The Jerusalem Post
A new gov’t, Jordan and the rest of the Middle East
Bennett and Lapid will have to navigate minefield left by Netanyahu-Trump concept of foreign policy
Israel’s new government faces many hurdles as it struggles not only to maintain a coalition, but also to navigate a complex and changing Middle East.
The new administration has come to power in the wake of the end of the Trump administration and a fitting bookend to the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years in power. This is because the Netanyahu-Trump doctrine was predicated on similar Hobbesian world views in which the US and Israel go it alone. Netanyahu said as much in his Knesset speech as he vacated the premiership, claiming Israel was alone against Iran, just as the Jews were in the Shoah.
But Israel is not alone. It has many allies and friends. Unfortunately, the Netanyahu-Trump concept of foreign policy didn’t seem to believe its own rhetoric regarding initiatives like the Abraham Accords. For instance, despite the accords being a groundbreaking new set of public relationships for Israel, Netanyahu treated them politically towards the end, embarrassing Israel through scheduling and canceling at least three visits to the Gulf. In the end, he was planning to visit the Gulf for a two-hour meet on the tarmac, according to reports, a ridiculous downgrade of original plans to honor the new relationship.
Other countries in the region have honor guards, red carpets and slow processions of leaders disembarking a plane and meeting dignitaries. Netanyahu, and to a wider extent the Trump administration, disregarded diplomatic protocol. The theory was that their kind of new diplomacy would achieve results where the “peace processors” as some had derided the old-school diplomats, had failed. Indeed, it seemed to work, but it didn’t build on anything besides the person pushing the initiative. The “peace to prosperity” confab was smoke and mirrors and it’s far from clear whether even one dime was generated by it for the region.
This is the minefield left behind for Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid as they take the reins in Jerusalem. Israel’s Foreign Ministry was decimated under Netanyahu and all the power was concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office. Netanyahu sought to undermine his own foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, who prevailed against all odds at repairing some relationships. Similarly, Benny Gantz, the alternate prime minister, was undermined and cut out of key discussions about the Abraham Accords. Gantz helped repair a modicum of relations with Jordan.
The story Netanyahu supporters have told over the years is that critics don’t realize how successful Netanyahu has been at forging new relations in the region. This is because national security supposedly precludes seeing the “real” strong bonds behind the scenes between intelligence and military affairs.
There is no doubt that Netanyahu was widely respected regionally as a strongman who guided Israel through a time of instability in the Middle East, and he served his purpose towards that end. In the last two years, though, as Israel entered its seemingly perpetual elections cycle, his policies were focused on the short-term and domestic affairs and as a result and Israel has lost much of its strategic thinking.
This is why, when it suited Netanyahu, relations did grow strategically with countries such as India, but when the going got tough, like trying to schedule a meeting in the Gulf, everything was tossed up in the air. Foreign policy cannot be a one-man show. There is nothing wrong with personal diplomacy and Netanyahu’s personal relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin definitely resulted in breakthroughs in 2015 and after, regarding Syria. But those relations only went so far. For instance, Iran continued to move into Syria. Israel’s policy is primarily short term there, the “campaign between the wars” to slow down the Iranian octopus. Iran grabbed Yemen as well, and Hamas has expanded its arsenal over the last years. Strategically, none of this is good.
Where Israel needed more success was with Jordan, a key country between Israel and Iraq and bordering Saudi Arabia and Syria. Publicly, however, relations with Jordan appear to have never been worse. This is not an exaggeration.
ISRAEL HAS had limited ties with Jordan since before 1948 and that
doesn’t mean that things have been perfect. In the 1990s, after the peace deal there was still the Island of Peace massacre, and despite the King Hussein’s memorable reactions, the murderer later received broad public support in Jordan. Unlike the UAE’s messaging on coexistence, Jordan has never encouraged its populace to support coexistence or interfaith issues with Jews.
Be that as it may, the Hashemite Kingdom wants better relations with Israel and wants its concerns to be heeded. Among the farright in Israel, Jordan has always been dismissed, or at worst, rightists have argued in favor of designating Jordan as “Palestine.” This bizarre far-right agenda has pushed for the creation of more than one Palestinian state: one in Jordan, and inevitably, a continuing Palestinian movement in the West Bank, Israel and the Gaza Strip. Instead of a stable kingdom, this agenda has preferred vast instability but it only erodes Israel’s own security.
The kingdom understands full well the way it has been treated by Israel’s far-right and it can read Israel’s media, too. Unfortunately, some of the same farright voices who have praised the Abraham Accords in Israel, harbor
deeply racist and dismissive views of various Arab countries.
