Analysis |

Don’t Expect Israel’s New Far-right Government to Have a Foreign Policy

Henry Kissinger quipped years ago that Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic one. The new Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir government is about to add steroids to that quote, with likely ramifications in the international arena

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Alon Pinkas
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Itamar Ben-Gvir, left, Benjamin Netanyahu and Bezalel Smotrich.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, left, Benjamin Netanyahu and Bezalel Smotrich.Credit: Photos: Ohad Zwigenberg / Marc Israel Sellem / Hadas Parush / Google Maps. Artwork: Anastasia Shub
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Israeli governments rarely have a clear and comprehensive foreign policy agenda when they are inaugurated. Few, if any, present a coherent set of policies crafted to address a list of discernible challenges. They comfortably subscribe to inertia and reactively follow constant and circumscribed national security interests, threats and threat perceptions. These are usually framed and defined in defense, military and “survival” terms, rather than foreign policy per se.

The one guiding principle and permanent consensus is a 75-year-old axiom: “The world is against us” – an adage that has become an excuse for inaction and a comfort zone for cliché-spouting politicians.

Very few Israeli governments in the past (roughly) 20 years have been proactive in the foreign policy realm. Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza (2005) and Ehud Olmert’s attempts to reach a comprehensive accommodation with the Palestinians (2007-2008) are probably the only examples of Israeli initiatives over the past two decades.

And then there’s the new government, set to be formed in the next week or two. A kakistocracy extraordinaire: government by the worst and least suitable collection of ultranationalists, Jewish supremacists, anti-democrats, racists, bigots, homophobes, misogynists, corrupt and allegedly corrupt politicians. A ruling coalition of 64 lawmakers, of whom 32 are either ultra-Orthodox or religious Zionist. Certainly not a coalition Zeev Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist Zionism, or Menachem Begin, the founder of Likud, could have ever imagined.

This applies mostly to domestic issues, which is where most of the anxieties and opposition in Israel is being expressed – the judiciary, the separation of powers, checks and balances, the education system – but will become inextricably entwined with foreign policy issues.

Henry Kissinger quipped years ago that Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic one. This government may add steroids to his quote, given that these dramatic changes, both internal and external, have been precipitated by the legal predicament of one man: Benjamin Netanyahu.

Benjamin Netanyahu greeting United Torah Judaism leader Yitzchak Goldknopf in the Knesset last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

No incoming government in Israel’s history was greeted with so much attention, alarm, anxiety, jitters, resentment and end-of-days doomsday scenarios, based solely on predicted and expected policies.

This will also be evident and manifest in foreign policy issues, all of which will be impacted greatly by provocative domestic policies. Here is a list of seven top issues, not necessarily in order of importance or priority...

The Palestinians

If you believe what members of the next government are saying, Israel is about to de-facto annex most of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). It will expand settlements, legalize rogue semi-settlements, gradually decrease security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and inevitably broaden friction with the Palestinian people. You don’t have to endorse or believe in the viability of the “two-states” model to understand how reckless and escalatory this will be.

By creating the conditions of a noncontiguous and ungovernable Palestinian entity, any future resolutions of separation and sovereign disassociation will be rendered unfeasible. There won’t be any “peace process,” nor a semblance of a diplomatic process or any Israeli initiative.

Once the far-right, nationalist party is in charge of both settlements and the Civil Administration in the territories, and once the Border Police have been subordinated to a public security minister – now pompously titled “national security minister,” no less – who has been arrested seven times for subversion and terror threats, the path to violence has been inexorably set.

A series of deliberate provocations – such as this particular minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, visiting Temple Mount – will only accelerate the process.

Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben-Gvir, left, talking with Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Israeli government in the Knesset last month.Credit: ABIR SULTAN - AFP

The Palestinians, who lost trust in U.S. policy and intentions long ago, will seek support elsewhere and reignite the “internationalization” of the Palestinian issue. At the United Nations, in The Hague, in the European Union, they will request recognition of a Palestinian state, condemnation of Israeli annexation, acknowledgement that Israel’s presence is not temporary, subject to a diplomatic resolution, but rather a condition of permanent occupation.

In parallel, they will quietly threaten to dissolve the PA and present Israel with an untenable “one-state” reality, in which they will demand the right to vote. Given the composition of the government, Israel will have very little credibility to deflect that.

