Foreign Policy Issues in Israel’s Current Election Campaign

Op-eds / Strengthening Israel's Foreign Policy

For better or worse, we are not alone in this world. Opportunities, challenges, threats, friends, partners and rivals abound outside Israel’s borders – and no border can completely separate external and domestic events. In order to deal successfully with the coronavirus, the economic situation, the ecological crisis, and security threats – Israel must look beyond its borders. In order to take advantage of opportunities to forge a peaceful existence, benefit farmers, improve the quality of life, open up tourism and provide employment, Israel must look beyond its borders. That is why external issues feature to some extent in the parties’ election campaigns.

Naturally, the current focus is on the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the campaign agenda relates largely to the domestic handling of the crisis, it also highlights some external aspects. For the Likud, for example, the vaccinations serve as a campaign tool, as does the proposed joint Israeli-European-Gulf vaccination initiative. Blue and White has lambasted Netanyahu’s plan to provide vaccines to other countries, claiming he was not authorized to do so. The Arab Joint List and Meretz highlighted Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power to vaccinate the Palestinians in the territories. The Yamina and Religious Zionist parties conditioned the vaccination of Palestinians on the return of soldiers’ bodies held by Hamas, and New Hope called for vaccinating Israelis first and charging the Palestinian Authority for inoculating the Palestinians.

The nuclear agreement with Iran is also an election issue given President Biden’s decision to renew diplomatic approach towards Tehran. Whereas during the Trump Administration, almost all parties sided with the Likud and Netanyahu on this issue, this time their views have diverged. The Likud opposes any return to the agreement and advocates continued sanctions even at the cost of a clash with the Americans. Yamina, New Hope, Yisrael Beitenu and Blue and White emphasize the importance of Israeli dialogue with the US, whereas Labor and Meretz argue that the nuclear agreement is the best strategy to curb Iran’s nuclear program and urge a return to diplomacy in coordination with the Americans.

The decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on a war crimes probe against Israel has also become a campaign issue. The Likud, Yamina and Yisrael Beitenu have described the ruling as anti-Semitic, New Hope underscored the Court’s politicization, Yesh Atid, Blue and White and Labor emphasized the ICC’s lack of jurisdiction in this matter, whereas the Religious Zionist party demanded that Israel raze Khan al-Ahmar in response. Meretz and the Joint List argue that the ICC operates in accordance with international law and that it is in Israel’s best interests and responsibility to end the occupation and the settlement enterprise.

The tar from an oil spill that polluted Israel’s coast provided an opportunity for the parties to address the key global climate change issue. Yesh Atid took the opportunity to present its plans for dealing with climate change through cooperation with other countries. Netanyahu chose to call for establishment of an association of states to handle such incidents. Meretz highlighted the need to strive for zero carbon emissions, as did New Hope, which also highlighted Israel’s possible contribution to the global campaign to address climate change.

However, the occupied territories, an issue around which past campaigns have revolved, is generating hardly any attention. The Likud, Yamina, New Hope and Religious Zionist parties continue to express support for construction in the settlements and Jerusalem and strengthening Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, but other than the Religious Zionist party, none of the others mention territorial annexation or sovereignty over the West Bank. The Labor Party, which supports a two-state solution based on the 1967 borderlines and evacuation of isolated settlements, calls for a halt to construction outside the settlement blocs, declaration of intent to reach a diplomatic agreement, and dialogue with the Palestinians and mediators. Nonetheless, the Labor campaign has marginalized the Palestinian issue. Meretz is the only Zionist party to spotlight its support for the two-state solution and opposition to settlements, urging Israel to take advantage of the Biden presidency to return to negotiations with the Palestinians.

Other foreign-related issues have cropped up on the sidelines of the campaign, such as the need to rehabilitate and strengthen the Foreign Ministry, with the Yesh Atid, Blue and White and Yisrael Beitenu platforms devoting attention to the issue, and Israel’s ties with the European Union that Yamina describes as an enemy, whereas Labor, Meretz and Yesh Atid describe it as a loyal partner. Surprisingly, the recent normalization with Arab states has not drawn much attention in the campaign. Most parties welcome the new ties. Some use them to claim that they obviate the need to move forward with the Palestinians, while others argue that the new relationships can serve to advance the peace process. However, none of the parties emphasize the major potential that lies in relations with the Arab world. The Likud may be avoiding the issue because the public links the opening to the Emirates with increased Covid-19 morbidity. Other parties avoid highlighting the matter in order to deprive Netanyahu of the credit he has assumed for the breakthrough. Normalization with Morocco is the only move that all parties have praised, with Shas, which normally avoids foreign policy issues, including it in its election campaign.

Parties tend to address foreign affairs during campaigns when they want to promote issues that underpin their existence – such as the occupation issue for Meretz or the settlements for Religious Zionism – and feel obliged to react to current affairs that make headlines, as was the case with the ICC ruling. They also refer to such issues when these serve the positioning of their party, as was the case with the Pfizer vaccinations for the Likud. Decisions to highlight certain issues are not random; they are designed to serve the election campaign.

Election campaigns are sensitive to current events that attract public attention. However, our lives and quality of life also depend on fast moving developments outside the country’s borders after the elections – be it a new epidemic, peace agreement, ecological disaster, war, scientific breakthrough or economic crisis. Therefore it is important that we familiarize ourselves with the parties’ positions beyond the immediate campaign.

Party platforms should be read carefully as should the plans they issue, and the extent to which they adhere to their principles should be monitored over time in the Knesset. Where do they stand on strengthening the Foreign Service? What solution do they see to the conflict with the Palestinians? Are they committed to bolstering the peace with Egypt and Jordan? Do they view the EU as friend or foe? How do they think Israel should build relations with countries in the region and the Arab world? Do they think Israel has a role to play in advancing liberal-democratic values in the world? What place should Israel have in the region and the world? These are all important questions for which we must demand clear answers from the parties so that we can make the correct choice on Election Day.

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