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The Geopolitical Perspective of the 2019 Israeli General Elections: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Bibi Israel

On April 9th, 2019 the Israelis go to the ballots to vote for their next government. Despite polls suggesting a change in the Knesset, there is little to no chance of change on the two biggest issues in Israel: tensions between Palestine and Israel over the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem; and tensions over Iran and its forces in Syria. 

According to polls, the former IDF (Israel Defense Forces) Chief of Staff, Benjamin (“Benny”) Gantz is currently in the lead, with a projected 36 seats in the 120-seat Israeli Knesset (the Israeli Parliament). This largely has to do with Gantz’s decision to merge his newly formed “Hosen L’Yisrael” Party with Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” Party. If this merged political party forms the next coalition government, the two leaders would rotate the premiership – Gantz would serve for the first two and a half years, followed by Lapid for the remaining time.

Despite the polls, it is difficult to say if the coalition will win. In the last election, the incumbent, Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu and his Likud party were trailing in the polls leading up to the election and were expected to lose until he made his infamously racist remark, in which he encouraged his supporters to go vote because “the Arabs were coming to the polls in droves.” This dubious strategy worked and Netanyahu retained the premiership. Whether his current strategy of bringing in Kahanist disciples into his Likud party to attract the far-right vote works or not is irrelevant. Win or lose, “Bibi” has legitimized “Kahanism” and, as a result, more race laws are imminent in the Knesset – no matter who becomes Israel’s next Prime Minister.

However, what the world should be watching for is not the predicament Israel is in domestically, but on what bellicose activities will follow after the Israeli elections. The current sentiment in Israel is that in order to “save Israel” and return it to “sanity,” Prime Minister Netanyahu and his party must be removed and, thus, Gantz’s party should be elected. However, this is flawed thinking. Gantz’s party (now-merged with Lapid) is simply an old version of the “Likud” Party, which is why the merged Gantz-Lapid party will not solve the problems the Israeli establishment has created. The Palestinian question will not be addressed and settlements will continue to be built in the occupied territories. Even if Gantz woke up one morning and decided to unilaterally withdraw from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, his party and coalition would never allow him to act on this idea. Needless to say, neither Gantz nor Lapid have any appetite for this kind of policy reversal, nor for, it seems, ending the conflict between the two nations.

Let’s not forget the world’s largest ‘jail’: Gaza. Gantz, like his predecessor, will not lift the siege. In fact, he recently boasted about how many Palestinians he killed in the 2014 Gaza War. This leads us to the final point on the Palestinian question: Hamas. In order to successfully address any issue in Gaza, humanitarian or otherwise, Hamas needs to be included. Furthermore, a negotiated two-state solution (if it is even still plausible) needs to include Hamas. Here too, Gantz and Lapid do not have any appetite to make a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn. Thus, no one should expect any significant “change” in Israel following the elections vis-à-vis the Palestinian question.

Regardless of who wins the election, Israel will likely continue in its belligerence in Syria to “forbid” Iran from maintaining a “permanent” presence in Syria. We know that this is a flawed line of thought from the simple fact that the Syrian population does not want Iran to permanently remain. Moreover, it is not entirely clear that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wants Iran to remain in Syria. At the moment, Iran’s purpose in Syria is to drive the Salafis out of the Syrian arena. A post-conflict Syria, whatever its structure, will not include Iran remaining there. Although, Iran could increase tensions with Israel, if it so chooses, by increasing the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s military capability in the Gaza Strip.

If the Israeli establishment was wise, it would agree to sit down with the Iranians (with no preconditions) and directly negotiate and come to an agreement on Syria and the developments in the Gaza Strip. A collision course between Iran and Israel, on its northern or southern border, is not in Israel’s national security interest and, if tested, might not have the outcome Israel hopes for. The Russian ambassador to Israel was correct to suggest that the main threat to the region and to the international community was not Israeli-Iranian relations, but rather Salafi jihadism spreading throughout the region and around the world.

Regardless of which party is able to form a coalition government, there is very little political will to change course on the Palestinian and Syrian-Iranian questions. While this author has been calling for the opposite, the consensus on these questions amongst the establishment in Israel is “bipartisan” (with the exception of the Hadash-Ta’al Party, the Ra’am-Balad Party, and some within the Meretz Party—all of whom do not represent Israel’s political establishment) and firm: a tough and hawkish stance on the Palestinian question and continued effort to ‘force’ Iran out of Syria. This course is dangerous. Israel is playing with fire on both fronts, and the fact that it is not rushing to address either of these questions diplomatically is very disturbing.

Russia and the international community should be extremely alarmed by this continued, belligerent action in the Syrian and Palestinian arena. Given Russia’s commitment to the region, it is the most important player and should do more to set the tone in the area. Though a handshake-agreement between President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu to remove all foreign forces from Syria sounds encouraging, actions speak louder than words. And as Israel’s actions are much more disruptive than productive, that handshake should be met only with cautious optimism.

Instead of relying on goodwill agreements, Russia should be firm, quite like it was with its response to the Il-20 incident in Syria, clearly setting “red lines” so as to not allow Israel to destabilize the region with its actions against Iran in Syria (and potentially elsewhere). Furthermore, Russia should not permit Israel to allow the situation to deteriorate into a potential civil war “outcome” by not addressing the Palestinian question. A firm and tough stance by Russia should not be seen as harsh but rather as a preventative measure so that Israel does not destabilize the region. After all, as was the case with the Il-20 incident in Syria, it is clear that Israel only understands one language: force. A negotiated outcome on both the Iranian and Palestinian question is in everybody’s best interest—including Israel’s.

The Israeli election is not expected to bring change. Thus, the international community (and Russia in particular) needs to find a way to forcefully persuade Israel to stop its belligerence in Syria, and the region, and to sit down with its Palestinian counterparts for the stability of Israel, the region, and the world.

This article was originally published on the Valdai Discussion Club’s website. To view the original article in English, click here. To view the original article in Russian, click here.

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