New realities: Netanyahu losing Likud friends while Trump buys Israel another Arab friend (December 14, 2020)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Assessing that elections are near, Gideon Saar resigned last week from the Likud and the Knesset and is forming a right-wing party with the goal of replacing Netanyahu. Is this realistic?

A. Saar is, or was, a veteran Likudnik with ministerial experience and impeccable rightist credentials that place him ideologically to the right of the more politically flexible and opportunistic Netanyahu. Saar was the most prominent critic and opponent of Netanyahu within the Likud. In resigning, he directed pointed remarks to Israeli voters of all persuasions: “Likud has increasingly and dramatically changed its path in recent years. The movement has become a tool to serve the interests of the prime minister, including those related to his criminal trial.”

Initial polls showed a (thus far nameless) party formed by Saar drawing mandates away from parties on the right, including the Likud, but also from the center: Blue-White and Yesh Atid. He has already poached two former Likud right wingers from Blue-White, and a number of Likud MKs are considered likely collaborators. He is trying to make himself the rallying point for the entire anti-Netanyahu camp.

If this trend persists, the net effect will be to enlarge the right-religious bloc to as many as 80 mandates. Saar’s party (“I intend to return to the Knesset leading a large political body that will replace” Netanyahu’s Likud) would be one of several medium-sized right-wing lists, along with those of Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Liberman and the Likud itself. A right-center coalition without Netanyahu would be conceivable.

Q. How will Saar’s dramatic move affect the prospect of new elections?

A. The threat of new elections posed by Blue-White’s Benny Gantz (see last week’s Q & A) was the trigger for the timing of Saar’s initiative. Yet paradoxically, the net effect could be to persuade Netanyahu to make the concessions needed to keep Gantz in the coalition at least for the months ahead. If Netanyahu fears losing power to rivals on the right, he may prefer continuing to share power with the centrist Gantz, even at the cost of enacting a 2021 budget, ratifying long-awaited civil service appointments and prolonging the prospect of rotation with Gantz. “We’re against elections”, Netanyahu reiterated in the aftermath of Saar’s defection.

Q. How does all this energetic activity on the political right affect the overall political scene in Israel?

A. Saar’s momentous move threatens to seriously fragment the Likud for the first time since 2005, when Ariel Sharon established the breakaway Kadima party to carry out the Gaza Strip withdrawal. More dramatically, it advances the prospect that politics in Israel will change radically.

Traditionally, Israeli politics operated on a left-right spectrum, going all the way back to Mapai vs. Herut in 1949 and up to Labor vs. Likud in 2015. Recently, as the right-religious stream became the mainstream, politics have operated on a center-right spectrum. Now we confront the possibility of a mainly right-right spectrum that sorts out the votes among some 80 mandates and correspondingly shrinks both the center and the left. Even the Joint Arab List (currently 15 mandates) is in danger of shrinking as Raam, its Arab Islamist component, contemplates running separately on a platform of collaborating with the Zionist Right.

Anyone whose vote is directed at removing Netanyahu and his corrupt legacy from Israeli politics now has to contemplate, for reasons of pure realpolitik, voting not for a party on the left or center but for a party on the right. The growing right-wing dominant force on the spectrum can now offer the voter a militantly secular option (Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu), a religious option (Bennet’s Yamina), or something in-between (Saar, who is Tel Aviv-style secular but advocates West Bank annexation and is on good terms with both the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox).

Concern for the Palestinian issue or anxiety over Israel’s likely future as a binational apartheid state is not on any of the platforms of these parties. In a cynical post-democratic world, if these issues don’t interest Israel’s new Arab friends in Abu Dhabi and Fez (see below), why should they interest the Israeli voter?

Yet in discussing Netanyahu’s post-Saar options, it is important not to lose sight of the most compelling factor in his calculations of political survival: his trial on three counts of corruption, now scheduled to begin in February. To the extent he still controls his political fate, when does Netanyahu prefer elections? How does his trial factor into his decision? How does the covid virus and the availability of an immunizing vaccination factor in? What about the prospect of a Biden administration in Washington possibly pressing for Israeli concessions regarding Iran and the Palestinians? Is Saar another Sharon--a bulldozer who can at least temporarily decimate the Likud--or merely a flash in the pan? Is Gantz’s election initiative a bluff that can be negotiated by Netanyahu at a reasonable price or, given Gantz’s lack of political skills and awful political prospects, a Samson-like act?

These are the questions Netanyahu and his advisers are presumably debating as the end of the year 2021-budget-deadline looms.

Q. Meanwhile, with American leverage, favors and arms, Israel has registered a diplomatic breakthrough with yet another Arab country, Morocco. How significant is this for the larger picture of US-Israel, Arab-Israel and Palestinian-Israeli relations?

A. Something truly paradoxical is going on. Netanyahu is losing support within his own party, the Likud, and losing a very friendly American president, Donald Trump. The latter has for four years favored West Bank settlements, recognized Israeli annexations in Jerusalem and the Golan and, most recently, played an instrumental role in formalizing Israel’s relations with a growing list of Arab countries. Yet rather strikingly, Trump’s bounty and the new reality of low-cost direct flights to Dubai and, soon, Morocco, appear to have provided little or no ‘bounce’ to Netanyahu’s political prospects.

