Following the re-election in September of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tasked him with forming a new coalition government in October. He was unable to do so within the time allotted, as announced on October 21, and sent back the mandate to President Rivlin. Two days later, the president tasked head of the centrist Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, former military chief and Netanyahu’s strongest rival, to form a government. As of now, the two main parties are still deadlocked, with neither Netanyahu nor Gantz holding a clear path to a coalition government.
A Netanyahu victory over former IDF General Gantz is very important for Netanyahu. Remaining in power will ensure that Netanyahu does not end in jail as he is about to face imminent corruption charges in a court of law.
The results of the election are also significant for the state of Israel, where it appears that the stronghold of ultra-right-wing politics may finally be fading. But Netanyahu’s ability to form another government—or not—has a much wider strategic impact for the Middle East and regional powers involved.
The Peace Process and the “Deal of the Century”
For the past two years, an American-led peace plan has been slowly unfolding. While it may be fair to say that we do not know the full extent of it, there is informed knowledge about the so-called “Deal of the Century.”
The proposed deal gives Israel full hegemony over Jerusalem and most parts of the west bank. A Palestinian state will be erected in or around Gaza, with support of a mini Marshal Plan. Some of the details of this mini Marshall Plan were evident in the Manama conference last June known as the Peace to Prosperity workshop.
In addition, up to half a million refugees may be allocated to return to the new Palestinian state. Almost all the Arab states have signed up to the deal. A few details remain sketchy, such as questions over whether Egypt will cede some of its territory for the new state or not. Moreover, it is not clear how the architects of this plan hope to rein in Hamas as well as the Palestinian Authority.
Nevertheless, it is evident that the wheels are already in motion. Netanyahu’s administration has been a sous-chef (if not the chef) of this concoction, and any administration other than Netanyahu’s in Israel would certainly impact its execution. If Netanyahu can form another government with the help of the ultra-right, then Kushner and the US administration, along with their Arab allies, will push through to gradually announce the political aspects of the deal soon.
Netanyahu in power again is certainly good news for the architects of the “Deal of the Century, but not so much for the region.
Despite the apparent support of the arrangement by a majority of the Arab states, it is not clear whether its execution will be as “successful” as it is hoped by the US-Israeli and Arab alliance. But it is very clear that once actively pursued, the damage will be insuperable (regardless of the consequences). Netanyahu in power again is certainly good news for the architects of the “Deal of the Century, but not so much for the region.
The Confrontation with Iran
Netanyahu has been one of the vocal voices on the global and regional stage against what he believes to be Iranian encroachment and aggression across the region. Long before Trump’s administration, Netanyahu had spent most of his premiership ramping up rhetoric to convince the world of an urgent need to confront Iran (even militarily).
Now that Trump is in power and Israel under Netanyahu has been cosying up its relations with key Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Netanyahu finally has the regional and global alliance in place to put Iran into a corner. A large group of the Israeli population may share his sentiment, but that is certainly not true with the Israeli security establishment.
It is not in Israel’s military interest to engage in a war with Iran or be part of an alliance that is directly threatening to wage another war in the region. The Israeli left and the security establishment had pinned a lot of hope on Gantz, who himself is and has been part of the Israeli establishment, to politically finish off Netanyahu for good. But if Netanyahu is to retain power for another few years, the region inches closer to another war.
Given the high tension in the Arabian Gulf and the situation in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, Netanyahu’s presence in power amplifies the real fear of another war.
From every strategic point of view (military, political, or economic), a regional war with Iran is not in Israel’s interest. Even though, it has the largest and world’s strongest military hard power, including nuclear arsenal, Israel would not benefit by disclosing its military might, which could impact its peace deals with its other neighbors and shake its emerging political alliance. A continuation of Netanyahu in power is a threat to Israel as much as to the rest of the region. Given the high tension in the Arabian Gulf and the situation in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, Netanyahu’s presence in power amplifies the real fear of another war, which the region and the world cannot afford.
Global Power Play in the Region
The continuation of Netanyahu’s administration has direct impacts on the global power play in the region. The MENA region has significantly changed in the last five years. There is a new external power in town and another waiting in the wings. Russia has positioned itself perfectly on the chess board, and now controls not only one of the most important naval ports in Tartus and Ladakhia in the region but also an important geo-strategic positioning advantage. It has supplied S400 missiles to a NATO ally in the region, while it has been pumping arms and support in other conflicts such as Libya.
China is slowly entering the Middle East but is cautious not to start its global ambition from within the region. It is instead focused on securing its own maritime borders (by creating and enforcing its extended “nine dash lines” into international waters) as well as building its hard power across strategic locations, which range from South-East to South Asia, and Africa.
Netanyahu was clever enough to realize the changing dynamics and negotiated military terms with Russia to avoid mistakes around the Golan Heights region. Israel under Netanyahu has also started a good working relationship with China, both in the economic and military spheres. The continuation of Netanyahu in power will mean that those policies will continue.
Israel may invite an increase in Chinese and Russian involvement in the region—which is worrisome as we know very little of what Russian or Chinese aims really are either in the region or globally.
On the surface, it may seem a good thing for Israel to diversify its alliances, but in doing so, Israel will ultimately weaken its alliance with the US axis. In the name of “realpolitik,” Israel may invite and increase Chinese and Russian involvement in the region—which is worrisome as we know very little of what Russian or Chinese aims really are either in the region or globally. On the other hand, Netanyahu in the seat of power will create an axis of instability with its Arab allies.
At bottom, for every Israeli Prime minister, the essential question or dilemma has been the survival of the Israeli state. Since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israel has managed to enjoy relative stability around its borders. With a clear and present danger of war in the region, another Netanyahu term could easily break Israeli alliances and overshadow new openings in the Arab world.
Worse still, Netanyahu’s ongoing hold on power may end up igniting the volcano on which the Middle East has been sitting for the past few years.