Update from AIJAC
Yesterday, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the coalition deal signed between incumbent PM Binyamin Netanyahu and main rival Benny Gantz on April 20 can go ahead. (AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro analysed this ruling yesterday).
Since then, things have continued to move swiftly – the Knesset quickly passed the necessary bills for a “national emergency” government to be sworn in next week, while 72 Knesset members notified President Reuven Rivlin of their support for Netanyahu to become PM initially under this deal, and Rivlin then duly gave Netanyahu a mandate to form a government.
This Update offers further analysis of how Israel got to this point, and what might happen under the new Netanyahu-Gantz government.
We lead with veteran Israeli political correspondent and analyst Shmuel Rosner. Rosner comments on the “behemoth” government – with more than 30 ministers – about to be installed, but expresses gratitude to have a government at all after three inconclusive elections. He also has four important notes about the new government – including its need to move beyond the political manoeuvering that has dominated the last 18 months into real policy-making; the unknown effects of Netanyahu’s corruption trial set to begin in a few weeks; and the controversy over the agreement to put forward legislation applying Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank. For Rosner’s informed discussion, CLICK HERE.
Next up is Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent at the Jerusalem Post, looking at Netanyahu’s personal role in the formation of this government. Keinon notes that this government only exists because of the coronavirus pandemic – but is nonetheless also a product of Netanyahu’s “consummate political skill” in knowing how to exploit the opportunity created by the medical crisis. With Netanyahu now set to be PM for the next 18 months, Keinon looks at what he will want to achieve over that time – as well as the strong likelihood that Netanyahu will not see this stint in office as his last. For all of Keinon’s insights into what Netanyahu is likely thinking, CLICK HERE.
Finally, noted Israeli strategic analyst Eran Lerman discussing a controversial aspect of the new government mentioned by both Rosner and Keinon, the proposal in the coalition agreement to extend Israeli sovereignty to some parts of the West Bank in accordance with the Trump Administration’s peace plan. Lerman takes on those who insist that any such move is a death knell for any hope of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace. Instead, he suggests an approach to applying sovereignty which he believes can give new life to two-state hopes in the longer term. For his full argument, CLICK HERE.
Lerman’s contribution comes amidst an intense debate inside Israeli about the subject. Additional views broadly supportive of extending Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank in line with the Trump peace plan come from strategic analyst Prof. Efraim Inbar, former Maj. Gen. Gershon Hacohen, and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Some views arguing it is a bad idea come from former Israeli security service heads Ami Ayalon, Tamir Pardo, and Gadi Shamni, Washington Institute for Near East Policy experts Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, and American Middle East scholar Dr. Daniel Pipes.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer argues that the debate over extending Israeli sovereignty is likely moot, because he does not expect Netanyahu to actually take the idea to a Knesset vote, despite its mention in the coalition agreement.
- More on the significance of the recent court hearings in Israel about the coalition agreement from former Knesset member turned analyst Dov Lipman.
- Yaakov Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, assesses the Israeli government’s claims of success in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Plus, a New York Times story on Israel’s efforts to use antibody testing to assess the likelihood of a “second wave” of infection.
- Assessment of the US Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran after two years, from US experts Mark Dubowitz and Behnam Ben Taleblu.
- With much new evidence coming out about the role of Iran’s Mahan Air, which is close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and allegedly used for ferrying arms and terrorists, in spreading coronavirus from China by defying flight bans, calls are being made for new sanctions on the airline.
- UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls for an “all-out effort” to end the “tsunami of hate and xenophobia”, including antisemitism.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- As noted above, Ahron Shapiro analysed the Israeli Supreme Court decision paving the way for the new Israeli unity government and its implications.
- AIJAC’s Judy Maynard looks at the World Health Organisation – currently under fire for alleged kowtowing to China in the coronavirus crisis – and its history of highly politicised behaviour with respect to Israel.
