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Bennett looking to strengthen Israel as a Middle East player – analysis

CM 29/07/2021

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Almost two months into his term as prime minister, Naftali Bennett has given a clear indication of where his focus lies when it comes to international relations: Making Israel a major player in the Middle East.

The new prime minister has been putting domestic issues, like the COVID-19 pandemic, first, and spending many sleepless nights at the Knesset due to incessant filibustering, which leaves little time for foreign affairs. Plus, in this new government, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is bringing authority to a position that was drained of it for many years, taking the leading role on many foreign policy matters.
But Bennett still plays a major role in international affairs; he’s just choosier when it comes to where to take an active role. That choice has been in the Middle East.
PMO insiders said this week that Bennett’s top priority is countering the Iranian threat to Israel, and that goes hand-in-hand with a more regional focus.
Israel’s newer alliances in the Middle East stemmed from a shared deep concern about Iran, from Gulf States and beyond, though they have gone beyond that with the Abraham Accords countries.

Coming into office, Bennett found many countries in the region expected Israel to play a major role in thwarting Iran, and they, in turn, have supported and echoed Israel in its calls for firmer reassurances and action from the US and other parties to the Iran nuclear deal.
Bennett has been in touch with Arab leaders across the region, including those with which Israel does not have diplomatic ties, and hopes to establish open relations between Israel and more Arab countries.
Bennett’s first visit abroad was to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II. The trip was conducted secretly, but leaked soon after and Abdullah confirmed it this week. In the ensuing weeks, Bennett spoke with United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and his government has worked to increase cooperation with Egypt. Meanwhile, Lapid traveled to the UAE and is heading to Morocco in two weeks.
Appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office also reflected Bennett’s thinking. His diplomatic adviser is Shimrit Meir, a prominent Middle East analyst, who ran a news website in Arabic for years and commented on and wrote about the region for major Israeli news outlets. Israel’s new National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata was a senior Mossad official who was instrumental in ties between Israel and Arab countries and in bringing the Abraham Accords to fruition behind the scenes. Bennett has not appointed anyone to the position of spokesperson to the English-language press, even though Netanyahu-era spokesman and adviser Mark Regev left the post, but Arabic-language spokesman Ofir Gendelman remains in the Prime Minister’s Office.
There is also a domestic political advantage to a regional focus, because it has wall-to-wall support in the current governing coalition, even with the major differences between its members. This comes in stark contrast to dealing with the Palestinians, about which a source close to Bennett said this week: “The moment we start getting into the Palestinian issue, the government just falls apart.”
Bennett is seeking to maneuver Israel into a position where it is truly a part of the Middle East, not just in a technical geographic way while behaving like an island and constantly eyeing the West. While the prime minister still sees the US as Israel’s greatest strategic ally, and the EU remains Israel’s largest trading partner, Bennett wants Israel to be of the Middle East in a more integrated way, diplomatically and economically.  
Where former prime minister Ehud Barak once called Israel “a villa in the jungle,” Bennett is saying “welcome to the jungle.”

Source: Jerusalem Post

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