The closing of an era?

June 10, 2021 by Ron Weiser
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Barring last-minute surprises, this Sunday will see the closing of an era.

Dr Ron Weiser

Tragically for Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and who will undoubtedly be remembered for many very significant achievements – including his statesmanlike behaviour on the international stage – his political demise has turned into a Greek tragedy.

It may be too soon to write Netanyahu’s political obituary – but there are many potential obstacles to his return, including possible time serving limit legislation and leadership challenges from within his own party.

Let’s look at the incoming government.

First and foremost, its unifying glue is the unseating of Netanyahu.

Whilst many people are focused on the ideological differences between the eight parties that make up the new coalition, for the immediate future, these are probably of lesser significance.

Looking internally the first order of business is to ensure a return to a fully functioning government including the passing of a budget.

Whilst many rumours swirl around agreements made within the ‘change’ coalition, it does appear that some common agendas may emerge – in the realm of some modest changes in the religious status quo, just for one. If made, this would also resonate positively in the diaspora.

On the occasions that differences occur, incoming Prime Minister Naphtali Bennett has a strong personal motivation to overcome them.

Whilst his party only won 7 seats in the March election, he brings just 6 of them to the coalition of 61(out of 120 Knesset seats). Bennett has alienated most of his voter base and is being blamed for Netanyahu’s removal by his own constituency, as well as by the bulk of the so-called right-wing electorate.

For him to try and regain their confidence, he will have to demonstrate that he can deliver a better and more stable government than the chaos of the past two years.

And for that, he will need time.

Alongside that, Lapid with a much larger party holding 17 seats in the Knesset, will only become prime minister if this government sticks and stays for two years.

Both leaders have a high degree of self-interest to do their best at keeping this coalition together.

It is a minefield of course, and in a situation where just one member can defect and bring the government down, the next election is always just around the corner.

It will not be an easy period for either Bennett or Lapid.

Again, much is being made of the left/right divide in the new coalition.

But it is not that relevant – certainly not just yet.

No one suggests that coming to anything more than any interim agreement with Hamas is possible in the short term.

And whilst Israel and President Biden prefer to strengthen the Palestinian Authority over Hamas in terms of delivering aid to Gaza etc, Mahmoud Abbas is damaged goods amongst his own people and lacks the stature to make any final status deal.

Therefore, the likeliest possible flashpoints in this regard are perhaps where to build or not build over the Green Line, with an eye to the future, including the road network and which ministry that should fall under. As well as how to handle unauthorised Palestinian building in Area C.

What this coalition demonstrates is that at least for the time being its partners, whilst not necessarily changing their parties’ various platforms, are currently ignoring them.

This applies to virtually all of the parties in the new government.

As but one example, for Bennett, Sa’ar and Lieberman, just to sit in government with Mertez requires quite some ideological gymnastics and the overturning of long-held beliefs. And vice versa. Let alone co-governing with Ra’am.

And nothing demonstrates this more than the Ra’am party itself, led by Mansour Abbas.

One of the reasons that Hamas launched its rocket attack on Israel that started the recent 11-day war, was to prevent Ra’am from joining any Israeli coalition at all.

Mansour Abbas heads an Islamist party whose ideological roots – the Moslem Brotherhood – are the same as that of Hamas.

Netanyahu, even before the March elections, was talking to Ra’am about joining his coalition, or at the very least, supporting it from the outside. So, it was he who made Ra’am’s inclusion acceptable to Zionist parties in the first place.

For Hamas, any Israeli Arab party, but especially one that sprang from the Moslem Brotherhood, joining and legitimising any Israeli government, is an unmitigated disaster.

Indeed, immediately after the recent ceasefire Hamas leader Haniyeh said: “This battle has destroyed the project of coexistence with the Israeli occupation, of the project of normalisation with Israel”.

And yet, just a couple of weeks later, Mansour Abbas’ inclusion in this government may well have handed Hamas its biggest blow in recent times.

As far as we know, Mansour Abbas has three demands, significant as they are, but almost totally devoid of ideological heat – almost.

They are: to ensure the government makes a determined effort to deal with organised Arab crime in Israeli Arab towns; to approve large budgets to improve infrastructure in those towns; and to deal with the housing of Bedouins in the south of Israel.

The big test and immediate foreign policy issue facing the incoming government is Iran, the potential JCPOA deal and relations with President Biden.

It needs to be said that Biden was a good partner to Israel during ‘Operation Guardian of the Walls.’ He protected Israel from the UN Security Council, he committed to providing a missile package to Israel in the midst of the war (despite his left flank) and to resupply Iron Dome.

And most importantly immediately after the ceasefire came into effect – as the Democratic President, he described Israel in the same terms that President Bush did in 2004, in an exchange of letters with Prime Minister Sharon as part of the prelude to the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.

On Friday the 21st of May Biden said as follows: “My party still supports Israel. Let’s get something straight: until the region says unequivocally, they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace.”

The description of Israel as “an independent Jewish state” has been a consistent demand of all Israeli governments since independence.

And very much flows from it.

Its ramifications are large and significant.

And, just as with the Bush/Sharon letters, also has meaning for a separate Palestinian entity.

There are many reasons postulated for why Hezbollah did not enter the recent war, but one credible explanation is that Iran – who of course pulls the strings of both Hamas and Hezbollah – did not want to push too hard and drive Biden away from their negotiations on the JCPOA.

This strategic question of Iran and any deal may turn out to be the determinant of whether the ‘change’ coalition can or cannot hold for the immediate future.

It may be that with President Biden the team of Bennett, Lapid and Gantz just might have a better chance of success, not having painted themselves into the Republican corner.

The potential Iran deal is likely to be the main point of friction between the new government and Netanyahu and the opposition in the first instance.

How far to push and how public to be? And would Netanyahu have done better?

Judgements on how Bennett and his partners are perceived to handle this will likely be a signpost as to their chances for pushing out the date of the next election.

With the incoming coalition unified on wanting to stop Iran from achieving nuclear weapons, this issue presents no real ideological divide but is a question over tactics and how to go about the conduct of the Israel/US relationship – which also affects Israel’s relationship with American Jewry.

A lot rides on their success in this matter – for the incoming coalition – but also for Israel and of course the world beyond.

Ron Weiser is the Honorary Life Member ZFA Executive and Honorary Life President, ZC of NSW

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