The Middle East is watching Israel’s election results, with some perplexed that both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz declared victory on Tuesday night. With the region in transition after the defeat of ISIS and US-Iran tensions on the rise, the next leader of Israel will have to navigate a complex region that has many competing power blocs.
Netanyahu appeared to cement his lead in the early morning hours of Wednesday, but the headlines throughout the Middle East were that two parties had declared victory in Israel. Israel elections were not the main headlines. In fact US President Donald Trump’s praise for Egyptian leader Abdel Fatah al-Sisi made major headlines in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, topping the Netanyahu coverage. Turkey’s Anadolu highlighted the Turkish president’s praise for Bolivia’s support of Palestinians. That may seem odd, but Turkey is seeking to carve out an alliance of states such as Venezuela’s Maduro, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Sudan’s strongman, Russia’s Putin, Iran and Qatar in a bid to create a power bloc that is largely in opposition to the US and Israel. So Turkey praised Bolivia for opposing the US stance on the Golan and its “support for Palestine.”
This is generally how the region saw Netanyahu’s election as well. Iran has sought to portray the Trump administration as die-hard Netanyahu supporters in recent days, even linking the US labelling of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as “terrorists” to support for Israel. In other areas of the region there is more questions than answers about how Israel’s election process works now that two parties have performed so well. Who will be chosen to form the next government and why did two people declare victory? “Both of them announce victory,” was the Al-Jazeera headline. The same headline appeared at al-Arabiya.
But despite the lack of clarity on Wednesday, the reality is that there is an understanding that the next Israeli government will confront several important challenges in the region. One is the post-Syrian civil war era, and the resulting entrenchment of Iran in Syria, which Israel has opposed. Another is what affect it has on tensions with Hezbollah in Lebanon. These have cooled after Israel launched an anti-tunnel operation last year on the northern border. Then there is the opening Israel has had with several Gulf States and Oman, which Netanyahu has sought to encourage. Oman recently had more positive comments regarding Israel at a conference in Jordan. Netanyahu boasted of these credentials in the lead-up to the election.
With tensions between the US and Iran rising there could be fallout in eastern Syria and Iraq. Israel is always on the mind of Iran’s regime regarding these tensions. This is even more true as Iran supports proxies in Iraq and Syria, including paramilitary groups. And there are more developments in north Africa as Libya’s strongman Khalifa Haftar seeks to take Tripoli from the eastern government of the country, potentially ending years of civil war. In addition protests in Sudan and Algeria portend a new series of mini-Arab-Spring protests.
Israel is now closely linked to a US-led alliance of states in the southern Middle East, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. Israel has challenges with Jordan regarding tensions over Jerusalem and the Palestinian issue. But the real challenge is Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In addition another challenge is Turkey and its work with Venezuela, Qatar and now also Bolivia and other states, often cemented with critique of Israel.
Netanyahu is well positioned to manage these different issues, which he has helped shape over the years and which have shaped him. He is also a key conduit for Israel-Russia relations. Even if Israel’s election is one of several issues being watched in the region, it is important.