How has Israel fared in 2020?
Dec 11, 2020 | Naomi Levin
Few, if any, countries have reached the end of 2020 stronger than they began it, Israel included. But how has Israel fared through this challenging year?
This article will consider Israel’s year from three angles: its response to COVID-19, its domestic politics and its engagement with the wider Middle East.
Israel and COVID-19
Let’s start with the positives: Israel’s ability to adapt to the challenge of COVID-19.
During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, 140 kilometres from the Lebanon border, was a target of Hezbollah’s rockets. Hospital administrators were concerned at the medical facility’s vulnerability, so a decision was made to build the world’s largest emergency underground hospital.
Most of the time, this underground hospital is used as an underground carpark. But this year, for the first time, that carpark was converted for use. Israel Defence Forces doctors and medics moved in to staff the 770 new beds to ensure treatment for coronavirus patients.
Meanwhile, it is worth noting that Rambam and all other Israeli hospitals have continued to treat all-comers during the pandemic.
PLO Secretary General and key Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat spent the final stages of coronavirus in Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem before passing away on Nov. 10. Despite trying to negotiate for peace, Erekat was a man who consistently advocated that Palestinian terrorists who killed Israelis should receive a lifetime “salary” in gratitude for their actions, and falsely accused Israel of massacring 500 Palestinians in Jenin in April 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada. And his final days were spent being cared for by Israelis in an Israeli hospital.
In terms of infection numbers, Israel’s year can only be described as a rollercoaster.
Like Australia, Israel’s response to the first wave was exemplary. Both countries successfully “flattened the curve” in the first half of the year. In fact, both countries were part of a disparate international grouping of nine nations, called the “First Movers”, that shared knowledge and advice.
However, by early September, Israel was topping the worst kinds of tables: those showed that per capita, it had the highest rate of new daily infections in the world.
Israel did eventually go back into a nationwide lockdown, right before Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year, on Sept. 18. While this reduced the infection rate, as Israel has gradually emerged from lockdown, new cases have again climbed.
In early December, Israel had again begun to record more than 1000 new cases each day.
Israel has signed deals with various pharmaceutical companies to supply millions of doses of vaccine to Israelis. A Palestinian Authority representative told media that Israel has also pledged to provide millions of doses of vaccine to Palestinians as well.
Unsurprisingly for those familiar with Israel’s scientific achievements, Israel is also developing its own coronavirus vaccine.
The director of the Israel Institute for Biological Research, Shmuel Shapira, hopes Israel’s locally-developed vaccine will be ready for use by June 2021 and said 15 million doses can be produced in the first stage.
Israel’s domestic political situation
The Israeli Government’s ability to achieve control of the spread of coronavirus has been significantly impacted by the domestic political situation in Israel.
It was only in April that Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu reached an agreement with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to form an emergency unity government with a rotating prime ministership. This unusual resolution came about after three inconclusive elections.
Despite this agreement, stability has been far from assured. At the beginning of December, it looks likely that Israel will again return to the polls.
Much of Israel is frustrated by Netanyahu’s long and drawn-out legal defence against corruption charges. Police first began investigating him in 2016 and charges were laid over a year ago. Israeli law allows Netanyahu to continue as prime minister while he defends himself in court.
Further frustrating Israelis is the ongoing instability of the current government after three knife-edge election results in 2019 and 2020. A budget impasse now looks set to send Israel to a fourth election in two years.
The ongoing coronavirus challenge, unemployment rate soaring above 20%, loss of international tourism and the high cost of living high, have seen tens of thousands of Israelis from across the social and political spectrum demonstrating repeatedly on the streets of Tel Aviv and outside the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem demanding Netanyahu’s resignation. Smaller numbers have rallied in support of Netanyahu.
Lockdown measures imposed in October reduced the number of those protesting, but the frustration with Netanyahu continues.
Finally, there are significant tensions among different population groups. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish population, for example, has been critical of the Government’s handling of the pandemic. A major concern was that prayer services were more heavily restricted than some other activities, and targeted restrictions often hit ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods particularly severely.
And infection numbers continue to rise to dangerous levels in the Palestinian Territories, particularly Gaza. There are concerns that, as case numbers rise, Gaza’s health system will be unable to cope. Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar tested positive in early December and the de facto rulers of the Palestinian enclave made the decision to go back into lockdown, including a curfew, on December 4.
