Benjamin Netanyahu may well have survived to fight another day as Israel’s prime minister after a third knife-edge election in less than a year.
However, it could be days, or even weeks, before a new Israeli government emerges, after the horse-trading that has become standard after decades of close-run elections.
With more than 90% of the vote in the March 2 election counted, Netanyahu’s nationalist Likud party and its allies can probably muster 59 seats in the 120-member Knesset, two short of a majority.
The main opposition Blue and White party of ex-general Benny Gantz will have trouble cobbling together a Knesset majority of the centre and left, given Gantz has ruled out a coalition with the Arab List.
Gantz’s party slipped at the election from its showing in the previous encounters over the past year, in April and September. This will weaken his hold on his leadership and diminish his bargaining power in a coalition-building process.
The Arab List represents Israel’s Arab population. This accounts for 20% of the country’s people, or 17% of eligible voters.
The Arab List is set to improve its position in the Knesset from 13 to possibly 14 or 15 quotas. This is a significant advance.
The wild card in all of this is the position of the staunchly secularist Yisrael Beiteinu party of Russian émigré Avigdor Lieberman, whose list appears to have secured up to seven quotas.
This places Lieberman, a former Netanyahu ally turned antagonist, in a potentially powerful king-making position. Lieberman has declared he will not serve in a government populated by the more extreme Orthodox Jewish parties. These political alignments shun military service.
But if there is a lesson in Israel’s politics in this latest fractious stage it is that no constellation of political forces can be taken for granted. Election fatigue after three polls in 12 months may well drive various players towards some sort of accommodation.
Israeli support for the status quo in the person of Netanyahu, who is under indictment on criminal charges, has signalled exasperation with continuing political paralysis. Gantz and his centrist party did not made a compelling case for change.
Lieberman’s support for any coalition that might eventually emerge could be described as fluid, depending on the allocation of the spoils of victory and his own resolute opposition to partnership with parties on the extremities of the religious right.
All this raises the possibility of a national unity coalition that would involve Natanyahu in partnership with Gantz. The two might rotate the premiership. This sort of arrangement has been tried before with varying degrees of success.
It was significant that on election night, after it became clear Netanyahu was likely to survive and Gantz had slipped, the two leaders refrained from making negative references to each other.
On security issues, they are not far apart, in any case.
The point of all this is that Israel has entered a period during which the playing cards will be shuffled in an attempt to come up with the sort of hand that enables relatively stable government.
Complicating calculations about the next stage is the fact that Netanyahu is due in court on March 17 to face serious charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
His allies in the Knesset have said they will seek to pass a law that would preclude, or freeze, the prosecution of any sitting prime minister.
That manoeuvre is given little prospect of success.
What may evolve is that judges agree to delay hearings for a short period, pending attempts to form a government. In any case, court proceedings may well drag on for a year or more.
In the meantime, Netanyahu would continue in his role. Remarkably, criminal charges do not preclude such a continuation in office.
On the other hand, the uncertainties a criminal trial engenders would be potentially destabilising politically.
In the end, the willingness of enough Israelis to look the other way when it comes to charges of criminality appears to have enabled Netanyahu to survive as prime minister.
This observation comes with the caveat that, in political terms, not much can be taken for granted in Israel.
Typical, perhaps, of attitudes towards the case against Israel’s leader were these remarks in The Guardian by a small businesswoman in Jerusalem:
I don’t mind if he eats takeaway food in boxes covered with diamonds. Look what is happening around us.
One of the charges against Netanyahu is that he improperly used public funds to feed himself and his family.
From an international perspective, the Israeli election result is likely to pose a significant dilemma. That is if Netanyahu presses on with his threats to annex settlement blocs in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley.
Most countries regard these settlements on land occupied after the 1967 Six-Day War as illegal under international law.
This is where a potential Netanyahu victory aligns itself with a possible Trump re-election.
No American president has been as accommodating to Israel’s nationalist impulses. No US administration has been as antagonistic to Palestinian aspirations.
Washington yielded to long-standing Israeli pressure to move its embassy to Jerusalem and at the same time reverse US policy that regarded settlements as a breach of international law.
If Netanyahu is confirmed as Israel’s prime minister for another term and Trump is re-elected, prospects for an accommodation between Israelis and Palestinians will likely become more distant.
Elections have consequences.
