How Israel's Elections Will Shape Its Regional Strategy

7 MINS READFeb 20, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Retired Israeli general Benny Gantz mingles with people during an electoral campaign tour south of Tel Aviv in February 2019.
(THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

Benny Gantz, the center-left challenger to current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, greets supporters on the campaign trail ahead of the election in April 2019.

  • Israel's April 9 general elections could potentially end the Benjamin Netanyahu era, ushering in new dynamics for the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the Israel-Gulf rapprochement and Israel's relationship with the Palestinians.
  • But whoever leads the next Israeli government will still face rising tensions in Gaza, the West Bank and Syria that threaten to escalate into large-scale violence or even conflict between Israel and Iran.
  • The next Israeli government will also have to contend with a less-friendly United States due to rising bipartisan concerns about Chinese-Israeli ties, as well as increasing skepticism of Israeli strategies among some Democrats in Congress.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.

Israel's general election on April 9 could usher in a new era of politics in the country. Although opinion polls still generally favor incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ruling center-right coalition, rising discontent has created a path for center-left challenger Benny Gantz to take the helm of the government and reshape Israel's relations both near and far. But regardless of who wins, the next government will still be forced to grapple with brewing threats from Iran and the Palestinian Territories that could both easily escalate into major conflict. As well, it will have to deal with a U.S. government that's critical of its ties with China — and U.S. politicians increasingly critical of Israeli actions.

The Big Picture

Israel’s political factions have long debated the best way to earn regional recognition and a permanent place on the Middle Eastern map. These factions will once again campaign for power in elections that will have the chance to significantly alter the country's regional strategy should the center-left finally unseat the center-right's decadeslong reign.

Netanyahu's End Could Be Near

The divide between center-left and center-right politics has defined Israeli politics since the state was founded in 1948. Their differences have been largely rooted in disagreements over how to approach Arab-Israeli peace. The center-left embraced a policy of trading land for recognition by Arab neighbors (or "land for peace") until it was unseated by the center-right in 1977, which instead favors political and military strength as a means to earn regional recognition.  

However, the 2019 election cycle now offers a path for the center-left to finally recapture government after decades on the sidelines. Netanyahu and his center-right government are vulnerable: His coalition is divided, his right-wing nationalist and religious voters squabble with his more centrist nationalist supporters, and his repeated near-wars with Hamas in Gaza in 2018 have undermined his reputation as a security-minded leader. On on top of that, he's now facing a possible criminal indictment on corruption charges, as well as the most potent political challenger since he was elected for a second term in 2009 — a combination creating an environment ripe for change.

The Center-Left's Bid For Power

Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces and leader of the newly minted Israel Resilience Party, has been capitalizing on Israelis' growing discontent with Netanyahu's long premiership in his bid for the office. Strong polling numbers continue to indicate that Gantz and his center-left party have a realistic shot at a victory — especially if Netanyahu ends up being indicted. 

Should Gantz win, he and his center-left government would offer a fresh start with the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority, increasing the prospects of peace talks. He has talked about being open to replicating Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal model, the controversial 2005 decision by the former prime minister to evacuate Gaza's Jewish settlements. This, in turn, could also create more space for Israel to publicly improve its ties with Gulf Arab states. Though their relations have already been growing closer behind closed doors, progress on Palestinian peace would allow for more open coordination against Iran, and for more trade ties to quickly expand.

New Threats, Same Conflicts

However, instability in the Palestinian Territories and Iran's regional strategy will remain a challenge for the next prime Israeli government, regardless of who ends up heading it. In the Palestinian Territories, aid cuts and Israeli pressure to accept the U.S. and Israeli peace plan are squeezing both the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas. This has further hurt Gaza's already collapsed economy and is now threatening to destroy the West Bank's fragile economy as well, leading to more protests, regional conflict and possible violence in both areas. 

Hamas and Fatah dislike the idea of another war or uprising against Israel, but the growing economic crisis caused by Israel and the United States will undercut their legitimacy if they don't appear to be fighting back. So while they will take pains to avoid a serious clash, there is no guarantee that a protest or symbolic retaliation will not spiral into a war — since the next Israeli government will also likely be elected on a mandate from voters to end recurrent attacks from Gaza.  

Iran's regional strategy of building and maintaining political and militant proxies to grow its influence beyond its borders also poses a challenge for the next Israeli government, particularly in Lebanon and Iraq. After a new Lebanese government granted Iranian proxy Hezbollah power in the Lebanese state, Iran has attempted to use this influence to persuade Beirut to accept Iranian military aid, including air defense systems designed to deter routine Israeli airspace violations. 

The next Israeli government will also be forced to reckon with the growing threat of Iran's nuclear program, and the subsequent temptation to strike Iran's nuclear facilities — especially if Israel perceives that Iran is moving toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. Gantz's military record, which includes leadership during the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza, indicates he would be as assertive as Netanyahu in going after such a threat. Meanwhile, in Iraq, reports have emerged that Iran is using proxies in Iraq to arm its militia allies there with missiles and rockets. The perceived threat of such an action could coax Israel's next leader to replicate aspects of its Syrian airstrike strategy inside Iraq. 

A Weakening Friendship?

The next government will also have to grapple with growing U.S. concerns over Chinese influence in Israel. Washington, fueled by suspicions of Chinese shipping companies' ties with Beijing and its intelligence apparatus, has raised concerns over Chinese control of Israel's Port of Haifa (which is where U.S. naval ships dock). In addition, the United States has warned Israel over Chinese telecom investment in the country's growing communications sector. But in order to maintain its economic growth, Israel must court infrastructural and technological investment wherever it can find it — forcing the next government to find a way to appease U.S. fears of Chinese espionage while also safeguarding at least some of its Chinese investment. 

Shifting domestic politics within the United States will create another hurdle for the Israeli government. The Congressional Progressive Caucus — the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the U.S. House of Representatives — now wields more weight after picking up seats in the 2018 midterm elections. Though untested and still relatively small in size, the caucus is more critical of Israeli conduct, and its continued rise could increasingly shape U.S.-Israeli relations. Its new influence has already led Congress to debate legislation designed to shield Israel from the largely activist-driven boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. Additionally, many of the congressional Democrats who have announced their presidential candidacies for the 2020 election so far voted against the BDS legislation — breaking from long-held party consensus. This trend could start to extend to other aspects of U.S.-Israeli policy increasingly unpopular with the Democratic base. And suffice it to say, the Republican Party's push to have the United States recognize Golan Heights as Israeli territory will almost certainly be met with opposition by some House Democrats as well. 

The next Israeli government will, therefore, be forced to contend with a Congress that is steadily becoming more critical of its military conduct — meaning Israel might no longer be able to count on unquestioned U.S. backing for escalation against Iran in areas such as Syria or Iraq. And while the outcome of Israel's upcoming election has the potential to alter some of the country's regional behavior, it will not alter these new changes to an old alliance, or the new threats to old regional conflicts. But in navigating this world in the coming years, Israel will no longer be able to rely on many of the tried-and-true methods it has used in the past, meaning whoever leads it next will be tasked with finding new ways to earn the country's keep in the Middle East.

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