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Israel Election 2019 (Part Two)

Binyamin Netanyahu’s work is almost done. If he wins Tuesday’s election and forms yet another government (he is now the longest-serving Israeli prime minister), he will put a stake through the heart of the ‘two-state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was born in the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Hamas should send him a gold watch for long service.

Netanyahu and Hamas have always been what our Marxist friends used to call ‘objective allies’. That is to say, they hated each other, but they shared one overriding objective: to thwart the creation of a semi-independent Palestinian state based in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that had been envisaged in the Oslo deal.
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It was the Israeli left that made that deal, in the person of Yitzak Rabin, a war hero who thought he saw a chance for a permanent peace settlement. His Arab partner was Yassir Arafat, the terrorist-turned-statesman who led the secular Fatah organisation, the largest Palestinian group. Arafat too was ready for a compromise peace by 1993.

Both men, of course, faced bitter opposition at home. Arafat’s strongest critics were the Islamist fanatics of the Hamas Party. Rabin’s were the Israeli ultra-nationalist right, who included the Orthodox religious parties and most of the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.

The Oslo deal started to collapse when an Israeli right-wing extremist assassinated Rabin in 1995. It was assumed at first that his foreign minister Shimon Peres, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat, would win the ensuing election on a sympathy vote. Then Hamas staged three huge suicide bombings killing 58 Israelis in the three months before the 1996 Israeli election campaign.

Hamas’s goal was to radicalise Israelis and push them into the camp of the anti-Oslo nationalists, led by one Binyamin Netanyahu. It worked, Netanyahu formed a government – and there were no further bombings of comparable scale for five years afterwards.

Netanyahu was not in cahoots with Hamas, but as a former professional soldier he would certainly have understood their strategy. And as prime minister he did what they hoped: he successfully stalled on delivering any of the Israeli promises in the Oslo accords until he lost power in 1999.

It was ten years before Netanyahu came back into power in 2009, but the pattern was set. Only once, briefly, was there an Israeli government that tried to revive the ‘two-state’ solution, and since Netanyahu has been back it has been completely off the table.

In fact, there’s no risk any more even if he isn’t in power: the ‘two-state’ option is well and truly dead. Hamas would probably still prefer Netanyahu to any plausible alternative Israeli prime minister, but from their point of view, his work is done.

So what is this election in Israel about? Not very much, really.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its usual coalition partners, the extreme right and religious parties, won a majority in last April’s election, but he was unable to put a coalition together afterwards. One key party in his last coalition demanded that the large numbers of young Orthodox men studying for years at a time in religious seminaries must lose their automatic exemptions from military service.

Netanyahu couldn’t agree to that without losing the support of the religious parties, so he called another election instead. It may work: the last opinion poll legally permissible before the election predicted that the right-wing bloc would win a solid majority of 66 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

It is possible that Kahol Lavan, a centrist party led by former armed forces commander Benny Ganz, will win more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud Party and thereby gain the right to try to form a government. But it will probably not succeed, because the larger coalition of parties Ganz leads, the Blue and White Alliance (after the colours of the Israeli flag), will come up short: the polls say only 54 seats in the Knesset.

So Netanyahu will probably be prime minister again, even though he is facing fraud, bribery and corruption charges and may face pre-trial hearings within weeks. Netanyahu denies all charges and would not be legally required to step down unless he is convicted and all his appeals are rejected. That process could take years.

But still, how does he go on winning? He has all this legal baggage, his domestic performance is no better than fair – most Israelis feel their budgets are pretty stretched – and anyway you’d think they would be getting bored with the same old face after 13 years.

He does it, every time, by throwing a scare into them, and by simultaneously promising to expand Israel’s territory. This time, he presents himself as the only man who can keep the US on side against the allegedly mortal Iranian threat, warns that Israel’s Arab minority will ‘steal’ the election (by turning out to vote), and says he will annex the Jordan valley and the northern Dead Sea coast (one-third of the West Bank) as soon as he is elected.