Two areas farmed by Israelis for more than 50 years have recently been returned to neighbouring Jordan. The first, al Ghamr (known in Israel as Zofar), is located south of the Dead Sea in the Naqab/Negev desert. The second, al Baqura (Naharayim) is found at the fertile point where a major tributary joins the Jordan River.
The association with water bodies is no coincidence: neither land would have been occupied in the first place were it not for the water that the Israeli army and kibbutzim required to sustain the farms.
The return of the lands was made possible by remarkably far-sighted clauses inserted in a 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. Unfortunately, the parts of the same agreement concerning water could not be more myopic, and ensure that one of the most arid countries in the world – Jordan – remains parched.
Meanwhile, Palestinian farmers do not have enough water. This situation is locked in by a water agreement signed with Israel in 1995, as part of the “Oslo II” process. And as the water levels drop, tensions rise. It gets worse with every scorching summer.
As it controls the most water but needs it the least, Israel has the choice to negotiate fairer agreements. But what must be challenged first is the thinking that led to the agreements in the first place – an economic doctrine which sees water as nothing more than a commodity to be sold or traded, and a political ideology that is fixated on holding on to as much water as possible.
The effects of the commodification of water are crystal clear at al Baqura. There, the Yarmouk river flows westwards and used to meet the Jordan River mainstream which flows south between Jordan (the country) on one side and Israel and the Palestine West Bank on the other. But these days almost every drop of the Yarmouk not used by farmers in Syria and Jordan is hoovered into a reservoir by farmers in Israel.
The Jordan River itself has run dry ever since 1964, when Israel cornered sole use of Lake Tiberias (aka the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Kinneret) near the river’s source. The Dead Sea at the river’s endpoint has been (apologies) dying, ever since.
Innovators in Israel have in the meantime perfected drip irrigation techniques, implemented impressive schemes which re-use wastewater, and built so many desalination plants that some commentators suggest it now has too much water.
Meanwhile Jordan is increasingly parched, as it hosts millions of people who have fled wars in Kuwait, Iraq, and Syria. With no surface water of its own to speak of, Jordan resorts to desalination on its tiny coastline at Aqaba. It has been encouraged to pump the expensive flows from there to the neighbouring Israeli city of Eilat, in exchange for freshwater Israel is to pump back to Jordan from (the contested) Lake Tiberias.
The Palestinian residents of the West Bank actually have less water available now than when Oslo II was signed. In Gaza, desalination is too expensive for most, and with wastewater contaminating the groundwater, “superbugs” are creating a toxic “biosphere of war”. Israel does sell a small amount of freshwater to Gaza, but most of the water it channels from Tiberias 200km to the north stops at the border – tantalisingly in view of the Gazans but out of their reach, reserved instead to grow potatoes that are exported to (a rather wetter) Europe.
There is a tendency to blame climate change or refugees for these policy choices, probably because they cannot talk back. But those who created the mess are the ones who should and can change it.
While the Israeli state doesn’t need so much water, the distribution of control over the Jordan River and associated aquifers remains a mirror reflection of the relative power between the rival states. Israel controls more water than Jordan and the Palestinians combined, and more than double its entitlement when measured against the principles of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention.
Water that Israel promised Jordan back in the 1994 peace treaty has still not materialised. In the West Bank, Israel’s choice to hoard is expressed through the Oslo-created Israeli-Palestinian joint water committee. Because the committee approves the water lines that every new settlement in the West Bank needs, but blocks projects for Palestinian villages, water becomes an effective tool of colonialism or even ethnic cleansing.
It would be straightforward to invoke guidance from the UN Watercourses Convention, if all that was required to end the Jordan River conflict was updating the agreements. The convention details how water can be shared “equitably and reasonably” and all the states involved signed up – bar Israel.
But first we must challenge the idea that water is a commodity that can be hoarded away or sold only to the highest bidder. But given the extent to which the practice is entrenched in the political and economic systems of the region, evidence and argument are not enough on their own. Researchers can highlight the damage caused by water policy, and environmentalists may question the rationale of exporting desert-grown crops to Europe. Eventually, the task is to replace the blinding ideologies with a strong sense of justice, so that unfair water sharing comes to be seen as unacceptable as slavery.
The required policy and legislation will flow naturally, once this future is seen. It happened at al Baqura and al Ghamr, and it can happen with water.
With one tweet of 35 words, Donald Trump has changed almost 40 years of US policy towards Israel and Syria:
As with other Trump impulses, such as his sudden order in December to withdraw all US troops from Syria, no administration official appeared to have been consulted. Hours earlier, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said from Jerusalem that there was no change in the US position declining to recognise Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Heights. His appearance alongside Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was delayed for almost an hour for Pompeo to assessed the suddenly altered situation.
