May 11, 2015 - Forming the Israeli government, Europeans and the region reactions, and the state of Syria

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 This week, Alpher discusses what is the core problem that prevents Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu putting a government in place, even one with only 61 ministers; assuming that within a few days Netanyahu manages to field a narrow right-religious coalition, what his political options are; how the Europeans and the region are reacting to the emerging new coalition; given repeated battlefield advances in Syria in recent weeks, what might an opposition victory by Islamist and other rebels in Syria over the Assad government and its Iranian and Hezbollah supporters look like, and is it realistic?

 

Q. By Monday of this week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu still did not have a government in place, even one with only 61 ministers. Beyond coalition politicking, what’s the core problem?

A. The entire coalition enterprise could still collapse if Netanyahu fails to get Knesset approval to enlarge the number of ministers in his prospective cabinet so he can accommodate all his coalition commitments. It seems that the smaller the coalition becomes, the more ministries-without-portfolio and deputy ministries he has to create to keep both his partners and his own Likud MKs happy.

One obvious core issue here is the fragmentation of Israeli politics. Likud’s dramatic victory of March 17--30 mandates--is still a far cry from the situation not too long ago, when the leading party could score between 40 and 50 mandates (there are 120 members in the Knesset). The minute Netanyahu opted not to join up with Labor, the second largest party with 24 mandates, in a right-left national unity government, preferring instead a right-wing coalition, he put himself at the mercy of a variety of small and medium-sized right-religious parties intent on squeezing the prime minister for endless narrowly-focused entitlements, reactionary legislative initiatives, and particularly the ministries that can deliver on them.

When, at the last minute, in an exquisitely timed maneuver, Avigdor Lieberman opted not to be foreign minister and not to join the coalition, Netanyahu was stuck with a coalition of 61 in which he must cater to the whim of every right-wing and religious backbencher. Make no mistake: Netanyahu is not Ben Gurion or Begin, whose leadership presence could keep a narrow coalition in order. Netanyahu is once again demonstrating that he is can easily fold to pressure when the political chips are down.

If the core issues, then, are fragmentation and leadership, Lieberman offers a special case that focuses our attention on both issues. From humble beginnings as Netanyahu’s right-hand man in the Likud, he built a party around Russian immigrant support, secularism, and racist language toward Arabs, appealing to both Russian immigrants and veteran Israeli hardliners. By 2009 he had 15 Knesset mandates. But the Russian immigrants integrated fast, Lieberman failed to deliver on issues dear to them like easier conversion and marriage, and competition grew on the far right. By 2013 Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu dropped to 11 mandates; in March he garnered only six.

There were additional reasons for Lieberman’s demise. A huge corruption scandal lost him votes. And his insistence on being foreign minister even as that position was repeatedly stripped of its “normal” assets for the benefit of loyal Netanyahu allies and new Rube Goldberg-style ministries rendered him and the Foreign Ministry something of a joke. Here is another core issue in Israeli politics: anything related to security will not be left to the diplomats. Accordingly, intelligence and strategic dialogue get a separate ministry; the US relationship is maintained by the prime minister; and even Diaspora relations are compartmentalized and transferred to a separate ministry.

Lieberman, ever the astute politician, ultimately confronted these realities from his shrunken power base. Last week he opted to bail out of coalition talks and leave Netanyahu with 61 hungry MKs and too little time to reverse course and seek a unity coalition with Labor. Much as he may have savored the moment, Lieberman now becomes a tiny right-wing opposition fragment, alienated from the left and center opposition parties and from the government alike. What he does with this new reality depends not only on him but on Netanyahu as well.

 

Q. Indeed, assuming that within a few days Netanyahu manages to field a narrow right-religious coalition, what are his political options?

A. Netanyahu is of course most comfortable with right wing and religious partners. So one obvious option is to strive for tight coalition discipline and tough it out. After all, the government will be more homogeneous than the opposition with its Arab, left-wing, centrist and right-wing (Lieberman) components. The first test of Netanyahu’s capacity to do so is in the coming days. He needs to garner an absolute Knesset majority to change a basic law and give himself the extra ministries he needs to keep his partners happy (the current basic law, which he supported in its day, limits a government to 18 ministers).

Failing this, he could ask Isaac Herzog’s Labor or even Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid to join the coalition. Toward this end he is leaving the foreign and communications ministries in his own hands; presumably such a reshuffle would involve dropping Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party, thereby also freeing up the education, housing and justice ministries for redistribution. Assuming Labor or Yesh Atid or both agreed to join the government, this would represent a decision by Netanyahu to favor stability over ideology, as long as he stays in power for a fourth term.

