Benjamin Netanyahu’s, and by extension – Israel’s future, could go in any one of four distinct directions in the coming months.
Netanyahu’s current coalition just escaped its most recent crisis – avoiding early elections. At the same time, Netanyahu is the subject of a number of investigations and could face indictment for corruption and bribery. Meanwhile, Iran’s actions to entrench itself militarily in Syria and its continued support for Hezbollah risk violent escalation to Israel’s north, as could Hamas’ continued mismanagement of Gaza and feud with Ramallah to Israel’s south-west. Lastly, the White House might unveil its long-awaited “ultimate deal” plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Much like in a game of rock-paper-scissors, any one of these could derail or at least delay the others and all would have serious repercussions for Israel.
Israel’s often-chaotic political scene was on full display the past few weeks. The news cycle in Israel was hijacked by the latest coalition crisis – this time a demand by the Chareidi faction of Netanyahu’s razor-thin coalition – to pass a law officially exempting Chareidi men from military service. Although this particular crisis was narrowly averted, the buzz among political commentators was that Netanyahu himself made this molehill of a crisis into a mountain to bring about early elections in order to boost his electoral mandate and stave off indictment. Netanyahu was polling far ahead of any of his political competitors, and estimated he could easily win the elections and secure another term at the helm. None of the other parties polled particularly well, and the parties further right of the Likud will not find a better coalition. This helps explain why they were so eager to avert the elections Netanyahu seemed to want so badly.
In the meantime, the police investigations into multiple charges of corruption against Netanyahu himself as well as his inner circle have riled the country for the past year, picking up steam recently as yet another Netanyahu confidante turned state’s evidence. The matter is currently awaiting the Attorney General’s decision, which only seems to be a matter of time. Netanyahu’s attacks on the validity first of the press and now of the police as a last line of defense may help raise his popularity with his electorate, but it is unclear if it is strong enough to protect him should the Attorney General seek indictment.
On Israel’s northern border, Iran continues to establish its military presence throughout Syria (under Russian cover, which only makes things more complex). Just a few weeks ago, Iran tested Israel’s red lines – literally and figuratively – by sending a drone into Israeli airspace. This sparked one of the most intense conflagrations on the Israeli/Syrian frontier in recent years as Israel launched an airstrike targeting Iranian military sites in Syria and Syrian anti-aircraft fire brought down an Israeli jet, something it has not succeeded in doing since the 1982 Lebanon War. So long as Iran’s efforts go unabated, including each arms transfer from Tehran to Damascus, each base built by Tehran in Syria, and each Iranian move to solidify its standing in Syria, risks sparking a regional war. Eventually, Israel may (or rather, will likely) launch a preemptive strike rather than see Hezbollah become self-sufficient as Iran is currently building underground missile manufacturing plants in Lebanon, and is establishing the infrastructure to attack Israel from Syria. A preemptive strike, while costly, would be far more feasible than a much more complex and costly attack on – or defense against – Iran’s proxy military infrastructure in Syria. Israel’s unparalleled declassification and exposure of its 2007 strike on Syria’s nuclear reactor was surely a signal to all of what Israel is capable of doing when pushed into a corner.
On Israel’s southern border, things are rarely quiet. As the IDF announced it would demolish Hamas’ terror tunnels (dug anew after they were mostly collapsed in the 2014 conflict) within a year, Hamas senses that its most significant military asset is on the chopping block and it’s time to “use it or lose it.” Moreover, as P.A. President Abu Mazen ratchets up the pressure on Hamas and Gaza continues to suffer under Hamas’s failed leadership, Hamas might, as it has done in the past, ignite a conflict with Israel to divert attention away from these failures and galvanize the Arab world – especially the West Bank Palestinians. The latest mass protests, egged on and funded by Hamas, on Israel’s border, are likely meant for this exact reason. Rockets are fired indiscriminately at Israel from Gaza on a weekly basis, to which Israel responds with targeted airstrikes against military targets. Even while Hamas is not firing these rockets, Israel holds it fully responsible – as Gaza’s governing body – for anything that happens in the Gaza Strip.