Of course, White House officials scrambled to gloss the announcement. One insisted that Trump had spoken with national security advisor John Bolton, son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt, the special representative for Middle East negotiations. In a curiously defensive assertion, the official said: “There’s no obvious constituency not to do this.”
Others wheeled out Trump’s vague references to “security” and “stability”. Pompeo recovered to say the declaration was “historic” and “bold”.
But make no mistake. Trump’s priority had nothing to do with a Middle East strategy. His impulse was fed by three desires: the re-election of Netanyahu on April 9, his own 2020 campaign and the need to constantly stroke his own ego.
Israel seized the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Fourteen years later, just before its entry into Lebanon’s civil war, the government of Menachem Begin consolidated its hold with the declaration of sovereignty.
Few in the international community accepted the declaration. The Reagan administration, despite its pro-Israel rhetoric, suspended a strategic cooperation agreement with Tel Aviv. The US joined every member of the UN Security Council in Resolution 497, calling the annexation “null and void and without international legal effect”.
The Heights remained in a de facto division, with a UN observer force seeking to prevent any clashes. The Assad regime’s response to the 2011 Syrian uprising, killing 100,000 and displacing more than 11m, threatened to spill over into the area as the UN force withdrew. But the Israeli military presence deterred any regime action, and Netanyahu secured an agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in September 2015 to keep Iran and Hezbollah out of the area.
But Trump’s immediate concern is not with that interplay of Syria, Israel and external actors. As with his order to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, his focus is on a side-by-side declaration linking his fortunes and those of Netanyahu.
The formal indictments of the Israeli prime minister for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust await a hearing. He may face a criminal graft investigation over the state purchase of naval vessels and submarines from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, in one of the biggest cases in Israeli history. Polls have him neck-and-neck with the Blue and White Party of former general Benny Gantz and former finance minister Yair Lapid.
But on Thursday, Netanyahu could be exultant: “President Trump has just made history. He did it again.”
Trump will hope that exaltation boosts his own re-election prospects in a year’s time. His approval ratings are doggedly sticking at just over 40%. They haven’t collapsed despite multiple criminal investigations, the furor over anti-immigration policies and the government shutdown — but neither have they risen amid an economy fuelled by December 2017 tax cuts.
Thus an appeal to a domestic constituency which traditionally votes Democratic — with few exceptions over the past century, Jewish voters have given more than 70% support to the Democrat candidate, including 71% for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Trump’s calculation may be misguided. The Jewish vote is largely propelled by social issues at home, rather than Israel abroad: only 9% cited the latter as the primary cause for their vote in the last presidential election. But an “Israel first” stance could also resonate with non-Jews in America – and pro-Trump Jewish donors and lobbies could be significant in the contest for the US electorate next year.
Then there’s the far from insignificant factor of Trump’s ego. As is often the case with his orders and proclamations, he used the announcement to try to portray his unique place in US history. Throwing in the falsehood that all of his predecessors – as opposed to none – had pushed for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, he said: “Every president has said ‘do that’. I’m the one that gets it done.”
Despite the immediate headlines, Trump’s tweet has little significance for the Heights. The international community, including the UN, is not going to shift its position on their status. And, while Netanyahu may be boosted, the Israeli presence will continue to depend on the strength of arms, the expansion of settlements and the acceptance of actors such as Russia.
But that does not mean the declaration is without effect. Trump’s “stability” is likely to make a further contribution to regional instability.
The Assad regime will seize upon the opportunity to cover up its repression and hold on power. The Syrian foreign ministry’s pledge to regain the Heights is bluff, as the regime’s military can’t even secure its president without the lead of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. But Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle will play the victim over the Heights for their narrative that the US and Israel are the supporters of “terrorism” and aggression.
Trump’s message also casts a dark shadow over the still to be presented Israel-Palestine “peace plan” of his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Some will rightly note that the plan, if it exists, is already a zombie proposal. However, the Golan Heights declaration on top of the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem confirms a Trump administration that has reduced its real objective to pleasing one Israeli – the one sitting in the prime minister’s chair.
And if one wants to take Trump’s “bigly” view of his influence, one can look beyond the Middle East. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, noted that: “[President Vladimir] Putin will use this as a pretext to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea.”
