What to make of Bibi Netanyahu’s decisive electoral victory?
We’ll leave the squawking about the end of democracy and the brink of war to the same bien-pensants who sang the exact same tune last time around, only to grow considerably quieter when Bibi, backed by President Donald Trump, managed to usher in a large-scale Israeli-Arab peace initiative that had, for decades, eluded our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters.
For now, it seems to us, two questions need addressing, one domestic and relatively trivial and the other regional and deeply significant.
The silly one first: What kind of coalition will Bibi build?
The votes are still being counted as we write, so it remains to be seen precisely how many building blocks Bibi has at his disposal. He may yet reveal himself to be an even more skilled operator than even his bitterest foes believe, seducing poor Benny Gantz into a center-right coalition and sidelining the Betzalel Smotrich-Itamar Ben-Gvir coalition he’d midwifed. This will put him with upwards of 70 seats in the Knesset, which he can make even stronger—numerically and symbolically—by welcoming in the conservative Muslim Ra’am party. Or he can opt for a narrower hard right coalition with Smotrich, et al.
It hardly matters, mainly because his political opponents have proven themselves to be catastrophically inept, making basic tactical errors that everyone could see coming and no one found fit to avoid. Yair Lapid, hailed by many in Israel and stateside as a graceful politician, campaigned hard for his own party, which left him with 24 seats—his strongest showing ever—and absolutely no one left to play with, his own successful efforts having singlehandedly decimated his entire delicate political coalition. To his left, Meretz and Labor, awash with big egos and petty grievances, shunned a joint run earlier this year; now, one is likely out of the Knesset for the first time ever and the other will be fortunate to retain five seats. Avigdor Lieberman, too, whose personal grievances launched this electoral tsunami five cycles and nearly four years ago, is on the verge of political extinction, proving that saying much and doing nothing makes for a very limited political shelf life.
Any way you spin it, the outcome is clear: Bibi remains the only adult in the room, and whatever political decision he makes right now is still likely to give him the breathing room he needs to form a relatively stable coalition. Mazal tov. Now, on to the important stuff.
Outside of the airless world of punditry, elections are not about the mere manifestation of political power; they’re about real-world consequences, and, for Israel, no consequences could be more meaningful than the regional and geopolitical ones that determine its security and well-being. Upon his return to office, then, Bibi’s first task would be to look soberly at all that had happened since he left it last June.
He’s not likely to like what he sees.
Sharing his former boss’s commitment to regional realignment that rewards the Iranians, President Joseph Biden has aggressively championed policies furthering that disastrous end. Under the Biden administration, the realignment agenda has been dubbed “regional integration”—namely, forcing U.S. allies to prop up Iranian so-called “equities” on their borders.
“A more secure and integrated Middle East,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post ahead of his trip to Saudi Arabia this summer, “benefits Americans in many ways … A region that’s coming together through diplomacy and cooperation—rather than coming apart through conflict—is less likely to give rise to violent extremism that threatens our homeland or new wars that could place new burdens on U.S. military forces and their families.”
What kind of diplomacy did the president have in mind? The answer, as Bibi knows full well, is twofold: First, robustly revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran deal, which remains the administration’s foreign policy crown jewel even as Iranian mullahs are murdering Iranian women for refusing to wear the hijab and as Iranian drones, deployed by Putin’s soldiers, are murdering civilians in Ukraine. Second, a laser focus on Lebanon—significant only because it is an Iranian holding—which has forced Israel to sign the disastrous maritime border deal with Lebanon, a deal that benefits no one but Hezbollah, Tehran’s terrorist proxy.
That last point is likely to be particularly hard for Bibi to swallow. Not even Naftali Bennett, his onetime aide turned successor, agreed to sign the deal. It took Lapid, a stunningly inept statesman, to be cajoled by the White House into giving away a lot for nothing. Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, knows that, too, which is why he took the bold step of sending his drones to attack an Israeli gas rig on July 2 this year. It was, not coincidentally, also the very day Lapid began his tenure as prime minister.
How might Bibi disentangle himself from this mess? The answer could be relatively simple: Sidle up to the Saudis.
Riyadh, too, understands very well that Biden’s policies, like Obama’s, are explicitly pro-Iranian, which is why its relationship with Washington had cooled to an unprecedented degree. This is why the Saudis supported, however implicitly, the Abraham Accords, which they understood, correctly, to be an anti-Iranian effort to align the interests of regional countries opposed to the murderous mullahs and their regime. It was no coincidence that the White House advertised its “regional integration” agenda on the eve of Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia. The message couldn’t have been clearer: The administration’s objective is not to further advance Israeli-Saudi alignment in the context of the anti-Iran framework of the Abraham Accords. Rather, it was to force Jerusalem and Riyadh to “integrate” Iranian holdings.
