Netanyahu’s ouster creates diplomatic openings for Israel, if government holds

World leaders eager to get to work with Bennett and Lapid, but support comes with strings attached and the vast experience of the longtime leader could be missed

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-finance minister Yair Lapid at a signing ceremony for a new private port to be built in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 23, 2014. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-finance minister Yair Lapid at a signing ceremony for a new private port to be built in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 23, 2014. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

With Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm for 12 years, Israel unquestionably made important strides on the international stage. But many believe that with his departure, Israel may accomplish some of the things he could not.

Israel is now at the center of an emerging energy alliance in the eastern Mediterranean with Arab and European partners. Ties with India, which prides itself as being the world’s largest democracy, have blossomed, as Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel and the two sides signed a series of defense and economic agreements. Central and Eastern European countries moved dramatically toward Israel, even standing up to major EU powers when the latter pushed to condemn Israel.

Countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya support Israel’s campaign to regain its status as an observer to the African Union, and Israel’s technology can be found across the continent. Netanyahu managed to maintain a productive strategic and tactical dialogue with Russia, whose forces moved into next-door Syria.

For the four years of the Donald Trump administration, the US backed Israel forcefully at international institutions, and on longstanding areas of prior disagreement like the Golan Heights and the status of Jerusalem. The US-brokered Abraham Accords under Trump normalized ties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

“Netanyahu brought Israel’s alliances to previously unimagined heights, including signing four historic peace deals with Arab nations,” a senior adviser to Netanyahu told The Times of Israel.

“He also cultivated new Israeli relations with dozens of countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, often as the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit those nations,” said the adviser.

The-US president Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House on September 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

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

With Netanyahu out of the prime minister’s office and in the opposition, some see new opportunities for Israel on the international stage, though they will have to be pursued without his considerable experience and diplomatic acumen.

The benefit of not being Bibi

When Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid established the new government last Sunday, world leaders were quick to offer their congratulations. The United States led the way, with phone calls from US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Russia, Britain, India, Canada, and Germany were among the prominent countries publicly reaching out to the new government.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, May 18, 2021. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed spoke with Lapid, and Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a statement congratulating Bennett and Lapid on the formation of a new government.

Official statements made a point of emphasizing that the countries enjoy relations with the State of Israel, and not with any particular prime minister. “Personal connections have a certain influence, but we will continue to support Israel in international bodies regardless of who is in the position,” Hungary’s foreign minister said in an interview with Israel Hayom, the newspaper often seen as a mouthpiece for Likud and its leader Netanyahu.

Still, the messages of congratulation were important gestures, noted Micky Aharonson, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and past foreign policy director at Israel’s National Security Council. “It’s not a merely a technical act, it’s a symbolic act.”

The phone calls and statements indicate “an outbreak of optimism,” Aharonson explained. “There is a feeling that there are positive processes. I don’t know if it’s justified, but that is the feeling.”

“People have learned to dislike Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname],” said Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, “and so the new government will benefit simply by not being Bibi.”

Danielle Pletka (photo credit: AEI, courtesy)

But those expecting Bennett and Lapid to forge a new path on issues like Iran, the Palestinians, or Jerusalem will likely find themselves frustrated.

“When it comes to substance,” said Pletka, “I think there’s likely to be some disappointment at the lack of a sea change in policies. After all, there is broad consensus about foreign policy in Israel. So other than some small gestures on the Palestinian question — limited by the fact that the ball is really in the Palestinian court — and a change in tone, we’re not likely to see the kind of transformation in Israel that some hoped for in a post-Bibi world.”

Moreover, the makeup of the new coalition constrains its policy options.

“When you have such a polarized government ideologically, based on the rule of wide agreement, then seemingly you can’t do much, you can’t take drastic steps,” said Gil Murciano, chief executive officer at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

“Changes are more likely to happen on the professional level, not the ideological level.”

A change in tone

Even without a major change in policy, some clear opportunities exist if Israeli leaders are able to recognize them and are willing to pursue them.

The immediate consequence of Netanyahu’s ouster is that Israel is no longer identified with the close alliances he built over the years.

In the US, Democrats increasingly saw Netanyahu as an ally of the Republican party and of Donald Trump. Many European leaders felt that he established himself on one side of the major fault line dominating European politics by befriending anti-liberal world leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban hold a joint press conference at the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary on July 18, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

“Netanyahu made it personal for them,” Murciano argued.  “Now it is related to the kind of disputes you have within the European sphere.”

