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.
Despite Lebanon and West Bank dramas, It’s Still a Draw.
Q. Barely two weeks to go until Nov. 1 Knesset elections. Are there any new election dynamics that alter the odds?
A. There are new election dynamics, but they do not alter the odds. The Netanyahu bloc and the ‘Just not Bibi’ bloc remain roughly equal, with either or both dependent on Arab parties to form at best a fragile coalition.
However, within the blocs there is movement, and it is significant. On the right, the racist-Kahanist Religious Zionism party is gaining in strength, and now polls at 13 mandates. It is drawing potential votes from the Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties and Ayelet Shaked’s failing Jewish Home party--all members of the right-religious bloc.
This means that for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to form a coalition (assuming he can garner 61 mandates), he will have to offer choice portfolios to Religious Zionism leaders Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. We can be certain they will demand sensitive posts like Interior and Domestic Security where their racist views can find expression. This would severely complicate Israel’s international relations, particularly with the Biden administration--not to mention the effect on democracy in Israel.
Note that Netanyahu himself helped launch the Ben-Gvir-Smotrich partnership in order to give his more extreme supporters a political home. Now he faces the dilemma of persuading far-right voters to back off and stick with the Likud.
The center-left anti-Netanyahu bloc is static, with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid polling at 24-25 mandates, Gantz’s National Unity at 12, and Labor, Meretz and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu all passing the four-mandate threshold. But the Arab bloc appears to be weakening. One of three parties previously in the Joint List, the extremist Arab-nationalist Balad, is running separately from the others and, thus far, not passing the four-mandate threshold. As matters stand, Joint List survivors Hadash-Taal and Mansour Abbas’s Raam (a pioneering Arab member of the outgoing Lapid-led coalition) each poll four mandates.
If this situation prevails on Nov. 1, Arab parties will have only eight members of Knesset--down from a high of 15 when all four parties ran together a few years ago. Beyond the obvious contributing factor of Arab party disarray, there are strong indications that overall participation in the upcoming elections by Arab citizens of Israel will fall as low as 40 percent this time around.
How did this happen? Arab voters in Israel are apparently repelled by a sense that the Bennett-Lapid coalition failed to ‘deliver the goods’ to Arab Israelis in the economic and law-and-order sectors. They are disappointed that the Arab parties, once united, are now fragmenting and will also be ever more incapable of ‘delivering’ to voters. They have little hope that Israel will improve the lot of their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza. Unbridled violence still prevails in Israel’s Arab sector.
So why vote? Here we recall that a reduced Arab vote could benefit the biggest party, the Likud, thanks to the way the ‘pie’ of the total vote is divvied up.
Q. Lapid is trumpeting his success, with American and French assistance, in reaching a deal with Lebanon over the Israel-Lebanon maritime border and the regulation of maritime natural gas drilling. An election ‘deal-breaker’?
A.This deal should be a cause for national celebration. Israel’s security leaders have given their blessing to an agreement which should make a major contribution to security stability on Israel’s Lebanon border and to energy-related economic prosperity. Lebanon benefits, too: it can finally start drilling for Mediterranean gas and at least begin to dream of climbing out of the hole of political and economic disaster that it has dug itself into. Prime Minister Lapid and Defense Minister Gantz appear to have played their negotiating cards skillfully.
Accordingly, Lapid and Gantz point to new maritime border stability, US and French guarantees, potential additional income from a shared Israeli-Lebanese gas field, and a green light to start pumping gas (for energy-hungry Europe) from Israel’s Karish field which is located just south of Lebanese waters. Early polls indicate the Israeli public approves.
By the way, the United States gains too. The deal benefits western energy markets, hence indirectly bolsters Ukraine. And by weakening Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon it may soften up Iran to agree to a renewed nuclear agreement. Small wonder that President Biden specifically and directly asked Lapid to make a few concessions in order to make this possible. Biden’s energy negotiator, Amos Hochstein, did a masterful job and won over the Lebanese despite his Israeli roots.
So is this a vote-getter for the left and center? Not if you listen to Netanyahu, who ignores his own failure to reach a deal with Lebanon during a decade of leadership and criticizes Lapid’s agreement as a strategic disaster. Israel, Netanyahu and the Likud argue, gave up a few square kilometers of its EEZ (exclusive economic zone) to the Lebanese enemy! (But Israel gained Lebanese acceptance of its far more strategic maritime defense ‘current buoy line’ border closer to land.) Lebanese Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, will now reap gas profits to feed its war machine! (No. The US and France will make sure the profits go to the Lebanese government, not Hezbollah. In any case, there will be no profits at all for at least five years. And eventually a gas-rich Lebanon will be less dependent on Iran and by extension on Hezbollah for vital fuel.)
