For the past year, Israel has been facing a political deadlock, as parties failed to form a lasting coalition. During the March 2020 parliamentary elections, the third in less than a year, Israeli political parties expected to reach a majority (61 out of 120 Members of the Knesset) to end the impasse.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party prevailed and is now hoping to form a coalition. Many Foreign policy issues, such as the Middle East Peace Plan by Trump Administration, were crucial during the electoral campaign and Israel’s allies, including the European Union (EU), followed closely recent political developments in the country, which is likely to have impact on Israel’s relationship with the EU despite the longstanding ties between the both.
The victory of Likud by a short lead
During the previous parliamentary election in September 2019, the two main political parties, Likud and Blue and White, both failed to form a coalition. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called the March 2020 campaign “awful and grubby” referring to the mudslinging between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the two major political leaders. The Likud party got 36 seats, four seats more than the previous legislative elections. The party is now expected to form a coalition with other right-wing and religious parties, such as Shas or Yamina. Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to convince future members of Knesset from Blue and White to join his coalition.
The right-wing bloc, in other words the conservative wing of the Knesset, obtained 58 seats, falling short from the 61-seat majority. The electoral campaign was successfully run by Netanyahu as he chose to travelling all across the country to meet the Israeli electorate. He targeted cities with a traditionally low voter turn-out. During the campaign, Netanyahu put forward his record as Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, presenting himself as the only leader with the experience to protect the country.
Benny Gantz’s party, Blue and White, got 33 seats, maintaining its number of seats in the Knesset. His campaign focused mostly on denouncing the alleged corruption linked with Netanyahu, but Blue and White could not manage to come up with a favourable outcome in the latest elections.
The centre-left-wing bloc has now 54 seats. This bloc includes the Joint List alliance, consisting of parties representing Israel’s Arab minority. The Joint List secured 15 seats, becoming the third-largest party in Knesset. However, its members stated that they would not join a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.
A potential end to the year-long political impasse?
The Israeli political situation has been critical for the past year, especially since Benjamin Netanyahu is under investigation for “corruption, breach of trust and fraud.” His is to start on March 17th 2020, but despite being formally indicted, Netanyahu did not lose popular support and secured a slight lead in the recent parliamentary elections. There was a high turn-out during the March 2020 elections, with the participation of 71% of the electorate, probably because voters want to end the political deadlock. Benjamin Netanyahu now has four weeks to form a government. It is not guaranteed, however, that he will succeed in building a long-lasting coalition.
Towards a greater deterioration of the EU-Israeli relation?
The March 2020 legislative elections were important to determine the future relations between the European Union (EU) and Israel. Israel and the EU have a strong relationship, especially in the area of trade, with a free trade area agreement in 1975, then replaced by an Association agreement in 2000. The EU remains Israel’s first trading partner with a trade volume amounting to €36,2 billion in 2017.
However, the relationship between the EU and Israel has not always been without challenges, as the EU supports a two-state solution and is the largest donor of financial assistance to the Palestinian authority. Moreover, the EU does not recognise territories which were annexed by Israel in 1967 and does not recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Tensions also arose in January 2005 when the EU applied customs duties on the importation of products manufactured in Israeli settlements, in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
These multiple issues with the European Union lead Israel to rely increasingly on longstanding allies than the European Union, such as the US, which recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017. Israel’s partners also include Russia, which shares strong cultural ties with Israel. Israel and Russia have been lately improving their cooperation on foreign policy issues as well.
The current situation in Israel can cause growing disunity among EU member states. The Visengrád Four, composed of Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic, has been strengthening its relationship with Israel despite the odds between EU and Israel. For instance, the Czech Republic recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israel is thus reinforcing its bilateral ties with some EU member states at the expense of its relations with the EU as a whole.
There has been a slow deterioration of the relations between Israel and the EU during Netanyahu’s successive terms, with the acceleration of settlement construction in Gaza and the West Bank. The EU has voiced its concerns about these settlements, which “threatens the viability of […] a two-state solution.”
Benjamin Netanyahu’s tone during the March 2020 campaign was firmer, as he announced new constructions in Israeli settlements. Netanyahu presented a hard-line agenda, emphasising the extension of Israel’s sovereignty on more territories, with the promise of the annexation of settlements in the West Bank, in particular the Jordan Valley. Similarly, the programme of the Likud party during the recent elections thus collided with the EU’s vision in the region.
On February 28th, 2020 Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU, made a statement calling Israel to stop the settlement construction in East Jerusalem and reaffirmed the commitment of the EU to maintain an open dialogue on the two-state solution. The outcome of March 2020 elections are not likely to enhance relations between Israel and the European Union.
The new EU leadership will have to decide the type of relationship to have with Israel. Ursula von der Leyen aspires to build a “geopolitical European Commission”, yet one can question the ability of the EU to act as a unified global actor. Strengthening the relationship between the EU and Israel will not be easy, especially since Josep Borrell, albeit personal ties to Israel, had voiced strong criticisms against Israel in the past.
The March 2020 legislative elections did not bring a clear victory to either political side in Israel. However, they confirmed that a large section of the electorate still supports Benjamin Netanyahu despite his upcoming trial. Netanyahu’s ability to form a government will determine the state of his country’s relations with the European Union. However, his campaign promises revealed a growing distance between Israel and the EU. It is not certain that economic ties between the two actors will suffice to repair the relationship.