The circus that is Israeli politics continues, with Netanyahu hosting a cabinet meeting at which he forced a vote to approve his hand-picked Likud lackey to be new justice minister. He did so despite a coalition agreement clearly specifying the minister must be appointed by his coalition partner, Benny Gantz. Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit also weighed in arguing the vote was null and void. He immediately appealed to the Supreme Court, which was scheduled to hear the case till the PM caved and appointed Gantz to fill the job for the remainder of the current government.
Meanwhile, the so-called “change bloc,” those parties which want to be rid of Netanyahu, has been in intensive talks about forming a government. However, it is composed of parties hailing from the far-Jewish and Islamist right, to the Zionist so-called left. It is like a person with two right feet and one left. And even if such an unwieldy coalition could succeed in forming such a government, it’s unknown how long such strange bedfellows can cohabit.
This is the latest episode in the tawdry soap opera that is Israeli politics–a nation in a two-year-long political stalemate, in which Netanyahu has somehow remained prime minister, while all around him falls into ruin.
The justice minister is an important position because Netanyahu is in the midst of a corruption trial. If he is convicted he must vacate his office. And he is certainly worried that once he does so, he will no longer have any allies to carry water for him. The charges, trials and convictions could mount ever higher and land him in jail for years.
This paralysis doesn’t only affect domestic politics. Israel’s security policy as well has been scattershot, bordering on sheer recklessness. It has engaged in an escalating hit and run campaign with Iran involving bombings of its Natanz nuclear site and multiple oil tankers in the Gulf and Mediterranean. The latest was a drone attack on an Iranian ship waiting to offload oil at the Syrian port of Tartous.
The Israeli campaign seems designed to sabotage the US effort to return to the JCPOA nuclear agreement. Its leaders and pro-Israel apologists have been spreading the claim that Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities somehow weaken that country’s bargaining position in the talks. A ridiculous claim–if anything the attacks strengthen the resolve of the P5+1 signatories that the deal must be revived promptly before there is irreparable damage done which could destroy its chances.
Pres. Biden looks on Israel’s political mess and feels confirmed in the view that he must make the Middle East a secondary priority in his presidency. There will be no major policy initiatives. No Deals of the Century, not even a Deal of the Month! Until this week, he hadn’t even nominated an ambassador to replace the odious David Friedman, who resigned after Trump left office. Israel is one of the few countries in the world where there not only wasn’t an ambassadorial nominee, but no ambassador in place in country. This is an indication of the low regard in which Biden holds Netanyahu.
Today, the news media reported that the announcement of a nominee was imminent. He is Thomas Nides, currently managing director of Morgan Stanley. Nides is a long-time Democratic Congressional staffer, who is close to Hillary Clinton and served in the State Department. He has no known foreign policy experience and even less experience with Israel-Palestine. He is a break from the past two ambassadors who had direct, close relationships with the presidents under whom they served. I would also say that Nides is a downgrade from these politically well-connected figures.
Another sign of Israel’s disarray is that it sent a huge security delegation to Washington this week for talks with their administration counterparts. They included the national security advisor, the ambassador to the US, Mossad chief, and two senior IDF generals. They will meet separately with their US colleagues, with no meetings at which they all be together. This signals the backbiting and disunity in the ranks of the military-intelligence apparatus as well. Yossi Cohen hates Meir Ben Shaabbata because the former wanted the Iran portfolio all for himself. Chief of Staff Kochavi is jealous of Cohen’s ambition and encroachment on the army’s prerogatives. The poisonous personality clashes are a symptom of the erratic leadership provided by their political bosses.
The entire visit seems designed to end in failure. The Israelis will be stumping hard against JCPOA, which they know they cannot dissuade the Americans from rejoining. They will likely revert to an equally unpalatable fallback position, demanding that the US take up in the nuclear talks issues like Iran’s ballistic missile program and its intervention in Syria and Yemen. Both sides understand that this is a non-starter. JCPOA is a nuclear deal. It isn’t meant to be a comprehensive resolution of all outstanding issues dividing Iran from its neighbors and western states.
You might think with the entire Israeli political system in disarray and the military-intelligence hierarchy at each other’s throats, it might mean that policy and operations would come to a standstill. But clearly, that hasn’t happened. Israel has mounted some of its most dangerous and damaging terror operations against the Iranians in this period. But the danger is that when the leaders who are supposed to lead are distracted, others with their own interests can hijack the ship and run it aground.
Last week, Syria fired an anti-aircraft missile at an attacking Israeli warplane and it overflew its target, landing 200 miles inside Israel, almost hitting the country’s Dimona nuclear reactor. There is only the slightest room for error in such situations. And in such hair-trigger situations, it is all too easy to err, or even act intentionally, in ways that can cause catastrophe.
If JCPOA resumes and if all the parties fulfill their commitments as part of it, then there could be room to pursue a broader agreement on these issues. But such a negotiation would be exceedingly complex, and depend on US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia compromising on matters they consider inviolable and immovable. For instance, if Iran is expected to end its commitment to support Bashar al Assad and the Houthis in Yemen, it would expect Israel to normalize its relationship with Lebanon and Syria. It would also expect the Saudis to end their genocidal campaign in Yemen. If Iran is expected to end its ballistic missile tests, then it can expect to demand that Israel restrain its own nuclear weapons program in some meaningful manner. One example might be for Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty and agree to make the region a nuclear-free zone.
It is highly unlikely any of the parties would be willing to make such major concessions. Though the world and the region would be far better off if they would. If they refuse, that will doom any deal that was meant to offer a more comprehensive resolution of major outstanding issues.