It makes perfect sense, then, for the Saudis and the Israelis to deepen their cooperation now that the Biden administration is cracking down on the former and about to do the same on the latter. And if they needed any further incentive to distance themselves from Biden and his explicitly harmful policies, the Saudis and the Israelis are likely counting on a Republican surge in next week’s midterms, as well as on Biden’s shockingly low poll numbers. It’s a great time for both to make this the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
That, however, would require some dancing, both from within and without. At home, Bibi will need to make sure that his coalition understands his priorities full well. This may prove challenging if Gantz chooses to become a partner; despite arguing the opposite for most of his career, he eventually lent his support to the disastrous deal with Lebanon, another in a line of long political miscalculations. If he now becomes Bibi’s minister of defense, he’ll have some ‘splaining to do, and a tough time disentangling himself from the assurances he’d given Washington.
More meaningfully, the Saudis themselves will need to adjust their attitude to their Arab Peace Initiative. The Saudi attachment to the API is understandable. It has been a signature initiative, which underscores the Saudi position of leadership in the Arab world. However, the world has changed dramatically since 2002. The API, for example, requires that Israel returns to the so-called 1967 borders, which, among other things, would mean giving up the Golan Heights. This is not only out of the question for Israel, but also not at all in the Saudi interest, as the Iranian satrapy of Syria isn’t exactly a staunch ally of the House of Saud. Also, the API’s key promise—it’s raison d’etre, really—was promising to normalize the Israeli-Arab relationship across the board and the region; the Abraham Accords already achieved that in large part, and did so only because of Saudi tacit approval. So while the API and the Abraham Accords aren’t exactly aligned policy frameworks, Israel and Saudi Arabia have enough threats, challenges, and opportunities in common to compel them to forge an alliance in defiance of Washington’s embrace of the Islamic Republic.
It’s an alliance that may not seem so promising to folks stateside. Americans like to talk about “peace in the Middle East” as both a salvic rite and an achievable goal that gives people warm feelings that they variously connect to the Old and/or New Testament and/or to secular ideas of human progress. Residents of the Middle East, historically at the mercy of greater powers and of the sharp swords of their neighbors, think in terms of allies and enemies. For Americans, what matters about the Abraham Accords is the promise of the title: The uniting of the children of Abraham. What matters most in the Middle East is the promise of a hard security architecture to protect against Iranian militias, drones, and missiles. That’s why the Abraham Accords and the Lebanese maritime deal, as a manifestation of the “regional integration” framework, while both ostensibly promising some kind of “peace,” are in fact radically opposing concepts that are at war with each other. The Abraham Accords means Israel, the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia uniting against Iran and its proxies under a U.S. security umbrella; the purpose of the Lebanon maritime deal, according to its American authors, is to “integrate” Iran and its allies into the region under the same U.S. security umbrella.
See the difference? In the Abraham Accords, Israel’s alliance with the Gulf States to counter Iran is backed by America. In Lebanon, the U.S. is aligned with Iran through its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, to which Israel is required to gift a potentially valuable gas field that it formerly controlled. In the first case, Israel and the Gulf wins, backed by America. In the second case, Iran and Hezbollah win, with American backing, under the fig leaf of a fictional entity called Lebanon.
It’s this exact security-minded worldview that may yet give the API a new lease on life under Bibi’s new government. Like the Abraham Accords, the API has to be reinvented as having less to do with a vision of a regionwide peace in which mankind will beat its swords into plowshares than with regional alliances and hard security structures. In that context, the API remains critically important, as an Israeli—and American—acknowledgement of Saudi primacy within the Arab world. The API will therefore remain the starting point for Saudi-Israeli relations even if all the things it supposedly requires are shunted off to the sidelines. The details are all negotiable; the acknowledgement of Saudi primacy is not. In that sense, the transformation of the API into a bilateral Saudi-Israeli agreement is less of a reach than the words on paper make it seem—the main opponent of such an agreement being not Israelis or Saudis but the Biden administration, which sees Iran as primary.
It’s not likely that an Israeli-Saudi alliance, inspired as it may be, would be able to curb all of the Biden administration’s worst instincts. But it could certainly send a very strong and united message to the White House that its attempt to force Riyadh and Jerusalem into its pro-Iran “integration” scheme will fail, and that security interests, not media affirmations, will guide both Jerusalem and Riyadh moving forward. That is a complicated task requiring real vision and capabilities. Thankfully, the best man for the job is now back at the helm.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.