How Israel’s elections may impact the Middle East -analysis 

Lapid and Bennett have made strides in outreach to other countries in the Middle East, but Lapid also rushed the Lebanon deal.

 Israel's Prime Minister Yair Lapid addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York City on September 22, 2022.  (photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images))
Israel's Prime Minister Yair Lapid addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York City on September 22, 2022.
(photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images))

As Israelis voted for the fifth time in less than four years, the region could greet these latest elections with a shrug. After all, another election will probably come in a year or so.

However, the current government of Prime Minister Yair Lapid and alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made major strides in the region. Lapid, Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz put a premium on public meetings and outreach around the Middle East, including hosting such important forums as the Negev Summit.

On the other hand, Lapid also rushed into the agreement with Lebanon days before the election. This matters, and on policies from Ukraine to Turkey, there could be shifts after the election that impact the region.

Israel and Turkey

One of the most important shifts in the last year has been Israel’s decision to work with Turkey. After years in which Ankara had bashed the Jewish state, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and backing Hamas, Turkey sought to change its tone over the last year. This resulted in numerous high-level meetings and visits.

The normalization between Ankara and Jerusalem may be only on the surface, because Turkey’s ruling AKP Party is the same party as before the reconciliation. But it could also mark a shift that continues after the election.

 AFTER SIGNING the Abraham Accords, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain (left) and UAE display their copies as then-US president Donald Trump looks on, at the White House, September 15, 2020. (credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS) AFTER SIGNING the Abraham Accords, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain (left) and UAE display their copies as then-US president Donald Trump looks on, at the White House, September 15, 2020. (credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)

It’s clear that with Turkey, there was a choice to normalize relations after former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu left office. Ankara had increased its extreme rhetoric and anti-Israel behavior during Netanyahu’s 10 years in power. This included the launching of the Mavi Marmara flotilla, as well as hosting Hamas leaders and vocal threats to “liberate al-Aqsa.”

Ankara’s behavior occurred against the backdrop of close Turkey-US relations during the Trump administration and its increasing role in Syria. It’s not entirely clear what led to Turkey’s increasingly anti-Israel behavior, especially considering that in the early 2000s, the countries had managed to continue amicable relations despite the differences between the AKP and Israel. The party is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood and is close to Hamas ideologically, making it naturally hostile to Israel.

During the Netanyahu era, there was little chance of reconciliation with Turkey. Netanyahu always believed that Israel had to exude strength in the face of threats, and he wasn’t afraid to critique Turkey’s actions.

Today, both Ankara and Jerusalem have shifted rhetoric, and this has enabled major changes on the political and diplomatic fronts.

The next government in Israel will have to see if it wants to continue down the same track with Turkey. In addition, Ankara may shift tactics and begin bashing Israel again, especially if the far Right triumphs in the election and Turkey thinks it can get some inroads in the region via bashing the Jewish state.

It’s important to note that Turkey wants to assume an “Islamic” leadership role in the region, supplanting Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other historically leading countries. It has often used the anti-Israel bandwagon as a way to achieve such attention.

Along with Iran and Qatar, Turkey’s current leadership backs Hamas, which gives it a direct role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Ankara also wants to influence issues in Jerusalem as a “defender of al-Aqsa.”

Turkey has toned down the rhetoric in the last year to achieve high-level meetings with Gantz, President Isaac Herzog and pro-Israel Jewish organizations in the US.

Ankara wants to use Israel as a conduit to closer ties with Washington. Depending on who triumphs in the election, Turkey could continue its reconciliation or use them as an excuse to try to inflame tensions and profit from any Israel-Palestinian conflicts that may erupt.

Abraham Accords and Israel's election

THE NEGEV Summit format has been an important symbol of Israel’s work with countries in the region. The attendees at the summits included the US, Israel, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Jordan could attend the next Negev Summit, which is supposed to take place in Morocco in January.

However, if the far Right does well in the election, and this leads to greater tensions with the Palestinians, there is a chance that the summit could be affected.

