Israeli Elections 2019: What Effect Will It Have On Regional Strategy?

  • Posted on: 7 March 2019

Israel’s general election is coming up on April 9th and it could possibly facilitate a new era of politics in the region. Despite the fact that popular opinion still generally favors Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ruling center-right coalition, an opportunity for center-left challenger Benny Gantz rises in the midst of growing discontent. Whoever wins, however, will need to deal with brewing threats from Iran, Hezbollah and Palestine that could escalate to a major conflict as well as increasing criticism from U.S. Politicians regarding Israel’s ties with China.

For a long time, Israeli political parties have debated about the ideal way to earn regional recognition and a permanent spot on the Middle Eastern map. The political factions will participate in elections to ultimately see who will alter the area’s regional strategy. This is especially important considering the center-right faction has been reigning for decades so it should be interesting to see what happens if the center-left party finally wins.

This divide between center-left and center-right politics has always existed since the state was formed in 1948. The differences are due in part to disagreements on how to attain Palestinian-Israeli peace. Unlike the center left, the center-right political party favors regional recognition through political and military strength. Center-left politics, on the other hand, embrace a policy of trading land for recognition by Palestinian neighbors or land for peace, until it was unseated in 1977. With the 2019 elections coming up, there is a chance for the center-left to finally recapture government after being on the sidelines for so long.

Right now, Netanyahu’s center-right government are in a vulnerable position for many reasons: His coalition is divided and his right-wing nationalist and religious voters quarrel with his more centrist nationalist supporters. Moreover, his sequence of near-wars with Hamas in Gaza last year have eroded at his reputation as a security-minded leader. To top it off, he is currently facing a possible criminal indictment on corruption charges.

A former head of the military and leader of the Israel Resilience Party, Benny Gantz, is taking advantage of Israel’s growing discontent with Netanyahu. With rising poll numbers and Netanyahu’s possible indictment, Gantz is optimistic about his center-left party’s shot at victory. If Gantz wins, the prospects of peace talks would increase as he and his center-left government would start fresh with Palestine. Gantz has already opened up about possibly replicating Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal model, a move that was considered controversial in 2005. These moves would in-turn facilitate better ties with Gulf Arab states, despite them already improving behind closed doors. With that said, progress on Palestinian peace would also allow for more open coordination against Iran and an expansion of trade ties.

Regardless of who wins, instability in Palestine and Iran’s regional strategy will remain challenges for the next prime minister to tackle. Aid cuts and pressure to accept the U.S and Israeli peace plan are squeezing Palestine, and as a result, Gaza’s economy suffered even more and now the West Bank’s economic situation is at risk of becoming destroyed, which would ultimately lead to more protests, regional conflict and possible violence.

Iran’s regional strategy includes building and maintaining political and militant proxies to grow its influence beyond its borders, especially in Lebanon and Iraq. Iran has been working on persuading Beirut to accept Iranian military aid after a new Lebanese government granted Hezbollah power in the Lebanese state.

The next elected Israeli government will also have to deal with the growing threat of Iran’s nuclear program. There will be a temptation to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, especially if Trump backs up and supports a potential war on Iran. If elected, Gantz would be as assertive as Netanyahu in going after such threats, given his military record which includes his leadership during the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza. It is reported that Iran is using proxies in Iraq to arm its militia allies with weapons. If proven true, Israel’s next elected prime minister would perceive such a threat through a replication of its Syrian strategy inside Iraq.

The winning party will also have to deal with growing U.S. concerns over Chinese influence on Israel. Suspicious about the Chinese shipping companies’ ties with Beijing and its intelligence apparatus, Washington is also concerned about the Chinese control of Israel’s port of Haifa, where U.S. naval ships dock. Moreover, the United States is concerned about the Chinese telecom investment in Israel’s growing communications sector. However, in order to maintain its economic growth, Israel must continue with technological and infrastructure investments whenever it can. This will force the winning party to find a way to conciliate American fear regarding Chinese espionage while simultaneously maintaining some of its Chinese investment.

Another issue that the new Israeli government will have to deal with is the shifting domestic politics within the United States. More specifically, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the U.S. House of Representatives) may pose a challenge. The caucus now has more power after picking up seats in the 2018 midterm elections and is known to be more critical of Israeli conduct. Its continued rise could ultimately mold U.S.-Israeli relations. It has already influenced Congress to debate legislation designed to protect Israel from the largely activist-driven boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. To add to that, many of the congressional Democrats voted against the BDS legislation which differs from the generally long-held party consensus. This could affect other parts of the U.S.-Israeli policy that is unpopular with the Democratic base. Moreover, the Republican party’s pressure on the United States to recognize Golan Heights as Israeli territory will be countered with rejection by some Democrats.

Regardless of who reigns in the end, the next Israeli government will be forced to address a Congress that is starting to become more critical of its military conduct. This means that Israel may not be able to rely on the U.S.’ unquestionable support of their agenda against Iran. With that said, despite the potential this upcoming election has on Israel’s regional behavior, it will not affect old alliances or old regional conflicts. However, whoever leads Israel’s government will now have to find new ways to earn Israel’s place in the Middle East rather than rely on the tried-and-true methods that worked in the past.