Diplomatic issues that can change the Israeli election

Some events beyond the control of the candidates could sway votes on March 2.

IDF soldiers keep guard in Jordan Valley earlier this year. Will Netanyahu annex the area?  (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
IDF soldiers keep guard in Jordan Valley earlier this year. Will Netanyahu annex the area?
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Some events beyond the control of the candidates could sway votes on March 2.
The third election in a year is a little over 10 weeks away, which is like an eternity in politics. It’s barely been 10 days since the Knesset was dissolved and there’s already a Likud primary campaign going on and lists on the Left being reconfigured.
International politics are no different. There are plenty of items on the diplomatic agenda between now and March 2 that could have an impact on election results.
Diplomacy is generally considered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strong suit; he has experience going back 35 years and has successfully expanded Israel’s ties with countries around the world in recent years.
Yet not everything goes Netanyahu’s way, and his prolonged tenure as leader of an interim government that cannot make major decisions has strained relations with other countries. As such, there may be opportunities here for Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, if not to get in victories, since he’s not directly involved, then to score some points by criticizing Netanyahu.
Here are some of the events and issues sure to come up in the ensuing weeks:
The “Deal of the Century”
This week, the US Congress rejected a White House request for $175 million to support US President Donald Trump’s peace plan in 2020, because it does not want to give money to something that isn’t going to happen soon. That is a fairly strong indication that the plan is going back into the Resolute desk’s drawer instead of being published.
For a year, the Trump administration has not released its plan, because of elections, and then coalition talks, and then elections again, etc. Trump has expressed frustration at the political situation in Israel. But by the time things are worked out here, hopefully after a third election and not a fourth, it will be very close to the presidential election in the US, and Trump probably won’t want to make a risky move like trying to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
US-Israel defense pact
Despite Netanyahu’s talk earlier this month, a defense pact with the US is unlikely to happen, for the same reason. Pacts are generally made with serving governments, not interim-interim-interim governments, especially because they need a majority in the Knesset to be approved. Gantz, by the way, opposes the idea, because he thinks it would limit the IDF’s freedom to act.
Jordan Valley sovereignty
Chances are Netanyahu won’t annex the Jordan Valley in the next 10 weeks, either. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave no indication, before or after his meeting with Netanyahu in Lisbon this month, that the US would approve of such a move, despite its declaration that it does not consider settlements to be illegitimate. And while Israeli sovereignty was applied to east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights back in the day without America’s okay, Netanyahu is wary of alienating the Trump administration.
Iowa and New Hampshire
Democrats will hold their first votes or caucuses to choose their party’s candidate for president in 2020 in February. Several candidates have made comments in recent weeks about making Israeli aid conditional on taking drastic steps toward evacuating the West Bank. Victories by the more progressive candidates could be seen as further strain between Israel and the US, despite Netanyahu and Trump getting along great.
Another upcoming event in US-Israel relations is the AIPAC Policy Conference, taking place at the exact same time as Israel’s election, which means no Netanyahu speech with all the standing ovations.
Israel-Syria-Russia triangle
Ties between Israel and Russia have seen better days. It was not that long ago that Netanyahu was boasting about the deconfliction arrangement between the countries when it comes to Syria, with Russia giving Israel freedom to strike weapons stores intended to be used to attack Israel. But there have been a series of mishaps in that area, most recently this month, when Russian Sukhoi Su-35 warplanes reportedly intercepted an Israeli attack in northern Syria.
Naama and others stranded in Moscow
Meanwhile, tensions between Moscow and Jerusalem have escalated over an entirely different issue. Israeli-American Naama Issachar has been held in a Russian prison for months after less than 10 grams of marijuana was found in her luggage during a stopover, while en route from India to Israel. She was sentenced to seven years in prison, a much harsher punishment than usual for such a tiny quantity of narcotic.
Then on Wednesday, Russia detained 46 Israelis for about six hours in Moscow airport, questioning them and taking their fingerprints. Last week, Russia didn’t let eight Israeli businessmen into the country. The Russian Embassy in Israel claimed 5,771 Russian citizens weren’t allowed into Israel this year despite not fitting the profile of someone who would illegally stay here to work.
Issachar and the Israelis stranded in Moscow have been at the top of the news, and the pressure is on for Netanyahu to untangle this diplomatic knot. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to come to Israel on January 23 for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem, which could be an opportunity to smooth things over – or not.
World Holocaust Forum
Several other world leaders other than Putin are expected to attend the ceremony, at President Reuven Rivlin’s invitation, including French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Charles, Prince of Wales. Some of these leaders may try to find a way to avoid being seen with Netanyahu, because of his impending indictment on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, and because there’s only an interim government, which could be embarrassing for the prime minister.
Embassies in Jerusalem
It’s been over two years since Trump announced that he would move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and since then, the number of countries that have followed has not been overwhelming. In fact, the only country other than the US with an embassy in Jerusalem is Guatemala. But Guatemala’s neighbor, Honduras, is expected to make the move soon, and it could come ahead of the election. Brazil’s leadership said once again this week that it wants to move its embassy to Jerusalem, but it seems unlikely to happen at all, let alone by March.
Iran election
The results of the February 21 Iranian legislative election probably won’t make a huge difference to Israel, since Ali Khamenei is still in charge, and there is no such thing as a pro-Israel candidate in Iran. But with the US “maximum pressure” continuing and protesters in the streets, the so-called reformists are not expected to do well this time.
Iran will likely continue trying to attack Israel from Syria and test missiles meant for Israel, while maintaining its genocidal, antisemitic rhetoric. Netanyahu will, of course, continue to rail against Iran and against European attempts to circumvent sanctions, and on that front, Gantz will fully support him.