The jokes have been a little sour this week, with the Israeli Knesset dissolving after a tense period in which Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to cobble together a new Likud-led governing coalition following the 9 April election.
Israel, they’re saying – the Middle East’s only functioning democracy – loves democracy so much the Israelis want to have national elections twice a year.
A new election is now to be held on 17 September 2019.
When the news first came out, I must admit I immediately thought this could end up being a net positive. Netanyahu and Likud supporters are upset, of course, and understandably so. Bibi can perform necessary functions of government, such as national defense, between now and the next election. But there won’t be new initiatives that require suasion and brokering in the Knesset. Plans for domestic programs will be on autopilot; there will be limits on what can be done in foreign policy.
I don’t think that’s a wholly bad thing, however. I have reservations about the path being charted with the Trump administration’s “peace” proposal, and a time-out on that, for a few months, is at the very least not a net-negative, in my view.
There’s no reason why Bibi can’t sit down and talk about it. But there’s a limit to what he can commit to, given the fresh election less than four months away.
It’s not just limits he faces, however, and we’ll get to that in a minute.
Meanwhile, just as the Knesset was dissolving, an unprecedented security summit was announced: a meeting to be hosted in Israel in June, with participation by the U.S., Israel, and Russia.
The principals will be National Security Adviser John Bolton and his counterparts:
“In June, United States National Security Adviser Ambassador John Bolton, Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, and Russian Secretary of the Security Council Nikolay Patrushev will meet in Jerusalem, Israel, to discuss regional security issues,” the White House said in a statement.
Glory. It’s another reason for Bibi to be upset over the recalcitrance of his coalition partners in the Knesset, of course:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, angered at the turn of events Wednesday, said that the conference was unprecedented.
“We have a lot of things that we want to do,” a visibly upset Netanyahu told reporters according to translation by the Times of Israel. “This is what we want to do, not unnecessary elections. … A meeting like has never taken place before in Israel. Never.”
And he has a point, as far as that goes. Naturally he would like to have a solid, functioning parliamentary coalition to go into this historic summit with. In the normal course of business, that’s what you want. It makes your bargaining position stronger.
The likely topics of discussion are suggested to include Syria, Iran’s influence there, and a U.S. troop drawdown – clearly, in light of all three topics, with an eye toward common interests in the shape a Syrian settlement would take. Russia has been presiding over meandering settlement talks for months, but the U.S. hasn’t really engaged with them, and U.S. participation with Russia at the same table would be something of a breakthrough. That’s a breakthrough Israel would be eager to be present for.
The Trump administration has played this close to the vest (typical of Trump, as I read him), and is making a significant move by holding this summit. It must have taken something – something we didn’t have a year or 18 months ago – to get Russia to agree to it. All things being equal, the Russians would rather have us outnumbered at a set of talks as expansively multilateral and hydra-headed as possible.
But they’ve agreed to participate in a summit-style meeting in which each participant can be expected to be tough but straightforward. As our former vice president would say, it’s a big effing deal.
And maybe the timing of the Knesset setback is not a black eye for Netanyahu but an opportunity. The best he was going to have, given the results of the 9 April election, was a coalition of limited enthusiasm and unity. It was quite possible, in fact, that the needs of coalition tending would narrow his options for this very summit, and the scope of his vision.
But what if they don’t? What if, instead of having a prewritten multiple-choice framework constructed for him by his coalition, Bibi is free to think about the Trump “peace” proposal and a Syrian settlement together? That’s how they should be thought about anyway.
It’s rare – very rare – for a parliamentary head of government to have the latitude to really think in strategic and historic terms about the top-level framework of a watershed security settlement. Even a Churchill started any such enterprise with a 70% solution dictated to him by the “law” inscribed on the party stones, as much as by his foreign allies.
Netanyahu, instead of maneuvering to hold a narrow coalition together, will have the opportunity to think about what he wants for Israel, and what he wants to campaign on between now and September. To an unusual extent, he can reset the table on that.
There’s major opportunity for the sober and humble, in lack of constraints. I imagine that, with Abraham Lincoln, one would be driven to one’s knees in the face of such opportunity – but I can see being enthusiastic about it.
Both the U.S. and Russia have an interest in continuing to work this while Israel awaits a new election. If Trump and Bolton hang in there, I think Russia will. Israel is a variable in the regional problem that won’t go squishy or wonky, if the potential structure of a viable commitment has been hammered out. Talking to Israel together is a unique opening; regardless of the outcome in September, it wouldn’t be time wasted.
Russia and America have national interests in making this happen, or we wouldn’t be doing it. This is a juncture at which not talking, for rote assumptions’ sake, is the wrong answer. I’m hopeful Trump and Bolton will recognize that.
Seen from the glass-half-full perspective, the question isn’t “Why did this have to happen now?” It’s “What’s Hebrew for ‘cowboy up and git ‘er done’?”