Israel after the Election: Much at Stake in Region and Beyond

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his third address before a joint meeting of US Congress, Washington DC, March 3, 2015 (Flickr/US Speaker John Boehner)

The flow of historical forces cannot be understood by glimpsing a mere snapshot. The unprecedented election of Benjamin Netanyahu for a fourth term as Israeli Prime Minister is significant in itself—he will now go down in history as the country’s longest-serving head of government—but it is the positions he took in the run-up to the election that will have far-reaching implications on the future of Israel and its relationship with the United States and the Middle East as a whole.

US-Israel Relations

The relationship between the Obama administration and Netanyahu has for some time been described as dysfunctional—perhaps as early as 2009 when the US president first demanded a halt to the construction of Jewish settlements in Israel’s occupied territories. The events that have unfolded over the past few weeks have the potential to make a tense situation even worse.

The invitation from John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, for Netanyahu to address Congress reflected a deep bipartisan schism in American politics. It was also a sui generis situation in international relations that defied traditional diplomatic protocol. The tactic had multiple motivations. It was an attempt to torpedo the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, to strengthen the Republican campaign for additional sanctions against Iran, and to boost Netanyahu’s profile prior to an election—a purpose for which it was seemingly successful, despite what some had argued.

A rose-tinted analysis may go so far as saying that this was a display of vibrant democracy at its best, though this would not explain the boycott of the speech by 60 members of Congress, including Vice President Joe Biden. Calling the event unprecedented involves no hyperbole: the very thought of a visiting head of state addressing a foreign country’s legislature against the wishes of a host leader would have been unimaginable elsewhere.

The Obama administration responded with not-so-subtle retaliation. It explicitly questioned the trustworthiness of its long-time strategic ally by leaking information about new limits on intelligence-sharing regarding the Iran negotiations. Meanwhile, senior US officials met Israeli opposition leaders on the margins of the Munich security conference last month. The reaction was a display of Washington’s deep disapproval of the Netanyahu invitation and also an attempt at demonstrating to the world—and the Israeli electorate at large—the cost of Netanyahu’s provocative diplomacy, and perhaps even a hint of Washington’s desire for regime change.

The tit-for-tat diplomacy is likely to continue for the time being. For example, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough recently gave a speech heavily critical of Netanyahu to J Street, a major advocacy group that opposes the prime minister. In the longer term a more serious change is probable. This was indicated in Obama’s congratulatory phone call to Netanyahu, in which he clearly stated that the US would “reassess” its approach to the peace process—and therefore its overall relationship with Israel.

The Palestinians and the Middle East Peace Process

In the bigger scheme of things, Netanyahu’s victory may not be entirely unwelcome for the Palestinians and the Middle East peace process. In the build-up to the election, Netanyahu presented Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with the gift of suggesting there would never be a Palestinian state, at least not on Netanyahu’s watch. He then embarked on an inflammatory fear-mongering campaign, claiming that the “the right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” which was described by some as incendiary, if not racist.

The campaign confirmed the view many have of Netanyahu as a hardliner who cares little for conclusive peace with the Palestinians or, as one commentator put it, as the “face of Israeli intransigence.” What the election could do, therefore, is potentially trigger a new level of isolation against Israel. His fourth term may provide the Palestinians with even greater momentum and create a critical mass for a solution to the regional crisis, “two-state” or otherwise.

For the Palestinians, the election outcome was less a preoccupation than their ongoing campaign to take Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for supposed war crimes. And yet their international efforts stand to benefit from the recent electoral outcome: a victory for Netanyahu’s pragmatic opponent Isaac Herzog could have softened the aggressive Palestinian efforts at the ICC and inevitably plunged Palestinians back to square one in their “Groundhog Day” of a peace process.

Iran Nuclear Deal

Despite US claims that Netanyahu’s reelection has no real bearing on the future of the Iran negotiations, the argument is flawed on at least two counts. On the one hand, his victory significantly raises the bar for Western-led negotiators working diligently towards clinching a deal with Iran by the end of this month. The Israeli leader has been undoubtedly emboldened and will step up his efforts–along with mobilizing sections of the US Congress—over the coming critical weeks. The open letter sent by 47 Republican senators to the Iranian leadership, questioning the credibility and reliability of their own president—again unprecedented—was merely one of many potential tactics that can be expected.

On the other hand, the election outcome could provoke the Obama administration into accepting even more concessions for Tehran in a desperate effort to reach a compromise. While Obama may have taken heed of the Israeli left’s position should Herzog have been victorious, the US could now power through the negotiations without paying much attention to the protest and clamor emanating from the Israeli right. Obama has much more to gain now from seeing the deal materialize, above all a significant foreign policy legacy.

For policymakers, the repercussions of Netanyahu’s election result will be many and varied. Israel’s politics have a large amount of moving parts that interact widely with other regions. What might merely appear to have been the internal rumblings of the Knesset will have serious bearings on decisions made in Washington, Tehran, Ramallah, perhaps the Hague, and, ultimately, the force of history itself.

This article originally appeared on Business Standard.