Al-Monitor – Israel is headed to its fifth election in just over three years after the collapse of its fragile coalition government. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s surprise decision to step down and disband the Knesset comes weeks before he is due to meet with President Joe Biden, who arrives in Israel on July 13.
As we report below, the collapse of the coalition sets the stage for a possible return of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister — Benjamin Netanyahu, now the Likud Party opposition leader in the Knesset, whom the Bennett-led coalition ousted from power a year ago.
The conventional wisdom is that the coming election may be a showdown between Netanyahu and Bennett’s outgoing coalition partner, current Foreign Minister (and soon to be interim Prime Minister), Yair Lapid, head of the centrist There is a Future (Yesh Atid) Party, as Mazal Mualem reports.
We asked five experts how Biden’s first presidential trip to Israel could impact politics there:
- Good optics for the PM. A Biden visit to Israel should play well for Lapid. “His key is to appear and be prime ministerial,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Nothing makes an Israeli prime minister more prime ministerial than engaging on the world stage with American presidents.”
- Normalization should be a win for Lapid. Even though Biden will be careful to avoid being seen as interfering in Israeli domestic politics, his visit could “help Lapid emerge from the elections as a proper prime minister” with some actual achievements, said former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Itamar Rabinovich. “Any progress in building an anti-Iranian bloc of which Israel would be a part, and any additional progress in expanding the Abraham Accords, would be feathers in Lapid’s cap.”
- Prepping for ‘Plan B’ on Iran. While the Biden administration is still publicly committed to negotiating a renewed nuclear deal, a “Plan B” if the talks fail is sure to be on the agenda during Biden’s meetings with Bennett and Lapid, as is a likely series of US-led initiatives to strengthen regional deterrence. Outgoing PM Bennett is expected to informally serve as the interim government’s minister in charge of the Iran portfolio. Lara Friedman, president of the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, expects that Biden and Lapid will put forward a united front on Iran. “I think they’re going to just try to be as conciliatory as possible, saying we’re all on the same side trying to do this same thing.”
- A Biden-Bibi reunion? Biden could meet with Netanyahu, as there is a tradition of US presidents meeting with the leader of the Israeli opposition, said David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Biden and Netanyahu have enjoyed a cordial, if complicated, relationship going back 40 years. “They’re not going to be breaking any china here,” Makowsky said of a potential meeting.
- Low expectations for Palestinians. Biden’s two-day visit will include a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who wants the administration to fulfill its campaign promise of reopening the reopening the US Consulate in Jerusalem. But Israel’s political paralysis is unlikely to have any significant effect on US-Palestinian ties, said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “The Palestinian issue will remain a low priority for the Biden administration, regardless of who is in power in Israel.”
From our regional correspondents
1. Netanyahu’s path back to power
The upcoming elections pave the way for longtime premier-turned-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to return to power if he can mobilize the 61-seat parliamentary majority that escaped him in the previous four election cycles. Ben Caspit writes that Netanyahu’s overarching goal is to put an end to the corruption trial against him that is currently underway. Doing so would involve the Knesset replacing the incumbent attorney general and then passing the so-called French Law suspending criminal proceedings against incumbent heads of state.
“If Netanyahu mobilizes the 61-seat Knesset majority that has evaded him through the four previous election cycles,” writes Caspit, “he will probably try to carry out a constitutional, legal and regime coup. His overarching goal is to stop the corruption trial underway against him, which includes a charge of bribery.”
2. Israel’s coalition crisis sparks Arab party showdown
“While the members of the Joint List are celebrating the decision by the coalition’s leaders to dissolve the Knesset, their Ra’am party rivals are trying to relay a sense that everything is business as usual,” writes Afif Abu Much. Ra’am — the first Arab party to join a ruling coalition since Israel’s founding — spent the last few weeks in talks with recalcitrant Arab members of the coalition in an effort to end the current crisis. Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas has dismissed the notion of his party returning to the Joint List, telling Israel’s Channel 12 that “we want to be partners in the next coalition.”
3. No breakthrough in Turkey talks on NATO bids
Turkey showed no signs of abandoning its maximalist position in talks with Finland and Sweden that were held in Brussels on Monday, sources told Amberin Zaman. Turkey is threatening to veto the Nordic countries’ NATO applications unless both countries take steps to address its security concerns. Specifically, Turkish officials are insisting that Sweden and Finland end their support to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in northern Syria, the sources said. Ankara is also demanding the extradition of several followers of Fetullah Gulen, who the Turkish government accuses of masterminding the attempted coup in 2016. The spokesperson for the Turkish presidency, Ibrahim Kalin, said the discussions on NATO membership would continue and that next week’s NATO summit in Madrid is not a deadline.
4. Can US, Iran seal the nuclear pact?
Prospects for a revived nuclear deal don’t look good, but that doesn’t mean diplomacy is dead. Ali Hashem and Elizabeth Hagedorn examine whether the United States and Iran are prepared to make tough concessions to take the deal across the finish line. “It’s very obvious that we are talking two different languages,” an Iranian official said. The talks broke down in March over Tehran’s insistence that the Biden administration delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. But in an interview with Al-Monitor, an advisor to the Iranian negotiating team indicated that that point may no longer be a red line.