Q. But isn’t Hezbollah the enemy?
A. It is. Like its Iranian mentors, it is committed to Israel’s destruction. The maritime gas deal is not with Hezbollah but with the (admittedly dysfunctional and Hezbollah-dominated) Lebanese government. But note: the Israeli public fears Hezbollah’s hundred thousand-plus missiles and rockets and fears a destructive war with Hezbollah-Iran. Nobody in Israel wants a war. This is one more explanation for overall Israeli support for the gas deal with its stabilizing effect.
Notably Netanyahu, sensing a trend in the Israeli public to support the gas deal, has stopped threatening to cancel it if and when he returns to power. In this regard, it will be interesting to see whether in the next two weeks, the polls show a net gain for Lapid over the gas deal, at Netanyahu’s expense.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s very logical demand to submit the Lebanon maritime border deal to a Knesset vote is going to fall by the wayside. First, because previous maritime border deals with Egypt and Jordan were not voted on in the Knesset. Second, because there is no time: Israel has elections Nov. 1; on the day before, Lebanese President Michel Aoun leaves office, probably without a replacement to sign the deal in his stead. Third, because multiple unproductive elections have generated a dysfunctional Knesset in which Netanyahu, on trial for corruption, leads an opposition that flouts the rules.
Still, the absence of Knesset approval is a drawback of the deal, particularly insofar as Lapid would almost certainly win a Knesset vote with the benefit of the votes of all the Arab political parties. Meanwhile, the Knesset has by law two weeks to examine the deal--without a vote.
Q. How historic is this deal?
A. The Lapid government is careful not to call this a historic agreement. After all, it is economic, not political or diplomatic. Then too, it is being made with an extremely fragile and impoverished Lebanon that has no functioning government and may have no elected president by November.
In this context, it is fascinating to note that the Israeli leadership and media have conveniently forgotten that back in 1983 Israel, occupying major parts of Lebanon, squeezed a compliant Christian Maronite leadership for a peace agreement. Of course that peace pact was quickly discredited--along with the entire Israeli military adventure in Lebanon--and fell apart in no time.
Still, this is not the first agreement between the two countries; the historical record is not good. Nor are the relevant geostrategic realities particularly favorable. As Yediot Aharonot columnist Nachum Barnea put it, “Lebanon is not a state and its government is not a government. It may have gas, but it has no engine.”
Q. Apropos a possible electoral benefit for Lapid from the deal, isn’t the increasingly violent situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem balancing things out by hurting Lapid, Gantz, and the ruling coalition? A new intifada?
A. There are a number of striking characteristics of the current escalating violence that radically distinguish it from past intifadas. First, Palestinian attacks are largely confined to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, meaning that the average Israeli does not feel them except when an Israeli soldier is killed and the media can wax patriotic and engage in a celebration of martyrdom. Second, the attacks---primarily shootings with a sprinkling of knifings and car rammings--are directed mainly at Israeli armed forces, meaning they constitute armed resistance and not ‘terrorism’, even if Israeli spokespersons and the media insist on calling them terrorism.
Third, most attacks are carried out by little-known Palestinian armed groups that are apparently not affiliated with Fateh, Hamas or Islamic Jihad. In other words, this is spontaneous and very much ‘grass roots’. Note that the focus of violence is East Jerusalem and the northern West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin, and that further south--Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron--Palestinian Authority forces are broadly in control and coordinating with the IDF. Fourth, Hamas is maintaining relative quiet in the Gaza Strip and, as noted, is not credited with most West Bank attacks even though it incites there and would like to be credited.
Is the violence hurting the Lapid government electorally? Certainly Netanyahu and the right are accusing Lapid and especially Gantz of negligence. But because of the ‘non-intifada’ factors noted above, they do not appear to be swaying voters. Unless East Jerusalem disturbances overflow into West Jerusalem. And unless more and more reserves are called up by the Border Patrol and even the IDF: that hits home!
Q. Bottom line?
A. Barring unforeseen game-changer events, which in the Middle East are always possible, Israel continues to be divided into irreconcilable blocs, neither of which is capable of garnering enough votes to break the political stalemate of the past four years. Current dramatic events--the Lebanon deal, West Bank violence--do not appear to make a difference.
In the likely event of yet another dead heat outcome, the Arab vote and the readiness of Arab parties to join a coalition could be critical in avoiding yet another round of voting with its debilitating effect on Israeli democracy.