March 20, 2017 - A perfect storm? Coalition collapsing, escalation in the north, indictment on the way

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses PM Netanyahu's threats to take the country to new elections and their relation to his demand to dismantle a new broadcasting authority; why the broadcasting authority issue is the focus of political tensions; why Netanyahu launched this bombshell while on his way to China; and where the security factor regarding Syria and Lebanon fits in.

 

Q. PM Netanyahu left on Sunday for China, but not before threatening to take the country to new elections. Is the issue simply Netanyahu’s demand to dismantle a new broadcasting authority?

A. No, although Netanyahu’s complex relationship with the Israeli media is undoubtedly part of the issue. The other, bigger part is apparently the prospect that the Israel Police will soon recommend to the attorney general that Netanyahu be indicted on at least one charge of corruption related to his crony capitalist links. While technically elections cannot prevent or postpone an indictment or a police investigation, they can radically change the public atmosphere in which the prime minister would counter the charges, thereby presumably bettering his chances of beating them.

An escalating security atmosphere can also play to the benefit of a prime minister under legal siege. This is not to imply in any way that Netanyahu has frivolously initiated the growing tensions to Israel’s north with both Syria and Lebanon. Rather, from his standpoint this might provide another good reason for initiating early elections.

And then there is the prospect of pressure from the Trump administration, which seems surprisingly anxious to move ahead with an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to freeze most if not all settlement construction. If this happens, then rather than let infighting with extreme pro-settlement elements bring down the government, Netanyahu might prefer to preempt and dissolve his coalition, thereby postponing both US and settler pressures for at least half a year.

 

Q. Let’s take this point by point. What is the broadcasting authority issue and why is it the focus of political tensions?

A. Israel’s current broadcasting authority, established some 50 years ago, is notoriously corrupt and wasteful but at the same time relatively objective in its reporting (it broadcasts on radio and TV and works alongside two private TV networks, channels 2 and 10, that are regulated separately). Several years ago a plan was launched to replace it with a new, more efficient regulatory body. After prolonged preparations that new body, “Kan”, is scheduled to begin broadcasting within weeks, at which point the old authority will cease functioning and its remaining employees will be laid off.

Netanyahu is notoriously paranoid about his media coverage, to the extent that in the current coalition he has retained the communications portfolio for himself. Last month, in view of the fact that one of the corruption investigations against him involves an alleged attempt to bribe and manipulate a major newspaper to support him, he yielded to legal pressures and, to preserve appearances, temporarily transferred the portfolio to a trusted supporter, Tzahi HaNegbi. Regarding the advisability of Kan, Netanyahu has been zigzagging for months, apparently depending on his assessment of how critical or friendly its directors would be toward him. Last week he again zigzagged, twice. His primary political antagonist within the coalition on this issue is Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon, who supports Kan on a fiscal basis and who could bring down the coalition by bolting with his small party, Kulanu.

As Netanyahu was boarding his plane for Beijing on Sunday he again called for Kan to be dissolved, threatening new elections otherwise. Netanyahu cited compassion for the soon-to-be-unemployed veterans of the old broadcasting authority, who are demonstrating against their dismissal even though they brought this on themselves and have had several years to prepare to step aside.

Notably, there are additional widening cracks in Netanyahu’s coalition that are damaging its viability and efficiency. The most prominent is the rift between Defense Minister Lieberman of Yisrael Beitenu and Education Minister Naftali Bennet of HaBait HaYehudi regarding issues of religion and the growing contingent of women serving alongside men in IDF combat units. For either of the two, the fiercely secular Lieberman or the national orthodox Bennet, the clash between religion and state is an ideal and traditional election cause.

Yediot Aharonot columnist Nachum Barnea summed up the dilemma visiting Netanyahu, the coalition and the country neatly on Monday: “The most absurd aspect is the concern that Netanyahu is suddenly displaying for the fate of the employees of the old broadcasting authority--a corrupt, inflated and superfluous institution. He supported its closing and its replacement. Then he changed his mind; and changed it again; and changed it again. The only rational explanation for Netanyahu’s move lies elsewhere--in the police investigation. Netanyahu will argue that the investigation is nothing but a left-wing conspiracy. If he survives [the investigation and the election], he’ll argue that it was unnecessary: the public absolved him. Then he’ll reestablish the same coalition that today he is fed up with.”

 

Q. So why did Netanyahu launch this bombshell while on his way to China?

A. Perfect timing from his standpoint. He’ll be relatively incommunicado while lesser politicians who fear elections look for a way out. After all, the polls show that in elections held now every party would lose or break even with the exception of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which is not part of the coalition and which has been soaring in the polls. Accordingly, it’s very possible that in Netanyahu’s absence a compromise will indeed be found and the coalition will muddle ahead.