- Video of an AIJAC webinar with Israeli strategic expert Brig. (res) Yossi Kuperwasser on the subject of “The New Antisemitism and the Threat to Israel’s National Security.” Plus, a written summary of what Kuperwasser had to say from J-Wire.
- Short video clips from past AIJAC webinars: US security expert Walter Russell Mead discusses “What is Trump’s Iran strategy?”, while Israeli intellectual, author and former Labor MK Einat Wilf explains why she believes the era of ‘land for peace’ is over.
- Information about AIJAC’s upcoming webinar with American Middle East expert Dr. Michael Rubin, on the subject of “Can Iranian and Turkish regional ambitions survive COVID-19?”, scheduled for noon, Wednesday, May 13.
With Supreme Court Ruling, Israel Ready to Form New Government
The unity behemoth is coming. A coalition of more than 70 Knesset members (perhaps close to 80), and a government of more than 30 ministers, not to mention a dozen or so deputy ministers, is expected to be sworn in next Wednesday — the first since 2015. After three election cycles, it’s about time we had a new government.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday night that letting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu form a new government is legal. Eleven justices signed the ruling, signalling that this was not a controversial conclusion. Not by a long shot. It also decided the court had no reason to intervene in the agreement between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. For now. The court could still revisit the legal arrangements later. For example, when it becomes Netanyahu’s turn to be the “alternate prime minister.” At such time, if the justices rule that the alternate prime minister is like any other minister, Gantz will be forced to dismiss Netanyahu (under the current law, a minister cannot serve under indictment). The result will be an end to the coalition.
Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut during the hearings over the new coalition agreement earlier this week.
But this is far in the future. For now, the court has paved the way for the Knesset to pass the necessary legislation, for the president to hand Netanyahu the mandate to form a government, and for the heads of the blocs to begin closing the deal with the other parties and select the ministers for each office. All of this is slated to happen by next Wednesday, when the Knesset will vote in favour of the unity government.
Four important things to note as the government forms:
- There was a lot of scepticism among analysts, pundits and other observers as to whether Netanyahu truly wants to form a unity government or was looking for a way to prompt a new election. Such scepticism was not misplaced but has its limitations. Prophecy is dangerous, especially when the prophet has a clear agenda (in this case, to make Netanyahu look bad).
- For 18 months we became used to (or maybe became addicted to) the game of politics. Political maneuvers are an important part of public life, but the new government faces serious challenges. Hopefully, this will be reason enough to take a break from political games and focus on policymaking.
- Netanyahu’s trial is slated to begin in a few weeks. We have to see how he functions when the court discusses the allegations against him.
- Is the government ready to annex parts of the West Bank? Apart from coronavirus related matters, including health measures and economic remedies, annexation is the next big question on the table. According to his understanding with Gantz, in two months Netanyahu can make a move. Two months is an eternity. And it is also just around the corner.
Bibi ‘Houdini’ does it again – analysis
It may not be the government of his dreams, he might have to switch places with Benny Gantz in the middle, but Thursday’s Knesset vote means he will soon be prime minister for a fifth time.
By HERB KEINON
Jerusalem Post, May 7, 2020
Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, celebrate at Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 9, 2020 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
He did it again.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who came out of the last elections short of the Knesset votes needed to form a government and is due in Jerusalem District Court on May 24 to face serious corruption charges – is on his way to once again being sworn in as prime minister.
It may not be the government of his dreams, he might have to switch places with Benny Gantz in the middle, but Thursday’s Knesset vote, coupled with the High Court of Justice’s unanimous decision not to disqualify him or the peculiar Likud-Blue and White coalition agreement, means he will soon be prime minister for a fifth time.
King Bibi, magician indeed.
This time, however, his reappearing act was aided heavily by the coronavirus.
Had the plague not appeared on the scene, had it not generated a bonafide national emergency, it is doubtful Netanyahu’s new ally Gantz would have cast his election campaign promises to the wind and agreed to serve in a Netanyahu government.