The new government has a chance to re-write that dismissive attitude and hold more public meetings with the kingdom. Public meetings are more important with monarchies because a monarchy is about symbols. The idea that intelligence and security relations are all that matters is a mistake. Relations are built on multiple levels and they succeed best when they have those many layers working together.
Because Israel was isolated in its first decades of independence, it became used to valuing secret relationships and praising itself quietly in the shadows for its work. But this isn’t the 1950s.
In the modern era, Israel should believe its own rhetoric about the new Middle East and should try to openly hold diplomatic meetings with the countries with whom it has peace.
Repairing relations with Jordan would be a start and it will help to overcome long-held suspicions about some controversies in the kingdom. A recent Washington Post piece by David Ignatius discussed an alleged attempt by some of those close to power to undermine the king. The article linked this to the former Trump administration and to Saudi Arabia. The king’s cold relationship with Netanyahu may now fade if Israel shows that it has renewed interest in listening to Amman.
BUT JORDAN is just one of many places to start. Relations with Egypt are good and the new Israeli leadership should cement them. Egypt is close to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and has increased its ties with Greece and Cyprus, plugging in well to Israel’s own ties with those countries. This links to the East Med pipeline and other energy issues. It also includes a wider regional analysis of stability and concern over Turkey’s support for extremists.
Egypt also had widening relations in East Africa and has been doing outreach to Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Djibouti. This matters for Israel because it has new ties with Sudan and has good relations with Kenya and Uganda, and wants to continue ties to Chad. Here, Israel and Egyptian counterparts can share views and interests on what comes next.
In the Gulf, Israel has to get over the honeymoon period, which was already brought to a standstill by the most recent elections and work to consolidate the relationship. This means foreign ministerial visits and hopefully high level visits.
There is chatter in Washington among anti-Biden commentators, who also tend to be pro-Israel, that assert that the Biden administration opposes the Abraham Accords. This is false. The Biden administration doesn’t call them the “Abraham Accords” so as not to give credit to Trump, but it definitely wants to continue the normalization process.
It would be wise for Israel’s new leadership to pay less attention to the commentators in the US, who want to use Israel to bash the Biden administration. Their agenda is solely domestic politics and they want to isolate Israel and make it a partisan Israel but Israel’s interests are firmly in bipartisan support and Biden’s call to Bennett on Sunday night is an important representation of that.
Israel also needs to keep the ceasefire going with Hamas, and build a case for when conflict may break out with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
ISRAEL SAW the public relations battle ahead during the recent conflict, and it now has an uphill battle explaining its reasoning for any future conflict, even if it should be easier if it is the victim. This means that preparing the ground now for any future battle is important. And it must learn the lesson from the failures of the Netanyahu administration that was largely caught by surprise by the Hamas attack on May 10 and the bad mismanagement of the international aspect of the conflict.
Then comes Iran and consequences of a possible Iran deal. The Biden administration currently has not signed a new deal and has signaled it is listening to Israel.
Israel must make its case without creating a crisis. It is not helpful for Israel to be seen as spoiling US foreign policy and pushing the pro-Iran deal factions into a corner where they then seem to side with Iran and against Israel. This must be done with sensitivity.
Netanyahu sought to increase domestic support by trying to harm relations with US Democrats. This was never helpful. The new administration should try to rebuild ties with the Left in the US and it has ample opportunities. Many center-left voices want to like Israel, but they have been sour on Netanyahu. Israel must be wary of this personalization of the conflict.
SAUDI ARABIA also looms large. Israel appeared to be forging closer ties with Riyadh over the last years. However, Saudi Arabia is getting a new cold shoulder from Washington and feels isolated. Israel and Riyadh could work on this. But Riyadh is also trying to deal with the war in Yemen and patch up ties with Iran and Syria.
The Gulf and Saudi have a role to play in northern Iraq where there are common interests and Israel should build on Riyadh’s interest in potential ties with Israel, even if for now, those ties run through the smaller Gulf states.
On eastern Syria Israel should continue to encourage the US to stay and support the Syrian Democratic Forces. The chaotic US withdrawal in October 2019 did not do good things for perceptions of the US in the region. A weakened US footprint also impacts Israel. Iran’s drone attacks on US militias in Iraq, using local militias, are bound to expand to Israel. In fact a drone flown into Israeli airspace in May was likely linked to Iran’s role in Iraq. Israel must work closely with the US on these issues.