Herzog is well aware of the opportunity possibly awaiting him, including possible rotation of the premiership, and is “playing it coy”: avoiding open attacks on Netanyahu and keeping channels open. Lapid has quickly adapted to the role of militant opposition. Then again, perhaps Netanyahu can still persuade Lieberman to change his mind. The worst case scenario for everyone is a coalition collapse with no alternative but snap new elections. That too could conceivably happen.

 

Q. Last week you mentioned high-level US admonitions to Netanyahu concerning Iran and the two-state solution. How are the Europeans and the region reacting to the emerging new coalition?

A. Negatively, as would be expected. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat denounced the new government and indicated that the PLO would pursue the international track with greater energy. A United Nations spokesman talked about “realistic options” and the European Union’s ambassador to Israel used the term “desperation”.

Note that this UN and EU language is far more somber than the usual attempt to be up-beat about renewing negotiations. By the same token, last week’s calls from Washington for Israel to adhere at the declarative level to the two-state solution were more minimalistic. Still, reports from Ramallah indicate that both Washington and Brussels are pressuring Abbas to indicate at least a readiness to return to direct bilateral negotiations with Israel, with Washington holding out the threat of an American veto over Palestinian attempts to attain statehood recognition from the UN Security Council.

Netanyahu, for his part, has related to these peace efforts by ignoring the Palestinians, the UN and the EU and turning instead to the region. Citing the Iranian and Islamist terrorist threat shared by Israel and its moderate Sunni Arab neighbors, Netanyahu last week noted that it “creates joint interests and also perhaps creates opportunities to develop alliances and possibly move peace forward.” The only problem with this vision, which has been presented repeatedly by Netanyahu and, in his day, by then Foreign Minister Lieberman, is that Israel’s neighbors have made it abundantly clear that Israel has first to make peace with the Palestinians before they will openly consort with it--the precise opposite of the order of things Netanyahu seems to prefer.

 

Q. Finally, in recent weeks Islamist and other rebels in Syria have registered repeated battlefield advances at the expense of the Assad government and its Iranian and Hezbollah supporters. There is now even talk of an opposition victory. Is that realistic? If so, what might it look like?

A. What has changed in Syria is the nature of the anti-Assad external coalition supporting the rebels. Thanks to leadership changes in Riyadh and Doha, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are now coordinating efforts to train and deploy an ostensibly more moderate Syrian opposition that has registered gains in Idlib province in the northwest, in the south and around Damascus. A major battle is brewing in the Qalamoun hills, located between Damascus and the Syria-Lebanon border; an opposition victory there would begin to cut Damascus off from the Alawite stronghold on the Syrian Mediterranean coast and even pose a Sunni Islamist threat to Lebanon. Assad recently felt obliged to publicly acknowledge regime setbacks in battle and reassure his supporters--a sure sign of unease in Damascus.

The most obvious near-term scenario based on rebel advances would be the declaration of an autonomous safe zone in rebel-held Idlib province on the Syria-Turkey border. This would enable the creation of an opposition government on Syrian soil--assuming all or most opposition forces could agree. It would also facilitate and legitimize the training and arming of rebels inside Syria. Separately or in concert, Turkey could declare a buffer zone on Syrian soil across the two country’s border, where Syrian Air Force flights would be fair game for Turkish anti-aircraft fire. This would not only neutralize the only real remaining Syrian threat to the rebels--barrel bombs and chlorine gas canisters dropped from aircraft on ground forces and civilians--but would facilitate a first step toward keeping millions of Syrian refugees on Syrian soil as well.

Lest we forget, there already are rebel autonomous zones on Syria soil, and in Iraq too--manned by the Islamic State, which aspires to set up caliphates anywhere there are Sunni Muslims and, accordingly, has no aspiration to merely replace the Assad regime and maintain a sovereign Syria. Accordingly, a gradually coalescing and increasingly victorious but more moderate opposition would have to contemplate defeating not only Assad but IS as well. This poses the distinct danger of “Libyanization” of Syria, with tribal and Islamist loyalties as well as the priorities of external actors dictating the fragmentation of Syria into rival fiefdoms.

Finally, the real ideological nature of the emerging Saudi-Qatari-Turkish-supported coalition is not clear. Are the dominant Jabhat al-Nusra elements in it really prepared to abandon their al-Qaeda links? Are secular opposition elements really reemerging as a viable anti-regime force? Can they all get along under some sort of Muslim Brotherhood-oriented religious-political flag? Indeed, can even their Saudi, Qatari and Turkish sponsors get along over the long run? And can they get along with the United States, which almost single-handedly is spearheading the opposition to the Islamic State and which has an increasingly problematic relationship with all three?

All this, by way of saying that the Syrian opposition still has a long way to go.

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