by Bence Attila NÉMETH, Researcher, Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade
Although the year 2018 for Israel seemed to be promising regarding fortunate events in geopolitics, at the end of 2017, there were probably few people in the country who knew what major changes were coming in the perspective of both domestic and security policies. US President Donald Trump’s statement – according to which the US embassy will move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the city of disputed status will be permanently recognized by Washington as the capital of the Jewish state - seemed the most prestigious political victory for Israel in recent years. This was especially true in view of the fact that Washington has been followed by several other countries since then. The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital was not only an international success, but its domestic political consequences were realized in a short run. In July 2018, a law was passed by the Knesset, which stated that "Israel is a Jewish nation state, and Jerusalem is its unified and indivisible capital."Despite the accusations of corruption and the increasing tensions in the governing coalition – and party politics – of Netanyahu’s government, the governing-coalition seemed to have enough munition for the 2019 elections. Although Israel apparently achieved upper hand in the Jewish-Palestinian conflict in 2018 and the Hamas got fragmented and lost its military potential in several aspects by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in the past 10 years, the re-emergence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led to unexpected political waves, which shattered the government coalition led by Likud at the end of the year. Benjamin Netanyahu's unsuccessful decision that he did not declare war after the failed undercover operation in Gaza – which led to the death of several Israeli and Palestinian people – proved to be critical in the perspective of internal affairs. At first, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned, then his party, named Israel Is Our Country, left the governing majority. Just a few weeks later, the coalition with a narrow majority was finally broken after Benjamin Netanyahu's government failed to obtain support for the adoption of a law regarding the recruitment of ultra-orthodox Jews who have been dispensed from military service so far. Point in time, the Knesset has decided about its own cessation. There was a serious loss of prestige in the field of security policy which places the domestic political crisis in a wide spectrum. In this regard, Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw its military forces from Syria after defeating Daesh (Islam State). After the rather turbulent year of 2018, we have to pay more attention than usual to Israel in 2019.
Approaching the situation from outside, the most important thing is the further development of the Syrian conflict and the issues surrounding the reconciliation In addition to delaying Iran's regional advancement, Hezbollah's further strengthening is the focal point of the security policy in the Jewish state. Military operations against Hezbollah are expected to continue in 2019 to efficiently weaken the reinforced positions of Hezbollah that are gradually returning from Syria to Lebanon, while increasing the IDF’s own deterrence capacity, thus avoiding attacks in the northern region. The United States’s withdrawal from Syria will most likely trigger increased military activity from Israel. At the same time, the Jewish state does not have to worry at all that the Trump administration is backing out of the region, threatening by this the current level of American-Israeli relations. Simultaneously, Jerusalem will need to make further efforts to keep Russia as an indirect tool to be able to shape the Syrian reconciliation, even if the influence is minimal. The role of the underground cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel is also expected to be appreciated by both sides in the shadow of Iran.
Jerusalem will have to keep his finger on the artery of Gaza. Critical months are coming for the Israeli political leadership, and especially for Netanyahu. During this period, the increase in Hamas activity and the escalation of the situation could cast doubt on the meaning of a de facto ceasefire that triggered a government crisis. In addition, it can further strengthen the domestic political positions of individuals urging a military solution. Beyond the foreign and security policy dimension, the year 2019 will be primarily about internal political struggles.
According to surveys, Benjamin Netanyahu's party, Likud, is still having good positions due to the government crisis in April. At the same time, the party is almost inconceivable to be able to form a government alone. In case Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decides to prosecute Netanyahu for corruption and bribery until early spring elections, winning can become not only a political issue but easily a personal existential matter for Netanyahu. However, it must also be seen that Netanyahu's positions have not worsened significantly since the scandals of recent years. In fact, Likud can easily reproduce the results of the 2015 elections by acquiring a quarter of the parliamentary mandates. During the elections, the real issue will be the presence of parties and party coalitions behind Likud. Therefore, further polarization of the currently highly fragmented political sphere can be expected. In the light of the events of the past few days, it is very difficult to predict what formation could be a real alternative to Likud. However, it is almost certain that by the break-up of the Zionist Community, there will be practically no chance of creating an Israeli left-wing unit until April. The personal conflict between Avi Gabaj, Representative of the Labor Party, and Tzipi Livni, Leader of Tnua Party, is expected to result in the loss of a series of valuable mandates. The further weakening of the left-wing and the fragmentation of right-wing votes also foreshadow Likud's victory. For the time being, Benjamin Netanyahu's only opponent seems to be the very popular, but politically inexperienced Benny Gantzm who is the former Chief of Staff. The Netanyahu administration, which will remain in office until the April elections, is therefore likely to continue its current policy. Meanwhile, they will try to shift the focus of Jerusalem and the public from the domestic political struggles and the accusations of corruption towards the Israeli foreign, internal and security policies.