“When you detach the government from the weight of all those alliances, there’s already an opportunity,” he said.

Netanyahu’s tone also got in the way of Israel’s relationship with EU states at times, said Murciano.

President Reuven Rivlin, also a staunch Likudnik, was seen in a more positive light in many European capitals. “Yet, because of the discourse he was using, because of his commitment to liberal values, he found to some extent a level of shared discourse with Europeans,” said Murciano.

“Even changing the tone can change the relations.”

The importance of investment in Palestinians

But the goodwill in Europe, the US, and the Arab world won’t last forever, and a change in tone isn’t enough.

“They are giving a certain amount of credit to this government, but that credit also comes with an expectation,” said Aharonson.

Israel’s National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz (wearing red tie) and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah cut the ribbon to mark the first ever commercial agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian energy companies to increase provision in the West Bank area of Jenin, July 10, 2017. Yoav Mordechai, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, stands behind Steinitz,
with Yiftach Ron Tal, Israel Electric Corporation head, on the far right.(Yossi Weiss).

One of the major expectations is that Israel make progress with the Palestinians. No one expects a final peace agreement to emerge anytime soon, but there is a strong desire for confidence-building measures. Improving conditions in the West Bank and rehabilitating Gaza could be the key to strengthening Israel’s main alliances.

The Biden administration has no desire to focus on the Middle East as domestic issues like the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and immigration take center stage. The US primarily wants calm in the region to keep from getting sucked back in, and tangible gestures from Israel to the Palestinians would go some way toward protecting that calm and building goodwill in the Biden camp.

Palestinians inspect the damage of a destroyed house that was hit by an Israeli airstrike in town of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Yousef Masoud)

But it stands to reason that Biden, like his predecessors, will turn his focus toward Israel and the Palestinians at some point.

“Despite the known differences in the opinions of the coalition members, there is still ample space for Israel to offer suggestions to the administration that could at least improve the current situation,” said Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Eran suggested initiatives around tourism, agriculture, energy, and transportation in the West Bank, and rebuilding in the Gaza Strip after the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in May.

Burgeoning ties with Bahrain and the UAE could also be enhanced by these measures. “There is regional sensitivity toward cooperation with Israel,” said Aharonson, especially after Operation Guardian of the Walls last month. Bringing in Israel’s new Gulf partners to fund projects in both the West Bank and Gaza would be an important step in filling the Abraham Accords with tangible content.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II addresses the 73rd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations on September 25, 2018 in New York. (AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY)

Regional cooperation in the West Bank could also be used to overcome tensions with Jordan. Personal hostility between Netanyahu and Jordan’s 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, Jordan delayed approval for Netanyahu’s flight path over the country to the UAE for a planned visit, causing the trip to be scrapped.

Giving Jordan a meaningful role in regional projects in the West Bank and in Jerusalem would signal that Israel is interested in turning the page.

Israel can further rehabilitate the relationship by strengthening Jordan’s position on the Temple Mount, and reassuring the kingdom that it will be not be replaced by the Saudis or Turks as protector of Jerusalem’s Muslim shrines.

Water cooperation with Jordan is another area of potential cooperation. The once-touted “Red-Dead” joint project between Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority for a canal linking the Red Sea and the Dead Sea fell apart last week, with Amman finally pulling the plug on the pipeline.

The Sorek A desalination plant, located about 15km south of Tel Aviv (Yossi Zamir/FLASH90)

Israel could involve the international community in pumping desalinated water from the Mediterranean to Jordan, with some pipelines going to the PA as well.

At the same time, Israel should make clear that it has expectations from Jordan as a partner. “We also need to demand from the Jordanians that they stop participating in the international campaign against Israel,” urged Eran.

A fresh start

There are other opportunities for Lapid and Bennett to pursue a new relationship with the Biden administration.

“We’re already seeing a desire from Washington for a fresh start in the relationship with the Israeli government after the Bibi years,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. “In policy terms, little will change on the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), where the two countries disagree, and on the Palestinian issue, where Bennett is further from the Biden administration than was Netanyahu. But the Biden administration isn’t planning to resume final-status negotiations, so the differences on that may take less center stage, so long as events on the ground permit.”

