Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (November 11, 2019) - Endless Elections, Endless Wars?

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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.

Q. Is Israel really headed for a third round of elections in early 2020?

A. Nothing is certain, and there is still time for political maneuvering. But the more time passes and the closer we get to the constitutional deadline for forming a coalition (as of Monday, about a month), the more likely this option looks.

Clearly, the behavior of acting-Prime Minister Netanyahu reflects a concerted effort to thwart formation of any coalition save one headed by him, that has the votes needed to give him immunity from prosecution. Since this outcome is doubtful, Netanyahu is also doing everything possible to position the Likud for another round of elections.

Q. On Saturday, Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Liberman offered a compromise proposal for forming a coalition. Does it have a chance? What could thwart it?

A. Liberman, still carefully cultivating the role of kingmaker that September’s elections awarded him--and that he could well lose in another electoral round--made a new, “balanced” proposal. A unity government comprising Blue-White, Likud and Yisrael Beitenu would be based on a major concession by each of the two main parties. Likud’s Netanyahu would agree to enter the coalition without his right-wing religious “Haredi-Messianic” (Liberman’s term) bloc partners whom Liberman and Blue-White reject. Blue-White’s Gantz would agree to a version of President Rivlin’s proposal whereby Netanyahu would serve as the first prime minister in a rotation arrangement, stepping aside either after two years or upon being indicted.

Blue-White did not say no: Gantz is known to be ready to discuss such a rotation arrangement but would have to overcome the principled opposition of his fellow party leaders Yaalon, Lapid and Ashkenazi. Likud, on the other hand, turned Liberman down, presumably because the loss of his “bloc” allies would guarantee that Netanyahu could not persuade a new coalition to award him immunity from prosecution.

Gantz apparently hopes that Liberman, confronting Netanyahu’s rejection, will opt to swallow his disdain for the Arab parties and join Blue-White in a narrow minority-government coalition buoyed by external Arab support. Netanyahu, in contrast, just brought into the Likud the more moderate element in the far-right list of seven members of Knesset: three MKs led by Naftali Bennet. The price of boosting the Likud to the position of largest party, now with 35 MKs against Blue-White’s 33, was to award Bennet the Ministry of Defense that he has coveted for years. Bennet has now switched party affiliation four times in a year in the course of Israel’s roller-coaster political and electoral ride.

True, Bennet heads a (now-internal) Likud faction of only three. True also, the Likud rank-and-file is not happy to see Netanyahu appoint to key portfolios in his very temporary interim government relatively inexperienced outsiders like Bennet and mediocre yes-men back-benchers like Amir Ohana (Justice Ministry) and David Amsalem (Communications). But Netanyahu’s main concerns are to prevent Blue-White poaching from the right (Bennet was flirting with Blue-White prior to his new appointment). He also wants to hold the right-religious bloc of 55 MKs together in the increasingly likely event, which Netanyahu is helping to trigger, of a third round of elections. The quality of governance he provides is clearly secondary in his political calculations.

Last week, Shas’s Aryeh Deri added to the confusion by floating a proposal for a bizarre head-to-head electoral “run-off” for the office of prime minister between Netanyahu and Gantz. The idea poses huge constitutional problems. No one bought it.

Q. In recent years, Netanyahu has disparaged Bennet, who has been particularly critical toward the prime minister and hawkish toward Hamas in Gaza. And in recent weeks and months, Netanyahu has been sounding the alarm over unspecified security threats that, he argues, mandate an emergency unity government. Yet doesn’t Bennet’s appointment send a message that a military escalation is not anticipated?

A. Ostensibly, it does, unless we assume that Bennet is a mere political fig-leaf and that Netanyahu remains fully in charge of security. Here the mid-September Iranian-backed surprise attack on the Saudi oil infrastructure, and a dramatic November 4 article by Michael Oren in The Atlantic, enter the picture. They pose the question whether Israel’s “endless” low-level war against primarily non-state enemies in Gaza and to Israel’s north is about to metamorphose into a full-scale, highly destructive conflict.

