Israel’s coalition government charts new foreign-policy approach

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, and Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid in Rome in June (AP)

Rosie Scammell

The Nation  /  August 1, 2021

Officials work to repair ties that were strained under Benjamin Netanyahu.

From swift deals with Jordan to a globetrotting foreign minister, Israel’s new government is on a mission to mend international ties that were strained under former leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Only days before the Israeli elections in March, the steep decline in relations with Jordan came to the fore when Amman temporarily banned Mr Netanyahu from transiting its airspace.

Israel had just prevented a senior member of the royal family from visiting Al Aqsa Mosque with his full security detail, despite Jordan serving as custodian of the holy site.

The incident proved deeply embarrassing for Mr Netanyahu, who had to cancel his visit to the UAE to celebrate a landmark deal reached last year with the Emirates.

Since the new Israeli administration led by led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took office on June 13, it has moved quickly to ensure such mistakes are not made again.

At the end of June, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was sent to the border, where he described Amman as “an important partner” and signed a deal with his Jordanian counterpart to increase water exports to the kingdom.

“The Foreign Ministry will continue to hold an ongoing dialogue in order to preserve and strengthen the relationship,” said Mr Lapid, a centrist leader and architect of Israel’s coalition government.

While Mr Bennett has held calls with presidents, like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Israel’s top diplomat has had a busy travel agenda.

After flying to Rome to meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June, Mr Lapid travelled to Brussels to address his EU counterparts.

“It’s been too long. There is a new government, a new energy, let’s have a new start,” he told the European foreign ministers, highlighting their shared values.

Brussels had watched while Mr Netanyahu courted far-right EU leaders in a bid to prevent unified censure of Israel. Along with Jordan, the bloc had also firmly opposed Israeli plans last year to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.

Oded Eran, an Israeli former ambassador to Brussels and Amman, described Mr Lapid’s visit as significant after an “almost total freeze” in relations with the Europeans.

“This is a very important step in the process of resuming the dialogue which has been broken at the highest political level for a decade now,” said Mr Eran, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“In spite of the achievements of the previous government, such as the Abraham Accords which should not be underestimated, there were lingering problems,” he said, referring to the normalization deals signed with Arab nations.

As well as the UAE, Israel under Mr Netanyahu forged diplomatic ties with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

“Clearly the new government wanted and rightly so to try and change the equation” regarding its alliances abroad, said Mr Eran, particularly with Jordan, because the relationship remains strategically important for both sides.

“They will make an effort to maintain it,” he said. “The two sides already passed the threshold of the test of 25 years of the [peace] agreement.”

Despite the high-level diplomacy, the Israeli government is not expected to make any significant shifts on foreign policy. With eight parties from across the political spectrum, the fragile coalition could collapse if some within the government push for change, particularly regarding the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, thawing ties with Jordan could spark an opportunity, according to Merissa Khurma, director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Centre in Washington.

“It’s very difficult with Jordan in particular to solely look at the relationship through the bilateral prism, because there’s a larger aspect to it with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Ms Khurma, who previously worked at the Jordanian embassy in Washington.

The water deal “was certainly a good step in the right direction in order to reset the bilateral relationship, but also to try to see if there’s a window of opportunity of new talks on the Israeli-Palestinian track”, she said.

There have been no substantial peace talks for more than a decade and, Ms Khurma cautioned, improved communication is only an initial step towards renewed negotiations in the long-term.

A new US leadership under President Joe Biden could also foster greater dialogue between Israel and its neighbours, after his predecessor Donald Trump largely favoured Mr Netanyahu and sidelined the Palestinians and Jordanians.

But while Mr Trump showed great interest in Israeli politics, it remains to be seen whether his successor will have similar priorities.

“Now it’ll be a watch and see, whether the Biden administration is going to move forward with the Palestinian-Israeli issue or bump it up on its foreign, or Middle East, policy agenda,” Ms Khurma said.

Rosie Scammell – correspondent, Jerusalem