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Israel has been experiencing violent political turmoil over the past few years. After several electoral cycles since 2019, the elections held on 1st November have led to the election of the XXV Knesset in late December 2022. Benjamin Netanyahu has formed a strong coalition composed of only religious, Zionist, and right-wing parties. The stable majority that Netanyahu won in the Knesset also brought him the confidence that he will once again be the primary political factor in determining Israel’s geopolitical future.  

Netanyahu and his new problematic coalition partners

Bibi Netanyahu’s most important coalition partner in the new government turned out to be Betzalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party, which, in alliance with Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party, doubled its result in the last elections, becoming the third political force in the Knesset. The interesting detail, in this case, is that their political alliance is called “Tkuma” (תקומה), which literally translated from Hebrew means “rebirth”. The surprisingly strong result of the underestimated far-right orthodox faction of Betzalel Smotrich, who together with Itamar Ben-Gvir professes the extreme views of the declared racist and fascist Meir Kahane, has changed the status quo of political talks and negotiations in Israel. Frequent elections have returned the leading right-wing Likud party to full power but forced it into a radical-conservative coalition. This has coerced Netanyahu to choose between prime ministerial immunity, which guarantees protection against investigations into alleged corrupt practices, and dependence on highly indoctrinated and radicalized coalition partners who do not enjoy a good international reputation on the permanent pending case, namely the Palestinian territories.  

Here is the moment to say that officially the Workers’ Party, which is the successor of the largest of Israel’s founding Mapai parties, took 3.7%, only 0.45% above the threshold for entry, thus lining up as the last political force in the Knesset. This means that in a new election, it is quite likely that for the first time in Israel’s history, there will be no traditional all-Jewish leftist party in the next Knesset. I exclude the Arab socialist parties, of course. In Israel, the right has many varieties: from Russian-speaking right-wing parties to secular right-wing formations, to religious and Zionist right-wing ones. The palette of right-wing Zionism offers diverse solutions to day-to-day issues largely concerning the security of the state.  

In response to this, in its role as a modern center relying on high technology and innovation, Tel Aviv and the Gush Dan region as a whole have succeeded in their own way in generating a centrist and liberal response in the form of the Yesh Atid formation founded by Yair Lapid, the former finance minister of Netanyahu’s second cabinet. Lapid himself, on the other hand, served first as foreign minister and then as rotating prime minister between 1st July and 29th December 2022, as mentioned in the coalition agreement with the parties of Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar, and Benny Gantz of May 2021. The cabinet, which held on to power for a total of one and a half years, managed to make some good strides in foreign policy but fell apart domestically due to the strong instability in the coalition, made up of a total of seven parties. However, some of the major geopolitical successes that the Bennett-Lapid cabinet achieved were the expansion and development of the Abraham Accords process in the US-backed economic and strategic cooperation format, I2U; and the normalization of relations with Lebanon and Turkey in order to develop the EastMed Pipeline Project, to which all the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region have appetites to participate.

Democracy in Israel under threat

These steps seemed to augur well for the region, in harmony with the achievement of the strategic objectives set out in Israel’s foreign policy agenda. Of course, with Netanyahu’s return to power, it was expected that the foreign policy course would be pursued, but surprisingly to everyone, under pressure from his coalition partners, and wanting to get rid of the three bribery and corruption cases hanging over him, Netanyahu decided to turn to domestic politics. What followed were unprecedented provocations, the likes of which Israel had not seen since the days of Ariel Sharon’s government, some 20 years ago. 

Weeks marked by political infighting have resulted in a coalition that has explicitly stated that its top priority is the expansion of what the international community considers illegal settlements in the West Bank. Shortly after Ben-Gvir became Israel’s interior minister, he entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. It was a move that the Palestinians saw as a deliberate provocation and as a potential precondition for Israel taking full control of what is a holy site for all Muslims. Coupled with extremist ideas of introducing the death penalty specifically for terrorists, the wave of violence seemed to increase rather than decrease. There is also no failure to account for the rise in terrorist attacks since the beginning of the year. Somewhere in here came the subsequent proposal by the same Ben-Gvir to form a national guard to protect law and order in Israel alongside the army and Shabak. This turned out to be an extravagant idea, but the number of its supporters in the Knesset increased in direct proportion to the rise in civil discontent caused by Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals for changes in the legislation.  

