Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (May 18, 2020) - Israel’s new government: scandalous by any definition

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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. What are the primary tasks that confront the new government of Israel that was sworn in on May 17?

A. Before discussing some very urgent tasks, the scandal involved in the emergence of this government requires that we start with its ugly aspect. Followed by the funny part. Then and only then can we get down to what’s urgent and important.

After nearly 18 months of transition government and three deadlocked elections, what has emerged, at a time of acute economic hardship brought on by the corona pandemic, is Israel’s largest and most financially wasteful government in history, a record 36 ministers-strong. It features the remarkable innovation of a prime minister and an alternate prime minister. Its leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, claims that the hundreds of millions of taxpayer shekels needed to pay for salaries, offices, drivers and all the other perks of useless ministries will come to less than the cost of a fourth round of elections.

That’s debatable. What’s not debatable are the ridiculous reasons for creating this burdensome government. While Israel’s prolonged crisis of governance has ended, that crisis has been replaced by something simply ludicrous. Netanyahu smugly and confidently expects that the public, including over one million unemployed and tens of thousands of the bankrupt and idled self-employed, will forget about this monumental waste of scarce resources even as his new government sets about slashing pensions and raising taxes to refill the coffers emptied by the virus.

That’s the ugly part. The funny part is that, among this new government’s record 36 ministers are (all in the Likud half of the coalition) a minister for Jerusalem affairs, a community development minister alongside a social equality minister, a minister in the Defense Ministry and a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office (in addition to a defense minister and a prime minister), a settlements affairs minister, a higher education and water resources (two totally unrelated portfolios) minister , an intelligence affairs minister, a regional cooperation minister, a strategic affairs minister, a minister liaising between the Cabinet and the Knesset, and a diaspora affairs minister.

These portfolios are Netanyahu’s inventions. In creating them, he had two objectives in mind. One is to reward his loyal Likud supporters with ministerial jobs; that keeps them loyal at the most mediocre level. A second is more cunning: to transfer assets that traditionally belong to the Prime Minister’s Office and the defense and foreign ministries to loyal Likudniks who will continue to fill these positions once Benny Gantz takes over as prime minister in November 2001.

To create these ministries, with names reminiscent of John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks, Netanyahu simply fragmented existing and more traditional ministries. Regional cooperation, strategic affairs and diaspora affairs were long ago poached from the Foreign Affairs ministry. Settlements affairs traditionally belong to the Defense Ministry. Higher education has now been removed from the Ministry of Education, and water resources from the Infrastructure Ministry. The minister liaising with the Knesset, yet another fanatic Netanyahu loyalist, is being awarded control over a host of government personnel and financial portfolios normally managed by the prime minister himself (hence denied to a future PM Gantz). The minister of intelligence really does nothing, since control over intelligence functions is the exclusive prerogative of the prime minister and defense minister.

Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Gantz can take pride in having appointed Israel’s first female Ethiopian minister and first female Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) minister. But he stood aside, dumbfounded, as Netanyahu created these strange and redundant jobs for his faithful supporters. Gantz even rejected a couple of redundant ministries on his side of the coalition divide to demonstrate that he at least is not wasting budgets and titles. He is about to learn that Netanyahu has guaranteed himself a large measure of control over the favors bestowed by government even after he turns over the premiership. If, indeed, the much-discussed rotation ever happens.

Netanyahu emerges from the coalition-forming process looking as cunning and crooked as ever. His obvious objective is to hold onto as many of the levers of power as possible, for as long as possible. Gantz emerges grasping for an image of integrity despite having walked back every campaign promise he made, while looking and acting like the naïve political rookie he really is. His only hope is to reach rotation 18 months from now and take credit for removing from power Israel’s longest-serving and most corrupt prime minister.

Q. That prime minister will be on trial for corruption shortly. . .

A. The only new ministry Netanyahu could not (yet?) invent is one to neutralize the corruption trial against him. That begins on May 24. Opening legal formalities will take months. But once the public is exposed to the ugly details of Netanyahu’s bribery and breach of trust, it is an open question whether, and to what extent, this will affect Netanyahu’s status and behavior.

Here June 2021 is an important date. President Rivlin’s seven-year term will expire. Netanyahu will by then be knee-deep in courtroom revelations of his corruption. If he hasn’t felt obliged by then to make a plea deal, will he seek election by the Knesset to replace Rivlin? The president of Israel, after all, enjoys seven years of total immunity from prosecution.

Q. And now down to business. What is most urgent? Most important?

A. The most urgent task is accelerating the reopening of the economy and getting people back to work and to school. As long as Israel’s corona numbers remain low--on May 17 there were only 10 new cases, 44 patients on ventilators and a total of 272 deceased for a population roughly like New Jersey’s and slightly smaller than Sweden’s--that should be possible, albeit painful in terms of slashed budgets and new taxes.

