When we talk or write about the volatile Middle East, there are few certainties. One of these certainties is that foreign policy in Israel remains the same even as political seasons change. Whether there are elections or government crises, Israeli foreign policy bets on its outdated “security-based diplomacy” approach to foreign relations that has anchored the State’s Defense Doctrine since the Six-Day War in 1967. A traditional approach aimed at safeguarding and protecting national security from the external pressures posed by its neighbours (Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria) and from asymmetric and transnational threats (such as jihadi terrorism), feeding into the rhetoric of a country under the siege. In this overwhelming preoccupation with foreign and defence affairs, the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu – in charge since 2009 – has proved to be the most rampant standard bearer on this policy, setting its priorities on three main determinants: opposing the emergence of a Palestinian state, enhancing Israeli military strength, and challenging the Iranian leverage in the Middle East.
Once again, the Prime Minister gambled on security in foreign policy to rule the country and, also, to win the upcoming Israeli parliamentary election scheduled for April 9. Using an electoral narrative based on the threats posed by Hamas, the Iranian ally in the region, and the political gift of Golan Heights (i.e. the recognition by US president Donald Trump of Israel’s sovereignty on the occupied territory), Netanyahu hopes to be re-elected, thus becoming the longest-serving premier in Israel’s history. But a victory could not be assurance enough. In fact, after a decade of practically unrivalled leadership, Netanyahu is vulnerable and faces trouble from corruption investigations. According to a recent Channel 12 poll, the former Israeli Defence Forces’ chief of staff, General Benny Gantz, is the preferred candidate over Netanyahu to serve as Prime Minister, while another survey conducted by Haaretz indicated Netanyahu as the best choice for foreign policy. That same poll also showed that Netanyahu and Gantz are rated similarly on security issues.
Traditionally, Israel’s foreign policy has paid little attention to national voters in electoral races, while foreign affairs, and in particular security issues, have always been ranked as a top priority on the national agenda, often even more than other issues (i.e. economic policies). Although Israelis are increasingly dissatisfied with the government and army’s response on security issues (such as the recent rocket fire on southern and central Israel from the Gaza Strip), they continue to consider Netanyahu’s foreign policy more credible than his competitors. Gantz and other opposition leaders have offered – more or less – the same solution on the wider regional issue and also for this reason Israelis prefer the original “Mr Security” Netanyahu – the nickname used by the Prime Minister to support his image as a guarantor of national security – than other clones. Moreover, it is obvious how the incumbent premier would resolve some Middle Eastern issues (strong opposition to an independent Palestinian state; Jerusalem undivided as Israeli capital; the Golan defended and the West Bank under full Israeli control; Gaza Strip as security challenge; a hard-line approach to Iran and Hezbollah). By the contrary, aside from the peculiar case of Gaza (in which the former Chief of Staff has promised a more interventionist military action to destroy Hamas), it is not clear what are the ideas of Gantz and his allies regarding Iranian, terrorism, international alliances, and so on. Maybe because like other famous Israeli generals, who became important national political leaders (such as Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, or Ariel Sharon), Gantz does not lay his cards on the table perhaps fearing negative repercussions in the electoral race.
In this sense, the Israeli snap elections could represent a new phase in domestic politics; however this will not be a turning point in foreign policy and, in any case, it cannot present a credible alternative direction for Israeli foreign policy. Basically, the Israeli election will not change the country’s attitude towards the Middle East.
There are many reasons for this, but two are the most prominent. First of all, a new government in Israel could end the controversial career of Benjamin Netanyahu, but it would not put an end to his aggressive policies in the Middle East. Secondly, the Iranian nuclear agreement on July 2015 marked a fundamental watershed for Israel, so much so that it led it to revise its foreign policy stance. On the one side, it has reshaped alliances (while deftly managing relations with the US, Russia, and China) while on the other, it has reinforced the Israeli approach towards border security issues, also transcending international concerns over Israel’s frequent use of force as a legitimate action to defend its national security. This can be partly explained by a proactive diplomatic campaign against Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
Moreover, the Netanyahu government has staged a diplomatic offensive in foreign policy, which has had great success in improving relations with African, Latin American, Asian, and Arab countries. In particular with Gulf states, Israel has pursued a rapprochement based on shared interests and enemies also favoured by current regional events that seem to have marginalised the relative importance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and increased the possibilities to create a tactical and strategic Israeli-Arab cooperation amid a containment policy against Iran. Meanwhile, in recent months, Netanyahu – who serves since 2015 both as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, although on February 17 he handed up the latter role to Intelligence Minister Israel Katz – has visited Chad and Oman, two Islamic countries, historically not allied with Tel Aviv. In addition, the Prime Minister attended the inauguration of the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and hosted very controversial leaders in Jerusalem such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. While fostering these sovereigntist friendships, Israeli authorities have stiffened relations with the European Union over the Palestinian cause, although Brussels remains a strategic asset for Tel Aviv in economy, trade, and energy cooperation.
At the same time, in this last decade, the Israeli government has followed through on its energy policy based on exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, becoming a gas and oil producer and a founding member of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). The latter is an informal forum headquartered in Cairo, created on January 2019 to enhance political and strategic dialogue between producers and consumers of the sub-region on gas policies. But in Israel’s perspective, the goal of the EMGF is to favour its rise as a powerful new global player, so that Tel Aviv could play an important role in strengthening its status of medium power in the Middle East.
From Netanyahu’s point of view, all these actions are good diplomatic successes through which Israel has gained a major role in the Middle Eastern dynamics, becoming a tactical pillar in isolating/confronting operations with its Arab neighbours against Iran and its proxies. In addition, in these last ten years, Israel has built pragmatic relations with Russia, particularly aimed at containing violence in Syria, and has developed promising ties with China, Japan, and India. At the same time, the United States has proposed a deep twist on Barack Obama’s hesitant and contradictory policy in the region, through which Washington has reinvigorated its ties with Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Last but not least, Trump’s Golan decision confirmed what most Israelis have always believed, which is that the Golan Heights are part of Israel. An extraordinary diplomatic success for Netanyahu that could help him win the upcoming elections. Also, new tensions with Hamas in Gaza on the eve of an electoral turn could be useful to pump the internal political debate. In the light of the evidence that Netanyahu draws much of his support from the image of Israel as a secure and stable country, the importance for the Prime Minister to strenuously defend the status quo he tenaciously maintained during his three mandates from any external threat is crystal clear.
In conclusion, it is hard to determine whether Israel foreign policy’s attitude will change in the next years with or without Netanyahu. However, itis very likely that the incumbent Prime Minister will maintain his leverage on Israel’s posture in the region and the world, which seeks to pursue a strategy more independent from traditional alliances and will allow Israel to maintain its basic security needs.