Update from AIJAC
Update 02/19 #01
This Update deals with two important political developments in the Middle East this week – the resignation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) cabinet, and the formation, after nine months of stalemate, of a new Lebanese government, with significant gains for Hezbollah.
We start with an analysis of the PA political situation from US-based Israeli academic Shaiel Ben-Ephraim. He notes that the cabinet resignation is likely to be part of a plan to replace this nominally “technocratic” government, created under a Fatah-Hamas deal five years ago, with a Fatah-dominated one. Ben-Ephraim argues the timing of the decision is connected to the battle to succeed ageing President Mahmoud Abbas, and offers some discussion of both the potential candidates and of the potential hazards of a bloody battle of succession. For this key piece for understanding the latest development in Palestinian politics, CLICK HERE.
Next up is a discussion of the new Lebanese government by Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute. He notes the major gains by Hezbollah in terms of control over the lucrative Ministry of Health it demanded, but argues the government in Beirut remains “a kaleidoscope of political parties in complex power-sharing arrangements”. He acknowledges that Iranian influence in Lebanon via Hezbollah is a major problem, and this government is going to have trouble earning the trust of the international community, but urges that community not to give up on Lebanon given its relatively pluralistic society, and need for help with its very serious problems. For the rest of the argument, CLICK HERE. More on the Lebanese government and Hezbollah’s role in it comes from Firas Maksad of the Arabia Foundation.
Finally, Israeli Arab affairs analyst Yoni Ben Menachem looks at the interview given by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah earlier this week after not appearing publicly for more than three months. Ben Menachem says the interview should be understood as a damage control exercise, after Israel destroyed Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels while rumours alleged Nasrallah was seriously ill. Nasrallah was trying to create renewed deterrence against Israel, but said nothing surprising, Ben Menachem argues. However, he warns that the real danger or an Israel-Hezbollah clash is along the Syrian border, not in Lebanon. For his full analysis, CLICK HERE. Another analysis of Nasrallah’s speech comes from Avi Isscharoff of the Times of Israel.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Reports that Hezbollah is in a deep financial crisis (which may explain their successful quest to control Lebanon’s lucrative Health Ministry).
- In the Israeli election campaign, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has shaken things up with a campaign launch speech this week that was apparently well-received, with polls showing him now narrowing the gap with incumbent PM Binyamin Netanyahu.
- Some interesting comment on Gantz’s gains – and the long campaign ahead – are here and here.
- Isi Leibler calls on American Jewish leaders to do more to confront anti-Israel trends in US politics.
- AIJAC”s Sharyn Mittelman on how Australia’s women’s marches – in the wake of the murder of visiting Arab Israeli student Aiia Maasarwe – have something to teach their US counterparts, which have been marred with accusations of promoting or condoning antisemitism.
Struggle for power after resignation of Palestinian government
A campaign to sideline Hamas and achieve Fatah dominance suggests a battle for aging President Mahmoud Abbas’s seat is brewing
By SHAIEL BEN-EPHRAIM
Asia Times, JANUARY 31, 2019 4:57
Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 25, 2017. Photo: Abbas Momani / AFP
The Palestinian Authority (PA) government resigned on Tuesday. The immediate pretext was its inability to sell an unpopular social security law. Ramallah had levied new taxes to finance pension benefits and faced widespread demonstrations.
However, the deeper problem is that the government suffers from a lack of legitimacy. It enjoys the confidence of neither Fatah nor Hamas and has been plagued by corruption. The resignation was accepted a few hours later by President Mahmoud Abbas. The lame duck cabinet will remain in place until a new government is formed.
The resignation brings the two major political crises plaguing Palestine at this time into stark relief. Namely, the failure of Fatah and Hamas to achieve reconciliation and uncertainty over presidential succession.
The government consisted of technocrats serving largely at the behest of Abbas. This group of businessmen, lawyers and academics were appointed in 2014 to facilitate the transition to a national unity government. It was named the Palestinian National Consensus Government because it was established through a negotiated process between Fatah and Hamas.
Almost five years later, there is little to show for these efforts. Due to their inability to agree on terms, no elections have been held since 2006 – the year Hamas swept to power. The failure of reconciliation attempts has led Fatah members to undermine the government. The nationalist party announced it had formed a special committee to negotiate with various other groups within the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) over the formation of a new government.
Hamas, the Islamist party that administers the Gaza Strip, was not invited to participate. Hamas has been unhappy with the technocratic government as well. An attempt was made on Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s life during one of his few visits to Gaza. Even so, Hamas was incensed by the resignation of the cabinet and criticized Abbas for allegedly undermining reconciliation efforts.
