Beyond the results of the national election on March 2 – the third consecutive in 11 months –, Israeli foreign policy will remain the same. It will be dominated by three closely related issues: the developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following the presentation of the so-called “Trump Plan”, the normalization process between Israel and African-Asian Muslim countries, and the diplomatic (and security) containment of Iran and its regional proxies.
Among these, one stands out and forms a link with the others. This is the United States’ comprehensive peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians, “Peace to Prosperity”, also known as “Deal of the Century”. The peace plan proposed by the US administration suddenly monopolized political attention and national public opinion in Israel, probably giving the government a chance to cash in on it in electoral terms. Similarly to the Golan case, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has received a potential political gift that represents an extraordinary diplomatic success for the incumbent prime minister. But can the peace plan help Netanyahu win the upcoming elections?
Contrary to what happens in other countries, where issues related to foreign policy are paid little heed by national voters in electoral races, in the Israeli case, foreign affairs and security issues have always been ranked as a top priority on the national agenda, often even more than other issues (i.e. economic policies). This premise is necessary for a better understanding of the different paradigms about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and consequently about the Deal of the Century. These topics in the Israeli narrative and perception are considered domestic issues and in this sense any change or question related to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, to Jerusalem’s status or, finally, to the security dimension of the Jordan Valley are topics internalized by Israeli politics. Misleadingly, Netanyahu has proposed Israel’s annexation of the West Bank as an electoral gambit, but voters and the Israeli people have begun to doubt his message and what the real goal is, if there is one.
It is no coincidence if Benny Gantz is ahead in the polls. According the latest poll by Channel 12, the leader of Blue and White party will win 35 seats, while Netanyahu and Likud only 33, with neither able to cobble together a majority – and a possible fourth election looking increasingly likely. What happened? The most likely explanation is that the legal issues afflicting Netanyahu (he is accused of “media bribery”) are playing an ever-increasing role in the national electoral debate. In fact, Gantz has focused his campaign on Netanyahu’s legal problems, saying he is unfit for office. Netanyahu, instead, tried to use his personal friendship with US President Donald Trump as a strategic asset in politics. Nevertheless, the political weight of the US-sponsored Middle East deal in favour of the prime minister is facing several problems. In a bid to close the gap, Netanyahu has been trying to woo Arab voters, posting a verse from the Quran on his official Facebook page, explaining the importance of the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), and promising to launch direct flights from Israel to Mecca. It was a clear and deliberate attempt: on the one hand, Netanyahu trying to win back the 300,000 voters from the right-wing bloc, flirting with Arab voters; on the other hand, the prime minister seeks to spread dovish messages to Arab countries in order to gain acceptance of the Israeli annexation of the West Bank. This is how the external dimension of Palestinian question emerges and how this issue has relevant links with other typical topics of Israeli foreign policy.
Although Arab-Muslim countries show strong opposition – at least rhetorically and officially – to the Trump Plan, they have unofficially shown distinctions. The reasons lie mainly in the fear that public opinion in the Arab countries historically most involved in the Israeli-Palestinian question (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria) may show an open opposition also to the political stance taken by their governments. Conversely, the Arab response remains decidedly ambiguous and characterized by an attempt to work alongside the rigid positions of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in order to get the plan accepted. In this sense, there have been several attempts by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia (KSA), which have invited the Palestinians to evaluate the proposal well before rejecting it. Perhaps for realpolitik reasons and geopolitical opportunities, Arab countries believe that Trump’s proposal cannot be improved upon and that a refusal could eliminate any attempt to see an independent Palestinian state recognized.
Even in this case, the Israeli-Palestinian question risks turning into yet another clash in that geopolitical game involving the whole area of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), including new competition within the three Middle Eastern blocks (the “Arab quartet” led by the Saudi-UAE diarchy, the Iranian “axis of resistance” and the Turkish-Qatari front). The different positions of the Arab-Muslim actors in favour of the Trump Plan could respond to an attempt at appeasement of Israeli-Americans in order to not break the alliances and security balances that could then lead to the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) project, a sort of “Arab NATO”, which would be created with US support to counter the Iranian influence in the region.
In fact, from an Israeli perspective, Iran is the main existential threat and also in this sense Tel Aviv has continued to promote the slow process of normalization with Arab-Sunni countries (begun in 2015). This includes the Israeli government’s decisions to open a diplomatic channel with Sudan or to allow its citizens to visit a country such as Saudi Arabia for tourism. The heightened perception of insecurity in the Persian Gulf, especially after the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, has given Israel and Arab states the opportunity to improve their defense and intelligence cooperation. In this sense, any escalation in the region, also due to the US’ Middle Eastern strategies towards Iran, will allow Israel to pursue its economic and security interests with the Arab Gulf states, maintaining stable relations with Egypt and Jordan. Nonetheless, any normalised relationship in the future between Israel and Arab countries will not be possible without a clear solution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Therefore, that is why countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt pressure Palestinians to accept the Trump Plan.
In conclusion, the peace plan and its geopolitical connections are heavily dependent on the current personal and political needs of Netanyahu and Trump. Consequently, any negative results coming from the ballot box in Israel (March 2) and the United States (November 3) may weaken not only the Netanyahu-Trump axis, but also jeopardise regional alliances and balances in a changing Middle East.