A famous truism states that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics.
The observation, which was originally made by Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s, has been recycled so often that it is now a hackneyed cliché. Nonetheless, it can often reveal the real interests and motives behind big diplomatic moves and developments, especially in Israel’s never-ending election cycle.
In the past three-and-a-half years of perpetual political crisis, the international arena has served as one of the main battlegrounds, mostly dominated by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Over his 12-year tenure, Netanyahu perfected his maneuvering between internal and international politics, and toward the end, with generous assistance from US President Donald Trump, he developed Kissinger’s formula into an art form.
The US recognition of the Golan Heights, the mutual defense treaty, “the Deal of the Century” peace plan and the historic Abraham Accords were all important cornerstones in Netanyahu’s campaigns, appearing at crucial times before the elections.
Kissinger's formula and the maritime border
Under normal circumstances, Israelis probably wouldn’t care less about the complex geostrategic and economic interests dissecting the Mediterranean waters, but the rare diplomatic breakthrough with Lebanon turned the spotlight on a dispute that’s been simmering for decades. And with only three weeks left till Election Day, the conclusion of the US-brokered deal between Jerusalem and Beirut was inevitably intertwined with the election campaign rhetoric: Lapid proclaimed a “historic achievement”; Netanyahu denounced a “historic surrender.”
Netanyahu slammed the deal before being apprised of its exact details and specifics, sending out Likud members to slam the government for “caving into Hezbollah’s threats,” and to spread fake news and misinformation about the supposed Israeli concessions.
The US-mediated talks with Lebanon started under his leadership, and if he were prime minister, he would probably “rush to sign the deal right now,” as Defense Minister Benny Gantz pointed out on Wednesday evening at a press conference.
Netanyahu, however, isn’t prime minister. Lapid is running as the incumbent, and the deal with Beirut marks his first major diplomatic accomplishment – just in time for the final stretch of the campaign.
The prime minister is backed by a unanimous front of Israel’s top security leaders – the heads of the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) all adamantly support the agreement and believe it contributes to regional stability and security, leaving Netanyahu’s apocalyptic warnings hanging in the air, hollow and isolated. In fact, Netanyahu’s attacks only benefit Lapid and add political value to his diplomatic maneuver, as they position the former and current prime ministers, a veteran and a relative novice, respectively, as equal contenders for the leadership.
Lapid brings Netanyahu in on deal
Lapid invited Netanyahu for a confidential briefing on the agreement, as well as other party leaders from the right-wing opposition, but he decided to sidestep full parliamentary scrutiny and not to bring the deal to a vote in the Knesset plenum, but only submit it for a two-week review before the government’s final vote. Lapid didn’t want to risk a rampant opposition led by Netanyahu torpedoing the agreement or stalling its final stages of approval. He ignored the attorney-general’s advice to go through a Knesset vote and decided on a fast-track procedure that cannot endanger his achievement.
If Netanyahu were now the caretaker prime minister and would attempt to dodge the legal recommendation for parliamentary legitimacy, in the same way, Lapid and his supporters would probably be slamming his policy-making as an authoritarian danger to democracy. Instead, it’s the other way around.
When Interior minister Ayelet Shaked voiced her objection in the Wednesday cabinet meeting and asked Lapid why he is afraid of a Knesset vote, he reminded her of the US visa waiver debacle, in which Netanyahu and his allies quashed her own tireless efforts and refused to support legislation to finalize the diplomatic breakthrough; and of the so-called metro bill, which funds the planning of the metro project for the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, which was also aborted by the relentless opposition; and of the citizenship bill, which Shaked couldn’t pass for half a year because of resistance by the Netanyahu bloc, which also refused to support the Judea and Samaria regulation bill, which eventually led to the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid government.
During the past year and a half in the opposition, Lapid’s confidants added afterward, Netanyahu “has proved time and again that he prefers narrow political interests over the common national good.” And three weeks before the elections, they don’t expect him to change his habits.
Shaked was the only government minister who voted against the deal’s principles, fulfilling her new role of providing internal opposition to the prime minister.
In the midst of her survival mission as leader of Bayit Yehudi, Shaked strongly rejected all calls and pressure to resign from the coalition and seeks every chance or opportunity to prove and justify that keeping her post has a strong political and ideological meaning for the Right.
She tried to convince her former partner, former prime minister Naftali Bennett, to support her demand for a Knesset vote on the maritime border agreement and use his veto power to force Lapid to the procedure, but Bennett refused to play along. Instead, he tried to a tune of his own, branding himself as the responsible adult who rises above Lapid and Netanyahu’s political fighting.
“The deal is not a historic victory,” he said in a statement, undermining Lapid’s celebrations, “or a horrendous surrender,” wrecking the Likud’s catastrophic talking points as well. Bennett also publicly hinted that he has reservations about the deal, even though he eventually decided to fully support it. By taking his own independent stance, he, too, is playing politics.
Elections will be a few weeks after final vote of agreement
BY THE time the agreement reaches the final vote in the government in two weeks’ time, elections will be only a few days away, but the political discussion has probably reached its peak already.
According to opinion polls, the Israeli public is divided quite evenly over the Lebanon maritime border deal: approximately a third of Israelis hail Lapid’s achievement, another third accepts the Likud narrative of disaster, and the remaining third doesn’t know or have an opinion.
After five election campaigns, the electoral map appears to be frozen, and despite the lively argument about the agreement, it falls into the same political paralysis: Netanyahu’s blunt criticism of the deal may speak to his own camp of supporters but is not likely to take votes away from Lapid. Moreover, the Likud’s stark opposition to the wide consensus in the security community in support of the agreement puts the party in a difficult position, without any arguments to justify the vicious smear campaign Netanyahu is leading against the deal. Some Likud members even quietly criticized him for “barking up the wrong tree,” and urged him to change course.
Hours after the government voted on the deal, but unrelated to it, riots broke out in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, adding to a spike in West Bank terrorist attacks. As the final countdown to Election Day nears, a major security flare-up would hurt Lapid much more than any criticism of the maritime agreement. And Netanyahu will be waiting, hoping to use it to his own advantage.
Thus, Kissinger’s motto about the politics behind Israel’s foreign policy would apply to security affairs, as well.