This brings us to the ‘elephant in the room’, namely the legislative changes in question, which Minister Levin aims to push through in the Knesset and which led to the dismissal of Defence Minister Yoav Galant, bringing hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens into the streets to protest. These changes have two main objectives: to increase the government’s weight in the construction of the country’s Supreme Court and to allow the Knesset to overturn certain court decisions. In practice, however, these legislative initiatives have been interpreted as Netanyahu’s attempt to limit the checks on the executive branch. By doing so, he could both secure his interests and the possibility of being pardoned by the Knesset in the event of a possible conviction in the corruption cases, as well as appease Smotrich and Ben-Gvir and, in general, the entire orthodox-Zionist segment that supports the West Bank settlement movements. The Supreme Court has expressed varying opinions on the legal dimensions of West Bank construction, but its rulings have always been consistent with the rule of law.  

Tensions in the relations between Israel and the Arab states in the region

However, this internal uncertainty and the pressure from the far-right for more control over the Palestinian territories could not have gone unnoticed by the state’s new Arab partners. The first symptom of a deterioration in the relations with some of the signatories of the Abraham Accords became evident in the relationship with the United Arab Emirates following a series of recent statements by Israel’s far-right government. Tel Aviv has been under internal strain following persistent anti-government protests in the country for almost three months now, and while the strategic core of the relationship between the two countries, which culminated in the 2020 Abraham Accords, remains strong, the actions of the new government in Israel make it difficult for the UAE to maintain interests with Tel Aviv in an acceptable regional context.  

Earlier this month, Israel’s Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich made an inflammatory statement denying the existence of a Palestinian people while standing in front of a map of Israel that included the territory of the Kingdom of Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza within Israel’s borders. This came amid growing confrontations in the West Bank with almost daily Israeli military operations, escalating violence by Jewish settlers, and a wave of individual attacks by Palestinians. Israeli security forces have liquidated more than 250 Palestinians in the West Bank, and more than 40 Israelis have died in Palestinian attacks in the past year. Despite the unrest surrounding the Israeli government that took office at the end of last year, the agreements between the two countries remain in place, along with the new free trade agreement that was signed at the end of March this year. The pact, which was agreed in May 2022, removes tariffs on almost all goods traded between the two countries. 

Smotrich’s statements sparked regional tensions – the Kingdom of Jordan summoned Israel’s ambassador to the Jordanian parliament to vote and recommend his expulsion from the country, while the UAE, like other Arab countries, condemned Israel, saying that they reject “aggressive rhetoric and all practices that contradict moral and human values and principles.” The UAE also dispatched Khaldun al-Mubarak, a senior adviser to President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, to Jerusalem to warn the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about these violations. Most international analysts believe that the fundamentally deteriorated political climate inside Israel will not affect the Abraham Accords, as they were never intended for Palestinian use, but the UAE’s economic investments are already too large to ignore. On the other hand, however, the radicalization of far-right elements within the Israeli government represents a real obstacle to the development of the peace process between Israel and the Arab states in the context of the Abraham Accords.  

Another example of the cooling of enthusiasm for the extension of the Abraham Accords is the relationship between Israel and Oman. Under the late Sultan Qaboos, Oman became a trusted partner in building peace between Israel and the Arab world. Bibi Netanyahu’s several visits to Muscat before 2020 gave the impression that Oman was emerging as one of the first Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. After the COVID crisis and the change of power in Muscat, however, things changed. Obviously, Oman has pressed the brakes on official normalization and recognition of diplomatic relations with Israel over the past few years. It seems that Sultan Qaboos’s successors decided to change the path he had charted, which would have altered the Sultanate’s strategic neutrality and its position as a suitable venue for discussing geopolitical issues of a regional nature.  