Abbas Araghchi (Center R), political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, and Helga Schmid (Center L), Secretary General of the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS), take part in a meeting of the Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) attended by China, France, Germany, Russia,the UK and Iran on July 28, 2019 at the Palais Coburg in Vienna, Austria. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Bennett and Lapid have indicated a desire to avoid the very public opposition to the nuclear agreement that Netanyahu displayed in the leadup to the 2015 deal. “Events may change the dynamics quickly, but for now, one would expect an easier relationship,” said Sachs.

There is also an opportunity to improve the dialogue with the Democratic Party. Critics say Netanyahu aligned too closely with Republicans, and many Democrats felt they had a score to settle with Netanyahu, especially after his public opposition to the JCPOA.

Lapid focused on this task in his inaugural speech to the Foreign Ministry.

Newly appointed Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) with outgoing minister Gabi Ashkenazi, at handover ceremony held at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (Foreign Ministry)

“The management of the relationship with the Democratic Party in the United States was careless and dangerous,” he said. “The Republicans are important to us, their friendship is important to us, but not only the friendship of the Republican Party.

“We find ourselves with a Democratic White House, Senate and House and they are angry. We need to change the way we work with them.”

An opportunity with France

The relationship with France, which has been a problematic partner for Israel, could also change under the new government.

Lapid and French President  Emmanuel Macron seem to have mutual regard for one another. Only four days before the elections in April 2019, Macron met with Lapid privately in Paris.

Blue and White party No. 2 Yair Lapid meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, April 5, 2019. (Facebook screenshot)

Israel’s Channel 12 suggested the meeting was a move initiated by Macron to “help Lapid win the elections.”

Lapid said he considers Macron a “friend” and even endorsed him in the 2017 French presidential election.

“Even though it is not my habit to interfere in elections in other countries, I will make an exception this time,” Lapid wrote in a Facebook post in French at the time.

The France-Israel relationship takes on increased importance as France readies to assume the presidency of the EU in 2022 and may choose to put Israeli-Palestinian peace at the center of its foreign agenda.

France also joined the EastMed Gas Forum in March, adding another layer to the Macron-Bennett/Lapid dialogue in coming months.

Foreign Ministry at the helm

Netanyahu was accused of minimizing the role of the Foreign Ministry throughout his tenure, moving issues that had been under the ministry’s purview to his own office or to newly created ministries.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll and Foreign Ministry director general Alon Ushpiz next to the newly installed flag on June 21, 2021. (Foreign Ministry)

“We are talking about real rehabilitation work on the entire foreign array after years of neglect,” said Murciano.

The Bennett-Lapid government has expressed a determination to restore the Foreign Ministry to the central place in Israel’s strategic planning and international engagement on the country’s core international challenges.

“In the past years Israel has abandoned its foreign service, abandoned the international arena. And then we woke up one morning to find that our international standing has been weakened,” Lapid charged last week.

Lapid and Bennett agreed to fold the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which led the fight against BDS and delegitimization, back into the Foreign Ministry.

Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan speaks at the International Jurists Conference in Jerusalem on February 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Foreign Ministry is well positioned to lead Israel’s interaction with the world. For the first time since Tzipi Livni served as foreign minister during Ehud Olmert’s tenure Israel has, in Lapid, a dominant figure heading Israel’s diplomacy.

A very short honeymoon

The potential for improved diplomatic ties comes with dangers.

“If within a few months there isn’t a change in policy, there will be disappointment in the international community,” predicted Aharonson.

“The honeymoon period will be very short.”

In addition, there is a “glass ceiling” to the effect with the US of any steps Israel does take, said Murciano.

And not everyone believes such an unwieldy coalition is built to meet Israel’s most pressing challenges, especially without a battle-tested statesman like Netanyahu in power.

Abbas Araghchi, political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, is leaving the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ after the closed-door nuclear talks in Vienna on April 16, 2021, where diplomats of the EU, China, Russia and Iran hold their talks. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

“Armchair pundits making lofty predictions about new opportunities for diplomacy under the Bennett-Lapid coalition can get back to me in a few months – if the ideologically incoherent government lasts that long – and let us see if they advance critical Israeli foreign policy interests, especially on the Iran threat,” a senior adviser to Netanyahu said.

“Netanyahu’s foreign policy has always been driven by an ideology aimed at strengthening Israel and he has been proven right time and again. He argued that Israel’s international alliances would be expanded by first building the Jewish state into an even greater regional economic and military superpower. He did so and the results are clear,” he said.

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