Washington Examiner

The New Middle East Emerges in the Knesset

Adjunct Fellow
Naftali Bennett (R), leader of the Yamina right-wing alliance, speaks with Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid opposition centrist party attend first cabinet meeting at the Israeli Parliament (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Naftali Bennett (R), leader of the Yamina right-wing alliance, speaks with Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid opposition centrist party attend first cabinet meeting at the Israeli Parliament (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)

This month, Israeli political leaders announced a historic unity governing coalition — the most diverse ideological, political, and religious in the country’s history. Led by the centrist Yesh Atid party, in tandem with the firmly right-wing Yamina party, it draws on parties of Israeli Jews from the Left and the Right. But to secure its one-vote margin in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, it will be joined for the first time by a party representing Israeli Arab Muslims. Politically, it is a marriage of convenience designed to oust Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, but its reverberations are being heard from Gaza to Tehran and well beyond.

This unprecedented arrangement (which includes not just an Israeli Arab party for the first time, but also an Islamist party, in the tradition of Salafists such as al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood) is deliberately choosing Israel, citizenship, and tolerance over rejectionism, incitement, and suicide bombing. The new Middle East is blooming inside Israel, too, and it is an existential threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hamas, and those dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the death of Arab regimes choosing to pursue a future of peace.

In 2020, the Trump administration achieved a masterstroke of diplomacy when it helped forge the Abraham Accords: bilateral normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco (Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering normalizing relations as well). Such paradigmatic and historic changes in relations between Israel and its majority-Muslim neighbors represent seismic shifts toward a new Middle East, one in which Israel and Arab states alike see the recalcitrant, regressive, revolutionary forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies as a threat to all that should be defeated, not contained.

Last month’s fighting between Israel and Iran-backed Hamas was very much an Iranian proxy conflict, instigated in the same vein as those Iran has waged by supporting terrorist Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen. Thousands of Iran-designed, Hamas-fired rockets would have likely spilled oceans of Israeli blood if the Iron Dome missile defense system hadn’t worked to near-perfection. Even as the smoke now clears, Iran’s state news agency has already stated that it is once again in the process of arming Hamas with “thousands” of new rockets.

For Iran’s supreme leader, spurring Hamas to war with Israel returns many dividends, none more valuable than media coverage excoriating Israel and distracting from what really matters in the Middle East. As politicians and pundits focus on Palestinian-Israeli violence, Iran diverts the world’s attention away from the fact Tehran’s illicit nuclear weapons program is “practicing breakout” by enriching uranium not to 3.5% for power plants, but to 60%, levels that “only countries making [nuclear] bombs are reaching,” Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, explained last week.

Iran’s cynical interests are underscored by its naked exploitation of the Palestinian cause, arming Hamas and directing it to wage war in pursuit of Tehran's dual aims. Sensing its isolation and looking in on a Middle East celebrating the Abraham Accords’ 300% expansion of Arab-Israeli diplomatic, economic, and security ties, not only is Iran desperate to keep its nuclear weapons program, but Iran also sees immediate danger it must disrupt in credible, solidifying opposition to its regional hegemonic and nuclear ambitions.

The timing of last month’s clash — Hamas started launching rocket attacks on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as the initial coalition agreement was getting close to the finish line in early May — was a blatant attempt to shatter the nascent Arab-Jewish integration that represents an absolute rebuke to the intolerance and genocidal antisemitism embodied by Hamas and Iran.

Unlike the hate-driven Islamist movements of the past and present, or the litany of Arab-Israeli elected officials who embraced Hezbollah or celebrated Palestinian terrorism directed at Israelis, the United Arab List (also known as Ra'am), led by Mansour Abbas, has made a clear decision to address kitchen table issues such as education, policing, and road maintenance, rather than stoking divisions rooted in religion. There is no doubt that Ra'am, and the coalition’s leaders Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, will need to walk a tightrope to maintain a coalition so diverse with only a one-seat majority. Nonetheless, the presence of Abbas's party as part of an Israeli government ruling majority coalition, which was already installed this week, represents a landmark departure from the extremism and support for terrorism that is nearly universal among other Israeli, Palestinian, and regional Islamist groups.

Abbas deserves enormous credit, and so do Israeli political leaders Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Bennet (Yamina). Bennet and Lapid are both far more creative, forward-looking, and progressive in their commitment to both Arab-Israeli unity and Israel’s place as the nation-state of the Jewish people than some critics will have you believe. The prospect of the new government representing a new kind of political stability in Israel, which has undergone four elections in the past two years, is a source of growing optimism for the country's voters. Given the ambitions of each man, it’s unlikely their union will last a full four-and-a-half years. But its historic nature won’t be judged by its longevity, but rather by the precedent it establishes for unity and its role in advancing the shifts in the region unleashed by the Abraham Accords. It provides a powerful counterexample to a region that has long been awash in hateful Sunni Islamist and Iranian regime propaganda that Jews and Muslims cannot coexist.

In the broadest sense, the Middle East is dividing into two spheres: actors willing to lay down old disputes and cooperate (Israel, the Gulf states, and cooperation-minded Arabs inside Israel) and forces of terror intent on subjugation of one form or another (Iran, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the Muslim Brotherhood). The convergence of disparate Arab-Israeli political groups in one coalition is a triumph of modernity over medievalism and mutual prosperity over murder. The new Middle East is emerging, and not even the most fervent hate or the most brutal barrage of rockets can stop the momentum.

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