Israel and the region
The major event that has characterised Israel’s foreign policy in 2020 is the signing of four normalisation agreements, or peace deals, with Arab nations: The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Up until September this year, Israel had signed two such peace agreements. The first was in 1979with Egypt and the second in 1994 with Jordan.
Both of these agreements led to an end in military confrontation between the states and also to increased security cooperation but not to full economic, cultural and social normalisation between the countries. The Abraham Accords, signed on September 15 in Washington DC, are expected to play out differently from Israel’s other treaties.
These agreements are different because the states involved have not previously engaged in conflict, or as author and analyst David Makovsky put it “there is no sense of public trauma on either side.”
Also, in the years leading up to the normalisation deals, informal ties were growing rapidly.
The Abraham Accords also highlight the importance of interfaith cooperation, extending political agreements beyond basic strategic factors to consider broad relationship building.
Following the signing of the Accords, His Excellency Abdulla al-Subousi, the UAE’s Ambassador to Australia, emphasised the importance of the interfaith aspect of the Accords during an AIJAC webinar.
The Abraham Accords also chart a new course for the region that is based on closer Arab-Israeli alignment on strategic issues and economic opportunities.
US President Donald Trump extolled the deal as the foundation for a “comprehensive peace across the region”. While this may sound like typical Trumpian hyperbole, the importance of these deals for Israel should not be underestimated.
Firstly, why now?
Netanyahu’s proposal to extend Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank was one factor that clearly affected the timing. The UAE offered Israel normalisation as a carrot of historic proportions in exchange for putting off Netanyahu’s planned sovereignty extension.
The second point to note in order to understand the timing of these deals is to look at the actions of Iran.
Shi’ite-dominated Iran has stated its desire to wipe Israel off the map. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has called Israel a “cancerous tumour” that should be “uprooted and destroyed”. And these statements are not empty threats.
Iran continues to arm Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia that has lined up tens of thousands of rockets – some of them upgraded with precision guidance – along the shared border between Israel and Lebanon.
Iran has an ongoing and significant presence in Syria, and weaker, albeit substantial, ties to Hamas in Gaza. This means Iran has a presence in three of Israel’s five bordering regions.
In addition, Iran continues to openly breach the international nuclear agreement signed in 2015, which was designed to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
As well as Israel, the Sunni Gulf states, the UAE and Bahrain included, view Iran as a major threat, militarily and in terms of its efforts to subvert neighbouring states by funding, arming and training militias and terrorists. The Sunni Gulf states now see Israel as a very useful ally, strategically and militarily, against Iran.
With uncertainty surrounding the ongoing US role in the Middle East at the end of the Trump presidency and then into the Biden presidency, having Israel on their side against Iran in a pressure cooker region is seen as a source of strength.
Beyond the strategic advantage of the Abraham Accords, there are also many economic advantages for all sides. Israeli produce is already on market shelves in the UAE and Emirati and Bahraini businesses are looking to Israel for opportunities.
Israel was also party to two further normalisation agreements in 2020, with Sudan and Morocco. These deals, it must be emphasised, are in much earlier stages of development than those involving the UAE and Bahrain, but their symbolism is important.
Sudan is an Arabic-speaking country and a member of the Arab League. It is also in the process of transitioning away from the genocidal dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir to a fledgling democracy. Unlike the UAE and Bahrain, Sudan has been involved in actual armed violence against Israel, sending troops to both the 1948 and 1967 wars against the Jewish state.
This normalisation plan concludes the enmity between Khartoum and Jerusalem, which boiled over after the 1967 Arab League conference in Sudan’s capital when it was resolved that the Arab world would say “no” to peace with Israel, “no” to recognition of Israel and “no” to negotiation with Israel.
With Morocco, Israel has strong cultural ties with hundreds of thousands of Jewish people claiming Moroccan ancestry. The two countries have also previously had some trade, diplomatic and strategic ties, but the latest announcement will likely see a restoration of these.
Often at the conclusion of an annual review article like this one, the author provides predictions for the coming year. However, after a year like 2020, the only prediction that can safely be made is that interesting times lie ahead.