By Raanan Eliaz*
While the composition of the next government in Jerusalem depends on the Israeli vote, pro-active European policy can influence future outcomes. A pragmatic EU can partake in determining the looming course of action, with each of the alternative Israeli choices.
Each of the scenarios pending the outcome of the Israeli elections on April 9th bodes dramatically different possibilities for Europe. Not only will its future relationship with the Middle-East’s only democracy be affected, but also the EU’s very role in the region, and its ability to help shape future events on its eastern frontier.
If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reelected and manages to create a narrow right-wing government, some might expect “more of the same.” Indeed, such government which may well include controversial far-right appointments is likely to widen the already serious gap between the EU and Israel.
While Netanyahu’s core foreign policy lies within close coordination with the American President, Trump, Israel’s relations with mainstream Europe may stay stagnant at the very best.
However, since Netanyahu will continue to find partners in illiberal parts of Europe, and more new friends in a newly elected and further-to-the-right European Parliament in Brussels, it is in Europe’s best interest to identify pragmatic ways to engage with Israel’s Netanyahu nevertheless.
If former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, a political novice, is elected to lead Israel alongside centrist Yair Lapid as foreign minister, the road to closer European engagement will be easier, although not without bumps.
Such government will work with Trump, but its orientation would not be Trump-driven as Netanyahu’s. Gantz will not continue Netahyahu’s divisive role inside the EU, and will attempt to renew negotiation with Palestinian leader, Abu-Mazen, a dialogue halted completely under Netanyahu.
Nevertheless, his government is not likely to provide Europe instant progress towards peace, as it takes two for tango, which may disappoint some. As Prime Minister, Gantz will also pursue similar policies to Netanyahu’s in regard to Iran, which would mean continuous discrepancy with the policy of the EU.
There is a third option, too, in the form of a unity government which includes both Likud and Blue & White parties, to form of a relatively stable center-right coalition. Although not the first choice for either, Gantz and Netanyahu may end up leading together – at least until the former is forced, or chooses, to leave politics, possibly as part of a deal to avert further court proceedings against him.
One key advantage of such union would be offering popular Likud an elegant way to moderate itself back into positions which would have been acceptable to the party’s founding fathers. While Europe might be too weak or self-interested to force Palestinians to get back on track for peace, it can still assist sidelining extremists on both sides.
How should Europe respond to each scenario?
A pragmatic European response to a right-wing government in Jerusalem can include a clear demand that Netanyahu drops the divisive policy he pursues of aligning with Europe’s least liberal regimes, in return to greater European understanding of Israel’s legitimate security concerns. Such step would benefit the EU in three distinct ways: enhance its relevance in the Middle East; gear internally with loose member states; and increase coordination with Trump’s Middle-East policies.
Apart from bracing for more bumps in its relationship with Israel, European leaders can proactively build alternative bridges to Israel, by working closely together with the business community and civil society.
In the event Gantz is elected, the EU should give him a significant grace period, and keep closely coordinated policies with Jerusalem. It should moderate expectations for quick fixes in the Middle East, to avert disappointment from some of Gantz’ anticipated defense choices, which will not differ much from Netanyahu’s.
Not even the most pacifist leader Israelis can choose is capable of providing what Palestinians want today. Not to mention Israel’s northern neighbors, and in Iran, wishing not less than its destruction.
Overall, the EU can use the positive momentum in the aftermath of elections to secure its role as a reliable partner to Gantz in any future peace process.
It should also encourage and reward Gantz’s government for internal steps that would safeguard Israel’s democratic character, for example taking the sting of the controversial Nation-State law, and strengthening state institutions that have been under attack in the last Netanyahu era, such as the Supreme Court, the Attorney General and the police.
Europe’s most significant avenue back to relevance in the region might be to more forcefully and effectively reject Iranian attempts to regional hegemony and its creeping nuclear race. However, that might be too much to ask an EU still struggling for self-preservation.
*Raanan Eliaz created ELNET (the European Leadership Network) in 2007 and FSD (the Forum of Strategic Dialogue) in 2012, both aimed at strengthening political ties between Europe and Israel. He led the organizations until 2017