The results of the Israeli election did not give a clear majority to any of the sides, but they still yielded a dramatic result. For the first time, a majority in the Knesset – from Lieberman’s right-wing party to the Arab Joint List – share a political goal of ousting Netanyahu, and seem more willing to take coordinated action to make it happen. This is a culmination of a gradual process, which evolved over three election campaigns that took place in Israel during the last year.
Lieberman, initially an ideological and political ally of Netanyahu, shifted his position over time – first preventing from Netanyahu to form a government after the April 2019 election, then insisting on a unity government between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White after the September 2019 election, and currently indicating he wants Gantz to be the one who is called upon by the president to form a government.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the Joint List, which increased its share of votes and now holds 15 seats (out of 120), has become a more legitimate political partner for Jewish parties than it has been in the past. Nevertheless, it still not clear whether this changed to the extent that will enable Gantz to form a minority government based on support from outside by Arab legislators.
This process is surprising Netanyahu, who faces a real threat of ending his 11-year consecutive tenure as prime minister, and at a bad timing for him – just as his court case is about to begin. Netanyahu is fighting back, using almost every rhetorical argument and political maneuver possible. While doing so, he is casting doubts about the legitimacy of the electoral process and about the reliability of state institutions. This has negative implications and increases polarization within the Israeli public as well as incitement against Gantz and his supporters.
A change of Israeli leadership may be near, although a fourth election cycle is also a realistic option. Should Gantz become Israel’s prime minister, even if within the context of some sort of unity government, the Israeli political landscape will change dramatically. His persona and leadership style will be different than Netanyahu’s. His goal will be to “heal the society” from divisions and incitement. His tone is a positivist one, including messages of hope, and not only fear. He represents a commitment to good governance and democracy, which eroded in Israel over the last few years.
Gantz is also likely to change course on several foreign policy issues, some of which are relevant to Israel’s relations in the Middle East. While supporting the Trump Plan, he made it clear that he opposes unilateral annexation and that any Israeli move should be coordinated with the international community and regional actors. Even though Gantz does not prioritize an immediate restart of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he is likely to take more responsible action on the Palestinian issue, and to be more open to engagement with the Palestinian leadership and with those in Europe and the US Democratic Party who are critical of Israel’s current policies.
In terms of relations with the Arab world, Netanyahu repeatedly tried to show that he can promote normalization with Arab countries, without making any progress on the Palestinian issue. However, his efforts met a glass ceiling. Throughout the past year, he tried to get a public meeting with an Arab leader, to boost his election campaigns, but did not succeed.
Gantz is likely to continue working for improved relations with the Arab world, and to maximize new opportunities that emerge – including with countries in the Gulf. But, in contrast to Netanyahu, he may not see this as a route to bypass the Palestinian issue, but rather as something that could be leveraged to support Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. In such a context, the Arab Peace Initiative – with some modifications due to the changes that took place in regional realities since it was first introduced – could become much more relevant.
The Arab world should regard a leadership change in Israel as an opportunity, reach out to the new prime minister and government, and indicate a willingness to upgrade ties and cooperation should the new prime minister take positive steps. This could be done publicly, or through new dialogue channels that will need to be set up – between new policy actors in Israel and their regional counterparts. Positive messages from the Arab world may help the Israeli leadership to move in a new direction, as Israelis currently view regional cooperation as more possible, desired, and important to Israel’s foreign policy and national security.
The transition process in Israel will not be an easy one, domestically, and could still lead to political instability in the coming months. But things are changing in Israeli politics and a new era may soon begin. If this happens, new opportunities for Israel-Arab relations are likely to appear. This is an issue that pro-peace Israelis are eager to speak with their Arab neighbors about. Let’s start the conversation.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is Head of the Mitvim Institute.