A Forgotten Middle East Awaits Joe Biden’s Visit

U.S. President Biden’s visit to the Middle East, planned for July 13th – 16th, was expected to include among its priority goals a desire to reassert the importance of the special relationship and the American administration’s strong support for all Israeli governments and in particular the “government of change”. This government was the result of a coalition between eight political parties that after four electoral rounds had joined forces in 2021 to prevent the re-election of outgoing premier Benjamin Netanyahu. The government of change, however, after laboriously celebrating its first anniversary, imploded just a month before Biden’s trip to the Middle East was confirmed: the Israeli Parliament took note of it, unanimously voting today to dissolve itself. Even before this happened, two events had already compromised the full success of the top level US state visit: the murder of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the announcement by the Supreme Planning Council of the Israeli Civil Administration, responsible for the administration of the Occupied Territories, of the construction of an additional 4,427 housing units in settlements, including some built in the heart of the West Bank, such as Shvut Rachel, as well as the retroactive legalisation of spontaneous outposts such as Mitzpe Danny, Mitzpe Lachish and Oz we Gaon.

Unopposed by outgoing premier Bennett, such decisions bear witness to President Biden’s increasing difficulty, as well as that of any other US president, to reaffirm the centrality of the two-state solution, faced with Israeli governments that, without any diplomatic hesitation, alternately or blatantly stand against the resumption of a peace process or, like the current government, defend the status quo due to a lack of domestic political cohesion. It is therefore probable that the message on which Biden will concentrate during his coming visit will no longer concern relations with the Palestinians, on which it is impossible to report any progress and about which he may restrict himself to making a statement of principle concerning respect for international law, but rather the need to further extend and deepen the Abraham Accords, potentially open to other Arab countries in the region, and especially Saudi Arabia, the next stop on the democratic president’s trip to the region. It is above all this last destination that could become the cornerstone of Biden’s trip. The Democratic president could negotiate with Riyadh symbolic gestures of openness towards Israel such as opening Saudi airspace to Israeli civilian planes in exchange for very real quid pro quos. These could include the sale of American weapons for anti-missile defence from attacks by the Houthi from Yemen, officially transferring the Sanafir Islands from Egypt to Riyadh with Israel’s formal approval and the implicit promise to fully reinstate Mohammed Bin Salman in the international community.

One promise that Biden is unable to keep, however, is massive US military deployment to the Middle East, replaced by America’s bipartisan desire to assign responsibility for directing regional affairs to a responsible consortium of countries united by the Abraham Accords around the project for the area’s stabilisation, as well as prepared to autonomously address threats posed by revisionist powers.  Such regional stability should ideally revolve around the three powers in the area traditionally allied to the United States, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia would be called upon to contribute actively to this security network no longer only from a financial point of view, but increasingly also politically, with intervention aimed at stabilising Iraq, allowing the Lebanese economy to breathe, welcome regional and Afghan refugees, mediate in conflicts such as that of the GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, and also increase oil production so as to address increased global demand following the boycott of Russian oil and gas. In the absence of a stable Israeli government the U.S, president’s trip could aim for the drafting of a structural agreement with Riyadh and a photo opportunity with the Palestinian president so as to put an end to the “Peace agreement of the century” but also the United States’ temporary deviation from formal respect for UN Resolutions .

In the meantime, Israel will form a new ad interim government led by the Yesh Atid Party, led by Yair Lapid, which will not have full power and therefore be unable to issue pronouncements in continuity with the government of change that has just fallen, concerning the one, two or three state solution. In addition to being unable to make any strategic decisions other than the administration of current affairs, Lapid will have no interest in doing so, well-aware of having to face in the elections to be held next November 1st the solid and homogeneous right-wing block led by Netanyahu, solidly placed on ultra-nationalist platforms, so much so that it could potentially relaunch the project announced but not implemented during Netanyahu’s 2019 election campaign, involving the annexation of the West Bank’s Area C. To face him, the centre’s coalition will need to move to the right and win over part of that electorate disappointed by the implosion of Yamina, the party of outgoing PM Naftali Bennett, a collateral victim of the coalition government’s dissolution process.


Roots of a crisis

In fact, the collapse of the outgoing government was decreed by the break-up of the premier’s ruling party, which, although counting only seven seats, had gained the leadership thanks to its role as the deciding factor in the formation of the coalition in 2021.  In fact, it was precisely a Yamina MP, Idit Silman, who two months ago announced her defection from the party and the government, citing pressure from family and acquaintances, who would not accept the coalition’s gradual abandonment of ‘traditional patriotic values’ of the Right, putting the government in the minority and triggering a series of defections within the coalition. Other members of the party, among them the MP Amichai Chikli, who were to openly vote against the government coalition, and the person responsible for the Knesset’s political affairs, Nir Orbach, followed her for similar reasons a few days later.