He got lucky, his detractors — with much bitterness — will say of the prime minister. But this is not luck. Netanyahu’s ability to survive a damning indictment and three consecutive elections in less than 12 months without being able to put together a coalition and still remain the country’s leader is a testament to consummate political skill, not luck.
A lesser politician in the same situation who was also hit by a pandemic would not necessarily have had the ability to leverage it to his advantage. The coronavirus shuffled the cards, but Netanyahu had the political wisdom to know how to adroitly play the new cards and win.
But now what? Netanyahu has another 18 months as prime minister all but guaranteed. What does he plan to do with it?
And that question cannot be divorced from his trial that is finally set to begin in just over two weeks. Israel will then be in the odd situation of being governed by a man whose attention will be split between the Knesset and the court.
How will one impact on the other?
The court case will obviously divert Netanyahu’s attention. Netanyahu is a workaholic who has shown a remarkable ability over the years to compartmentalize and not let one facet of his life negatively impact on the other, but even he will be challenged by having to split his attention between his weighty court case and the trials facing the nation.
Just as during the three election campaigns over the last 18 months everything he did, all the decisions he made, were suspect of having been done because of electoral considerations, so too as a defendant all Netanyahu’s decisions will be seen through the prism of whether they were affected by the strain of the trial, or whether he is somehow trying to create a public atmosphere that could influence the case.
One of the first questions various interviewees were asked on radio stations on Thursday, after the High Court of Justice threw out the petitions against Netanyahu, was whether the judges were influenced by public opinion – created in part by the prime minister – and concern that intervening in this case would do irreparable damage to the court in the eyes of the public.
Atmosphere matters, and as prime minister for the next 18 months Netanyahu remains in a good position to influence the public atmosphere as it watches his case unfold in court.
But beyond the court case, Netanyahu’s main order of business, once he will be sworn in, will be to deal with the economic disaster that the virus wreaked, as well as plan for a possible second round of the pandemic in the Fall.
This is, after all, an emergency government. True, there is Iran in Syria to worry about, an increasingly volatile situation in Lebanon, Gaza, and that issue of whether or not to extend Israeli sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank before the US elections in November, but recovering from the virus is why this unusual government was set up in the first place, and which will be its main focus of attention.
One of Netanyahu’s top priorities now will be to ensure that the country is prepared so that if the virus makes a comeback in a few months, as most assume it will, Israel will be able to cope without having to lock down the entire country to ensure that the understaffed, underfunded and under-equipped health system is not overwhelmed.
The country’s mood coming out of the lockdown is decidedly sour. Netanyahu, whose political ambitions extend beyond the next 18 months in the Prime Minister’s Office, will labor intensively to change that mood, hoping that that the public will then be grateful to him for doing so, and show that appreciation the next time elections roll around.
Netanyahu has given no sign that his next stint in power will be his last – even if he is forced to switch seats with Gantz in the middle of a term, and even if he is standing trial.
And those who believe the prime minister must be in his last act are underestimating his unparalleled political staying power and durability.
In February, just before the last election, Yisrael Beytenu head and Netanyahu nemesis Avigdor Liberman famously declared “the Netanyahu era has ended.” But look where Netanyahu is, soon to be sworn in again as prime minister, and where Liberman is – on the opposition backbenches – and draw the conclusion: don’t count Netanyahu out. Ever.
Herb Keinon is the diplomatic correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.
Implementing Elements of the Trump Plan: An Opportunity to Give New Life to the Two-State Option
Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman.
Jerusalem Institute for Security Studies, 30.04.2020
The Trump Administration’s “Vision for Peace” peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians.
Rejection of the Trump plan outright, denunciation of any steps towards its implementation, and adherence to the failed Oslo-era paradigm for peace – is certain to condemn all sides to continued conflict.
