Trends in Israel’s Regional Foreign Policies, January – June 2021

Issue No. 7
Edited by Dr. Roee Kibrik and Dr. Gil Murciano

Several major developments marked significant change for Israel in the first half of 2021. President Biden assumed office, Israel ramped up its campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, Hamas and Israel engaged in another round of fighting, Knesset elections were held for the fourth time in two years and Netanyahu was replaced after 12 years in office. How are these developments shaping Israeli foreign policy trends?

1. A new government with Lapid as Foreign Minister augurs well for the continued rehabilitation of Israel’s Foreign Service. Lapid’s additional post as Alternate Prime Minister and his considerable political standing have placed an influential player at the helm of the Foreign Ministry. In keeping with the new government’s guidelines that expressly call for strengthening the Foreign Ministry, a decision was made to shutter the Ministry for Strategic Affairs and dozens of professional and diplomatic appointments were approved. The appointments were previously made by former Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, but Netanyahu blocked their approval.

2. Events in Jerusalem and Gaza demonstrate the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite political attempts to marginalize it. For years, Israel had adhered to a strategy of conflict management with the Palestinians, shunning diplomatic initiatives to advance the peace process. Its actions in Jerusalem generated international criticism and sparked widespread violence in May, which also stemmed from the cancelation of elections in the Palestinian Authority (PA). The violence with Hamas in Gaza and between Jews and Arabs in mixed Israeli towns, triggered by tensions in Jerusalem, highlighted the growing difficulty in Israel’s efforts to divide the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Israel itself. At the same time, Israel is dealing with the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch a war crimes investigation of its actions in the occupied territories.

3. Relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco survive challenges. The political instability in Israel, the coronavirus crisis, the fighting with Gaza and tensions in Jerusalem, and the advent of a new administration in Washington posed challenges to the newly established relations with the normalization states. Netanyahu’s political use of the Abraham Accords posed a special difficulty, as did his veto of visits by members of his government to the Gulf. Nonetheless, and despite the round of fighting with the Palestinians, the Abraham Accords displayed resilience and sustainability. Diplomatic missions were opened in Israel and Arab states, economic, civilian and security cooperation agreements were signed and moved forward.

4. Netanyahu policy undercuts Ashkenazi and Gantz’s efforts to improve relations with Jordan. Foreign Minister Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Gantz led attempts under the previous government to rehabilitate relations with Jordan, renewing a high-level dialogue with the Kingdom. However, the canceled visit by Jordan’s Crown Prince to the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif compound and tensions in Jerusalem curtailed the impact of these moves and failed to significantly ease the crisis in relations, as reflected in the cutoff between Netanyahu and King Abdullah. Nonetheless, Israel stressed its support for the Kingdom’s stability, as was particularly evident in the context of the attempted coup in Jordan and strengthening of security coordination with Jordan. With the installation of the new government, Lapid highlighted the need to rehabilitate relations with Jordan.

5. Diplomatic, economic relations with Egypt expand, but not people-to-people links. Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation in Sinai and Gaza continued, along with cooperation on energy issues and in business. The saga of the Palestinian elections and the Israeli-Palestinian escalation underscored Egypt’s key role in internal Palestinian mediation and Israel-Hamas mediation. Nonetheless, the pervasive opposition to normalization with Israel persists among the Egyptian public and limits the expansion of cooperation between the two countries to other fields.

6. Israel gets to know the new American administration. The new US administration brought about change in American foreign policy, including restored support for the two-state solution and for a renewal of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and adoption of a multilateral approach to advancing democratic-liberal values and dealing with the climate crisis. The Biden Administration backs the normalization between Israel and Arab states and the gradual US withdrawal from the Middle Eastern arena. Israel adapted itself to these changed circumstances, undertaking to build a good working relationship with the Democratic administration and party and to restore the bi-partisan support of Israel eroded by Netanyahu’s favoritism toward the Republicans.

7. Israel continues to oppose Iranian nuclear program while adopting a new approach to US moves.  Ahead of the March 23 Knesset elections, parties running against Netanyahu on the political right, center and left advocated dialogue with the US administration on the Iran nuclear issue rather than the confrontational approach Netanyahu adopted vis-à-vis Obama at the time. On the professional level, and after the elections on the political one, too, Israel shifted to a policy of dialogue with the US, even as it continued its wide-ranging military and intelligence activity against Iran’s nuclear program, often assuming clear responsibility for its actions and abandoning its traditional policy of ambiguity.

8. Netanyahu puts a damper on Ashkenazi’s efforts to strengthen relations with the European Union (EU). Ashkenazi persisted in efforts to enhance relations with the EU as a strategic goal and sought to expand and deepen links with his European counterparts. Nonetheless, Israel’s political instability, Ashkenazi’s limited term in office and Netanyahu’s tight hold on power precluded significant progress in relations. Along with continued economic and civilian cooperation, tensions with the EU persisted over its commitment to the two-state solution and criticism of the ongoing and deepening occupation. Upon taking office, Lapid declared he would turn the page on Israel’s relations with the EU.

9. Israel plays a key role in advancing and bolstering cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin. Israel continued to bolster its alliance with Greece and Cyprus and advanced cooperation with them in the fields of security, energy, tourism and the coronavirus crisis. Israel also continued to advance the development of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum and advocated for the UAE’s integration in the Mediterranean arena. It also displayed flexibility in renewed contacts over demarcating its maritime border with Lebanon. At the same time, Israel reacted coolly to Turkish feelers regarding a possible warming of relations.

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