Australia/Israel Review


Editorial: Israeli democracy and the Biden administration

Dec 16, 2020 | Colin Rubenstein

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Barring a hasty, last-minute reprieve of some kind, as of this writing, Israel’s Knesset is expected to dissolve itself before the new year, setting the stage for an unprecedented fourth election in two years, probably in mid-March.

After no viable governing coalition emerged from the elections in April and September of 2019, the third, in March 2020, was held against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. It resulted in the shaky compromise of the current national emergency government led by the Likud and the Blue and White parties.

At the time, AIJAC argued this unity government was necessary given the looming pandemic and other challenges. But we also warned that the contrived arrangements put in place to make it possible would be extremely complex and difficult to manage, requiring both considerable goodwill and political skill. Unfortunately, not enough of these vital commodities were forthcoming, and the unity arrangement never really led to a fully functioning and coherent government. 

As the prime minister chosen to lead first in an 18-month rotational arrangement, responsibility for the Government’s failures must begin with Binyamin Netanyahu, even if his erstwhile partners from Blue and White are also not blameless. Netanyahu appreciates that his failure to pass a budget is, by law, an automatic trigger for new elections. Given the unprecedented national challenges Israel faces in the spheres of health, the economy and defence, many in Israel consider the refusal to pass such a budget highly questionable.

Netanyahu has undeniable achievements in office, including his leadership in forging peace and normalisation agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and, most recently, Morocco and Bhutan. However, these accomplishments have been marred to some extent by his failure to bring the impending deals to the attention of Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi of Blue and White. 

Israel’s seemingly endless political stalemate has of course been extremely frustrating, but a fourth election could nonetheless be what the country needs at this time. There are some hopeful signs emerging that, after this round, there may be a different outcome that could lead to some sorely needed stability and policy productivity.

One key reason a new stable government in Jerusalem is urgently needed is in order to establish effective ties with the incoming Biden administration about to assume office in the US. 

The current division of key ministries between Blue and White and Likud, and the chronic lack of communication and coordination between them, would make it much harder for the Israeli government to coherently approach the new administration and ensure it fully understands Israel’s essential interests and priorities.

One of the crucial issues the Biden administration will consider is dealing with Iranian violations of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and other ongoing rogue behaviours. 

Israel needs to be ready to carry out dialogue with American officials on this crucial policy issue with utmost clarity and unanimity.

Biden’s policy is for the US to rejoin the JCPOA and then renegotiate to “improve and extend” the deal on matters such as ballistic missiles and Iran’s destabilising regional behaviour. 

But if there is anything that can be learnt from the negotiations that led to the nuclear deal and what has come after, it is that conceding sanctions relief for Iran prematurely would sacrifice US leverage over Iran while encouraging intransigence in Teheran.

Biden’s policy of “compliance for compliance” followed by expansion of the agreement, can be workable only if the administration adheres firmly to its ostensible stance that it is up to Teheran to return to full compliance before any significant nuclear-related sanctions can be lifted. 

Even then, strong non-nuclear sanctions must remain to address Iran’s other misbehaviours – including support for terrorism, missile development, harassment of shipping and attacks on neighbours.

This is the only conceivable way to force Iran to negotiate the improved and expanded deal Biden has outlined. 

A return to the JCPOA is, by itself, essentially useless. Not only was the deal thoroughly flawed from the beginning in numerous ways, its sunset provisions, which essentially will allow Iran to enrich uranium to any level in any amounts, will kick in after just a few short years. Keeping up the pressure to make Iran commit beyond the limited JCPOA is the only outcome that matters.

Together with leaders from a growing list of Arab allies, Israeli officials will need to make sure their counterparts in the Biden administration fully comprehend this reality – and are ready to work with Israel and other regional actors to employ all available policy tools to address it effectively. 

Yet this will require a fully functioning and focused Israeli government, able to promise and deliver competent and coherent assistance to US regional efforts and also encourage Washington to build on the Trump Administration’s successful efforts to forge a de facto alliance between Israel and major Sunni Arab states. 

On the Palestinian front, there are signs its leadership is starting to recognise they are at a dead end. Regional support for the Palestinian cause is at an unprecedentedly low ebb. The Palestinian “grand strategy” of refusing all negotiations and insisting Israel be isolated and sanctioned until it meets Palestinian demands looks so obviously hopeless today that even its often wilfully blind leadership must see this reality.

Israel will need a cohesive government to encourage actors like the US to make sure the Palestinian leadership and society are forced to grasp this new situation. Then, Jerusalem will need to offer a reasonable way forward into a renewed peace process. 

Israel’s vibrant democracy, in contrast to its undemocratic neighbours, has given the country many past opportunities to periodically adjust its course and reinvent itself in ways which best serve the needs of its people. One hopes this resourceful resilience and adaptability, two of the country’s best assets, come to the fore in negotiating the current challenging impasse.

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