Is it possible to predict the future in Israel and the Middle East? The most unpredictable and unstable region in the world. Every year at BICOM we give it a go, pooling our expertise to publish a forecast of what will happen in the New Year.
Last year we correctly predicted direct conflict between Iran and Israel in Syria, the Turkish invasion of Northern Syria and the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Here is what we believe will happen in the year ahead.
Israeli elections will take place in May or June 2019. The government is struggling with a 61-59 majority and elections will inevitably be earlier than the required November date.
Predicting an Israeli election result before the campaign has even started is a fool’s errand, but key trends are emerging. The Israeli public isn’t happy with the government’s handling of West Bank terror attacks and the ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza, this has undermined Netanyahu’s image as ‘Mr Security’. But, polls have consistently put PM Netanyahu’s Likud party ahead and no opposition leader has emerged to change that. The entry into the race of popular former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, a recommendation by the Attorney General to indict Netanyahu for bribery, or the publication of a US peace plan, could impair Netanyahu’s ability to form a coalition and emerge as PM after the election. An indictment before the election would transform Israeli politics.
Israel’s shadow war against Iran in Syria will enter a new phase. The Russian delivery of the S-300 anti-aircraft system to the Assad regime is a game-changer but its impact depends on whether it is operated by Russians (restricting Israeli room for manoeuvre) or by Assad loyalists (in which case the systems could be destroyed). While Syria remains a complex arena, more worrying for Israel are developments in Lebanon, where Iran’s ‘precision project’ to equip Hezbollah’s arsenal of 100,000 missiles with precision guidance systems is well underway. Israel has been able to counter Iran in Syria with air strikes, it is significantly harder to do that in Lebanon and carries the risk of a new war with Hezbollah. The dilemma whether to launch a pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah’s upgraded missiles or wait and face a much more dangerous Hezbollah is the most serious national security dilemma for Israeli leaders in 2019.
Despite close security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, there is a significant threat of more violence and instability in the West Bank. The PA suffers from severe economic difficulties and Hamas has increased attempts to carry out terrorist attacks in the West Bank. The Palestinians are approaching a serious leadership succession crisis, when ageing PA President, Fatah leader and Chairman of the PLO Mahmoud Abbas, departs the scene. While such a crisis may not occur in 2019, it’s a matter of when, rather than if, the crisis takes place. A new Palestinian leader will likely move toward a more extreme rejectionist platform to compensate for their legitimacy deficit.
In Gaza, Egypt and Qatar will continue to try and calm the situation and promote an agreement between Israel and Hamas. But even if a ceasefire is agreed, other parts of a deal, such as infrastructure projects will almost certainly fall on the rock of failed Palestinian reconciliation, with Abbas rejecting Hamas’s insistence that it maintains its military after a unity deal. This is the ongoing dilemma for international donors who want to help Gazans but will refuse to invest funds as long as Hamas controls Gaza.
Israel’s relations with Jordan will hit the rocks in 2019 because King Abdullah wants to cancel the 25-year lease clause in the bilateral peace treaty that allows Israel to use two small areas of territory in the Arava desert. Israel will propose significant water and energy projects to try and convince the King to reconsider. But with strong domestic opposition, Abdullah is unlikely to change his mind.
On a more positive note, relations between Israel and Arab Gulf Countries will warm up next year. Following Netanyahu’s successful visit to Oman, we are likely to see another Prime Ministerial visit to a Gulf Arab country, perhaps Bahrain. Covert relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia will continue, although a much-feted public handshake between Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan may remain a pipe dream for now. More likely the Kingdom will grant permission for Israeli airlines to fly over its airspace, which would cut flying times and significantly boost business between Israel and Asia. This may seem seem minor. But when measured against 70 years of anti-normalisation within the Arab world, it is the start of a new era.