Until the next crisis. Israeli coalitions almost never last out their full terms. Accordingly, the further we proceed past the current half-way point of this coalition’s legal tenure the more likely new elections. Given the small majority and fragile nature of this coalition with its many barely compatible component parts, this is mainly a question of which paranoid or ambitious politician makes the break. There are always plenty of excuses and rationales.

(Note, by the way, that while the prime minister visits China, President Rivlin is in Vietnam. Each brought along a small army of Israelis who deal with trade and the economy. Their dual presence in the Far East is no coincidence insofar as we live in an era when so much uncertainty is associated with the West--particularly the behavior of the Trump administration and the political future of European governments.)

 

Q. Where does the security factor regarding Syria and Lebanon fit in?

A. And Gaza. In every direction, both north and south, Israel faces threats of escalation with a variety of Islamist or authoritarian neighbors. Depending how you look at it, this could be a factor inhibiting an election initiative by Netanyahu (“now is hardly the time; the country needs me at the helm”) or encouraging one (“hard times are ahead; I need a new mandate and a broader coalition”).

The escalation is palpable. Hamas in Gaza has a new and more extreme leader, Yahya Sinwar, and short-range rocket attacks aimed at the Gaza periphery are increasing along with border fence incidents. In Syria, where President Bashar Assad appears to have survived the challenge to his regime with a great deal of help from Iran and Russia, he demonstrated last week that he had gained sufficient confidence to challenge an Israel Air Force attack on yet another convoy of strategic weapons being transferred by Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This was the first time Israel acknowledged its responsibility for such an attack and the first time Syria tried to respond by shooting down an Israeli aircraft (the Syrian missile was intercepted by Israel’s Arrow system, also a first). Further, the Israeli attack took place unusually deep in Syrian territory, well north of Damascus, and this was apparently the reason why Israel’s ambassador to Moscow Gary Koren was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry and dressed down. While the IAF demonstrated clear operational superiority over the Syrians, all this spells both escalation and the danger of complications with Russia.

Two weeks ago, when Netanyahu met in Moscow with Putin, he pointedly asked the Russian leader to do something about the presence of Iranian, Hezbollah and other Shiite forces on Syrian soil, pointing out the escalatory danger they constitute. Back in Lebanon, Hezbollah now not only rules the south and east of the country but apparently controls the country’s new president, Michel Aoun. On February 12 Aoun, a Christian who owes his recent election to Hezbollah support, stated that “The resistance’s [meaning Hezbollah’s] arms are . . . an essential part of Lebanon’s defense”. This was a signal departure for Lebanon’s government, which until now had always insisted that Hezbollah was acting on its own and was not controlled by the Lebanese armed forces.

Israel’s verbal response came on Sunday, when IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot drew the inevitable conclusion that in the next war all of Lebanon would bear responsibility for Hezbollah aggression--meaning that, in a departure from past wars and skirmishes with Hezbollah, Israel would attack the Lebanese army and Lebanese civilian infrastructure. Not to be outdone, Defense Minister Lieberman on Sunday responded to Syria’s unprecedented firing of a ground-to-air missile against Israel’s planes: “Next time Syrian air defenses fire on us, we’ll destroy them without hesitation.” Deterrence, or more escalation?

Undeterred, Israel reportedly carried out two more attacks in Syria in recent days, including the targeted assassination of a Syrian militia commander just across the Golan border. At the core of all this escalation is Netanyahu’s warning to the Russians that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces (like Hezbollah) in Syria constitute a growing danger of war with Israel on Syrian and Lebanese soil.

 

Q. Only on Lebanese soil? Not in the Mediterranean?

A. In that arena as well. Not only did Netanyahu warn Putin of Iranian plans to establish a naval base on the Syrian coast. The dispute between Israel and Lebanon regarding the overlap between the gas-rich EEZs (exclusive economic zones) each claims in the Mediterranean is heating up. Both the UN and the US have tried and failed to mediate the dispute, which centers on an 800 square kilometer wedge of water generated by the different angles used by Israel and Lebanon in drawing a line into the Mediterranean from the point where their border meets the sea. Lebanon recently issued tenders for maritime oil and gas exploration in its EEZ, including for the triangle-shaped disputed section. The Netanyahu government is apparently preparing to respond by asking the Knesset to define Israel’s EEZ so as to include the triangle. More escalatory potential.

 

Q. So what’s the bottom line?

A. In the near future we can conceivably expect an indictment of the prime minister, a government crisis over responsibility for broadcasting rights, an escalating military situation in the north and south and possibly at sea, and elections--or any combination thereof.

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