Israel’s political stalemate harms national security

The results of Israel’s March 2021 election, the fourth election within two years, again failed to yield a clear result. There is a reasonable possibility of a fifth election soon. Of course, the lingering political crisis has domestic repercussions. It also is impairing Israeli national security and eroding the country’s international standing.

The political system in Israel is failing to ensure the stability required for the comprehensive functioning of the Israeli defense establishment. The most notable example of this is the absence of clear medium-term and long-term budgetary decision-making. 

When he took office, Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi sought to implement a multi-year military plan for the years 2020-2024, dubbed “Momentum.” Due to the political instability and the coronavirus crisis, the plan did not receive orderly approval of the political echelon and is not backed by multi-year budgetary authorization. Although the IDF is executing the plan as best it can with the resources currently allocated to it, there is considerable uncertainty about its full implementation.

Furthermore, the decision-making process on key security issues has unquestionably been harmed. The political echelon is preoccupied with managing political crises and election campaigns. The time left for Israeli politicians to think seriously about security challenges is limited. Although professional echelons of the defense establishment continue to work and make recommendations, they cannot take major decisions without the involvement of the senior political level.

Teheran is watching

The ongoing political crisis also undermines Israeli deterrence. Over recent years, Israel has been perceived around the world as a high-tech power and an economically and militarily strong country. To this can now be added Israel’s prowess in swiftly vaccinating its population against COVID-19. All this has strengthened Israel’s deterrence, only to be damaged by Israel’s inability to elect a stable government to deal effectively with security challenges.

The continuing political crisis propagates a perception of Israel as a divided country that could crumble under pressure. While this is not an accurate reflection of the state of Israeli society, this perception is preferred by the political elites in Teheran who long for the day when Israel will collapse due to internal divisions. In fact, this view of Israel is common among those who want to still believe that the Jewish State is a temporary phenomenon. This view encourages the country’s enemies to continue their struggle against Israel’s existence. 

The main issue in the election campaigns of the last two years has been Benjamin Netanyahu’s suitability to serve as Prime Minister. Serious disagreements about policy regarding the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, Iran, and the Palestinian issue conspicuously have been absent; indicating a broad Israeli consensus on these issues. Nevertheless, the election campaigns have exacerbated social and political differences that erode Israeli social cohesion. The prolonged political-electoral crisis deepens weaknesses in Israeli society and invites foreign aggression.

The complicated political situation also raises difficulties in Israel’s foreign relations, particularly with countries of the region with which Israel recently has reached peace agreements. These countries are unaccustomed to the weaknesses of the democratic system and are unfamiliar with the vagaries of Israel’s political system. Instead, Arab countries have preferred to see Israel as a stable and strong country with which long-term agreements can be comfortably concluded. But Israel’s lingering political crises cast a shadow over this assumption and create discomfort among Israel’s new partners. The gap between Netanyahu’s international image as a strong, extremely successful leader and his inability to win a series of election campaigns raises doubts regarding the credibility of Israel’s leader and its political system. 

Muslim Brotherhood’s perturbing role

The political stalemate also invites the interference of foreign elements in Israeli politics. In the past, American governments have been tempted to meddle in Israeli election campaigns. The Palestinian Authority has also not refrained from trying to manipulate the Arab public in Israel. Dragging out the electoral crisis creates additional opportunities for outside intervention in Israeli politics.

The most recent election result potentially has given the Islamist Israeli Arab party Ra’am, a somewhat moderate Israeli version of the Muslim Brotherhood, a key role in the formation of the next government. Ra’am may be the deciding factor in determining who will serve as prime minister. 

This could be an opportunity to enhance the integration of Israeli Arabs into Israel’s political system. It is also can be an opportunity to counter slanderous accusations that Israeli democracy is flawed because it excludes Israeli Arab citizens. Public vacillations regarding the propriety of relying upon their support in order to assure a coalition majority reverberate abroad and tarnish Israel’s image as an enlightened country. 

However, that matter is complex because those Arab countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations regard the Islamic identity of Raam in an extremely negative light. Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco are fiercely opposed to the religious extremism inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and are engaged with struggles again the Brotherhood in their own countries. If at the end of the day an Israeli government is formed with the support of Ra’am, Israel will have some explaining to do.

Israel’s political leaders must come to their senses and form a stable government. Continuation of the existing situation breeds national insecurity.

Prof. Efraim Inbar is the president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS).

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