It has of late become inevitable to warn that things in and about Israel – domestically as well as internationally – have turned even more ugly than what pessimistic analysts of the Israeli political scene after Benjamin Netanyahu’s ominous electoral victory, based on a historically unique cooperation with Israel’s extreme right, had anticipated. The latest phase in a dramatic chain of events is in the area of foreign policy: the surprising, Chinese-brokered deal between the arch foes, Saudi Arabia and Iran, in clear defiance of Netanyahu’s efforts to bring the Saudis into the fold of the Israeli-dominated, Trump-Kushner negotiated Abraham Accords. “A huge, resounding failure and set-back for Israeli foreign and security policy” exclaim the former Israeli leaders, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennet. “…the surprise Saudi-Iran pact feeds the perception that Netanyahu is leading Israel towards greater chaos and turmoil”, writes The Washington Post. “Countries in the world and the region see Israel divided with a nonfunctional government, focused on serial self-destruction”, adds former PM Bennet.
This development came on top of problematic trends in the (historically) existential US-Israeli relationship, now fueled by signs of concern also within the US Jewish community at the gale warnings over prevailing signs of unrest within the Israeli state and society, a consequence of the declared – and deeply controversial – intention on the part of the extreme-rightist Netanyahu government to change the nature of Israeli democracy by legally empowering a narrow Knesset majority (61 seats) to overrule rulings by Israel’s Constitutional Court on important matters, disrupting the key notion of checks and balances. The controversiality of this intention, in addition, also has a universally perceived personal dimension; Netanyahu’s years-long struggle for impunity as regards lasting corruption indictments. Hence the pre-election deal, for Knesset majority, with the now crucially empowered leaders of the country’s extreme right, religiously and ethnically self-defined, after (an incredible) five consecutive failed electoral attempts over the last couple of years.
Compared to the strained Obama-Netanyahu relationship, before the strange, likeminded warmth of the Trump-Netanyahu era, what we now see is tension – and incomprehension – at a much higher level, of concern. Still today no Biden invitation to Netanyahu to the White House, unusually harsh criticisms from official US spokespersons on various aspects of the Israeli government’s actions and statements, together with expressions of great concern at the accelerating signs of socio-political unrest, including serious incidents of violence, especially at the West Bank, between enraged Palestinians and, on the one hand, Israeli forces, on the other hand, politically empowered Jewish settlers. The degree of violence now raises questions as to whether we are observing the approach of the “Third Intifada”. While the US insists on sticking to the moribund “Two States formula”, the Netanyahu government seems bent on complete denial of this, as one of several aspects of the regime’s extreme-rightist agenda.
The visit recently by US Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Mark Milley coincided with instances in which categories of IDF personnel more or less openly defied service, sympathizing with the wave of protest against the anti-democratic policies (and composition) of the Netanyahu government, further shaking the image of Israel as a stable democracy. And during his visit Gen. Milley, meeting with his Israeli counterparts – defense minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief Herzi Halevi, et. al., – was quoted as hinting rather explicitly at a diminishing US interest (and patience) in continued intelligence and operational cooperation in a joint stand against the Iranian threat, now impacted by the sudden, China-sponsored thaw between Iran and Saudi Arabia. So US concerns clearly link Israeli foreign and domestic policies – just as US concerns similarly seek to grasp the strategic implications of recent developments: Rapprochement between the Saudis and the Iranians in parallel with rapprochement between Iran and Russia (over Ukraine) – and between Turkey, Iran, Russia and Syria (over Syria): complexities in abundance. And now the Israeli problem – for the US, and others.
In view of all these profoundly problematic developments, violent rioting and protest at home, along several Israeli fault lines, ethnic as well as religious, uneasiness even within the security apparatus, a perceived drastically rising Iranian nuclear threat, serious political instability at the Knesset level, deepening strains in US-Israeli relations, etc., together a problem load unknown in the history of the Jewish state except in war-time, and all essentially due to the very composition of the current government and especially its anti-democratic policies (and popular reactions to these), in view of this one would expect Benjamin Netanyahu to bow to political necessity and change course at least on the ultra-sensitive matter of the Knesset versus the parliament majority. Maybe, just maybe, this will indeed be his decision in the next few days, while there is still time – to put out the fire.
But the problem is and remains: can he do that? Will current bed fellows Bezalel Smotrich (on his way to the US, having only narrowly been granted visa, but with no official visits offered) and security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Mrs Netanyahu, and others, allow this? That seems unthinkable, since the survival of the regime clearly depends on following through, towards the brink, defying any artistry in brinkmanship. But not changing course, following through on the chosen course, disrespecting the appeals for calm reflexion by president Isaac Herzog and in defiance of the now less-than-friendly advice by the Biden administration and other allies, is also unthinkable since it now appears inevitable for this course to lead Israeli democracy and stability not just to but over the brink, down into unknown territory, with grave instability and unprecedented unpredictability, the way things appear now.
So Israel today is squeezed between a rock and a hard place, between unprecedented socio-political chaos or again taking recourse to new election, in the hope of more benign results this time, this time without the shadow of Bibi haunting socio-political peace. The difference between the two options could be said to be that the latter case, while also highly unstable, would at least leave (for now) the Israeli security apparatus, Israeli democracy based on power separation and hopes for a two-state solution unscathed.
But while Israel is going through this ordeal, domestically and internationally, one must not forget that surrounding world developments continue unabated, not waiting for the Israeli people and system to make up its mind. The big concern now relates, not least, to how the Israeli domestic crisis will, or might, influence its – and its US and other allies’ – Iran policy, i.e., if in this context, with no nuclear deal in sight any longer, there can be consensus and cooperation between Israel and the US on the means by which to prevent Iran from acquiring an own, real and credible nuclear deterrent, balancing diplomacy, i.e., sanctions, and more or less comprehensive military action, the latter option obviously risking escalatory reactions by both Russia and China.
Nothing is simple.