He is Mr Security, ‘King Bibi’, and he knows all the tricks.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 13. (“Netanyahu…deal”; and “It is…Knesset”)

Netanyahu and Iran’s “Bomb”

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finally given his much ballyhooed speech to the U.S. Congress, and the heavens haven’t fallen.

He issued the same bloodcurdling warning that Iran is on the brink of getting nuclear weapons that he has been making for 20 years now, and nobody called him on it. Instead, the Republican members of Congress, and those Democrats who bothered to show up, gave him the usual standing ovations.

President Barack Obama was deeply miffed by Netanyahu’s attack on his policy of negotiating with Iran, and refused to meet him while he was in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry was so outraged by Netanyahu’s assertion that the deal he is working on with Iran could “pave its way to the bomb” rather than block it that he publicly said the Israeli prime minister “might not be correct.”

It is unprecedented for an American president to refuse to meet a visiting Israeli prime minister, or for a senior U.S. official to suggest that the aforesaid prime minister might be wrong, but the reflexive American support for Israel will survive for quite a while yet. And Netanyahu’s gamble may pay off in extra votes for his Likud Party in the Israeli election on the 17th, which is what the visit was really about.

Netanyahu knows his Israelis, and he has been playing successfully on their existential fear that somebody else in the Middle East might also get nuclear weapons ever since he entered politics.

Israelis don’t really require proof that the Iranians (or anybody else) are actually working on such weapons. Indeed, their anxiety on the issue is so deep-rooted that it resists all the reassurances by Israel’s own military and intelligence communities that Iran is not working on nuclear weapons.

Last week, a cache of secret documents about South African contacts with other countries’ secret services was leaked to al-Jazeera. It included a 2012 cable from Israel’s Mossad intelligence service saying that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce [nuclear] weapons.” Did the Israeli public heave a great sigh of relief? Certainly not.

Last Sunday, 180 former generals and commanders of the Israeli Defence Forces, Mossad intelligence agency, Shin Bet domestic security and National Police held a joint news conference begging Netanyahu not to damage the U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship further by making his inflammatory anti-Obama speech in Congress. Did ordinary Israelis join in the outcry? They did not.

Polling shows that two-thirds of Israelis would like to see the back of Netanyahu, mainly because he has presided over a huge rise in the cost of living, and especially the cost of housing. But on security issues a majority of Israelis are with him—so naturally those are the issues he concentrates on.

The Israelis are probably wrong to worry so much about Iranian nuclear weapons. There were two periods during which Iran seriously considered making nuclear weapons and did some preliminary work on weapons design and uranium enrichment, but in neither case was it about Israel.

The first time was in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Iran (with American backing) in a war that ultimately cost a quarter-million Iranian lives. At that time Saddam actually was working on Iraqi nuclear weapons, and Iran felt obliged to follow suit.

But after Saddam was defeated by Western and Arab armies in the Gulf War of 1990-91 and the United Nations inspectors went in to dismantle Iraq’s nuclear programme, the Iranians lost interest in developing their own nuclear weapons. Then they got alarmed again and restarted the programme in 1998 when another neighbour, Pakistan, tested its own first nuclear weapons.

They didn’t make much progress, but they kept on working at the problem in a desultory way until 2002, when an anti-regime terrorist group called Mujahedin-e-Khalq (partly financed by Israel) revealed the existence of the weapons programme and Tehran shut it down. And for the past 13 years, nothing.

The great danger Netanyahu faces is not Iranian nuclear weapons but ejection from office by Israeli voters. His response has been the same as always: to promote himself as the only man who can keep Israel safe—even if that means burning his bridges with an American president who still has two more years in office.

In terms of his own interests, he may be making the right call. His right-wing Likud Party and the centre-left coalition called the Zionist Camp have been running neck-and-neck in recent polling, but if his grandstanding in Washington brings in just a few more votes he could be back in power until the end of the decade.

Gaza: Another Pre-Election War?

19 November 2012

Gaza: Another Pre-Election War?

By Gwynne Dyer

Let’s be fair: there does seem to be some sort of pattern here, but it is not very consistent. Five times in Israel since 1980 a right-wing government has called an election WITHOUT launching a complementary military operation. The right lost two of those elections outright (1992, 1999), more or less tied two others (1984, 1988), and won only one of them decisively (2006).

