A new government has been installed in Israel for about three months now, ending an era of Netanyahu leading the country. PAX spoke to Nimrod Goren of the progressive Israeli think tank Mitvim, about this change in the Israeli political environment and the new opportunities that come with it. Goren: “Netanyahu utilized diplomacy to create tension and confrontation with those opposing his worldview. With the new government, diplomacy is once again becoming a professional tool of dialogue, mending relationships, and fostering the liberal democratic component of Israel’s foreign policy.”
Goren is founder and president of Mitvim, an Israeli think tank focusing on improving Israel’s foreign policy – making it more progressive and professional – and on Israel’s integration into the Middle Eastern, European, and Mediterranean regions. Mitvim works together with PAX on issues related to European policy and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Goren finds the change in politics to be an interesting opportunity for Israel, although the new government is of ‘mixed ideology’. Parties from both the left and right are included in the new government, trying to work together, which means both sides need to compromise now and then. “Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue for example, some parties are supporting a two-state solution, while others are in favor of annexing Palestinian territories to Israel”. The new government needs to find a way to work together despite these big differences, explains Goren. “The notion of seeing people that are so far away ideologically working closely together within one government conveys an important message to society,” says Goren. “We can reach over these divisions and find some common ground, even when we are ideologically polarized”.
‘Relationship with EU from negative towards positive’
An important aspect of this new government is Yair Lapid’s appointment as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Lapid, from the centrist Yesh Atid party, has been preparing himself for this position for a quite a while, explains Goren. “He invested in diplomacy during the last few years, making connections within the international arena. So, he came to the position with an agenda that was already quite set.” This agenda, according to Goren, is getting back to the liberal democratic values that characterized Israel’s foreign policy in the past – before Netanyahu’s years in power. Lapid is attempting to improve Israel’s relationship with European partners. To engage with Europe, despite political differences. “Setting a positive tone for Israel-EU relations was advanced during Lapid’s visit to Brussels. It was unique for the Israeli Foreign Minister to make his first visit to Europe. Not to a capital of a key member state, but the European Union, as an institution.”
During the last decade with Netanyahu in charge, Israel’s attitude towards Europe has been quite negative. Netanyahu took Israel more towards a nationalist populist sphere, working together with populist and anti-EU politicians, like Viktor Orban. He was highly critical of EU positions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue and worked to increase divisions among member states to prevent consensus on Israel-related issues, explains Goren. “Lapid visiting Brussels shows that the new government is going in a different direction, taking Israel’s relationship with the EU from the negative towards the positive.”
Chances of escalation are reduced
Not only Europe is part of Lapid’s agenda, he also wants to improve relations between Israel and the Arab world, says Goren. Deepening the relations that were already there and trying to establish new ties with other Arab countries as well. Furthermore, the new government will try to put in place again ‘channels of communication with the Palestinian Authority’, explains Goren. Although the different parties working together within the government do not agree on a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, they do all agree on the fact that establishing relations with the Palestinian Authority is important. There is a willingness throughout the government, says Goren, to improve the lives of the Palestinian communities, to better the communication and to create opportunities of dialogue between the two sides. However, there is a limit to what to what can be achieved through this, emphasizes Goren, without a clear political horizon of a two-state solution.
“Just a couple of days ago, the Minister of Defense, Benjamin Gantz, went to Ramallah to visit the Palestinian president Abbas. That is something that has not happened for over a decade, and I think it is a very good sign”, says Goren. “Other ministers, from the left-wing Meretz party, also reached out to their Palestinian counterparts.” Why communication is important according to Goren? “It is not a gamechanger in the whole process towards a final-status peace agreement, but it does create a better environment in which the two sides are talking to each other. It reduces the chance of escalation, that nobody wants to see, because the coordination is there. Connection between government officials on professional issues can lead to some useful practical cooperation and it also conveys a positive message to both societies, that speaking to each other is legitimate.”
Dialogue instead of tension
For Mitvim the change in Israeli politics offers some new opportunities as well. Key foreign policy-related positions, in the government and in parliament, are led by politicians from the center and left, who are receptive to Mitvim’s policy recommendations. Specifically, the government includes Israeli parties from the left – Labor and Meretz – that were not in governance for years. The Meretz party, for example, has not been in that position since 2000. Prominent figures in these parties, now part of the Israeli government, have been collaborating with Mitvim for the past decade. “Minister of Health, Nitzan Horowitz, was previously a policy fellow at Mitvim, focusing on Israel-Europe relations”, tells Goren. Furthermore, Mitvim’s goals of improving Israel’s foreign policy and empowering Israel’s Foreign Service are shared by the new government. Goren: “Netanyahu utilized diplomacy to create tension and confrontation with those opposing his worldview. With the new government, diplomacy is once again becoming a professional tool of dialogue, mending relationships, and fostering the liberal democratic component of Israel’s foreign policy.”
Want to know more about EU-Israel relations? Check out the Divided and Divisive report. Divided and Divisive analyses the current dynamics of the relations between the European Union and Israel in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and offers recommendations for a sustainable solution to the conflict. It is the result of a research project carried out by Mitvim and SWP in cooperation with PAX.