Israel's new government could bring shift in policy on Arab Spring and Palestinians
Following Israel’s parliamentary elections, the gains of Yair Lapid’s moderate party over Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party could provide the opportunity for a needed change in Israel’s stance on the Arab Spring and its conflict with the Palestinians.
Tel Aviv, Israel
Though the power-sharing details of the Israel’s new coalition government have yet to be settled, election results confirm the surprising parliamentary gains of middle-class champion Yair Lapid over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party. The voter-mandated shift to the center puts Mr. Lapid in the kingmaker role and gives centrist political parties much more influence over the course of Israel’s domestic and international policy.Skip to next paragraph
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Such a shift is a welcome development. Israel’s stance on the Arab Spring and Palestinian conflict under the last government has been characterized by passive entrenchment – and it has been deeply flawed. Now is the time to focus instead on constructive, proactive policies that move Israel and the region forward.
As the Middle East underwent tremendous social and political change over the past two years, the Israeli government’s predominant reaction to the “Arab awakening” has been a mix of skepticism and hesitance.
While the official Israeli policy has been to keep a low profile and refrain from openly interfering in external political processes, there have been widespread concerns within the government over increased regional volatility and calls to restore stability. On several occasions, Mr. Netanyahu linked this perceived regional instability with his country’s need to focus with greater urgency on boosting its national security.
Netanyahu also stressed on several occasions that external observers were mistaken in seeing the so-called Arab Spring as a redux of Eastern Europe in 1989, stressing instead how the regional uprising would lead to an “Iranian winter.” The skepticism displayed by the government has also affected the Israeli population, with opinion polls showing the public’s concern that the Arab Spring would not benefit Israel.
In recent months, as the post-revolutionary Arab transitions have indeed led to internal as well as some regional instability, the Israeli government has continued to keep its head low as an approach to weathering the regional storm. Deeply aware of its own unpopularity in the Middle East and the limited political and diplomatic tools it has to directly impact the shifting regional dynamics, Israel has chosen a largely passive policy, focusing on maintaining peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and beefing up security.
Israel has been correct in warning international enthusiasts to hold their horses and delay their celebrations over liberal democracies flourishing overnight in the region. The country is also right in refraining from taking an overly active role, as this assistance would be seen as interference and promptly rejected. But the current policy of passive entrenchment may prove deeply flawed, and the shift in Israeli government may provide a needed opportunity for a change in policy on that front.
Put simply, as the entire region changes, standing still and retreating inward may not work. It is time for Israel to take a more proactive role.
First, the country needs to adjust to a shifting regional dynamic, one where public opinion will have a stronger say in both domestic and foreign policy. In past decades – and this is certainly true in the case of Egypt – Israel dealt exclusively with the upper-echelons of society, completely disregarding the general public opinion and the "street." Now, following the revolution, this policy will have to change.
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