On the other hand, critics of Israel point out, three times since 1980 right-wing Israeli governments have combined an election campaign with a major military operation against some Arab or Palestinian target. And this combination, it has been argued, yields decisive electoral success for the right.

Menachem Begin’s government won the 1981 election three weeks after carrying out a dramatic attack on the Osirak research nuclear reactor that France had sold to Iraq. In the view of most outside observers, the reactor, which was closely supervised both by the French and by the International Atomic Energy Agency, was not suited to the large-scale production of enriched uranium and posed no threat to Israel, but the attack was popular in Israel.

Ehud Olmert’s coalition launched the “Cast Lead” onslaught against the Gaza Strip in December 2008-January 2009. The three-week campaign of massive bombardments and some ground incursions left 1,400 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis dead. The election was held a month later, and Binyamin Netanyahu emerged as the leader of a new right-wing coalition.

So here we go again, perhaps? Netanyahu is still the prime minister, and the next elections are due in January. What better way to ensure success than to go and bash the Palestinians again? A week later, with eighty-six Palestinians and three Israelis dead, his reelection is assured: Israelis overwhelmingly support the current military operation.

That’s the case that is made against Israel. Does it hold water? Well, actually, no, it doesn’t.

Begin’s attack on the Osirak reactor in 1981 may well have been an electoral stunt, although he was clearly paranoid about the possibility of a nuclear weapon in Arab hands. But Ehud Olmert, though undoubtedly a man of the right, was not leading a right-wing government in 2008. He was the leader of a new centrist party, Kadima, that had been formed by defectors from both the right-wing Likud Party and left-wing Labour.

Moreover, Olmert had already resigned in mid-2008 over a corruption scandal, and was merely acting as interim prime minister by the time the “Cast Lead” operation was launched in December of that year. If it was an electoral ploy despite all that, it didn’t work. It was the right that actually won the election in early 2009, and formed a government led by the Likud Party’s Binyamin Netanyahu.

It is equally hard to believe that Netanyahu is seeking electoral gain by attacking Gaza this month. Every opinion poll in Israel for months past has been saying that he is going to win the January election hands down. For him, all the risk of “Operation Pillar of Defence” is on the downside: a major loss of Israeli lives in the campaign, while unlikely, could only work against him.

So why is this happening now? Historians traditionally split into two camps: those who see purpose and planning and plots behind every event, and those who think most events are just the random interaction of conflicting strategies, imperfect information and human frailty. This latter approach is known in the historical trade as the “cock-up theory of history,” and it is very attractive as an explanation for the current situation.

Netanyahu, cruising home to an easy electoral victory in January, had absolutely no need for a little war with the Palestinians. Indeed, his strategy of continuously shouting “wolf” about Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons programme has succeeded in distracting international attention from the Palestinians, leaving him free to expand Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank unhindered.

Similarly, the Hamas leaders who ruled Gaza had no interest in triggering a military conflict with Israel. They had every reason to believe that the sweeping political changes in the Arab world were strengthening their position internationally, and they had no need to remind Arabs of their plight. So how did this idiocy happen? Another cock-up, of course.

Hamas has been trying to maintain calm in Gaza and extend a ceasefire agreement with Israel, but it has little control over various radical jihadi groups who build popular support by making utterly futile rocket attacks on Israel. Even if they kill a few Israelis, so what? How does that serve the cause?

Hamas faces the permanent political danger of being outflanked by more extremist rivals, so it cannot crack down too hard on the jihadis. Israel, fed up with their pinprick attacks, was looking for somebody to punish, and since it couldn’t locate all the jihadi leaders it decided to assassinate Ahmed al-Jabari, the head of the military wing of Hamas. Even though that was bound to end the ceasefire.

So then Hamas fired a few of its own rockets into Israel, and Israel retaliated massively, and we were off to the races once again. A complete cock-up, and a pointless waste of lives.

But since the mini-war doesn’t really serve the purposes of any major player, it will probably be shut down again fairly soon.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13, 14 and 15. (“Hamas…lives”)