Maintaining this course in the future will depend on the Sultanate’s ability to manage its regional and international relations. For one thing, it is hard to imagine Oman offering Israel what it wants if Tel Aviv does not give the Palestinians at least some of what the sultanate and the Arab world are demanding. It is equally hard to imagine Oman recognizing Israel while Saudi Arabia continues to resist doing the same. On the other hand, Iran is also counting on Muscat not becoming another counterpoint to Iranian interests in the Gulf. Oman will continue to stand in the middle and maintain cool relations with Israel, meanwhile preserving its maneuverability and as much of its regional neutrality as possible. 

Beijing in the Middle East

It is, of course, time to look at the most important issue of the last month, namely the agreement brokered by China between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has caused a huge stir and which some international observers have even declared a victory for international security. However, it is key to note that this warming of relations between the two countries rests fundamentally on a further exclusion of Washington from a possible regional agreement on peace and normalization in the region. China’s grand design to ‘steal’ the Middle East from under the nose of the US is beginning to take concrete forms. China’s mediation to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is directly linked to securing Beijing’s oil needs for years to come. If China becomes the primary actor for traditional US allies such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, there is a strong possibility that in a future oil price rise the West will no longer have the tools to influence them. This privilege will be reserved for China, which is openly buying this right with financial investment and the ‘loan-privatization’ scheme.  

The internal conflict in Israel over judicial reform is not going away, and Turkey has also turned in on itself in the wake of the earthquake and the forthcoming presidential elections. After another provocation by Itamar Ben Gvir in early April in Jerusalem, Erdogan again signaled in an election address that he was ready to cooperate with Iran to unite against the far-right government in Tel Aviv. This suggests that the next pressure points China will target are Turkey and possibly Israel’s last remaining stable partner, Egypt. If Xi Jinping secures Russia’s southern flank in the Middle East, it dooms any future short-term pro-European ambitions and NATO aspirations for countries like Georgia. It would also put Azerbaijan back in the China-Russian embrace at a time when the West is turning to the Middle East region for energy diversification. 

The risk factors of the lack of American diplomacy in the Middle East are two: cheap resource donors to go to Russia’s biggest hidden ally – China; and hinder indefinitely the process of energy diversification in Europe, which will be delayed in every way by China’s presence in the region. Cooperation with China on the European diversification process is also impossible since the new NATO strategic concept from 2022 sees Beijing as a competing power, not a partner. This means that China’s involvement in the construction or implementation of any government contracts in the energy and critical infrastructure sectors of national security and importance to European states is a no-go for years to come. More importantly, if China launches a new nuclear deal with Iran, it will lead to an agreement with the Gulf states and isolate the West and the US from the process, which is emerging as a real danger. 

From the point of view of Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, re-establishing ties with Saudi Arabia is the least important aspect of the deal. Khamenei’s inner circle of advisers sincerely believes that the US-led liberal world order is collapsing and a new anti-Western order is taking shape, led by China, Russia, and Iran. As recently as November 2022, Khamenei outlined a vision of a new order based on ‘the isolation of the United States, the transfer of power to Asia, and the expansion of an anti-Western resistance front led by the Islamic Republic.’ This is the prism through which Khamenei supports Putin’s war in Ukraine and the reason he is fully committed to providing military support to Russia. 