Platitudes such as “The Palestinians don’t really want to negotiate,” which had credence in years past, will not be heeded by an impatient or indifferent world – including the United States. You broke it, you own it.

Iran

Confronting Iran’s nuclear program and its menacing regional policies is supposedly a constant and has little to do with the composition of the Israeli government. But it does.

First, the reaction to Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians will translate into less attentiveness and less bandwidth to accept Jerusalem’s arguments. Second, and more importantly, Prime Minister-designate Netanyahu has zero credibility on Iran. He spoke in Congress against the nuclear agreement in 2015, flying in the face of Barack Obama. The vice president was one Joe Biden. He pressured then-President Donald Trump to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement in 2018, without any alternative or substitute policy.

Under his reckless watch, Iran has progressed as far as it ever has to acquiring a military-grade nuclear device, with more enriched uranium than it had even before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Who would listen to Netanyahu’s pleas on Iran, however right they may be, and why? How and why would he be taken seriously when he pontificates about “the dangers to Western civilization” when he is masterminding a major retreat from liberal democracy?

Then-House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi presenting then-President Barack Obama with a book containing Democratic members' statements of support on the Iran nuclear agreement, January 2016.Credit: Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Netanyahu may threaten to act militarily against an already “nuclear-threshold state” Iran. That will hardly be appreciated or condoned by the United States. On the flip side, they could say: “You are the democratically elected PM of Israel. Iran is a real and ominous threat. You feel you need to attack? We advise against, but it’s your call and may the force be with you.”

Saudi Arabia

Israel would naturally like to broaden the Abraham Accords and strike normalization deals with other Arab countries – and the crown jewel, no pun intended, would be Saudi Arabia. But there are two major obstacles here: the U.S.’ fractured relationship with Riyadh; and the Saudis’ intolerance to Israel’s new Palestinian policy. Don’t expect much there in the next year.

Russia-Ukraine

There may come a point when the United States will demand a clear, unequivocal Israeli policy on the Ukraine war. This government inherits a morally depraved and diplomatically imprudent policy of neutrality, but Netanyahu always boasted of his “In a different League” relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. If worse comes to worst, he can rekindle Naftali Bennett’s farcical attempts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine as an excuse for inexcusable neutrality.

A relative reacting as she visits the grave of her relative, a Ukrainian serviceman who was killed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine, on the Day of Ukrainian Army, in Lviv, Ukraine, earlier today.Credit: STRINGER/REUTERS

International organizations

The hostile and very often hypocritical record that international organizations have on Israel will matter little once the new government begins to deliver on policy in the West Bank. These organizations will be ever more hospitable to Palestinian requests and more inclined to scrutinize Israel, particularly if U.S. support is not as adamant and automatic as it has been for decades.

Israel will be criticized, often unfairly and disproportionately. But its own actions will vindicate detractors, weaponize the criticism and shift the discourse from “occupation” to “apartheid.” If Israel’s response will be Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich or the racist homophobe Avi Maoz, good luck.

Palestinian Ambassador Riyad H. Mansour speaking during a meeting of the Special Political and Decolonization Committee at UN headquarters last month.Credit: Jeenah Moon/AP

Antisemitism

Combating antisemitism has always been a central pillar of Israeli foreign policy. It will remain that way because antisemitism is on the rise, particularly among the Trumpite right wing in the United States. Fighting antisemitism is a moral and practical imperative for Israel, as it should be. But how convincing and effective will the arguments be against an ignoramus but dangerous fool like Kanye West – Mr. Trump’s recent dinner date – when your own government is made up of racists and patently brandishing intolerance?

U.S. relations

This is the biggest and most critical issue. A direct confrontation may be averted initially, since neither Biden nor Netanyahu have an interest in one. But Israeli policies will inevitably create tensions and exacerbate an already fraught relationship between Democrats and Israel, between a majority of American Jewry and Israel, and between a U.S. administration with foreign policy priorities that diverge sharply from Israel’s.

What is at stake here is not a specific policy, but the very core of the “shared values” concept Israel and the United States rightly boasted about and were proud of. If Israel is viewed as veering away from liberal democracy, there will be consequences in U.S. support. They may be incremental, but the cracks are already there. This will be an embellishment on Kissinger’s axiom: Israel’s foreign policy is its domestic policy.

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