Benjamin Netanyahu has been at the forefront of Israeli politics for close to a decade, having won his first term as Prime Minister in 2009. A well-spoken, if considerably strongman figure by nature, he has dominated Israeli politics to an extent that few other of his countrymen have since the establishment of the state of the Jewish state shortly after the second world war. However, his grip on power has waned in recent years, not least because of two criminal investigations into his conduct with high-profile businessmen on accusations of fraud and bribery charges. His popularity has waned as a result, and he proved to be unable to win a majority in two elections this year in Israel, in April and September, respectively. Even his erstwhile rival, Benny Gantz, was unable to form a government in the allocated time frame. Now, the Israeli Parliament has three weeks in which to nominate someone who can garner the support of the majority of Parliament, and to establish a new functioning government. The odds are, it will not work. Beyond the political turmoil, there are other implications, too.
In most countries, the biggest problem would be the economic element. In Israel’s case, it is certainly a concern. The country has now had to endure two successive caretaker governments, and has been unable to pass a national budget for close to a year. This is a problem for a number of reasons, not least because under Netanyahu’s tenure, the country has been stuck in the 1% GDP (quarter on quarter) growth bracket since 2012, with only a few exceptions. Without a permanent government in place, it is difficult to offer businesses the certainty they need to make considerable investments to expand their businesses, as well as invest in their staff. At present, the uncertainty in Israeli politics has hindered further economic expansion. Infrastructural projects, running into the millions of dollars, have been frozen, pending the approval of a new national budget. Its budgetary deficit has shot up to 4% of GDP, which is a concerning sign. Without a government in place to reign in spending, and to set economic policy, the country is, for all intents and purposes stuck.
But perhaps a larger concern for Israel, given its prioritisation of security issues, is both whether, and how the electoral uncertainty impacts its foreign and security policy in the Middle East. Without a sitting Prime Minister who can command a majority of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), its adversaries will be looking on with considerable interest, and seeking to capitalise on the lack of political direction. Israel’s main rivals in the region are Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, with each of these posing a threat to Israel from a different perspective, as well as geographic direction. Under Netanyahu’s successive administrations, the Israeli armed forces were given wide latitude to prosecute enemy combatants wherever they may be found. Some might argue it has made Israel safer, whilst others would argue the opposite. But one thing is for sure – under Netanyahu’s leadership, it was apparent that seeking a peace deal with the Palestinians was not high on the agenda. In fact, the entire process is as good as dead. But with no government in place in Tel Aviv, you can be certain that Israel’s adversaries are using this time to set their own way forward, and to take advantage of whatever government may come into play in the months ahead. What Israel currently has to its advantage is a powerful, and often autonomous military, which is given widespread powers to engage enemy combatants, whether they be within Israeli territory or that of an adversary.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dragged on for decades. The peace process is all but dead and buried. Israel’s behaviour in the conflict, particularly its heavy-handed responses to provocation, and Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory were not actions that are worthy of a Western democracy that respects international law. That being said, Israel is aware of, and obsessed with the threats posed to it from all sides. Hamas has been a threat in the Gaza Strip for years. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is dominant in the south of the country, and fought a war against Israel in 2006. Iran remains a looming threat, with Israel particularly fearful of Tehran obtaining a nuclear capability, which it believes would be utilised against it. Israel itself almost certainly possesses a nuclear deterrent, but should Iran obtain the same weapon, it may hesitate less to engage in conflicts, proxy or otherwise, against Israel.
Now, with the Israeli’s Attorney General’s decision to prosecute Netanyahu on corruption charges just this past Thursday, the country’s political scene looks more upended than ever before.
The longer the political uncertainty drags on, the more its economy slows, its budgetary deficit will grow, and its adversaries will become further emboldened. Israel needs to consider its long term strategy in the region, which must go beyond self-defense at all costs, to looking to make peace with those willing to do so with it. A tall order, certainly. Impossible? Perhaps. But if you lessen the amount of enemies you have, your security situation will be all the better for it. Israel and its neighbors have been at war for too long, creating deep-seated hatred on all sides. For the healing to begin, an earnest attempt must be made. The alternative is another three generations of war. Any future Israeli government should think about that.
Matthew Bugeja, Ci Consulta GeoPolitical Advisor