By Hardeep S.Puri and Omar El Okdah
In contemporary politics, the flow of historical forces cannot be understood by glimpsing a mere snapshot. The unprecedented fourth-term election of Benjamin Netanyahu is indeed a significant event in itself. He will now go down in Israeli history as the longest serving head of government. It is the kind of policy positions he took in the run-up to the election, however, which have far-reaching implications on the future of Israel and its relationship with the United States and the Middle East as a whole.
The relationship between the Obama administration and Netanyahu has for some time been described as dysfunctional, perhaps as early as 2009 when the US president first demanded a halt to the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. What unfolded over the last few weeks has the potential to make a tense situation worse.
The invitation from John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, to Netanyahu to address Congress was a reflection of a deep bipartisan schism in American politics but also a sui generis situation in international relations that defied traditional diplomatic protocol. The tactic had multiple motivations: an attempt at torpedoing the Iran negotiations, strengthening the Republican campaign for additional sanctions against Iran and boosting Netanyahu’s profile prior to an election (which seemingly did not backfire at home, as was being argued by some). A rose-tinted analysis may go as far as saying that this was a display of vibrant democracy at its best, though this would not explain the boycott of the speech by 60 members of Congress, including Vice President Joe Biden. Calling the event unprecedented is no hyperbole: In different political circumstances, the very thought of a visiting head of state or government addressing a foreign country’s legislature against the wishes of his host would have been unimaginable.
The Obama administration responded with not-so-subtle retaliation. It has explicitly questioned the trustworthiness of its long-time strategic ally by leaking information about new limits on intelligence sharing vis-à-vis the Iran negotiations. Meanwhile, senior US officials met Israeli opposition leaders on the margins of the Munich security conference last month. Perhaps this went beyond retaliation. On the one hand, it was a display of Washington’s deep disapproval of the invitation but, on the other, an attempt at demonstrating to the world – and the Israeli electorate at large – the cost of Netenyahu’s provocative diplomacy (if not a subtle hint of Washington’s desire for regime change).
The tit-for-tat diplomacy is likely to continue (indeed, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough will give a speech to J Street, a major advocacy group that opposes Netanyahu), but a more serious change is probable. This was augured in Obama’s congratulatory phone call to Netanyahu, in which he clearly stated that the US would “reassess” its approach to the peace process ergo its relationship with Israel.
The Palestinians and the Middle East peace process
In the bigger scheme of things, Netanyahu’s victory may not be entirely unwelcome for the Palestinians and the Middle East peace process.
In the build-up to the election, Netanyahu presented President Mahmoud Abbas with the gift of suggesting that there would never be a Palestinian state, at least not on his watch. He then embarked on an inflammatory fear-mongering campaign, claiming that the “the right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves”, described by some as incendiary, if not racist.
The campaign provided another confirmation of the criticism Netanyahu faces: the perception that he is a hardliner who cares little for conclusive peace with the Palestinians or, as one commentator put it, the “face of Israeli intransigence”. What the election could do, therefore, is to sustain and reinforce such a perception of Netanyahu internationally – and potentially trigger a new level of isolation against Israel. His fourth term may provide the Palestinians with even greater momentum and create a critical mass for a solution (“two-state” or otherwise).
For the Palestinians, the election outcome was less a preoccupation as is their ongoing campaign to take Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC). And yet their international efforts stand to benefit from the current outcome: A victory for the pragmatic Isaac Herzog could have softened the aggressive Palestinian efforts at the ICC and, inevitably, plunged Palestinians back to square one in their “Groundhog Day” of a peace process.
P5+1 Iran Deal:
Despite US claims that Netanyahu’s re-election has no real bearing on the future of the Iran negotiations, the argument is flawed on at least two counts. On the one hand, his victory significantly raises the bar for Western-led negotiators working diligently towards clinching a deal by the end of this month with Iran. The Israeli leader has been undoubtedly emboldened and will mobilise his antagonistic efforts – along with sections of the US Congress – over the coming critical weeks. The open letter sent by 47 Republican senators to the Iranian leadership in which they question the credibility and reliability of their own president – by itself unprecedented – was merely one of many potential sabotage tactics.
On the other hand, the election outcome could provoke the Obama administration into accepting even more concessions in a desperate effort to reach a compromise between Tehran and Washington. While Obama may have taken heed of the Israeli left’s position in a Herzog victory, it is now clear that the US will power through the negotiations without paying much attention to the protest and clamor emanating from the Israeli right. Politically, Obama has much more to gain now for seeing the deal materialize, above all a significant foreign policy legacy.
Indeed, the question that policymakers should be asking in the light of the election is simple: What is at stake? The simple answer is: a lot, if anything due to the inter-related nature of the multiple moving parts. The seemingly internal rumblings in the Knesset have serious bearings on Washington, Tehran, Ramallah (even the Hague) and, ultimately, the force of history itself.