Looking Back on 2022 in Israel and the Middle East (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- December 27, 2022)


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. Was 2022 good or bad for Israel?

A. On balance, and invoking Israel’s own unique criteria, 2022 was good.

Q. Unique criteria?

A. There was no war. Normalization with Arab countries proceeded apace. And Mssrs. Bennett and Lapid governed with decency and stability. Their coalition, formed with a groundbreaking Arab component in 2021 and dissolved at the end of 2022, was a uniquely positive experiment in governance for Israel. That defines “good” by Israeli criteria. But in addition, the economy was relatively sound, the start-up nation continued to thrive (with added-in notoriety for marketing intrusive cyber surveillance programs), and Covid-19 wound down.

Sadly, at least with regard to decency in governance, it looks like 2022 was an interlude. Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power at the close of the year, now accompanied by Kahanists and fascists and the ultra-Orthodox Haredim.

The year 2022 was bad for West Bank Palestinians insofar as it also produced a growing and alarming casualty rate among them. This was the result of a pro-active strategy adopted by Israel following a spate of Palestinian attacks inside the country, to take the conflict to the cities of the northern West Bank where the absence of governance by a weak Palestinian Authority had led to attacks on Israelis.

One extremely negative byproduct of this Palestinian casualty rate in 2022 was civilian casualties--most prominently Al Jazeera TV journalist Shireen Abu Akleh--which in turn generated heavy international criticism. In the absence of any sort of active political vision for the Palestinian future on Israel’s part, the high rate of Palestinian losses and the PA’s weakness suggest the possibility of another intifada in 2023. 

Polling data back up this pessimistic assessment. A credible PCPSR poll from early December indicates that 75 percent of Palestinians want Mahmoud Abbas to resign from his leadership post; 69 percent believe a two-state solution is no longer possible; and 55 percent support return to an armed intifada.

In sharp contrast to the West Bank situation, calm prevailed throughout 2022 along the Gaza-Israel boundary. Israeli economic incentives, coupled with military deterrence and Egyptian pressure, seem to have worked, at least in the short term.

Q. At the broadest regional and international strategic level, were there groundbreaking developments in 2022 that affected Israel?

A. There were three. First and foremost, the war in Ukraine, which began in late February. Second, the emerging Russia-Iran military alliance, which has lately found expression in the Ukraine war. And third, the Israel-Lebanon maritime energy border agreement, which has promising potential.

Q. Let’s take the first two together: Ukraine and Russia-Iran, which seem to be related.

A. The war in Ukraine affected global energy markets, and particularly Saudi relations with both the United States and Russia. It has also affected Russia’s stance in Syria on Israel’s northern border. Israel’s concern not to risk Russian retaliation against its attacks on Iranian targets in Syria led it to adopt a neutral military stance in the Ukraine war and even initially to seek, without success, to play a mediating role between Russia and Ukraine.

In recent months, Israel has maintained its military neutrality--with a pronounced humanitarian and intelligence tilt toward Ukraine--despite the emergence of Iran as a supplier of drones and missiles for Russia’s military effort. This neutral stance has complicated Israel’s relations with the pro-Ukraine West.

Then too, Tehran’s escalation of its military nuclear program, following failure of the American-led effort to renew the JCPOA nuclear agreement, has sharpened Israel’s readiness to contemplate a major military campaign against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure in Iran itself. Not in 2022 and probably not in 2023, but sooner rather than later.

Q. And the Israel-Lebanon gas deal?

A. Here we come to the third major strategic development, the maritime border deal with Lebanon, ratified at the end of October. True, it is not a peace treaty, nor even a ‘normalization’ deal. But by ending contention over gas drilling rights on the Israel-Lebanon Mediterranean border, the agreement appears to have contributed toward the neutralization or weakening, at least in the short term, of Hezbollah’s rocket and missile threat against Israel.

Hezbollah is a military arm of Iran. And it has become a dominant force politically in strife-torn and economically shattered Lebanon. Because the agreement enables Beirut to begin drilling for and producing gas along its border with Israel over the next few years, there is now at least an improved chance for peace and quiet with Lebanon, including Hezbollah, and for Lebanon to overcome its destabilizing economic and political difficulties.

Hopefully, calm between Israel and Lebanon will reflect positively on Lebanon’s other neighbor, Syria. Then too, the border/energy agreement will produce greater regional prosperity by enabling Lebanon alongside Israel to develop natural gas exports to a European market that is renouncing its Russian supplier because of the Ukraine war.

Taken together, Gaza-Israel border calm and the Israel-Lebanon deal appear to have generated unusually quiet borders for Israel in 2022.

Q. Where does Washington enter this summary of 2022?

A. Still in the Lebanon context, it was the United States that brokered the maritime border gas deal with Israel--a singular success for American Middle East diplomacy in a year with an otherwise mediocre Middle East record for Washington. Not only was renewal of the Iran nuclear agreement at least temporarily abandoned in 2022. A visit to Saudi Arabia by US President Biden in July produced the weakest of Saudi gestures in response to Washington’s request to up oil production and lower prices to help rein in US inflation as midterm elections approached.

That had to be seen as a Saudi snub. It reflected a pervasive regional perception of declining American interest and force-projection in the Middle East.

Biden also visited Israel during that July trip. His meeting with Prime Minister Bennett and Defense Minister Gantz produced a new strategic pact between Israel and the US, albeit largely a symbolic gesture--particularly as we contemplate the rough road ahead for the two countries’ strategic relations during the upcoming Netanyahu-Ben Gvir-Smotrich era.

Biden’s visit studiously avoided controversy over the Palestinian issue, which was frozen by the fact of a short-lived Israeli coalition that featured choreographed coexistence among Arab, left, center and right-wing parties. This had the effect of sidelining any and all diplomatic initiatives in the direction of the Palestinians. That situation could soon change for the worse, unless the new Netanyahu government surprisingly avoids provocative measures vis-à-vis the Temple Mount and the West Bank while the Biden administration remains preoccupied with Ukraine, Russia, Iran and China.

Q. Any breakthroughs in Israel’s regional relations in 2022?

A. Relations with Turkey improved, thanks to a decision by President Erdogan to warm them up in view of the volatile situation, catalyzed by Russia, with Greece and in both the Black Sea (Ukraine) to Turkey’s north and Syria to its south. Meanwhile Bennett and Lapid presided over an ongoing warming of Abraham Accord ties with Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and incremental enhancements in strategic and economic relations with neighboring Jordan, Egypt and even (travel and overflight rights) Saudi Arabia. This, still despite the lack of movement with the Palestinians.

Q. If Israel under Bennett and Lapid stayed broadly out of trouble, and here and there registered achievements during 2022, why did the government lose the November 1 Knesset election so badly?

A. I would argue that the latest Knesset election results reflect long term demographic, ideological and religious trends in Israel. The religious Jewish population is growing. Messianic and racist ideological and political views are spreading. The prospect of a country that is more Jewish and less democratic frightens fewer Israelis. For most, the occupation is a manageable fact of life.

Add to this Benjamin Netanyahu’s greater skill at political manipulation and Yair Lapid’s gross errors in managing the fall 2022 elections, and we have a triumph for the forces of fundamentalism and fascism and a major setback for the forces of liberalism and moderation--not only in the Palestinian context but in Israeli internal affairs in general.

Sad to say, but seen in the historical long term, what transpired in Israel during the final days of 2022--the Netanyahu-Haredi-Kahanist racist coalition--is likely to neutralize or negate at least some of the achievements registered earlier during the year by Bennett and Lapid.