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.
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.
Second, Israel must look beyond its perception of the Islamists' “blind hatred” of Israel. It must recognize that, even with the rise of new Islamist parties, it is practical politics and public opinion – rather than ideology – that will play the bigger role in determining Israel’s relations with other regional players.
In turn, this shift should also lead Israel’s new government to realize that the last government’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process constitute a huge stumbling block for Israel in improving its regional standing with both new governments and societies. As the region changes quickly and profoundly, it is especially urgent that Israel tackle this elephant in the room.
Israel’s regional standing is deeply tied, now more than ever, to its policies with respect to the Palestinians. Now is not the time for passivity or obstinacy, but rather it is time to take a bold stand. Israel should renew serious negotiations to move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict forward, urgently address the issues of settlements in the West Bank, reconsider its refusal to deal with Hamas, and it should not hinder efforts at Palestinian inter-reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
In the wake of the last round of military confrontations between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, the ceasefire set up a vague yet important course of action to gradually “open” Gaza. This path should be followed.
The preliminary results of the elections in Israel show it may still be difficult for the new coalition, especially as Netanyahu will likely remain at its head, to have the stability or political will to fully follow this course of action. However, with the right-wing block weakened to a razor-thin majority (with pro-settler parties earning fewer seats in parliament than predicted), there is a glimmer of hope that this conversation will at least be resurrected.
With the help of renewed international and specifically US attention, the new Israeli government will be better positioned to invest in making real progress on the Israeli-Palestinian political process. The hope is admittedly dim, but it is nevertheless there.
Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist working group, and coauthor of the book, “Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Follow her on Twitter at @benedettabertiw.