If we are to believe the common wisdom among those who had been engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts under previous administrations, the sad sound of the death knell of the two-state solution (2SS) can already be heard, and will grow more intense as Israel’s new coalition government proceeds to implement elements of Trump’s “Deal of the Century.”
Extending Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and settlement blocs, we are being told, would finally bury all hopes of an agreed solution, based on a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This may have ever-widening repercussions for regional stability. Some still latch on to the expectation that the Israeli “Deep State” – the defense establishment, intelligence community and legal authorities – will stay Netanyahu’s hand. Or else, all is lost.
But is it? At the core of the underlying assumptions which give rise to these dire warnings is one simple, persistent but unfortunately perverse proposition. Namely, that only an agreement (or an imposed solution) based on the 1967 lines, with minor swaps, a partition of Jerusalem, some more-or-less symbolic concession on the Palestinian “right of return,” and other aspects of UNSCR 2334 – can offer any hope for the future. This may be called the “Everybody Knows Paradigm” (EKP) for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
And yet there must be a reason why all attempts to realize the EKP have failed, again and again. Hence the need to chart a new way forward. A case can be made for trying to do so based upon the strategic outline of Trump’s plan. It may even be the case that taking unilateral steps towards its implementation would not wreck the prospects of peace (which anyway have not been bright in recent years). but rather the opposite. The Trump plan could jolt a moribund process into life.
The intense peace processing efforts since Annapolis foundered not because Prime Minister Olmert, who offered so much to the Palestinians, was forced to leave office (and then convicted and jailed for corruption). Nor did peacemaking vanish because Prime Minister Netanyahu is a shifty naysayer. As Michael Herzog has described in a seminal essay (“Peace process lost: Notes on the Kerry legacy,” The American Interest, May/June 2017), those who saw the Prime Minister in action at the time can testify that for all his faults, and despite heavy pressure from the Israeli right-wing, he was still quite willing to proceed within the framework of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative in 2013-2014.
These efforts fell apart, at the end of the day, not because of some specific fault in Israeli policy, or because of a tactical miscalculation (though there were plenty of both), but because the sky-high Palestinian expectations were not met. As long as Palestinian leadership interprets “international legitimacy” in terms which cohere with their uncompromising demands, there will be no support for a peace deal among the broad majority of Israelis.
Too much has happened since 1993, in terms of the sheer physical security of Israelis, to leave them unconcerned about far-reaching territorial concessions and security risks. The acute sense of danger felt by Israelis at the personal level – and rendered even more poignant by the global rise in Islamist terror since 9/11 – is the enduring legacy of the wave of violence induced by Arafat in 2000-2004.
The lessons of what happened since the “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, and those which arise from the destabilization of the region since 2011, have added to the caution of Israelis against all who promise rosy visions of peace – as if it would be within reach if only Israel would concede key areas to Palestinian control, carve up the living city of Jerusalem, and rely on international security guarantees.
The two political parties which advocated a left-wing Zionist variation on this theme of the “Everybody Knows Paradigm” (as distinct from the Arab List’s outright support for Palestinian demands) did very poorly in the March 2020 elections. Labor (or the shadow of a party now left of it) is joining the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition. At the time of Oslo, Labor and Merez had 56 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. The combined representation of the Zionist left is now down to 4. This may well be called the mother-of-all-democratic verdicts on the underlying propositions which led – back in the 1990s – to the Oslo agreements, that came to be perceived by most Israelis as a tragic and very costly misadventure.
This does not mean, however, that the 2SS is dead – unless the Palestinians themselves, and their well-meaning advocates, end up burying it unnecessarily. There is reason to look upon the emerging situation as an opportunity to move beyond a hopeless impasse and to chart a way forward.
