Netanyahu's return throws future of Israel-Gulf ties into question - opinion

Netanyahu personally planned the Abraham Accords, but the four-party coalition’s new policy goals put Israel in an unenviable position.

 Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani pose before they participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House in 2020. (photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani pose before they participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House in 2020.
(photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

The growing dominance of Israeli right-wing factions in the Knesset and a public appetite for their politics have presumably brought Benjamin Netanyahu back to the Prime Minister’s Office, although this time in a very different Israel. Such unprecedented dominance of the Right in Israeli politics raises questions regarding Arab-Israeli relations and specifically the potentially negative impact this electoral outcome might have on diplomatic ties with the participating countries of the recent Abraham Accords.

Analysts argue that Netanyahu never really left office. The building blocks of the Bennett-Lapid government were constructed on the basis of an anti-Netanyahu movement, a political blunder whereby Netanyahu always remained in the limelight, even during their one-year reign. Today, public opinion of a Netanyahu-led government reflects satisfaction and relief that a turbulent political landscape of five general elections in a little over three years has finally come to an end.

Today, Netanyahu’s four-party alliance (including the Likud and Religious Zionist parties, as well as the Haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism factions) has been successful in attaining a 64-seat majority out of a possible 120 it the Knesset, beating a coalition of the Center, Left and Arab parties. President Isaac Herzog officially granted Netanyahu the required presidential mandate to form his government; however, many are voicing concern regarding the priorities of the new Israeli government on the domestic and international levels.

Policy priorities

Netanyahu’s return to leadership would not have been possible without this four-party alliance. Indeed, he cannot ignore the importance of the Religious Zionism bloc, which is now the third-largest party in the Knesset and the most radical of them all. The US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, commenting immediately after the results, expressed America’s hope that the new Israeli government would continue to apply the values of democracy and tolerance toward minorities.

On the campaign trail, far-right leaders, specifically Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, discussed certain radical goals and policies they want to see materialize in their upcoming four-year term. These involve moving forward plans to annex large parts of the West Bank, normalizing the status of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and a more stringent security policy towards Palestinians. All this alongside pushing for the right of the Knesset to abolish judicial decisions with a simple vote and restrain the powers of the attorney general, perhaps to preempt controversial cases, such as Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial.

 Head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich and attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir attend Otzma Yehudit party's election campaign event in Bat Yam on April 06, 2019.  (credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90) Head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich and attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir attend Otzma Yehudit party's election campaign event in Bat Yam on April 06, 2019. (credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90)

Such policies, if put into force, would have a major negative impact on Israel’s foreign policy. There is a clear conflict of interest at play. On the one hand, Netanyahu knows that right-wing ideology is widespread and strong, not only within the Knesset and most probably the upcoming cabinet but also among young voters, with 64% of Israeli Jews aged 18-34 identifying as right-wing supporters, according to a 2018 survey. On the other hand, Netanyahu is going to need to balance internal policy demands from his own electorate with Israel’s relations with key partners in the West and new relations with Gulf states.

The future of Gulf-Israeli relations

Many observers are anticipating how Israel’s diplomatic relations might change, particularly with the US, its long-standing partner, as well as with neighboring and regional states with whom it has only recently normalized relations.

Netanyahu personally planned the Abraham Accords project two years ago and has time and time again commended the project and expressed his willingness to expand the accords, even to countries as distant as Indonesia. The four-party coalition’s new policy goals, however, put Israel in an unenviable position.

The US is also a key partner in this project. Considering geopolitical circumstances, the White House’s stance towards Netanyahu will be heavily influenced by the latter’s attitude towards the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Nevertheless, Israel’s commitment towards the Abraham Accords will be considered a well-constructed test.

Israel’s territorial neighbors will be the first to be potentially adversely affected by the change in leadership. Despite Jordan’s high reliance on gas and water imports from Israel, talk of increasing Jewish prayer access to the Temple Mount and strengthening Israeli sovereignty has in the past negatively impacted the bilateral relationship.

Lebanon, another neighboring state, signed a US-brokered maritime agreement with Israel for oil and gas exploration only days before the elections on November 1. It is unclear how sustainable the agreement will be, especially considering that Netanyahu and his allies have denounced the agreement as a surrender of sovereign territory and possible national wealth.

The Abraham Accords emerged following Netanyahu’s initial threats to annex parts of the West Bank in 2020. Both Gulf and other Arab States stand by the two-states solution, with some still demanding a final status agreement of this before initiating the normalization of diplomatic ties with Israel, especially Saudi Arabia, the beating heart of the Muslim world.

If the new four-party coalition government shows signs of returning to the 2020 annexation plan, this would be seen as an exceptionally offensive move. Considering the context of the accords, Israel’s new partners would have no choice but to put the rapprochement on hold.

One must not forget that Netanyahu has been in leadership roles for over a quarter of a century and knows the difference between campaign rhetoric and decision-making. He has explicitly claimed that present and future Arab partners have nothing to worry about, considering the majority that his party holds in the Knesset. Skepticism from Arab states, however, is well placed, as history has shown the potential for turbulent relations at times of right-wing leadership.

The writer is a non-resident Grand Strategy Fellow at the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum. He is a second secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain, joining the Office of the Foreign Minister in June 2018.