Indeed, in this case, Iran and Saudi Arabia simply agreed to restore diplomatic relations in the coming months after Riyadh severed ties between the two countries in January 2016 in response to the search of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by Revolutionary Guard paramilitary forces. From Khamenei’s perspective, the return to the pre-2016 status quo is another reason to declare victory, as he believes he is preserving his regional dominance at virtually no cost. As for the Revolutionary Guard, there will be no practical change in its strategy, militancy, or support for its proxies and proxy militias. Fierce hostility to Saudi Arabia is ingrained in the ideology of the Revolutionary Guard with anti-Saudi doctrines that portray the Saudi royal family as ‘apostates’ with ‘Jewish origins.’ Riyadh is fully aware of this and knows the true identity and motives of the Revolutionary Guards beyond the smiling face of Ali Shamkhani, Tehran’s lead negotiator. However, the Saudis see the deal in a very simple way: it enables them to pursue their main objectives, which are to stabilize and place the country entirely under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  

The consequences for Yemen

Against this background, the excitement created by the deal for a lasting peace in Yemen brokered by China is exaggerated. The new agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia stipulates that Iran will stop arming the Houthis, but even if Saudi Arabia gets an easy way out of the Yemen war and succeeds in stopping the Houthi attacks, which pose a significant threat to the Saudi crown prince’s overall vision of advancing his political ambitions, the war in Yemen between the Houthis and the southern forces of Aden could start again. Saudi Arabia recognizes the complex dynamics within Yemen that are capable of escalating the war, and it is for this reason that it is moving forward with a plan to completely close its border with Yemen, building a fence over 1,000 miles long along its southern flanks to do so. 

The Houthis are already trying to take over oil-rich cities in southern Yemen and the situation is further aggravated by the fact that al-Qaeda militants have concentrated in the cities where heavy fighting is taking place. Amid other global conflicts, many media remember the Yemen war only because of the involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran, so if the latter distance themselves from it, Yemen may fade from the headlines, while the suffering of the Yemeni people and the chaos Yemen may once again export to the world will increase. The rivalry between South and North Yemen is the main feature of the war in the country, but this is still ignored by international mediators. Fundamental differences in Yemenis’ perceptions of their national identity continue to fuel the violence. With the authority that the southern troops built up in the course of the hostilities against the Houthis, and which they are still defending today, it is difficult to imagine Yemen being reunited without another bloody war, because that would be against the wishes of the majority of people living in the south. Ignoring the goals and the vision of all the parties involved in the conflict for the future of Yemen will escalate the war, increase human suffering, and jeopardize peace in the region and the mission of fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen, which is one of the most aggressive branches of al-Qaeda in the world. 

The future of the Middle East

In concluding this analysis, it should be pointed out that the most urgent priority must be to limit the expansion of military cooperation between Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran, which is aimed at undermining the US-led world order and initiatives in the Middle East region. Less than a week after the announcement of the Riyadh-Tehran deal, China, Iran, and Russia undertook joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. And although Xi Jinping is unlikely to be inclined to develop more provocative military ties with Ali Khamenei, the same cannot be said of Vladimir Putin. The coming months and years are likely to see closer cooperation between Tehran and Moscow beyond Ukraine. Given that both Khamenei and Putin seek to use sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel region as a battleground for proxy conflicts with the United States, the possibility of coordinating anti-Western forces on the African continent is no longer far-fetched. Beyond the military sphere, the Iranian-Saudi deal brokered by China promotes the shared ambitions of Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran to replace U.S.-centric transnational entities and agreements with their own, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  

One of the West’s last allies against these autocratic regimes, Bibi Netanyahu, is in the twilight of his political career. The problem is that he has chosen to go ignominiously and divide Israeli society for years to come. This is evident in the leaked military and intelligence documents from the Pentagon, according to which some of Mossad’s structures have organizationally supported anti-government protests against Netanyahu. Israeli society and the state itself will be rebuilding for a long time after this attempt to destroy democracy in the country. With the erosion of US influence, and without a strong and united Israel, the processes in the Middle East are being left in the direction of retrograde political forces worldwide. Withdrawing the United States from the Middle East will not make the problems go away, but will in fact further undermine international security. President Joe Biden’s administration should do in the Middle East what it did in Ukraine, namely, lead the free world against autocratic, retrograde, and tyrannical regimes that aim to come to the fore by climbing the ladder of chaos that they themselves have built in order to revise their own place in the modern multipolar world. 

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