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EU can capitalise on political change in Israel (Andrea Frontini and Zuzana Novakova)


On January 22 Israelis went to the polls to renew the composition of the Knesset, the unicameral Israeli parliament, after a governmental crisis over the state budget had led Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to call early elections in an attempt to strengthen his mandate. Most Israeli and foreign forecasts had predicted a large victory for Netanyahu's Likud party and secular nationalists Yisrael Beiteinu, anticipating a robustly right-wing ruling coalition with a socially conservative and diplomatically hawkish agenda.

The election results revealed a rather different outcome. Indeed, the unforeseen re-emergence of centrist forces, the partial resurrection of the left, and Likud's failure to attract far-right voters make life for likely-to-remain-prime minister Netanyahu more difficult than expected. To avoid too fragile a majority, he will need to come up quickly with a broad coalition to be agreed upon with Yesh Atid. While a compromise seems to have been struck already regarding the inclusion of HaBayit HaYehudi and Kadima, ongoing negotiations might lead to both Shas and Hatnuah joining the coalition. Irrespective of the final composition of the next government, the above-mentioned developments are likely to pull Netanyahu's agenda more to the centre, with far-reaching consequences for several defining internal and external challenges.

Tackling domestic socio-economic difficulties – including mounting income inequality, rising housing and commodity prices, and a widening state budget deficit – will surely be a priority for the future government. While austerity measures will need to be adopted to contain excessive public spending and inflation, Yesh Atid's presence in the coalition is likely to push Netanyahu to focus cuts on Israel's costly welfare system: and particularly on subsidies and other privileges for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs alike. Indeed, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid's call for fairer burden-sharing is basically aimed at increasing the contribution of these sections of Israeli society to the country's economy and security, including by abolishing their exemption from the military draft. Striking a balance between Yesh Atid's pressing requests and the tenacious resistance of large portions of the country's pious population – including their political representatives in the coalition – might prove more time-consuming than expected and put Netanyahu's negotiating ability and political leadership to the test.

One longer-term internal challenge awaiting Israel's future government is the country's persisting societal polarisation. Despite the rise of centrism in Israeli politics, the election results paint a picture of a nation marked by two major cleavages: a growing dissonance between secular and religious Jewish Israelis over the relationship between the state and religion; and a persisting disconnection between Jewish and Arab Israelis about the core issue of the country's identity.

The future Israeli government will also need to address a series of demanding developments arising from the ever-changing geopolitical context. These include: the persisting paralysis of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and increased political and legal intricacies following last November's hostilities in Gaza, Palestine's upgraded status of observer at the United Nations, and Israel's unilateral decision to expand settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; the still unresolved issue of Iran's nuclear programme and its implications for the region's security architecture; the growing political cacophony and diplomatic stalemate between Israel and its former close allies in Cairo and Ankara; and mounting instability in both Syria and Lebanon; and unprecedented dissonance with both the United States and the European Union over Netanyahu's assertive foreign and security policy. Inaugurating more constructive diplomatic action could prove to be equally challenging, though, given the differing political priorities in Netanyahu's future coalition.

Despite a persistent risk of domestic retrenchment, these developments offer external players an unexpected opportunity to capitalise on political change in Tel Aviv and encourage much-needed peace-making initiatives. In particular, the EU should give more strategic depth to its relations with Israel, which have been focused almost solely on trade and investment despite a more ambitious 2004 EU-Israel Action Plan. By strengthening its partnership with the US after President Barack Obama's re-election and the new round of appointments to both the State Department and the Pentagon, and by reaching out to like-minded regional actors such as Jordan and Qatar, the EU should aim to re-engage Israel in three inter-related areas.

Firstly, it should persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations based on pre-1967 borders by seeking the support of all pro-peace Israeli political forces, and by fostering a trustworthy and sustainable reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas. Secondly, it should pursue regional dialogue and cooperation between Israel and its neighbours, notably Egypt and Turkey, including by pushing for a more politically meaningful Union for the Mediterranean. Thirdly, it should devote much more aid and political thinking to supporting Jewish and Arab Israeli civil society actors in addressing the country's internal cleavages and in building a more integrated, pluralistic and multi-cultural society, independently of the two-state solution.

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