Fatah seeks domination
Azzam al-Ahmed, a Fatah official considered highly likely to participate in the new government, blamed Hamas for undermining the Consensus Government and torpedoing reconciliation. In order to defend the PA from the intervention of Hamas, he stated that ”there’s a need for a new government with a political coloring. That’s why we invited PLO factions to join the new government. We’re not chasing after anyone. If anyone wishes to join the government, they are welcome.”
However, the involvement of other parties within the PLO umbrella organization is merely a cover for what will surely be a Fatah-dominated government. The other PLO groups are well aware of this. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, for example, refused to participate. Its official statement said, “We believe that the formation of a factional government is not one of the priorities of the Palestinian cause.” The “destructive split [between the West Bank and Gaza Strip] has brought disasters upon the Palestinian cause,” it added.
The campaign to appoint a Fatah-dominated cabinet is primarily motivated by the battle for presidential succession
The campaign to appoint a Fatah-dominated cabinet is primarily motivated by the battle for presidential succession. While the PA has tried to suppress reports of the deterioration of the 83-year-old premier’s health, persistent reports of hospitalizations and serious memory loss have surfaced. Abbas is deeply unpopular due to his inability to achieve reconciliation with Hamas or advance talks with Israel. In addition, the PA has become increasingly isolated diplomatically as its relations with both the Trump administration and the Sunni Arab states have soured.
The president has expressed a desire to retire. However, if he does so before succession has been established, chaos may ensue. This complicates the process of establishing a new government since appointment to the cabinet, particularly the role of prime minister, is seen as a stepping stone to the presidency.
Contenders for the presidency
There have been reports that the president hopes either security chief Majed Faraj or Fatah Vice President Mahmoud al-Aloul will lead Fatah and attain the presidency. Both are believed to support the current pursuit of diplomatic rather than violent forms of resistance to Israel.
Whoever Abbas decides to promote will face challenges from his sworn rivals. Perhaps the most well known among them is Marwan Barghouti. The former paramilitary leader currently languishes in an Israeli jail. Barghouti enjoys immense public popularity as he has been unsullied by recent political machinations.
Another rival of the president, Mohammad Dahlan, has been exiled to the United Arab Emirates. The former leader of Fatah in Gaza was charged in absentia for his alleged role in a coup attempt several years ago. Dahlan is close to Hamas and considered a strong supporter of reconciliation. The exiled leader has also established strong relations with several influential Sunni Arab states over the last few years and could significantly improve the diplomatic standing of the PA in the Middle East.
Other candidates include Jibril Rajoub, the former head of the Security Services of the Palestinian Authority, and Tawfik Tirawi, the former head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service in the West Bank. Finally, US-based Palestinian pharma billionaire Adnan Mjalli has explored the possibility of running for president. However, the reform-oriented candidate has already suffered an assassination attempt, allegedly at the direction of President Abbas. This may have dampened his ardor to pursue a political career.
None of this bodes well for the stability of the future government. The ailing and unpopular Abbas will be unable to protect it from the byzantine intrigues of claimants to the throne. The Palestinian Authority has already been weakened by corruption, continued Israeli occupation, the failure to reconcile with Hamas, and increased international marginalization. Will it be able to withstand a bloody battle of succession?
Hariri announces another flawed government, but don’t walk away from Lebanon
Middle East Institute, January 31, 2019
After nine months of deadlock, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri announced the formation of a new government of 30 ministers. The composition of the government is reflective of Lebanon’s power-sharing system and of the results of the last parliamentary elections. Although the old categories of the March 8 and March 14 coalitions are no longer very meaningful, the erstwhile March 8 coalition got 18 seats and the erstwhile March 14 coalition secured 12. President Michel Aoun and his party, the Free Patriotic Movement, have the largest single bloc of 10 — the largest bloc for a president since the Taif Agreement of 1989 — while Hariri’s Future Movement has the second largest at six, the Lebanese Forces at four, and Hezbollah and Amal at three each. The government has the largest number of women ever, four, including the key Ministry of Interior.
The government make-up brings few surprises but at least ends months of political deadlock. As the prime minister tweeted after its formation, “get to work.” Lebanon is facing a slew of governance problems, including a dire fiscal situation, a poor economy, high levels of corruption, and low levels of public services. The government needs to move quickly to enact a number of key reforms, if it is to stand a chance to regain international and investor confidence, and access some of the badly needed $11 billion in conditional international assistance pledged at the CEDRE Conference in Paris last April.