That, of course, may not cause Trump – who “gets it done” – the loss of a moment’s sleep, even as some of his advisors and almost everyone across the Middle East are worried sick.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison will have learned a valuable foreign policy lesson in the past day or so as it relates to the Holy Land.
As ye sow, so shall ye reap (Galatians 6:7).
When Morrison allowed a thought bubble to become a political ploy in the Liberal party’s desperation to cling on to a safe seat in the Wentworth byelection, he miscalculated the damage it would cause to his own credibility and the country’s foreign policy settings.
An inexperienced prime minister blundered into the thicket of Middle East politics by announcing Australia would both consider moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and would also review its support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
This latter is the 159-page document negotiated by the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany. In it, Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program.
In any event, Morrison indicated Canberra would continue to adhere to JCPOA, thus putting itself at odds with Washington. The United States announced it would abandon the JCPOA, pending the negotiation of better terms.
In his efforts to purloin the Jewish vote in Wentworth, Morrison’s shallow marketing impulses got the better of policy prudence.
He proceeded with haste in the first instance, and now he can repent at leisure after having sought – unsuccessfully it seems – to thread the needle in his policy pronouncements at the weekend.
If we stretch the biblical allusions further, we might say that when it comes to the Middle East, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a political ingénue to shift the status quo in Australia’s position on the vexed Arab-Israel issue.
What has now happened – as it inevitably would – after Morrison announced that Australia would recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and establish a branch office there, is a negative reaction not only from the Muslim world, but from Israel itself.
So an Australian prime minister goes out on a limb for the Jewish state, only to have it sawn off by critics in Israel who did not like the distinction he made between Jerusalem’s Jewish west and Arab east.
Under Israel’s Basic Law, the constitution, an undivided Jerusalem is deemed to be the country’s capital in perpetuity. This position was bolstered in a Knesset vote as recently as this year.
Israel’s official reaction to the Morrison announcement was to describe it as a “step in the right direction”. However, as its implications sunk in, Israeli public figures began to take strong exception to Australia’s “acknowledgement” of Palestinian claims to Jerusalem in a final status peace settlement.
Typical of the reaction was this, via Twitter, from Tzachi Hanegbi, a prominent Knesset member of the nationalist Likud party and confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Knesset, went further.
We expected more from a friendly country like Australia […] I am hoping that our cool response will make it clear to the Australians that this is not what we were wishing for.
Pointedly, Netanyahu had not commented publicly at time of writing.
In his announcement on Saturday at a Sydney Institute event, Morrison set out his stall on the Jerusalem issue. In the process, apart from infuriating the Israeli nationalist right, he exposed himself to withering criticism at home and in the region.
This was the nub of Morrison’s statement:
Australia now recognises West Jerusalem, being the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government, is the capital of Israel […] Furthermore, recognising our commitment to a two-state solution, the Australian Government has also resolved to acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem.
While Morrison’s use of the word “acknowledge” falls a long way short of “recognising” Palestinian aspirations, his “acknowledgement”, in the context of final status peace negotiations, trespasses on an Israeli article of faith.
Israel’s insistence on an undivided Jerusalem in perpetuity under its control contradicts an international consensus that East Jerusalem remains occupied territory since the 1967 Six-Day War.
Australia has supported numerous United Nations resolutions to this effect, including Security Council resolutions 242 of 1967 and 338 of 1973 that called on Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in war.
In his efforts to find favour with Israel’s supporters, Morrison crossed that divide, thereby infuriating an Israeli government and discomforting Israel’s backers in Australia, notwithstanding their professed delight at the latest turn of events.
Australia’s position, it might be noted, contrasts with that of the United States. Washington recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier this year without making a distinction between “west” and “east”.
In his Sydney Institute speech, Morrison indicated he and his public service advisers had conferred widely in their efforts to come up with a form of words that would be consistent with his pledge to review Australia’s position on Jerusalem.
This review included consultations with:
…some eminent Australian policymakers: former heads of various agencies and departments whether in Defence, Foreign Affairs or Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Advice to Morrison from what was known as a “reference group” of “eminent Australian policymakers” was overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, resistant to changing the status quo.
In other words, Australia should adhere to settled policy.
Morrison chose to ignore this advice after having committed himself to a review. In the process, and unnecessarily, he has risked negative reactions from Australia’s important neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, and from the Arab world. At home, he has exposed himself to criticism he has jeopardised Australia’s international standing for no conspicuous benefit.
This has been a mess, and one entirely of Morrison’s own making, driven by short-term political calculations.