How will Israel’s foreign policy change with new government?

The new government offers an opportunity for significant improvements in Israeli foreign policy. The popular belief is that this government will be ineffective in this domain due to the ideological differences among its member parties. Indeed, dramatic moves vis-à-vis the Palestinians, such as evacuating settlements or annexing territory, are not expected to occur, but this is not the sum total of Israeli diplomacy.

The weakening of Israel’s Foreign Service under Netanyahu, flawed policy directions that were taken, and regional potential that was left untapped – all provide fertile ground for action on which the government could agree despite its diversity.

Netanyahu’s departure from office will create positive diplomatic momentum for Israel in itself. Along with alliances that Netanyahu forged with world leaders and his regional achievements (chief among them the Abraham Accords and Israel’s ties in the Eastern Mediterranean), Netanyahu’s conduct in the diplomatic arena generated deep antagonism, especially on the part of leaders of liberal democracies, which are of great value to Israel. He was regarded as challenging the fundamental principles of governance and democracy, supporting racist parties in Israel and abroad, and undermining prospects of a two-state solution.

Netanyahu’s credibility was also questioned – in Washington, Paris, Amman and perhaps in other capitals, a perception that took a tangible toll on Israel. His “aggressive diplomacy” approach prompted loud clashes with critics of Israel, even ones inherently friendly toward the state. And finally, the recent years of political crisis in Israel portrayed Netanyahu’s actions in the international arena as motivated first and foremost by his desire for political survival, and only then by his concern for Israel’s national interests.

This criticism was generally voiced behind closed doors, but it surfaced occasionally and created much-publicized crises. Netanyahu’s ousting will be a symbolic turning of a page, enabling the new government to reap diplomatic fruits in relations with Jordan, France, the US and even Turkey.

However, the foreign policy potential of the new coalition does not stem only from Netanyahu’s absence. Yair Lapid, who will serve as foreign minister until his scheduled entry into the Prime Minister’s Office in two years, has long been preparing himself for the job. He enters this office with experience, contacts and plans to revamp Israeli diplomacy. Most notably, he clearly has a strong desire to strengthen the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and its public standing.

Other Yesh Atid members, too, have already been acting toward this goal in recent years, establishing a Knesset caucus to strengthen the Foreign Service, advancing efforts to legislate a Foreign Service Law, and initiating discussions about the MFA’s performance at Knesset committees. Symbolically, one of the new government’s first expected decisions will be the approval of 35 ambassadorial appointments, which Netanyahu has been holding up for over six months.

THE MEMBERSHIP of the Labor and Meretz parties in the new government will also contribute to restoring diplomacy to its rightful place in Israeli decision-making. Members of Knesset from both parties have challenged Netanyahu’s foreign policy approach repeatedly and sought to advance new paradigms and guiding principles shaping a pro-peace, multi-regional, internationalist, modern and inclusive Israeli foreign policy.

Labor and Meretz will be in charge of the Ministry of Regional Cooperation and the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs in the new government, both with distinct diplomacy components, as well as the Ministries of Health and Environmental Protection, both of which deal with issues high on the global diplomatic agenda to which Israel has much to contribute. Their voices are also expected to be heard and exert influence regarding the Palestinian issue. In addition, the election of Israel’s new President Isaac Herzog – a pro-peace, liberal democratic leader with extensive diplomatic experience and who enjoys international respect – will bolster the assets of the new Israeli leadership and its capabilities in the international arena.

Other members of the new coalition could also be part of the effort to improve Israeli foreign policy. The Blue and White Party, for example, has already played a role in this during Gabi Ashkenazi’s term as foreign minister in the outgoing government. Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman served as foreign minister in the past, and his fellow party MK Eli Avidar is the only lawmaker to have served in the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Ahead of the March elections, the New Hope party addressed the need to restart relations with the US and undo Netanyahu’s exclusive reliance on the Republican Party.

There is every reason to believe that the Left, Center and Right coalition parties can reach agreement on a series of urgent foreign policy goals: Rebuilding trust with the Jordanian monarchy and restoring Israel’s strategically important ties with the kingdom; deepening ties with the US Democratic Party to restore bipartisan support for Israel; leveraging the normalization agreements with Arab states to forge bilateral and regional cooperation; improving relations with European Union and renewing the high-level dialogue (Association Council) which has not convened since 2012; leveraging opportunities for Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean, including restoring relations with Turkey to ambassadorial level and advancing maritime border negotiations with Lebanon; and strengthening the moderate Palestinian leadership at the expense of Hamas, while restoring Israeli-Palestinian dialogue channels to advance mutual interests.

Although the new government is unlikely to achieve a final-status peace agreement with the Palestinians, which should be a top foreign policy and national security for Israel, it could be instrumental to mending and healing Israeli foreign policy and leaving a significant diplomatic legacy that will better position Israel in the region and on the global stage.

**The article was published on The Jerusalem Post, 13 June 2021

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