And then there is peace. President Trump appointed the pro-Israel diplomatic neophyte tag-team of Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner to head up these efforts. The two reportedly approached the task with fresh eyes and genuine sincerity, consulting with a range of opinions and actors. According to diplomatic sources, the plan purportedly about to be presented will not likely surprise many. It is expected to be the most pro-Israel plan put forth yet, intended to ensure Israel’s acceptance (limited Palestinian sovereignty of about half the West Bank, Israeli control over border passages and the Jordan Valley, Old City under Israeli control with Palestinian religious jurisdiction over holy sites, Hamas disarmament, no right of return to Israel, recognition of Israel as homeland of Jewish people, etc.). In response, the Palestinians will receive a generous international “Marshall Plan” of sorts. This would serve as the baseline for negotiations that would end by 2021.
It is no secret the Palestinians reject the current American Administration’s leadership of the peace process and have repeatedly and publicly insulted the President and the US Ambassador to Israel. By most estimates, they will reject such an offer as it does not come close to meeting their demands. The Palestinians’ last resort is appealing to the Arab world. But that ship has largely sailed. The Arab powers – led by Saudi Arabi and Egypt – are far more concerned these days with the Iranian threat, for which US involvement and cooperation with Israel are necessary – than they care about the Palestinian cause. Moreover, much of the Arab world seems to realize just how many opportunities for statehood the Palestinians have intentionally missed already. That is why Abu Mazen might find himself alone should he reject any kind of reasonable plan put forth by the US.
Rock-Paper-Scissors – Israeli Style
Thus Israel’s short-term scenarios play out much like the classic children’s game “rock-paper-scissors,” where paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, and scissors beat paper. If the White House senses elections or indictment of Netanyahu are imminent, it will be cautious not to waste political capital and launch a peace plan. Similarly, if Netanyahu senses indictment, he might push to ignite another coalition crisis and early elections himself. Outbreak of war on either border will shore up Netanyahu’s position and delay elections, indictment, and certainly any peace process. The onset of a peace process that shows any signs of promise could, on the one hand, lead to a coalition crisis with the pro-settler elements in the coalition, although Netanyahu could replace these with either of the center-left parties who would join to support negotiations. A peace process would also bring some stability within the West Bank while Hamas might try to torpedo the process by firing rockets (either directly or through fundamentalist elements in Gaza) and goad Israel into war. Indictment could turn Netanyahu into a lame-duck and thus push off any chance at negotiations. It might also embolden Iran to further entrench its foothold in Syria, betting a hampered Israel would not risk war. However, fresh leaders, as we have seen in the past, are often more likely to want to prove themselves in such a scenario, especially given that none of Netanyahu’s rivals have anywhere near his security experience. Of course, while indictment would certainly increase the appetite for elections from rivals, the past weeks taught us that Netanyahu’s constituency rallies around him in such times, viewing the accusations as undemocratic attempts at regime change. At the same time, as happened with previous prime minister Ehud Olmert, the Palestinians would be cautious to enter a process if they sense Netanyahu is on his way out.
If this made your head spin – imagine policy makers in Jerusalem, Washington and even Ramallah trying to plan their next move.
The appointment of John Bolton to the post of National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo to Secretary of State, two fiercely pro-Israel and anti-Iran figures in the most crucial foreign policy positions, could be a sign of things to come, at least from Washington’s perspective. Washington needs the Arab powers on board and working well with Israel to counter Iran’s nuclear program and regional push for hegemony. Yet at least with their own publics, the Arab leaders are still limited in how much they can cooperate with Israel as long as the Palestinian issue remains on the table.
If the White House, the Arab powers, and Israel approach the next few months carefully, significant progress can be made in pushing back Iran and renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which can push back the possibility of war in the north. However, much like the scissor to the paper, indictment, surprise elections or an escalation in Gaza could change all of that.