Elliot Abrams: Netanyahu’s Downfall No Surprise, Little Change Expected in Israeli Foreign Policy

Elliot Abrams: Netanyahu's Downfall No Surprise, Little Change Expected in Israeli Foreign Policy naftali bennett speaks into mic Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem on June 20, 2021. (ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

By Michael Cozzi | Tuesday, 22 June 2021 06:41 AM

The upheaval and downfall of the Netanyahu government in Israel has taken the American foreign policy circles by storm.

The unseating of the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister may not have come as a surprise to experts, but the implications of this change are still up for consideration. In an exclusive interview with Newsmax, Elliot Abrams, a foreign policy fixture in three Republican administrations and now a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, gave his outlook on the recent — and very turbulent —developments in Israel.

When it comes to Israeli foreign policy after the departure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there is expected to be little change on the actual issues, in Abrams' view. "First, there are a lot of foreign policy issues that are divisive and contentious in the U.S. that are not in Israel, specifically the JCPOA [Iran Nuclear Deal]," according to Abrams. "There is a wall-to-wall consensus [in Israel] that it is a dangerous agreement that will allow Iran to move forward to getting a nuclear weapon."

He added "[t]here is also broad consensus in Israel on Gaza, so I think there is an incorrect tendency to think that there is going to be a huge change in Israeli foreign policy. That is because the Minister of Defense is still Benny Gantz and [incoming Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett himself is a hardliner like Netanyahu."

The actual change occurs in the posturing for foreign policy. Abrams elaborated, "What I think will change are the tactics Israel uses toward Washington, D.C., because Netanyahu wanted to fight the JCPOA and President Obama on it, and I think that the new government will realize you aren't going to convince Joe Biden on it because that's butting your head against the wall.

"My expectation is that this new government — particularly the Defense Minister[Gantz], the Prime Minister [Bennett], and Foreign Minister [centrist Zair] Lapid — will focus on different issues with the JCPOA like holding Biden accountable for making the deal 'longer and stronger,' enforcing the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections for access in Iran, where the U.S. and Israel see eye to eye."

Netanyahu, Abrams told Newsmax, "seemed to cast himself often with the Republican Party, and with this new broad coalition that will not exist. So you may see smoother relations with Washington and the Democrats."

Regarding just how the Bennet coalition government will address Israel's long problem in Gaza with Hamas, Abrams said flatly: "There will be no change, and I was very struck by what the new leader of the Mossad said a few weeks ago. When he reiterated that nothing will change, I think that's true because that's how the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] deals with Gaza or how Israel handles Iran.

He added that "[o]n the regional issues, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been there so long that he has forged so many personal relations around the world in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The new team doesn't have that relationship with countries like Bahrain or … Oman, and they will have to put that in the works. I think you'll see that Lapid will be going everywhere, including the U.S., and traveling all over to start that process."

According to Abrams, the new government will likely look to grapple with the ongoing issue with Hamas in Gaza. "There has had a policy since the last round of conflict, unfortunately called 'mowing the lawn,'" he told Newsmax, "which is that the situation is basically acceptable but there is action to prevent the proliferation of arms into Gaza, and stop building an arsenal of rockets and missiles. It failed in the sense that when you look at the arsenal that Hamas has built up, by importing things from Iran and the technology transfers from Iran, they are going to have to rethink that."

A new government has taken charge in Israel, said Abrams, "right when Egypt, the U.S., and others are trying to answer the question of how do we do this. The goal is obvious, which is to rebuild Gaza from a humanitarian point of view by getting food, medicine, and structural material in there without empowering Hamas. The last time this was tried we all had the same goal and we failed, and Hamas got a lot stronger. No one has a magic formula, but this new government is going to come to the United States and say, 'Look, you and we failed at this last time so how are going to do better at this?'"

The former Reagan, Bush-43, and Trump administration official believes "that the momentum does reflect on each country's national interest, which is still true. I think you can also make the case that if we can do the deals with a right-wing government, then you can certainly do them with a centrist government that includes not only the left, but also the Arab parties."

Of the new prime minister, Abrams feels "there may be a little hill to climb with Bennet because of his past speeches on annexation, which could be remedied by using the Foreign Minister. When he does travel to make his speeches to the U.S. to Congress, and elsewhere, I think that he will have to face those questions when they come up."

On now former-Prime Minister Netanyahu, whom he has known for more than three decades, Abrams believes there is still life in his political career and the last chapter has yet to be written.

"I think he will not decide to retire but will lead the opposition," Abrams said, "because Likud [Netanyahu's right-of-center party] is still the largest party in the Knesset. I think he goes down as great historical figure in Israel as the longest serving Prime Minister and for two things in particular. The first is the Israel modern economy which started when he was Finance Minister under Sharon in the 90s and the second is the breakout in diplomatic relations. It's not just the Arab counties, it's in Africa, and Europe and truly all over the world. I think it may take a while, but there was a time when people hated [former Likud Prime Ministers] Ariel Sharon and Menachem, where they have now come to appreciate them. I think that Netanyahu will be the same."

Michael Cozzi is a Ph.D candidate at Catholic University in Washington D.C.

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