Q. The September attack in Saudi Arabia has caused such concern in Israel?

A. Yes. Israeli strategic analysts appear to have concluded that the attack reflects a major enhancement in Iranian intelligence, operational, missile and drone capabilities that could be applied in an attack on Israel. Such an attack could take place by surprise or as a consequence of uncontrolled escalation in the current “mabam” or “war-between-wars” (also translated “campaign-between-campaigns”) to Israel’s north and south. Iran and Hezbollah would seek to overwhelm Israel’s anti-missile defenses with massive missile salvos and inflict heavy losses on the Israeli civilian rear.

In other words, the Israeli version of the “endless wars” from which President Trump claims he wants to extract US forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria threatens to become a full-fledged Iran-Israel war.

Q. Where does Michael Oren enter the picture?

A. Oren, a former ambassador to the US under Netanyahu, served until recently as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office dealing with public diplomacy. Writing in The Atlantic to an American audience, he must be presumed to be speaking for Netanyahu. That fact, and the article’s contents, warrant our attention.

In considerable detail that would almost certainly not have been approved by the IDF Censor for an article in Israel, Oren warns of escalation into full-fledged war with Iran and its Hezbollah and other proxies to the north and in Gaza. He expresses concern lest US President Trump’s recent strategic moves in the Middle East (withdrawal from Syria, abandoning Syria’s Kurds, not responding to the Iranian-backed attack on Saudi Arabia, seeking talks with Iran), coupled with the Trump impeachment drama, could encourage Iranian aggression. Oren even asks whether Trump, who has broadly ignored Netanyahu since the latter’s judicial and electoral woes began, could be counted on under these circumstances to come to Israel’s aid.

There is considerable dissonance in the concepts reflected in Oren’s presentation. If Trump’s current and anticipated Middle East moves are of such concern, why did Netanyahu so blatantly support Trump and his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in the first place? If the military situation with Iran is so precarious, why did Netanyahu appoint as defense minister a man, Bennet, whom he clearly does not trust?

Q. Doesn’t this imply that, at a minimum, the threat of Iran attacking Israel the way it attacked Saudi Arabia is not on the near-term horizon? After all, Israel’s military capabilities far outweigh those of “paper tiger” Saudi Arabia. Perhaps Netanyahu has alternative motives . . .

A. Indeed. One could be to generate a Trump campaign to influence Israeli public opinion in Netanyahu’s favor, either during the final month of coalition maneuvering or during a third round of elections early in 2020. Another could be to lay the groundwork for Israel to request enhanced US security benefits as it prepares for the end of the war-between-wars and the outbreak of open warfare.

Q. Your bottom line?

A. First, Netanyahu’s motives in playing up the Iran threat in the aftermath of the attack on Saudi Arabia may be complex. There is a genuine danger of escalation; Israel is clearly playing “catch-up” in its assessment of Iranian military capabilities and Trump administration willingness to do something about them. But to the extent that Netanyahu is trying to leverage military issues into electoral advantage, the polls show that his prospects in a third round of elections not only have not improved, but are slightly lower.

Second, the political stalemate in Israel remains. With nine days left for Gantz to form a coalition, then another three weeks of “free-for-all” attempts before new elections are mandated, the prospects look increasingly bleak. If a last-minute coalition remains at all a possibility, the three actors to watch are Lieberman, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, and Israel’s Iran-led Islamist enemies.

Lieberman could, against the odds and at considerable political risk, opt to join with Blue-White in a minority coalition backed by Arab members of Knesset. Mandelblit could, before the current month-long political deadline is up, indict Netanyahu for crimes so blatant that members of the Likud or others in the right-religious bloc revolt and join a Gantz-led government.

Finally, the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas-Islamic Jihad coalition could start a surprise preemptive war designed somehow to extract Iran from its current regional difficulties (in explosive Iraq and Lebanon) and financial straits. The political effect in Israel could be either to postpone elections or to hasten formation of an emergency national-unity government in which all preconditions are dropped.

Don’t hold your breath for any of these three scenarios. At this juncture, a third round of elections in early 2020 seems most likely.

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