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Analysis

Israel’s leaders can make friends abroad; why can’t they make things work at home?

There is an intolerable, unfathomable gap between Jerusalem’s frequently excellent diplomacy and its Knesset, where dysfunction reigns

Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament, during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament, during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Among Israel’s many contradictions, perhaps most baffling is the dissonance between its diplomatic acuity and its domestic dysfunction.

That discrepancy will be on full display when US President Joe Biden touches down in Israel this month for talks with Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has held the post for just a few days and may be back on the street in just a few months.

While in power, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israelis voters that he alone could navigate Israel through stormy international waters, and he indeed led a push that saw Israel expand its diplomatic footprint while forging connections with like-minded populist hardline leaders from Egypt to Hungary.

Yet since leaving office, it has become clear that Israel’s foreign policy can indeed be helmed successfully by others, even a politically weak, young and inexperienced leader like former prime minister Naftali Bennett.

When it comes to steering the country through coalition turbulence or other internal issues, on the other hand, none of Israel’s potential leaders have shown themselves capable of holding all the parts together for anything resembling stability.

Since late 2018, when Bennett brought down a Netanyahu government that had managed to hold power for nearly four years, the country has gone through four divisive election cycles. It is now heading into a fifth following the collapse of the short-lived Bennett-Lapid government, which still somehow managed to outlive the even shorter Netanyahu-Gantz coalition of 2020.

Overseas achievements

Over that same period, Israel normalized relations with several Arab states, rekindled ties with Turkey without abandoning Greece and Cyprus, and even got the happy kingdom of Bhutan to end its longtime refusal to recognize Israel.

Israel’s ambassador to India, Ron Malka, right, signs a deal with his counterpart, Ambassador of Bhutan to India Major General Vetsop Namgyel establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, at Malka’s residence in India, December 12, 2020. (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

During Netanyahu’s time, a deep connection was established with the Egyptian leadership, and today the two countries’ energy partnership is growing.

Energy Minister Karine Elharrar was in Cairo earlier this year to sign a landmark memorandum of understanding with Egypt and the European Union that will see Israel export its natural gas to the EU for the first time. Egypt will provide the facilities to liquify Israel’s natural gas for export via the sea.

To this must be added the triangle of interests between Israel, Greece and Cyprus. This regional partnership, Netanyahu’s initiative, was adopted and nurtured by the government under Bennett.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis (C) and Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiadis shake hands in Athens on January 2, 2020, ahead of the signing of an agreement for the EastMed pipeline project designed to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe. (Aris Messins/AFP)

And the US-brokered Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, which were signed during Netanyahu’s period, have continued to flourish in the past year under the new government.

On May 31, Israel and the UAE signed a comprehensive, groundbreaking free trade agreement to bolster their $2.5 billion economic relationship.

Alongside the founding countries of the Abraham Accords there are also undercurrents of developments with Saudi Arabia, with dozens of Israeli business and tech figures visiting Saudi Arabia just a couple of weeks ago.

And there are other important developments that were initiated during the Bennett and Lapid government: an immediate improvement in relations with the EU, restoration of relations with the Kingdom of Jordan, and the hard work of President Isaac Herzog to restore bilateral relations with Turkey.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and Israel’s Culture and Sports Minister Hili Tropper face off during a festive soccer match between an Abraham Accords team made up of players from Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco and one comprising world soccer stars, Dubai, March 29, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The list of Bennett and Lapid’s diplomatic successes may also include Israel’s ability to keep Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on the US terror list, their success in getting London to join their campaign against Iran (as diplomats from both countries have said to The Times of Israel), and the remarkable Negev Summit at which four Arab foreign ministers vehemently condemned terror attacks against Israeli citizens.

Not everything was great. Ties with Jordan hit a low during Netanyahu’s time in office and haven’t quite rebounded, the government arguably fumbled its handling of the Ukraine war, managing to anger both Moscow and Kyiv, and the failure of talks to revive the 2015 JCPOA have not kept the US, Iran and other Israeli allies from repeatedly trying to get the nuke deal back on track despite Jerusalem’s protests.

Domestic dysfunction

Netanyahu credited the diplomatic successes to Israel’s technological and military prowess. If Israel can help intelligence services around the world deal with terrorist threats, and if Israel is a leading exporter of science and technology, he argued, the countries of the world will exert themselves to meet, consult, and connect.

So it seems unfathomable that the same country that has seen diplomatic successes in recent years also has a political system that is unstable and increasingly complicated.

Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas is seen in the Knesset during voting to dissolve parliament for new elections, on June 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Of course, the two skill sets are not necessarily linked. A government can steer foreign relations without having to deal with opposition lawmakers or competing ideologies.

At home, a divided electorate, bitter partisan rivalries and an unwieldy political system make any strategic planning and decision-making complicated and almost impossible.

The fact that Biden has not canceled his upcoming trip to Israel shows that the political situation in Israel does not bother him.

Nor did the UAE terminate its normalization with Israel over the repeated elections and political dysfunction; it rebuffed attempts by Netanyahu to use Abu Dhabi as a backdrop for his electioneering.

“From the UAE’s perspective, the purpose of the Abrahamic Accords is to provide a robust strategic foundation to foster peace and prosperity with the State of Israel and in the wider region. The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever,” wrote senior UAE diplomat Anwar Gargash at the time.

But in the Knesset, the same wise strategies that net diplomatic successes fail to gain much purchase. The leading bodies in the field of foreign policy are Mossad, the National Security Council, the Foreign Ministry and in some cases the Defense Ministry’s export arm.

Smart people in Mossad, the Foreign Ministry and other bodies that guide Israeli diplomacy have figured out how to forge deep relations, cultivate Israel’s position in international institutions and look for ways to advance the interests of the state. But those are not the same people who influence the internal political arena.

MK Orit Strook, center left, argues with Deputy Knesset Speaker MK Ahmad Tibi, right, in the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 1, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s politicians have failed repeatedly and dismally to produce a stable four-year government. But during this internally tumultuous period, the field of foreign policy flourished.

There is no reason for this intolerable gap between Israel’s diplomatic successes and Knesset dysfunction, between the phenomenal abilities of the state’s ambassadors and the colossal failure of its leaders to run the country.

The flags of the US, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain seen on the side of a road in Netanya, September 14, 2020. (Flash90)

Perhaps the politicians could learn a thing or two from the diplomats. When Biden meets with Lapidnext week, he’ll be talking to both the prime minister and the foreign minister. For the next four months, Lapid will try to juggle both jobs.

Nobody expects much from the Knesset and its fractious political scene. Rather, it’s Lapid’s work as the nation’s top diplomat that will set the tone.

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