what role Ben Gvir will play within it, though he indicated before the election that a cabinet position was likely.

Israeli far-right lawmaker and head of the Otzmah Yehudit party Itamar Ben-Gvir, gestures after first exit poll results for the Israeli Parliamentary election at his party’s headquarters in Jerusalem, November 2, 2022. (Oren Ziv/AP)

But even without Ben Gvir, the return of Netanyahu could influence relations with key countries.

Not just Ben Gvir

With Netanyahu at the helm for 12 years, Israel made important strides on the international stage, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, Africa, India, and of course, the Abraham Accords countries.

At the same time, some of Israel’s most vital partnerships grew noticeably colder during the Netanyahu years. In some instances, it seemed that the prime minister himself was a factor in growing tensions between the two sides.

Jordan was a particular problem. Personal hostility between Netanyahu and King Abdullah led to diplomatic crises. Abdullah said in 2019 that relations between Israel and Jordan were “at an all-time low” after a series of incidents that prompted Amman to recall its ambassador to Israel.

In March 2021, Jordan delayed approval for Netanyahu’s flight path over the country to the UAE for a planned visit, causing the trip to be scrapped.

But even after a steady improvement during the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government, relations became frayed once again in the wake of Ramadan tensions in Jerusalem. Israel effectively froze high-level meetings with their Jordanian counterparts to protest harsh statements from Amman about the religious status quo in the capital.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, left, meets Jordan’s King Abdullah II in New York, September 20, 2022. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

And Jordan has noticeably stayed away from the Negev Forum that Israel’s other pre-Abraham Accords partner, Egypt, is fully participating in.

Even if the winds blowing across Israel’s eastern border become noticeably chillier, Amman is not about to endanger the deep security cooperation that is crucial to both countries.

Jordan can afford to show Israel the cold shoulder publicly without worrying about Jerusalem’s reaction, argued Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “They allow themselves all sorts of things because they know we have no choice other than to maintain good relations with the country that has the longest border with Israel.”

Israel’s relationship with Jordan is a vital national security matter, but it doesn’t compare to the vital ties with the US, and Netanyahu’s victory portends serious problems in Washington.

Democrats from the White House on down barely concealed their distaste for Netanyahu, who publicly assailed the Iran deal in front of Congress during the Barack Obama years, and who cozied up to Donald Trump in the ensuing administration. Now they will have to find a way to work with him.

“The Biden administration, and the Obama retreads that lead his national security apparatus, have a visceral hatred of Bibi Netanyahu that’s going to make cooperation tough,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Danielle Pletka (photo credit: AEI, courtesy)

“Obviously he’s not popular, there’s no secret there,” said Natan Sachs, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There’s a long list of baggage, and it’s worth remembering that the Biden administration has many people who staffed the Obama administration where relations were bad.”

While the White House tried to keep ties on an even keel while Bennett and Lapid were in charge, the White House will now be “far less cautious about rocking the boat,” Sachs said.

Many places in Europe too, had little patience for Netanyahu, who fostered relationships with anti-liberal strongmen like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and engineered a coalition of central European allies that created a wedge within the European Union.

Among those congratulating Netanyahu Thursday were Orban, Trump-era secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and Italy’s new far-right leader Giorgia Meloni.

A known quantity

Though there is likely to be apprehension about a Netanyahu return in some places, much has changed since he left office. An Iran nuclear deal looks unlikely, and Europe and the US are far more concerned with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a dangerous energy crisis than with the domestic politics of EU member states or allies like Israel.

“They’re not going to be looking for a fight,” said Sachs of the Americans. “They have enough problems elsewhere.”

On Russia and Ukraine, Netanyahu is unlikely to change course by supplying weapons to Ukraine. He has avoided significant criticism of Bennett and Lapid’s stance on the war, and has even offered praise at times for their prudence.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with Israeli investigative journalists Ilana Dayan and Itai Anghel in Kyiv, in an interview aired on October 31, 2022. (Yaniv Shabtay, Ronen Mayo – Uvda)

Netanyahu had a close relationship with Putin, and many will be looking out for a congratulatory phone call from Moscow once Netanyahu takes office.

Many leaders, especially Europe and the US, like to speak about the importance of values on the world stage, but ultimately national interests determine relations between states.

Under Netanyahu, Bennett, and Lapid, Israel has made clear to its allies that close ties with Jerusalem improve their security, give them access to innovative technology, and offer solutions to problems at the heart of their citizens’ well-being.

Turkey’s rekindling of full diplomatic ties was driven by Ankara’s understanding that its economic, diplomatic, and security interests are served by reconciling with Israel and other regional rivals. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been quick to clarify that the Turkish-Israeli détente will continue, whether Lapid is in office or Netanyahu, despite a history of personal animosity toward the Likud leader.

“We expect to sustainably maintain our relations with Israel based on mutual respect for sensitivities and shared interests, no matter how the election turns out,” Erdogan’s office tweeted Wednesday. “As long as values are respected, I believe win-win diplomacy will benefit not only Türkiye and Israel but also the entire region.”

The comment marked a stunning shift given the Turkish president’s past accusations leveled at Netanyahu, of being a terrorist and genocidaire. But even for those that don’t get along with him, Netanyahu is someone world leaders know and have dealt with for years.

“Netanyahu isn’t the novelty,” said Inbar. “Ben Gvir is the novelty.”

The Ben Gvir factor

Many of Israel’s allies will be watching closely to see what Ben Gvir’s role is, and whether the recent signs that he is looking to move in a more moderate direction are indications of how he will behave in office.

One area in which he is liable to cause tensions, especially if he is handed control over the police as minister for public security, is the Temple Mount. Ben Gvir has pushed for Israel to assert its sovereignty over the flashpoint holy site, including by allowing Jewish prayer, but any move there could dramatically heighten tensions with Israel’s Arab partners, and not just Jordan.

In the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, support for the Abraham Accords has been steadily eroding since the agreements were signed in 2020. Riots in Jerusalem that can be linked to policies spearheaded by the far-right of the coalition would further undermine public support.

Still, the countries are not about to walk away from the agreement. They signed the accords knowing full well that they would have to navigate occasional periods of tension, including two recent rounds against Gaza-based terror groups. These are long-term pacts, based on an assessment of national interests.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani waves, as he poses for a photo with attendees, following the Negev Summit in Kibbutz Sde Boker, southern Israel, March 28, 2022. Israel hosted the foreign ministers of four Arab nations and the United States in a bid to strengthen its position in a rapidly shifting Middle East. The gathering brought together the top diplomats from all but one of the Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel in US-mediated negotiations. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Sachs noted that Democrats would have a hard time squaring Ben Gvir’s presence and the idea that Israel and the US share values.

Pletka too sees Ben Gvir’s presence in government as a meaningful factor in US-Israel ties: “He enables Israel- and Likud-hating Americans to say all the things they want to say, but couldn’t.”

But she argued that the foundations of the bilateral relationship are in no danger: “Israel and the United States can continue the defense, intelligence and economic cooperation that goes on no matter who rules Jerusalem.”

Europe has similar interests in maintaining its close ties with Israel, said Asger Christensen, a Danish member of the European Parliament touring Israel during the elections with ELNET, an organization that works to strengthen Europe-Israel relations.

“It’s Israel’s decision, and we will cooperate with their decision,” he said. “We want to expand cooperation with Israel in Europe.”

Other world powers like China and India aren’t at all concerned about the makeup of Israel’s next government.

“They don’t care about Ben Gvir, they don’t care about any of it,” said Inbar. “They want Israeli technology. Bibi is a world leader, and Ben Gvir doesn’t bother them.”

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