Political crisis in Israel: what should we expect?

Recently, Israel has been convulsed by public protests against PM Netanyahu’s judicial reform project. The turmoil started when Netanyahu, newly returned to office as head of a coalition that has been described as the most far-right one since Israel’s independence, announced a plan to overhaul the judiciary. Netanyahu’s proposed reforms would effectively remove the independence of Israel’s highest court and weaken the power of the nation’s judiciary since they would allow the government to enact laws that can’t be reviewed by judges. The demonstrations reached their peak last week when the country’s Defence Minister was fired after criticizing Netanyahu’s move.

After the massive demonstrations against the controversial reform, Netanyahu announced that he had postponed it. However, there are still expectations that the new legislation could become a part of the agenda for the current Israeli government leading up to the country’s 75th independence anniversary.

The latest demonstrations have also raised questions about the future prospects of Israel’s relations with the United States, its longstanding ally, as well as with Russia and Iran, in light of recent developments in the region.

Prior to the current protests in Israel, the Biden administration had not been explicit in expressing its dissatisfaction with the steps taken by Netanyahu’s right-wing government, even though the White House in the present circumstances has been quite outspoken. Since the new government took office, it is not the first time that it has experienced tensions with the U.S. Last week, the Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich gave a speech in Paris at a podium featuring a map that included Jordan and the occupied West Bank as part of Israel and stated that the Palestinian people were “a modern invention”. The Jordanian government has condemned it as a violation of the peace agreement between the two countries. The statement regarding Jordan, which is pivotal for American Middle East strategy, has been criticized by the U.S. media. Nowadays, the American political elites expect the U.S. Jewish community to take a stance on the recent developments between the U.S. and Israel.

On the other hand, in mid-January, the Biden administration reportedly requested that Israel send 1950s-era Hawk systems that have been in storage, to aid Kyiv in its defence against Russian missiles and Iranian drones. However, Israel rejected to fulfil the U.S. request and send outdated and unused technology to Ukraine.

The relationship between the two countries has become strained due to reciprocal statements from the both sides in response to recent processes. Biden called on Israeli leaders to find a compromise in order to find a solution to the latest political crisis. However, Israeli officials have not reacted positively to this statement by the U.S. President. Following it, Netanyahu claimed on Twitter that “Israel is an independent state that makes decisions in accordance with the will of its citizens, and not based on external pressure, including from our best friends”. In addition to this, Israeli National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir commenting on U.S. President Joe Biden’s remarks on judicial reform, said that “Israel is not another star on the American flag”.

Recent developments in bilateral relations could exert a significant impact on their foreign policies and in general, on the balance of power in the region. Israel has been highly concerned about Iran’s uranium enrichment and thus its obtaining of nuclear power. Hereby, Israel expects greater support and a decisive action from the U.S. against Iran. But this support has been limited to military exercises, which were described by the American press as the most significant to date between the two countries.

Simultaneously, Israel is carefully following the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which was mediated by China. The Saudi side has announced that it will start investing in Iran’s economy, re-open embassy in the short term, and repair its relations with Syria. Tel Aviv feels threatened by recent developments in the region and expects more support from the U.S., even though the Washington is seeking to maintain balance in the Middle East amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. That is one of the key reasons for latest disagreements between close allies, and it seems that the Israeli side is concerned about the prospect of remaining isolated in the region.

One could consider the potential impact of a rift between the U.S. and Israel on the future of relations between Tel Aviv and Moscow. Netanyahu was considered close to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his previous term in power. Putin has welcomed the return of Benjamin Netanyahu and signalled his willingness to strengthen cooperation. Eli Cohen, Foreign Minister of Netanyahu government, spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov before speaking with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba as well. It was a signal that Israel was changing its position in the Russian-Ukrainian war under Netanyahu.

Israel considers itself a part of the Western camp and, for that reason, has been pressured to unambiguously condemn Russia’s war and alleged war crimes. On the other hand, it has categorically refused to take a clear stance and has declined some requests to deliver weapons to Ukraine. There is a reason that can explain Israel’s attitudes on the current matter. Israel should consider its geographic situation and the circumstances it creates. Tel Aviv is dependent on Russian support, as Israel’s air raids in Syria must be coordinated with the Kremlin, and Russia has allowed Israeli planes to target Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria. Therefore, in order to maintain its presence in Syria and protect the state’s security, Israel should balance its relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

The recent developments between Israel and the U.S. may cause a Russian-Israeli rapprochement. The disagreements between the sides have largely taken place in Russian mass media. Even though, Russia also needs to keep balance between Israel and Iran, the only country that has provided explicit support to Russia in the war and sent a range of military support equipment.

When it comes to relations with Iran, it seems that internal and geopolitical events can cause a new escalation between the archenemies.  A few days ago, an Azerbaijani MP Fazil Mustafa was attacked and wounded while Azerbaijan and Israel were preparing to open the Azerbaijani embassy in Tel Aviv. In this incident, there are doubts that Iran may have been behind the attack. Moreover, the latest operation of Israel in Syria has been condemned by Iranian officials.

In the middle of this triangle, Netanyahu’s next steps will be decisive for the future of the Middle East. But whatever Netanyahu decides, the political crisis and foreign policy in Israel are not purely internal Israeli matters. They are part of a global democracy crisis that has affected numerous countries around the world, from Hungary to India to the United States. It is also relevant to the American Jewish community, which has spent decades working to build U.S. support for the Jewish state, arguing that the two countries share fundamental values.  

Ilkin Guliyev
Ilkin Guliyev
Ilkin Guliyev is a student of History at Baku State University. He is a research intern at the Topchubashov Center, covering politico-economic developments in the wider Eurasian region.