The Israeli government is in the midst of a fight to define what it means to be on the “right” politically in Israel, and this has important implications for U.S. security policy in the Middle East. Until last month, Israel’s government was precariously balanced on a single seat majority in the 120-seat parliament. Five weeks ago, Coalition Chairwoman Idit Silman resigned from her position, and now the government no longer holds the majority of seats in the Knesset. In recess since MK Silman made her decision, parliament reconvened on May 8, and the U.S. defense community should be watching what transpires going forward very closely. The United States’ support for Israel is a defining pillar in its Middle East policy, and the decisions made by this fragile Israeli government could have ramifications that affect the security landscape of the entire region. There are small policy shifts the U.S. can make now to lessen the security impacts of those changes.
Why the right matters
Israel is a parliamentary system, which means that while the president serves as head of state, it is the prime minister who serves as head of government. To be elected prime minister, one must be a member of a party that has secured enough seats in the Knesset to demonstrate a viable prospect of being able to form a coalition of at least 61 seats. This coalition can be cobbled together in any number of ways, but has historically seen the pairing of parties with similar positions on key issues, including religion, security, and the Palestinian territories.
For over a decade, Benjamin Netanyahu was the face of the Israeli government. Despite rumors (and eventually charges) of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust, Netanyahu demonstrated a seemingly ironclad ability to unite the right wing of the Israeli political sphere into a consistently comfortable parliamentary majority. But in 2019, Netanyahu’s superpower began to fade, and for the next four elections he was unable to generate a large enough coalition to actually form a government. In the first three attempts, no other leader or party was able to secure a majority either, and so Israelis went to the polls — again … and again … and again. But then in the spring of 2021, a coalition finally formed and it was made of strange bedfellows, to say the least.
The coalition that emerged included eight political parties primarily united in their opposition to another Netanyahu government, and far less united in their positions on the key issues mentioned earlier. It includes parties from the far right, the center, and perhaps most remarkably, an Arab Muslim party. The government is currently led by Naftali Bennett, a man whose ultra-nationalist party, Yamina, came in fifth in the 2021 elections, but secured the prime minister role in a creative compromise with the leader of the more popular centrist Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid. While Bennett has long argued that he is firmly positioned on the right side of the political spectrum, his willingness to enter a coalition with centrist and Arab parties has left him open to criticism that he will give up his values for political gain. This came to a head last month when the chairwoman of the coalition resigned, bringing the number of seats it held down to 60, exactly half of all parliamentary seats. The now former chairwoman accused Prime Minister Bennett of “damaging Israel’s Jewish character,” and called for the formation of a new “Jewish and Zionist” government.
MK Silman’s resignation has escalated a vicious debate within Israel about what it means to be on the right of Israeli politics. She cited numerous religious issues as the motivation for her decision, arguing these reflect a “gradual erosion of Jewish identity.” Netanyahu and his supporters focus their criticism more on security, arguing that Bennett’s government has been ineffective in preventing Palestinian violence against Israelis. Bennett himself has emphasized his unwillingness to so much as meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and his consistently harsh responses to Palestinian violence as proof of his own right-wing bona fides.
So why does any of this matter to U.S. security?
How the right could go wrong
For decades Israel has been a defining pillar of United States Middle East policy. Successive U.S. administrations have been steadfast in their commitment to Israel as a vital national interest and have oriented policy and legislation to this end. The U.S. specifically has been committed to ensuring that Israel maintains a qualitative military edge (QME) over other states in the region and has done so not only by generously providing military assistance to Israel, but also by limiting the type of assistance offered to neighboring states that might threaten it. But the race to the right in Israel has the long-term potential to threaten the ideals underlying this defense policy and the stability it pursues in a number of ways.