Although Hezbollah has made gains in this government, particularly the lucrative Ministry of Health, the Lebanese government remains a kaleidoscope of political parties in complex power-sharing arrangements with one another. While the new government will certainly draw a response from the U.S., especially as relates to any cooperation in the health sector, America and the international community should not walk away from the country. The problem of Hezbollah, and Iranian influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq — and Yemen — is a major one, but not one that’s going to be resolved by the formation of a rickety Lebanese Council of Ministers.
Lebanon’s population has paid a heavy price for being in the midst of an Israeli-Iranian axis of conflict, and host to 1.5 million Syrian refugees. And yet it has survived as a surprisingly free and pluralist society in an increasingly dark region. The government has a lot to do to earn the trust of the international community, but the international community should also help Lebanon maintain a minimum of stability and economic viability for its embattled people.
Hizbullah’s Nasrallah Tries to Limit the Damage
- The Hizbullah leader has reappeared in the media to repair the damage done to the image of his organization.
- Hassan Nasrallah is trying to “construct” a new policy of deterrence to cover up Israel’s revelation of the organization’s invasion tunnels.
On January 26, 2019, the leader of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, reappeared in the media after an absence of three months in an exclusive interview with his journalist-follower Ghassan bin Jiddo on the Al Mayadeen channel, which identifies with Hizbullah.
Hassan Nasrallah’s interview after months of silence (Arab press)
The Hizbullah leader’s media appearance was part of the organization’s psychological warfare in response to the huge defeat it sustained when the IDF discovered tunnels infiltrating into Israel during Operation Northern Shield at the end of 2018. Hizbullah’s standing was also hurt by rumors circulating in the Arab world that Nasrallah’s health condition is precarious.
During the long TV interview, Nasrallah sought to disprove the rumors about his poor health. He laughed, joked, and admitted that he lost weight, but his health situation is excellent, and all of the reports about his illness were false.
Operation Northern Shield and reports that Hassan Nasrallah was seriously ill pushed him into a corner, and he was compelled to make a public appearance and provide his supporters with explanations. He also used the broad public platform to transmit messages to Israel and the Arab world.
Nasrallah’s messages in his interview with the Al Mayadeen channel can be summarized as follows:
- Hizbullah’s next war against Israel will be very cruel, and Israel will pay a heavy price. All of Israel’s territory will be the next battlefield, and Hizbullah’s missiles and rockets will reach every city in Israel, including Tel Aviv.
- Syria is expected to change its policy regarding Israeli raids within its territory at any moment. The policy of restraint by the “resistance axis” has come to an end, and Syria will attack Tel Aviv.
- Hizbullah has a sufficient quantity of accurate missiles at its disposal, which can strike quality civilian and military targets in Israel, including airports, power stations, ammonia tanks in Haifa, and the atomic reactor in Dimona.
- In the next war, Hizbullah intends to invade the Galilee. This is part of the organization’s strategy, and the discovery of the invasion tunnels by Israel has not changed anything.
- President Trump’s “deal of the century” has been frozen because Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was supposed to market the plan, is currently facing a crisis over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
- The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria has led to the Arab states coming toward Syria, and they are trying to return it to the Arab League.
The Hizbullah leader was compelled to return to the media stage due to the vacuum that was created, as no other leader has appeared in his place, and due to important developments on Lebanon’s border with Israel.
One of the Israeli-drilled holes that intersected the Hizbullah tunnel tens of meters below the surface.
The discovery of the tunnels infiltrating into Israel’s territory struck an operational and morale blow to Hizbullah. The tunnels were crucial to a surprise plan that Hizbullah had worked on for years before the IDF exposed it. In the interview, Nasrallah tries to minimize the importance of the discovery of the tunnels by the IDF and to convince his viewers that the plan to conquer the Galilee is still relevant, but it is clear that he has lost the important element of surprise.
Through the interview on the Al Mayadeen channel, the Hizbullah leader is attempting to “construct” a new policy of deterrence toward Israel. Reports on the interview with him appeared several days earlier in the media to create high viewer ratings and media support for his statements.
There were no surprises in Nasrallah’s interview about his state of health or the tunnels. His reactions were what had been expected on both fronts.
Nasrallah does not intend to escalate the security situation with Israel from inside Lebanese territory. He hinted that if Israel attacks his men inside Syrian territory, “Hizbullah will react in accordance with the circumstances.”
Apparently, Hizbullah is preparing a new front, which Iran intends to open against Israel from inside Syria, via the Golan Heights. This is where the danger of a conflict between Israel and Hizbullah lies. Israel does not intend to take any action against the organization inside Lebanon, but it will not sit quietly if Hizbullah dares to attack Israeli targets on the Golan Heights.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.