The normalization breakthroughs with the UAE, Bahrain and now Morocco are understood by the Israeli public to culminate decades-long processes in the course of which semi-clandestine relations were developed with Arab countries that were never at war with Israel and have no legacy of hostility and bloodshed. Minor correction: Morocco, added to the list just last week, did in 1973 send troops to the Syrian Golan front while secretly begging Israel not to attack them. But Morocco is unique in that close to a million Israelis look upon it as the not-unfriendly land their parents and grandparents came from in the 1950s and 1960s.

In all these cases, the breakthroughs of recent months and days were achieved by means of unique American transactional financial manipulations and arms sales to the Arab countries in question. Sudan got itself removed from the list of countries supporting terrorism, a gesture worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Morocco’s price included US recognition of its rule over the former Spanish Sahara to its south, a move that contradicts the position of every regional and international institution (as well as at least one prominent Republican senator, Inhofe of Oklahoma).

Overt normalization of long-existing covert and semi-covert ties with Israel is the quid pro quo provided by the Arabs. This is Trump’s business approach to international relations at its most developed: money and weapons transactions buy normalization. They also buy the Arabs’ admission that the Palestinian issue is relatively unimportant to them and will not be allowed to dictate their policies toward Israel any longer--particularly when they need Israel as an ally against Iranian hegemonic threats.

True, the Emirates exacted an Israeli concession regarding the Palestinians: renouncing (for how long?) West Bank annexation. And the rulers in Abu Dhabi, Rabat and Khartoum have ritually pledged their ongoing allegiance to the Palestinian issue. Then too, note that all the normalizing countries are located, safely, thousands of kilometers away from Israel and Palestine. The Moroccans, incidentally, are taking things slowly: no talk of embassies yet, and no photo-op phone conversation between King Mohammed VI and Netanyahu.

Then too, recall that some of these same Gulf Arabs and North African Arabs already entered into diplomatic relations with Israel in the mid-1990s, following Oslo. They then unceremoniously suspended ties when the Oslo process ran out of steam and Palestinian protests and violence influenced their publics to pressure their totally autocratic rulers to reverse course.

That could still conceivably happen again.

Q. Is Saudi Arabia next?

A. The aging Saudi King Salman, still ultimately holding the reins of power despite the challenge of his son and designated successor, the young and volatile Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), insists on maintaining the principle of a two-state solution preceding normalization with Israel. So it appears the Saudis will hold off as long as Salman is alive.

The debate between Salman’s deference to the Palestinians and the disdain reflected in the views of MbS and in the normalization gestures of the Moroccans and Emiratis, which MbS supports, has recently been played out in public appearances by senior Saudi princes. Prince Turki, former ambassador to the US and former head of Saudi Intelligence, recently openly ridiculed Israeli democracy and condemned Israel’s “concentration camps” for the Palestinians. In contrast, Prince Bandar, who sports an almost identical pedigree, recently went on the record condemning Palestinians’ perfidy and ingratitude. Meanwhile, MbS has managed to grant El Al overflight rights on its way to the UAE and Bahrain, but no recognition. Stay tuned.

Q. Trump’s normalization transactions with Arab states, devoid as they are of any trace of morality or ideals in international relations, appear to be moving hand-in-hand with the outgoing US president’s drive to withdraw the US military from the region. Where does this leave Israel?

A. Good question, one that it is too early to answer. Trump has followed (without ever acknowledging it) President Obama’s recognition that American energy independence and the rise of China dictate an American military and strategic reorientation away from the Middle East and towards the Asian East. Biden is likely to move in the same direction, albeit, like Obama, based on more traditional strategic considerations and values.

Here, from Bar Ilan University’s Professor Shmuel Sandler, a veteran pro-settler religious right-winger, is a thought-provoking attempt at an answer to the question of where this leaves Israel:

To the extent that the US continues to leave the region, Israel’s weight in the emerging regional alliance will grow, and it is liable to find itself in situations where it is asked to take military steps that are not necessarily required for its own existential interests. . . . [Israel must] prepare its public for . . . regional military involvement in which it fills the role played in the past by the US.

Q. Israel as the region’s policeman? Is this indeed the future?

A. With the Israeli right-religious mainstream dominating politics even (hopefully) without Netanyahu, with the Palestinian issue sidelined by Israel’s new Arab friends, and with the US withdrawing from the picture, one can conjure up a truly dystopian scenario for the coming years. Here is a projection not of the Zionist left, but of the Israeli ultra-right: a binational apartheid Israel sends its youth to fight on behalf of dictatorial Gulf Arab potentates against Iranian inroads, thousands of kilometers to Israel’s east.

Does it have to end up this way? Is this bizarre right-wing scenario written in stone? No. But the political dividend of Saar’s challenge, coupled with Trump’s transactions on Israel’s behalf, render it more likely.

For previous editions of Hard Questions, Tough Answers, go to the Index Page.