The premise of the extraordinary U.S. commitment to Israel’s defense has long been that it represents a bastion of democratic ideals and political stability in the Middle East and thus deserves support and protection. However, if being “right” becomes increasingly dependent on a prioritization of Jewish identity over democratic ideals, the very basis of preferential U.S. defense policy toward Israel comes into question. This dichotomy is not just academic (although plenty of academics have written persuasively on the topic). The right wing in Israel has achieved significant legislative gains in the last five years, the most important being the passing of the nation-state bill, which explicitly designates Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. However, the demographic reality is that 21% of the Israeli population are Arabs and the Arab Israeli birthrate has historically been higher than the Jewish Israeli birthrate (although this has begun shifting in recent years). If legislation prioritizing Jewish identity becomes a litmus test for politicians at the mercy of small coalition majorities, Israel’s democratic foundation could begin to crack. This should prompt a reevaluation of unconditional U.S. support.
Secondly, if being “right” begins to become synonymous with the expanded mandate of force in the West Bank, Gaza, and Palestinian communities within Israel, Palestinian violence and discontent is likely to become more widespread, threatening stability in the region more broadly. We have seen evidence of this occurring over the last month with increased violent clashes among Palestinians and Israeli security forces, even on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif — a space technically under the authority of a Jordanian-run Islamic religious trust, the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf. In the last several weeks, Jordan has issued increasingly tense statements condemning Israeli security practices around al-Aqsa Mosque and summoned the Israeli ambassador to explicitly condemn Israel’s actions. King Abdullah has also contacted heads of state from the UAE, Egypt, Qatar, and Palestine in an effort to develop a coordinated response to what he deems Israel’s illegal actions.
And yet, Netanyahu continues to criticize Bennett for not managing the situation more effectively, and Bennett has responded by highlighting the numerous ways in which he is tougher on Palestinians than Netanyahu ever was. If responses to Palestinian violence are calculated for how they will generate votes rather than how they will quell instability, they are more likely to advance unrest than mitigate it.
Moreover, while a Third Intifada looks unlikely, escalatory security practices that seemingly indiscriminately target Palestinians are likely to produce increasing pockets of violence in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. As violence and unrest increase, so too does Israel’s hard power response. Whether this takes the form of yet another Gaza war, or increasing raids into the West Bank, it will impact stability both within Israel and its neighbors.
The U.S. should and does support Israel’s right to ensure its own security. But if the measures undertaken for that purpose are politically derived to showcase toughness to an ever-more hawkish constituency, the escalating consequences will predictably draw the ire of other U.S. allies in the region. Jordan’s king has reportedly reached out to Washington to discuss plans for how to deal with Israel’s actions. This and the recent killing of a Palestinian-American journalist covering an Israeli operation in the West Bank make this a U.S. security problem.
Finally, if being “right” is tied to territorial expansion by means of increased settlement activity or annexation in the West Bank, the consequences will extend beyond Israel and Palestine. Prime Minister Bennett has long been clear that he is not in favor of a two-state solution, but he has also committed to not pursuing annexation of the West Bank. This is hardly a left-wing position, as he has also been clear he has no interest in dismantling existing settlements, and is open to natural growth. Yet he has been lambasted by members of the Religious Zionist party for his soft stance on settlements, as evidenced by his casual use of the term “West Bank” instead of the right-wing preferred terminology of “Judea and Samaria.” Three weeks ago, MK Silman (the former coalition chairwoman whose resignation sparked this latest push rightward) joined members of the Religious Zionist party on a march to the West Bank territory of Homesh, in order to call for the authorization of a new territory there. One movement leader said, “A government that abandons both the Negev and Homesh will be replaced with a government worthy of the people of Israel — a full right-wing government.”
To ward off calls that he is losing his religious convictions, Bennett may edge further rightward on issues relating to annexation and settlements, even if it further destabilizes his coalition. We can already see evidence of Bennett’s rightward shifting response in the announcement on May 6 that Israel was likely to approve the building of 4,000 new housing units in settlements in the West Bank prior to President Joe Biden’s planned June visit to the region. But as those following Middle East policy know, the security arrangement achieved between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain with the signing of the Abraham Accords was predicated on Bennett’s predecessor dropping plans for annexation. The UAE cannot credibly remain quiet if the West Bank is annexed less than three years after the historic agreement, and regional stability and promised economic growth will be badly tempered by soured relations. The United States was as much a beneficiary as a driver of the Accords, as an agreement between Israel and the UAE supports the U.S. defense policy to counter the influence of Iran in the region. If Bennett, or a new coalition formed after his ouster, reopens these plans, the Abraham Accords will face a tough test of commitment.