Once the detailed Trump Plan was put on the table, the most significant aspect of Israeli political life (beyond Netanyahu’s legal troubles, which have become the crux of partisan struggles in the last two years) seemed to go through a tectonic shift. Up to that point, Israel seemed to be split between the Right (nationalists) and Left (“peaceniks”). Likud hardliners still use this schematic, absurdly trying to paint the likes of Benny Gantz and Moshe Yaalon, or even Avigdor Liberman – indeed, any critic of Netanyahu’s persistence in power – as pro-Arab “leftists.”
This is not, however, a true depiction of the Israeli political landscape in terms of policy towards the Palestinians. In a significant way, the “Deal of the Century” has created a three-way split.
The hard Left derides the Trump plan as woefully insufficient in terms of the EKP, i.e., for its a failure to respond to Palestinian demands. Thus, the Left declares the plan “dead on arrival” and a hindrance to future peace efforts.
The hard right, even those who are careful not to offend Trump, reject out of hand the notion of any Palestinian state anywhere – let alone, on much of the present “C” areas in the West Bank (as well as on parts of the Negev to be annexed to Gaza). They would be glad to endorse parts of the plan that fit their purposes – and yet refuse to accept its basic underlying premise of a modified 2SS.
In between these two ideological camps there is now (and indeed, there has always been) a broad range of centrist sentiments, from elements within Labor on the left to well within Likud on the right, and with Gantz at the very center. This camp sees the Trump plan as a whole. It sees a Palestinian state (albeit not on Palestinian terms) as a viable proposition.
Opinion polls conducted in the days after the White House unveiled the Trump Plan showed a broad majority of Israelis supportive of the plan, with the naysayers on both sides a distinct minority. This is not to say that the specifics of the plan have become holy writ. But rather this indicates that there can be now a political base in Israel for a modified version of the 2SS.
In order to build upon this new political foundation, it may be necessary for the new coalition government – if it indeed comes together – to move first to establish its nationalist credentials within a framework agreed with the US administration. Such steps would be distinct from “unilateral” actions insofar as they will be (and need to be) firmly embedded within the context of some form of endorsement of the Trump plan as a whole.
Israeli PM Netanyahu with Trump Administration peace process point man Jared Kushner in 2017: The new Israeli government and the US Administration will need to work together to allay Palestinian and Arab fears.
Moreover, to mitigate the effect of such acts of implementation, it will be important for Israel and the US to coordinate actions on a range of issues which would serve to allay Palestinian and Arab fears that this is just a prelude to a full annexation of the territories and foreclosure of the prospect for Palestinian statehood. Firm language needs to be heard on the Trump plan in all its aspects.
In practical terms, while extending Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and settlement blocs, some “C” areas can and should be ceded to full PA control (“A”) or to civilian control with an IDF presence (“B”). Funds should be allocated early on for roads and other infrastructure that would make a future Palestinian state “contiguous in terms of transportation,” i.e., with its citizens able to travel in comfort, not on dirt roads, free of the need to go through Israeli checkpoints. Cooperation over security and over the fight to contain the COVID-19 pandemic should be intensified. The rewards envisioned in the economic chapters of the Trump plan should begin to flow to Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians alike.
Above all, Israel and the US, with firm backing from like-minded Arab nations, should offer a horizon – even a timeline – for Palestinian statehood, including the option of UN membership, if and when the PA leadership makes up its mind to return to the table. Unlike Olmert’s position in the Annapolis process, and in line with Netanyahu’s stance in 2009-2010 and again in 2013-2104, this should be made dependent on developments in Gaza. Agreement can be reached and implemented, based on the Trump outline, vis-à-vis the PA leadership; even if for the time being, Gaza remains in Hamas’ grip. With distinct gains in their daily lives to point to, Palestinians in the West Bank will be able to demonstrate to their Gaza brethren the cost of continued hostilities.
Will all this lead to peace? It is hard to tell. The region has been treacherously unstable and volatile. But rejection of the Trump plan outright, denunciation of any steps towards its implementation, and adherence to the failed EKP – is certain to condemn all sides to continued conflict.
Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman is Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.