As Israel approaches its upcoming national elections on 23 March, the country’s international relationships and domestic affairs are at a particularly fragile point. This election will be the country’s fourth in a span of just two years, and will determine if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party remain in power over a divided and bitter Israeli civil society. The redistribution of voters from Former Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz’s center-right Blue and White party—which effectively lost all support following an ill-fated power-sharing agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu in April 2020—leaves the future of the Israeli political landscape uncertain. The approaching elections could go in any direction, with the potential of a left, center, or right governing coalition in the Knesset and increased friction among Israelis on political and cultural issues coming to a head.
The successive and continuous failures of Netanyahu’s administration over the past three years have weakened the capacity of state institutions to deliver services to an increasingly fractious and fragmented civil society, and these elections are the crystallization of a systemic governance problem in Israel. Regardless of the electoral outcome, the newly appointed administration will have to manage rapidly changing relationships with domestic and foreign actors and negotiate an increasingly volatile security environment. Here are three dynamics to watch as Israel approaches its newest round of national elections:
1. PALESTINIAN SOLIDARY: FATAH-HAMAS AGREEMENT
A landmark act of solidarity has been made by Fatah and Hamas, who announced on February 10 that they will hold mediation talks in Cairo and holding Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections in May and July. Fatah—which governs the Palestinian Authority and controls the West Bank—and Hamas—which controls Gaza—have failed to achieve unified Palestinian consensus on governance and identity issues for years. These will be the first Palestinian elections since 2006, when intra-Palestinian civil war broke out between Hamas and Fatah.
The Fatah-Hamas collaboration has the power to forge a path for national unity among Palestinians, potentially reversing the drop-off in international support for the Palestinian cause. This announcement follows an outcry from international human rights organizations and EU member states in favor of the Palestinians, after it was revealed that the Israeli government blocked Covid-19 vaccines from entering Gaza. Gaza has since begun its vaccine rollout with 22,000 donated vaccine doses from Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
2. TENSIONS IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: ESCALATIONS WITH IRAN & HEZBOLLAH
Long-standing tensions between Israel and Iran are coming to a head following an explosion on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman on 28 February. Israeli military Chief of Staff Avivi Kochavi responded by accusing Iran of orchestrating the explosion and carrying out “operations against civilian targets.” This explosion is the most recent in a string of escalations between the regional neighbors, who have been issuing threats about weapons acquisitions over the course of the past month. Iranian officials stated that they were exploring the acquisition of missiles which could reach Israel. Israel, in the meantime, just signed a $9 billion weapons deal with the US, strengthening its already hefty supply of military aircraft and weapons.
Security concerns are also heightened on the Levantine front, with the recent publication of the IDF’s annual report on security goals and expectations for the year. The IDF cited Hezbollah as a continuing major threat to Israeli national security, despite speculation by Lebanese military officials that Hezbollah is losing traction outside Lebanon due to internal crises and the ongoing resource limitations brought on by the pandemic.
3. THE “SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP:” THE FUTURE OF ISRAEL-U.S. TIES
Relations between Israel and the United States are uncertain as new U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration face several critical decisions regarding Israel and the Middle East. The Biden administration received criticism from the U.S. Israel lobby in February, who questioned why Washington had not yet set a phone call with Tel Aviv. Biden and Netanyahu eventually had a phone conversation on 17 February. Still, Biden has yet to decide whether Washington will lift sanctions imposed on Iran’s central bank during former President Donald Trump’s tenure, a decision which will have an indirect but significant impact on Israel-Iran relations and set the tone for this administration’s relationship with Israel.