Finally an MP from Meretz, the Zionist left-wing party, and another from Ra’am, the Arab-Islamist arty currently included in the government collation, were to symbolically scuttle the vote on the extension of Israeli legislation to settlers living beyond the Green Line. This was a routine vote on the renewal of extraordinary legislation in force in the Occupied Territories, the renewal of which is required every five years. This generally was a ritual, but on this occasion seriously risked lacking a majority prepared to support it, running the risk for the very first time in Israeli history of creating a watershed between Jewish citizens resident in territories legally controlled by Israel and those who did not. Many Israeli commentators believe in fact that it was precisely this risk run by the coalition that that caused Bennett to throw in the towel, fearing he might go down in history as the first Israeli leader – paradoxically a member of an ultranationalist political party – responsible for having abandoned settlers in juridical limbo.

Witnessing the dissolution of his party, Bennett declared that he would be leaving politics for some time and did not intend to run again at the next election. And yet his government would have more than one concrete achievement to claim, including: the stabilisation of the post Covid-19 economy, the success and wide-ranging implementation of his vaccination policy, the failure of the US to re-join the Iranian nuclear agreement(JCPOA), although maintaining excellent and constructive relations with Washington, the relative calm along the borders and in the Gaza Strip with Hamas and Hezbollah and, finally, a show of political unity between the country’s diverse segments and souls that had been fighting until 2020.


Uncertain legacy

Nevertheless, the real breakthrough for which the government of change will go down in history will be the surprising choice – albeit forced since it was imposed by electoral numbers – to include an Arab party in the governing coalition. This was a development that could turn out to be a lasting legacy in Israeli politics if the Palestinians in Israel, considering positive the work done by Ra’am in government – in spite of its brief three-week self-suspension protesting against the desecration of the Esplanade of Mosques during last Ramadan – were to reward the party with significant electoral support. This would above all mean en masse voting in the next elections. There would be every reason for mass participation, first and foremost, to counter the possible advent of a new ultra-nationalist and xenophobic government, likely to represent the most reactionary forces on the Israeli political spectrum, such as the nationalist-religious Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. Such a government, as already announced by Netanyahu himself, would champion strict nationalism (Michael J. Koplow, Israeli Policy Forum, May 26th, 2022), hinged on a restrictive – insofar as it is limited to Jews only – and ideological understanding of the state. It would therefore be predisposed to demonstrative and provocative actions such as the strenuous defence of each illegal outpost, and would also be the most geopolitically irrelevant and isolated, the exaltation of the 2018 law on the nation-state as a principle of Jewish superiority and the organisation of Day of Jerusalem’s nationalist march along the irritating path that every year leads to the Wailing Wall crossing the Old Coty’s Muslim District to manifestly reiterate power relations between Israelis and Palestinians. It would be a regressive scenario that Israel’s Arab society would have every interest in avoiding, if only it could convince itself – not a foregone conclusion – that its electoral strength could not only prove to be decisive in October, but must now aspire to conclude increasingly advanced and inclusive government pacts with the Arab element.

This is a virtuous route inaugurated with powerful pragmatism by Ra’am, but that would also involve the United Arab List or some of its internal elements such as Ayman Odeh’s Hadash, the real initiator in 2019 of policies open to Zionist governments. This expectation was betrayed by the then leader of the opposition party Benny Gantz, who rather than include Arab parties preferred an alliance with his rival Netanyahu. If Arab voters’ turnout were to return to levels seen in 2020 (64.8% compared to 44.6% in 2021), the minority could once again win about 13 seats in the Knesset, becoming an insurmountable obstacle to forming a new collation government. Perhaps it is too soon to understand and interpret the political polls – which now see Netanyahu winning between 59 and 60 seats with about 54 going to the opposition (Kan, June 2022) -, especially considering the fact that these polls concern blocks that have not yet announced they are running in elections not yet formally announced.

Arab parties should however assess how to best exploit the current Israeli political stalemate, wresting a centrality that no Zionist force would ever have wanted to grant them, but which they could now conquer on their own, exploiting from within the divisions of the Jewish majority, should they decide to participate en masse and without hesitation in the difficult but always winning game of democracy.


Cover Photo: Israel’s outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) with Incoming (ad interim) Prime Minister Yair Lapid (C-L), and other key ministries of the now dissolved “coalition of change” – Jerusalem, June 13, 2021 (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP).

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