Written By: Daniel Roman
At a time when Biden Administration policies threaten to undo President Trump’s enormous successes at restraining Chinese, Russian, and Iranian adventurism, such is the force of Trump’s success in the Arab-Israeli conflict that even Joe Biden may not be able to undermine it.
In that fact lies an explanation for one of the most perplexing puzzles of the Middle Eastern world: the nature of Israeli politics and the longevity of the skillful and crafty Benjamin Netanyahu.
On April 6th, 2021, the Biden Administration quietly let it be known that rather than pursue a grand settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, it would instead continue Donald Trump’s policies of normalizing relations between Israel and its Arabs neighbors. This approach, which culminated in the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, the UAE, and Sudan, has done more to improve relations between Israel and the Arab world than all of the “peace” efforts of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton combined. This initiative may be paving the way to stabilizing relations between Jews and Arabs within Israel and allowing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to finally break Israel’s own political deadlock by forging an “Abraham Accords” of his own with Israel’s Arab minority parties.
On March 23rd, 2021, Israel held its fourth general election in less than two years. Since the elections in April of 2019, there has been a deadlock in which neither incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, nor any of his opponents could command the support of 61 votes in Israel’s 120-member Knesset, or parliament. Three subsequent elections have failed to resolve the impasse. Israel’s electoral system, in which any party or alliance which receives 3% of the vote nation-wide is guaranteed seats, encourages politicians who do not get along personally with the leaders of their respective parties to leave and set up their own, rather than to conduct their battles internally through primaries as in the United States. In the case of Israel, this has resulted in a number of smaller parties that have broken off from Netanyahu’s Likud–all of which are led by personal enemies of the Prime Minister. They will support neither Netanyahu nor a left-wing alternative government. Following the previous elections in March 2020, Netanyahu tried to side-step this problem by forming a coalition with his center-left rival, Benny Gantz, a former IDF commander. However, this government soon collapsed along with Gantz’s party, as the latter’s leftwing supporters revolted. Policy differences on social issues such as marriage law and the courts proved too great to bridge.
The March 23rd results differ little from those last year. And yet, in the aftermath, a political earthquake has occurred. The Arab-Israeli Ra’am party has broken with its Arab allies and announced a willingness to back Netanyahu in exchange for greater funding of Arab communities. Ironically, on everything except for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arab voters and parties are closer to Netanyahu than the Jewish left, which has embraced values similar to the progressive “woke” movement in the United States. That one issue, however, was previously enough to ensure they were never considered possible partners for a rightwing coalition, and their votes are counted automatically for the “Left” by the media despite the fact that many of them are conservative on both social and economic issues
Ra’am’s decision is a vindication of the Trump Administration’s efforts to broker closer relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. By focusing on common interests between Israel and the Arab world internationally, the approach set a precedent for Israel’s Arab leaders to adopt the same approach domestically. It is hard to see how Mansour Abbas, the leader of Ra’am would have gambled on running in the 2021 elections independently on a platform of supporting Netanyahu if not for the example set in the Gulf.
Despite the support of Ra’am, Netanyahu still may be unable to form a government. This time it is not due to the unwillingness of a majority of the Knesset to support him, but because the parties that are willing to back him are not willing to work with each other. Perhaps as a sign of the times, not only the Prime Minister’s own Likud, but also the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas, and United Torah Judaism, have indicated an openness to working with Ra’am, but the newly formed Religious Zionism party, an alliance of hard-line secular nationalists has refused to serve in any government with Arab representation or even relying on Arab votes. The Religious Zionist party was formed in response to perceptions that Netanyahu was too moderate. Yet several Rabbis affiliated with the Settler movement have come out in favor of working with Ra’am if it means advancing the cause of the Jewish state. For them, if the Arab parties are willing to put aside the Palestinian issue to focus on common agreements on matters of religion and social policy, rejecting that olive branch on the basis it is offered by Arabs would undermine rather than promote Judaism. They have even suggested that Islam has more in common with Orthodox Judaism than with secular liberalism.
Israeli politics may be undergoing a realignment, one where issue positions rather than ethnicity or religion determine political allegiances. Not only will such a realignment help resolve Israel’s chronic problems of governance, but it will set an example for the world that different faiths and races can work together when appeals are based not on identity but on common values of conservatism.
If so, Netanyahu will have not only his own political skills to thank but those of Donald Trump, who not only paved the way with his Middle Eastern policy, but provided a shining example with his outreach to non-white voters in the United States.
In any event, Israeli politics is living up to its reputation for intrigue and complexity. Netanyahu is a master of both, which is why it would be unwise to bet against him beating the odds yet again.
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