What can be done?
Israel has been a long-standing and trusted ally for the United States in a region not characterized by lasting stability, and that arrangement should not change. But that does not mean the United States should simply sit back and watch as Israel progresses ever rightward. Instead, the United States can adjust its policy toward states and people most likely to be impacted by Israel’s rightward swing, to bolster against the consequences of its drift.
To begin with, the United States should continue to actively pursue strong security relationships with other regional states, regardless of where they fall in Israel’s orbit. The UAE has established itself as an important regional power and showed how cooperation with Israel can provide opportunities for economic development around the region. The United States should quietly push to expand on this arrangement, while also engendering similar arrangements with other Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia.
These efforts need not be undertaken through flashy public-relations-focused enterprises. Rather, the Biden administration can lean in where it already has strong processes for advancement through existing defense partnerships in Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states. This can come in the form of discussions embedded in existing strategic defense education endeavors, or in newly formed Track II conversations between potential and existing Abraham Accord signatories. These mid-level discussions can begin to normalize conversations not just about regional security in the context of partnership with Israel, but also about how best to support growth and development for Palestinians living in the shadow of the Israeli state.
This approach would not only ensure that there were regional counterweights to proposals for Israeli annexation, but would also continue to reinforce that the United States has not abandoned its Gulf partners in favor of a global policy more focused on great powers.
Second, the United States needs to find more effective ways to enhance the capacity of the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF). The PSF have improved in their professionalism and capability in the last decade, but still are a far cry from being a force capable of consistently providing reliable security in Palestine. As long as this is the case, Israeli forces will fill the vacuum, and Palestinian grievances will mount.
The United States and its European partners have maintained a security coordination presence since 2005, and this should undoubtedly be continued. The current PSF is an organization that remains unwieldy and suffers from coordination challenges across Palestinian governorates. Promotions within the ranks are highly dependent on personal relationships and efforts to effect change or increase efficiency are often disincentivized. Highly coveted nominations for participation in U.S. Department of Defense regional center-led education programs are often allocated to officers who have engendered the appreciation of senior Palestinian officials, rather than those who are best positioned to benefit professionally from them. There are efforts on the U.S. side to screen and prevent these types of nominations from going through, but this happens on a case-by-case basis, where a system-wide reform effort would be far more beneficial.
The U.S. can leverage its advisory role to more aggressively target corruption within the PSF by incentivizing a merit-based promotion and advancement system, which would not only increase efficacy overall, but also reduce the bloat of the force and free up funds to be devoted elsewhere in government.
Finally, the United States should endeavor not to weigh in on Israel’s domestic agenda. While the U.S. and Israel have a historic and steadfast partnership, it is not one outside the influence of individual personalities and politics. Netanyahu was particularly adept at displaying his affection or distaste for various U.S. presidents, positions which were based as much on what they could earn him at the ballot box as anything else. While President Biden has made inroads in developing a strong relationship with Prime Minister Bennett, he is far less popular among Israelis than his predecessor was. This means that Bennett’s relationship with Biden could become yet another avenue of attack against him for his insufficiently right-winged perspective and drive either Bennett or his successor to prove their independence by advancing policies have a direct effect on U.S. security in the region. The U.S. can avoid this outcome by staying far above the fray and leveraging more lasting influence by focusing on the two steps mentioned previously.
Israel is indisputably an essential ally and key pillar of U.S. security policy in the Middle East. Nothing that happens domestically in the coming months should change that foundational fact.
But Carl von Clausewitz famously reminds us that war is politics by other means, and the reverse of this is equally true — politics can impact security arrangements far beyond the borders of a single state. Israel’s political shift to the right in matters of identity, security, and Palestinian territory should galvanize U.S. officials focusing on security to anticipate the regional ramifications of this trend, and adjust policy emphases accordingly.
Dr. Jennifer Jefferis is a teaching professor and the director of curriculum for the Security Studies Program in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, as well as a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Defense and Security Program. The views expressed in this piece are her own.
Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images