The coronavirus pandemic impacted 2020 in unprecedented ways, and the COVID-19 virus will continue to be a major issue in 2021 as a vaccine rolls out and countries seek to return to the pre-COVID “normal”. But 2021 will be about more than just the coronavirus, especially in Israel. Here are two biggest non-COVID questions for the Jewish State in the new year:
1. How will the Biden Administration approach the Middle East?
After four years of United States President Donald Trump’s tremendous support for Israel, any new administration would likely pose questions. But those questions for the incoming government of US President-elect Joe Biden are much more loaded because of Biden’s history as Vice President to former-President Barack Obama. The eight years of Obama’s governance were some of the most tense in the US-Israel relationship in decades, with the Iran nuclear deal led by Obama a prime example of those disagreements.
The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), alleviated sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran accepting restrictions on their nuclear program. The Trump Administration exited the deal after being unable to add limits on Iran’s missile program and other misdeeds to the accord, ramping up sanctions on Iran as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign to persuade Iran to make changes.
Biden—set to take power on January 20—expressed plans to return the US to the Iran nuclear deal during the campaign, and in early December his National Security Advisor-nominee Jake Sullivan was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as reiterating that plan. And just Sullivan’s presence as a Biden advisor implies the Iran deal will be put back in place.
Dr. Michael Oren, a former Israeli Ambassador to the US, tweeted in November that Sullivan “knows and respects Israel, but he also negotiated with Iran behind Israel’s back to establish the nuclear deal that threatens every Israeli, the Middle East, and the world. It is a legacy we will have to confront and hopefully rectify.”
Later in December, the Los Angeles Times reported that Biden would likely try to expand the JCPOA terms, possibly including Iran’s missile program and support for terror.
One of the biggest events in the last decade was the signing of the JCPOA in 2015 and the terror-spending-spree Iran undertook with the resultant economic benefits. So one of the biggest questions in 2021 will be whether or not the Biden Administration returns the US to the deal and what concessions—if any—they can get from Iran along the way.
Secondarily, Biden’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also likely to be different than President Trump’s. Biden has said he doesn’t plan to move the US Embassy in Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, per The Center for Foreign Relations (CFR) website, although in an interview with CFR Biden also expressed a stronger stance opposing expansion of Israeli settlement communities than President Trump, and Biden criticized Trump’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
However, Biden has promoted his support for Israel—pledging on his website to continue an “ironclad commitment to Israel’s security”—and Oren called Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State Anthony Blinken “a great diplomat and true friend of Israel” on Twitter. How that will play out practically—after Obama pressured Israel into a settlement construction-freeze and allowed the United Nations to condemn Israeli settlements—is part two of the most important question facing Israel in 2021.
2. Who will win the latest Israeli elections?
Israel is going to elections—again—in March 2021. It will mark the fourth time in less than two years that Israelis have voted for their national government. Unlike the previous three times, however, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party will not be facing his most serious challenge from the political center-left. Instead, the New Hope party created by former Likud star Gideon Sa’ar poses a threat from the right.
The Jerusalem Post reported that Sa’ar made expanding Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria—the so-called “settlements”—a priority for the New Hope party. A Friday poll from Israel’s Ma’ariv, per a report by The Times of Israel, showed the New Hope party as the second-strongest party for the upcoming vote, with 17 projected seats in the 120-seat parliament known as the Knesset.
Netanyahu’s Likud party is still expected to be the largest party by far, with the Ma’ariv poll showing them winning 29 seats. However, it takes 61 seats to form a majority coalition, and Likud has made too many enemies to achieve that total easily.
The other pro-settlement right-leaning party—aptly named Yamina or “rightward” in Hebrew—would win 13 seats to potentially create a slightly bigger rightist bloc with New Hope than Likud can muster on their own. Yamina currently sits in the opposition after negotiations to join the last Likud-led government broke down.
In perhaps the biggest contrast to the last three elections, the strongest party countering Likud was the centrist Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz—who was set to be prime minister on a rotational basis after Netanyahu—and they wouldn’t even win enough votes to make the Knesset. The January 1 poll showed them below the 3.25% vote threshold.
The diminished Israeli Left was expected to win 27 seats, led by Yesh Atid, who were projected to win 14 seats, with the new The Israelis party led by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai winning 8 seats and Meretz winning five. The Joint Arab List—which could assist the left-leaning parties with limited support but wouldn’t likely want to be part of a governing coalition—were projected to get 14 seats.
In short, the Israeli political right is expected to win the next vote in a landslide. Yet with the right fractured into pro and anti-Likud camps, the next Prime Minister is still very much uncertain. Will Netanyahu continue his run as Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister? Or will another right-leaning leader take his place?
And keep in mind the first question we raised—how will an Israeli government leaning to the right mesh in the US-Israeli relationship with Biden’s left-ward tilt?
2020 was a dramatic year with questions we didn’t even know to ask when the year began. 2021 is already looking to continue that uncertainty with major implications for Israel.
(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, January 1, 2021)