During Netanyahu’s years in office there were cold relations with the Kingdom of Jordan. Considering the tensions in the West Bank in recent months, with near-daily clashes, it’s plausible that if the far Right does well in the election and Netanyahu returns to power, this will reduce the already shaky public ties with Amman. This doesn’t necessarily affect security ties, but it could affect the visible participation of countries such as Jordan at regional summits alongside Israel.

Key regional partners, including the UAE and Greece, as well as Bahrain and Cyprus, will also be watching the election. There is much work for Israel to do in building the ties with these countries. The Abraham Accords and initiatives such as energy deals with Greece and Cyprus, as well as defense ties, have enabled improving ties among Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, Cyprus and Greece.

The next government will need to work with all these countries and assure them that Israel’s commitment will not shift with each election. It would seem that the current government and the previous one of Netanyahu had similar policies in regards to these four countries. But Israel’s reconciliation with Turkey may have raised eyebrows in Athens, and Jerusalem needs to show the Gulf that its policies are consistent and long-term.

Saudi Arabia, the US, and Israel

Another nexus in the region is the larger circles that encapsulate Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US and Ukraine.

The Biden administration has had tense relations with the Saudis, and the current theme in major US media is to be critical of Saudi Arabia. This criticism sometimes includes claims that Riyadh is flirting too closely with Russia or anger that Saudi Arabia didn’t help lower gas prices in the US.

Some of the criticism of the Gulf kingdom is driven by more complex issues, such as long-term, Qatar-backed influence operations that paint Saudi Arabia in a bad light. Other reasons for the breakdown in relations are more systemic: The US-Saudi relationship is changing permanently.

MEANWHILE, OVER the last half decade, there have been increasing reports that Israel-Saudi relations are improving to the point where normalization could be on the table one day.

The elections in Israel may influence this and change Riyadh’s calculations. It’s not entirely clear what makes up the formula for normalization in the kingdom, but it is clear that political chaos in Jerusalem certainly can make normalization difficult. For countries in the region where there are no changes in the leadership, such as monarchies, normalizing with a country that has elections several times a year can be difficult.

Iran and Israel

The third circle nexus also includes Iran. Israel’s major adversary in the region is Iran, not because of Israel but because the regime hates the Jewish state.

The regime has faced protests at home recently and must weigh how to use its nuclear-enrichment threats in the future. Netanyahu often made Iran a part of his talking points, but recently, as Iran shifts to focus on domestic politics, Israel-Iran tensions appear to be temporarily reduced. It’s not clear how long this will last.

Iran is active in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and it also backs Hamas. Tehran in the past has sought to use Israel-Palestinian tensions to its benefit, and there is evidence it helped plan the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Ukraine and Israel

Regarding Ukraine, there are major questions about whether the next government will be willing to supply Kyiv with defense technology. There has been pressure on Israel to help Ukraine defend against Iranian drones that Russia is using to terrorize Ukrainian civilians. Israel doesn’t want to be perceived as being on the fence regarding Ukraine because that could hurt ties with the US and the rest of the West.

However, Netanyahu often seemed to prefer an Israel that was more focused on ties with the East, such as India, and he had amicable relations with Russia and China. Today, the US sees Moscow and Beijing as major adversaries, and Jerusalem has had to shift away from some ties with those countries.

India, a close partner of Israel, has been neutral on the Ukraine conflict. All of this leaves Israel in a difficult position since it doesn’t want to be a party to the Ukraine conflict due to Russia’s role in Syria. But Jerusalem also doesn’t want to be perceived in Washington as not helping there.

Lastly, the elections could affect the Lebanon maritime agreement that Israel just signed. Hezbollah could use the elections to increase tensions. In addition, a Netanyahu government could decide to revisit the recent maritime agreement. Any attempt by Israel to get out of the agreement would give Hezbollah an excuse to increase threats to Israel.

This illustrates how much is at stake in this election and how many countries and groups in the region are watching closely what happens in Jerusalem.