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Bibi, Benny and Ruvi: the Future of Israel

Binyamin Netanyahu, or ‘Bibi’ as everyone calls him, is the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, and still in office although he has failed to win three elections in a row. Last June, last September, and again early this month, Israeli voters split their votes in ways that made it almost impossible to put together a new government.

Bibi declared a victory, but he has already failed to form a coalition with a majority in the 120-member Knesset (parliament). He failed despite promising to annex all the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Even the unstinting support of US President Donald Trump, whose ‘vision’ for a permanent peace settlement reads like a check-list of the territorial demands of the Israeli far right, didn’t do the trick.

The ‘two-state solution’ – Jews and Arabs living peacefully side-by-side in separate sovereign states – has been dead for a long time, and Trump’s ‘peace plan’ just drove a stake through its heart. But the only alternative is the one-state solution, where the Arabs who are Israeli citizens and the considerably larger number who live in the occupied territories form a Palestinian near-majority within the expanded single state of Israel.

That Israel could be a democratic state where every citizen has an equal say or an apartheid state where most Arabs are subjects, not citizens, but it can’t be both.

The major obstacle to forming a majority coalition is the fact that Bibi goes on trial later this month on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Even if he is found guilty, he could technically stay in office until his last appeal is exhausted, a process that could take years.

This prospect is understandably unattractive to the leading opposition party, Benny Ganz’s Blue and White Party. Ganz will only consider a power-sharing left-right coalition with Bibi’s Likud party (which would command a majority) if Ganz gets to be prime minister for the first two years. Then Netanyahu could take his turn if he is absolved by the courts; otherwise not.

This deal is equally unattractive to Bibi: the safest place for him to be at the moment is in the prime minister’s office. Stalemate. A fourth election looms, because Bibi can go on calling them, and meanwhile the Israeli state drifts aimlessly: no legislation, not even a proper budget. What is to be done?

So a few days ago Benny Ganz broke the rules of Israeli politics by asking for the support of the Joint List, the umbrella organisation of all of Israel’s Arab political parties.

The Joint List wouldn’t actually be in the coalition government, but the votes of its fifteen Knesset members would put the Jewish opposition parties over the top and make Benny prime minister. Presumably they would expect some concessions in return, which alarms those Jewish Israelis who see their Arab fellow-citizens as traitors and potential terrorists, but talks between the parties started on Wednesday.

This ground-breaking deal may never be consummated – the odds are against it – but it is nevertheless a turning point. For the first time, the real Israel of today is showing through the cracks in its hidebound politics.

Five years ago President Reuven Rivlin – ‘Ruvi’ to his friends – made a startling speech in which he pointed out that barely half the children now in Israeli primary schools will grow up to be Zionists. Right down to the end of the 20th century a large majority of the population was secular Zionists, mostly of Eastern European origin, and everybody else was ‘minorities’, but that time is gone.

Only 38% of the children in primary school today are secular Zionists. Another 15% are ‘national-religious’: observant Jews who nevertheless share the Zionist vision. But a quarter of the children are Haredim: ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not recognise the legitimacy of the Jewish state, regarding it as a rebellion against God – and another quarter are Arab and mostly Muslim. Few people in the latter two groups will even serve in the army.

These four very different ‘tribes’, as Ruvi calls them, have to share Israel, like it or not. Moreover, the ‘one-state’ Israel that implies, extending from the Jordan Valley to the Mediterranean, will have to include all the Arabs in the occupied territories as well. Learning to live together, given all the bitter history, may be well-nigh impossible, but there are no other options.

This certainly not a vision that Benny Ganz shares: his willingness to admit Israeli Arabs to the country’s coalition politics is grudging at best. “This is not the government we wanted,” he said.

And yet, it might be the government that Israel needs.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The two-state…both”)

Ethiopia: Abiy the Lucky

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is a very lucky man. He has survived three attempts to kill or overthrow him in the past year.

Last June he escaped unhurt in a grenade attack that killed one and wounded scores at a political rally. In October his office in the capital, Addis Ababa, was surrounded by angry soldiers who threatened to kill him over low pay, but he talked them down. And last Saturday he emerged unscathed from an attempted military coup.

It was a very serious attempt. In the capital, General Se’are Mekonnen was shot dead by his own bodyguard, as was another general who was visiting his home. Abiy had made Se’are the chief of staff of the Ethiopian army, a controversial appointment, only a year ago.

At the same time another of Abiy’s appointees, Ambachew Mekonnen, the governor of the key Amhara region, was murdered together with his top adviser in the region’s capital, Bahir Dar. It was clearly a quite broad plot, but its coordination must have been off. Police are still rounding up suspected plotters, and Abiy Ahmed was still prime minister on Monday.

That is a very good thing, because Abiy Ahmed is Ethiopia’s best chance of breaking the cycle of tyrannies that has blighted its modern history. It is Africa’s second-biggest country (102 million people) and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, but its politics has been cursed.

In the past century it has gone from a medieval monarchy to rule by foreign fascists (it was conquered by Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s), and then back to an only slightly less medieval tyranny for another thirty years – until a Marxist-led military coup in 1974.

The ‘Derg’ junta murdered the emperor and half a million other Ethiopians – mostly the better educated ones – in a ‘Red Terror’ that fell short of the Khmer Rouge’s ‘killing fields’, but not by much. Then, after almost two decades, the Soviet Union collapsed, the foreign aid to the Communists stopped, and the Reds were overthrown in their turn in 1991.

The victor that time was a coalition of ethnic rebel groups, militarised and brutalised by a long guerilla war against the Derg, who slid quickly into the seats of power and remained there comfortably until last year. The political killings declined, but the tyranny they protected did not – until suddenly, last year, they handed the whole mess over to Abiy Ahmed.

They did so because the mess was getting out of hand. Ethiopia is a very complicated country: four major ethnic groups, all of which have fought each other in the course of the country’s long history, and a litter of smaller ethnic groups as well. The country is also divided between a Christian majority and a big Muslim minority.

To make matters worse, one of the larger ethnic groups, the Tigrayans, dominated themilitary and intelligence services, and therefore the regime as a whole – and there was no shred of democracy anywhere in the system. There were pro forma elections, but in the last ones, in 2015, not a single opposition candidate won a seat in parliament.

The longer the Tigrayans dominated at the centre, the more unpopular the federal government became, and meanwhile the country’s relentless population growth intensified the land disputes between rival ethnic groups. Since 2015 some 3 million Ethiopians have become internal refugees, mainly due to struggles over land.

So in April 2018, in desperation, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front handed the prime ministership over to Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy is certainly a ‘child of the Party’, which he joined at 15, but he is a reformer who can be all things to all people. His father was Muslim, his mother was Christian. As an Oromo, he comes from the lowest rungs of the Ethiopian ethnic pecking order. (No Oromo has ever held such high office before.) He is fluent in Afaan Oromo, Amharic, Tigrinya and English. And he is a very modern man.

He knew he had to move fast, so he immediately ended the state of emergency and changed almost all the senior military commanders. He appointed a cabinet that was half-female, plus women as president and as head of the Supreme Court.

He released thousands of political prisoners. He freed the media, made the leader of an opposition party head of the Electoral Board, and put her in charge of organising free elections in 2020.

He made peace and re-opened the border with Eritrea after 20 years of hot and cold war. He has done pretty well everything he could think of, and he did it in little over a year. And yet he is still in a very precarious position
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It could not be otherwise. He is trying to free a big, complex, traumatised country from a century of dreadful history, and the odds, of course, are against him. But he’s not down yet.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“To make…Ahmed”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.