As this strange and dreadful year comes to a close, there is a heavy dose of uncertainty in the air that goes beyond the intersection of mutating COVID-19 strains and vaccine skepticism. The Knesset dissolved at midnight on Wednesday after seven months of gridlock for yet another Israeli election, the UN this week appointed a new envoy for the Middle East peace process, and next month a new U.S. administration will take office. Without listing the obvious items on everyone’s mind, such as whether President-elect Joe Biden will rejoin the JCPOA or what has to happen for Saudi Arabia to pull the trigger on establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, here are some issues on which to keep a close eye in 2021.
Israel’s political alignment
During the three Israeli elections in April and September 2019 and January 2020, the alternative for voters looking to unseat Prime Minister Netanyahu was Benny Gantz’s Kachol Lavan. Gantz’s decision after the third election to join in a coalition government with Netanyahu in return for a pledge that he would take over as prime minister after a year and a half – a pledge that was obviously empty to everyone paying attention save Gantz – sealed his party’s fate as one that would become irrelevant as soon as the next election took place. The question now becomes who and what will take up the anti-Netanyahu mantle now that Gantz’s political relevance is effectively over, since the fundamental split in Israeli politics is no longer a right-left divide over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or security, but a divide between Netanyahu partisans and Netanyahu opponents that transcends ideological commitments.
The two people who stand at the head of the anti-Netanyahu column are Yair Lapid, who is a familiar foe from outside Netanyahu’s camp, and Gideon Sa’ar, who is a familiar foe from inside Netanyahu’s camp despite having spent much of the past half decade in effective banishment from Netanyahu’s presence. Neither is going to garner enough Knesset seats to win the election in any real sense, or even surpass Netanyahu and Likud’s vote total. Each also enters the campaign to form an alternative coalition with one hand tied behind their backs, since neither is comfortable forming a government that includes the Joint List or its constituent parties and each has another critical political handicap that creates built-in disadvantages. Both Lapid and his most obvious political ally, Avigdor Liberman, are at odds with the Haredi parties – in Liberman’s case probably as much as he is with Netanyahu himself – which takes another chunk of seats out of their potential coalition, and Sa’ar has taken a clear anti-Netanyahu position that will leave him trying to build a right-wing government that leaves out Israel’s flagship ruling and largest right-wing party.
The clearest path forward for the anti-Netanyahu camp is a coalition of Lapid, Sa’ar, Liberman, Naftali Bennett, and whatever remains of Kachol Lavan. Not only will this require a rapprochement between the constituent parts of Kachol Lavan’s original iteration, it will require some serious massaging of egos among four men who all see themselves as future Israeli prime ministers and will all want to get first crack at the job. It also means that the alternative to Netanyahu is a coalition that is arguably more right-wing than Netanyahu and Likud on Israeli-Palestinian and territorial issues, as Sa’ar and Bennett are unapologetic proponents of full Area C annexation and the consignment of the 2.3 million Palestinians in Areas A and B to permanent autonomous statelessness while Liberman does not much care what happens to Palestinians so long as Israelis do not have to see or deal with them. While Israeli politics has had a rightward tilt for decades, this would be an unprecedented realignment between right and farther right.
Much can and inevitably will happen between now and March 23 to shake up this calculus. Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot might enter politics; there may be mergers or breakups among the current parties; the hundreds of thousands of Israeli voters who deserted Labor and cast ballots for Kachol Lavan in an effort to dislodge Netanyahu might look at the options now in front of them and go back to the mostly dead husk of Labor; or Netanyahu might announce that he is running not only on behalf of Likud and his Haredi natural partners but on behalf of his new friend Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am (United Arab List) party. Parties that do not exist today will form in the next few months, and all sorts of new permutations will present themselves. Whatever the end result, the potential for a shakeup of Israel’s political landscape is greater now than it was when Gantz threw his hat into the ring two years ago and consigned Labor to virtual non-existence.
Israel’s response to Palestinian concessions
The evidence points to the Palestinian Authority leadership understanding that if they want to take full advantage of the opportunity presented by the Biden administration to reset relations with the U.S., they will have to implement genuine reforms. The biggest item on that front is heeding overwhelming American calls from both sides of the aisle to end the martyr and prisoner payments system that provides higher payments to martyr families and prisoners convicted of crimes against Israelis based on severity of the attack committed and length of prison sentence. Given the importance of prisoners within Palestinian politics and society, the obvious answer is to create a social welfare system that allocates payments to all Palestinians below a certain income level based on need, which removes the adverse incentives for Palestinians to carry out attacks against Israelis while ensuring that families of those who do are not punished for actions they themselves did not commit.
If the system is reformed in this way, some will argue that it is not enough, and that families of prisoners or martyrs should be cut off from any welfare or payment system entirely. How Israel responds should the Palestinians actually move toward a reform akin to the one outlined above will determine what happens next. Domestic Palestinian political constraints will not allow the PA to leave prisoners’ families high and dry, which is why the choice is likely to be between having the system continue unchanged or having a reform that eliminates most of the problem while allowing Palestinian leadership to claim that it is still prioritizing and watching out for martyrs and prisoners. If events unfold in this direction, the Israeli government may have to choose between taking a policy win that leaves it open to hawkish criticism or rejecting a compromise solution that allows maintaining a hard line on a potent political issue.
The fate of the Abraham Accords
The normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states constitute the Trump administration’s most obvious foreign policy accomplishment, and it is a significant one. But they are more tenuous than they appear, and not because Biden will try to roll them back. Biden and Secretary of State designate Antony Blinken have been unambiguously explicit that they view these agreements as a positive and will try to build on them. The minefield ahead lies in the fact that, contrary to how they have been presented, the Abraham Accords do not actually represent prioritizing the interests of normalizing relations with Israel over the ideology of paying fealty to the Palestinian cause. They represent prioritizing other foreign policy interests over the ideology of paying fealty to the Palestinian cause, and agreeing to normalize relations with Israel if those other foreign policy interests are advanced. That leaves the normalization agreements brittle, with their survival dependent on events that have nothing to do with Israel itself or its actions.
Despite the fanfare over the recent addition of Morocco to the group of Arab countries welcoming open ties with Israel, King Mohamed VI pointedly did not take part in the public ceremonies with U.S. and Israeli officials in Rabat on Tuesday, and Morocco agreed not to full diplomatic relations with the opening of embassies but only to reopen diplomatic liaison offices that already existed and were shuttered during the Second Intifada. There are a variety of possible explanations for this, but one is that Rabat is waiting to see whether its price for agreeing to normalize ties – American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, which is controversial in both Republican and Democratic circles – survives past Trump’s last month in office. If Biden does not maintain this commitment, the deal between Israel and Morocco is susceptible to breakdown.
This dynamic has already played out with Sudan, which traded starting the process of normalizing ties with Israel in return for removal from the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism and immunity from terrorism-related lawsuits. While President Trump was able to deliver the former, the latter required Congressional legislation that did not pass until this week and that provided immunity excepting lawsuits rising from the 9/11 attacks. The new Sudanese government had said they would pull out of the Israel deal without this legislation, and it means that the normalization process will now keep moving forward. But the larger point stands, which is that these agreements are not necessarily reflective of a genuine unfettered desire to have open relations with Israel, and how future agreements are structured will provide clues as to their ultimate durability.