The next most urgent task, scheduled for July 1, and the most important for Netanyahu in terms of the legacy he wants to leave, is annexing West Bank settlements and territory. This will be more difficult. During his surprise eight-hour visit last week, US Secretary of State Pompeo equivocated regarding the US role in approving annexation and the need for coordination with the Palestinians and the Arab world. And the latter are pushing back, with threats of severed relations and even violence in the form of a new intifada.

This promises controversy at a very early stage in the life of this, Netanyahu’s fifth government: Gantz and Ashkenazi may be restricted to a consultancy role on annexation by the coalition agreement they shamefully accepted, but there is nothing to stop them from consulting with Arab, European and US Democratic leaders and of course with Trump administration officials concerned about the dangers of unrest in the Arab world. And nothing to prevent them from warning that Israel is willfully becoming an apartheid state.

Will we see a face-saving compromise here? Netanyahu, having retained the premiership based at least in part on an electoral promise of West Bank annexation, is now perfectly capable of inventing some new, neutral concept with a meaningless name to define what will essentially be a perpetuated status quo in the territories. That’s the best anyone can conceivably hope for. An initiative to reopen negotiations with the Palestinian leadership that are not based on the Trump plan, has nowhere been mentioned. Perhaps, too, confidence-building measures with the Hamas Gaza leadership could continue to be explored.

Q. Next in terms of urgency?

A. Here we revert to the agenda hinted at by Pompeo during last week’s visit. In addition to stipulating conditions for Netanyahu to move forward with annexation, Pompeo focused in his discussion in Israel on two key strategic preoccupations: Iran and China.

It stands to reason that, regarding Iran, the US administration has no objection to Israel’s new unity government continuing to implement the “campaign between wars” in Syria and occasionally across Syria’s border with Iraq, with the objective of militarily blocking and weakening Iran’s hegemonic drive into the Levant. This requires close coordination between Israel and Russia--something Netanyahu has accomplished rather well in recent years with President Putin.

Both Defense Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi should now insist on becoming full partners on the Israeli side of the Israel-Russia equation regarding Syria and Iran. With the possible exception of new Palestinian violence brought on by talk of annexation--a potential headache where Netanyahu will be happy to honor Gantz’s security authority--the Iran/Syria/Russia arena is currently the only one that could potentially escalate into major conflict.

Q. But it looks like the Israel-China-US triangle is a different story . . .

A. This could be the most controversial strategic issue the new Israeli government has to deal with--a hot potato that none of the principal ministers really wants on their plate. We discussed China’s sweeping infrastructure investments in Israel in some detail last week.

Interestingly, this is one area where US pressure on Israel has been building up for about a year and where Israel under Netanyahu has thus far either ignored or “managed” the pressure. Last October, Israel bowed to Washington and established a mechanism for monitoring Chinese investments “to prevent damage to national security”. That mechanism is not known to have done anything in the interim. There is too much money--trade and investments--at stake for Israel to willingly downgrade its business and infrastructure ties with China, particularly at a time of unprecedented financial strain brought about by the corona pandemic.

Going back decades, earlier US administrations forced Israel to abandon joint defense production projects with China: aircraft, missiles. Back then, US-China relations were blooming, too, and US objections could be chalked up to anger at Israeli encroachments on US defense sales interests. Now, Trump administration pressures appear to reflect three different American concerns.

First is the concern over Chinese military and commercial expansion in general, particularly when pursued through devious means. Second, Chinese access to sensitive security-related know-how and infrastructure in Israel. And third, as elections approach, Trump’s perceived political need to blame and punish China for “spreading the virus” in order to distract American voters’ attention from administration virus mismanagement and its financial and human cost at home.

How strong will Trump administration pressure on Israel be? And how will the Chinese respond to possible economic slights and project cancellations by Israel? Beijing can do a lot of damage to the Israeli economy at a sensitive time. But the American-Israeli strategic relationship will inevitably prevail in Jerusalem’s calculations.

Last week, China’s ambassador to Israel, Du Wei, briefly dismissed Pompeo’s warning regarding China with a fascinating statement: “We trust the Jewish friends”. Not the Israeli friends, but the Jewish friends. Jewish, because the Chinese respect a civilization more or less as old and as accomplished as theirs. Then the ambassador, age 58, died suddenly in his Herzliya residence, apparently of natural causes, but with suspicious timing that brought Chinese investigators to Israel.

Q. Your bottom line?

A. The need to navigate between US security concerns, Trump’s political machinations and Chinese commercial and “civilizational” ties could become a central dilemma for Israel’s new government. The fate of the new Netanyahu-Gantz coalition will be defined by the tensions of handling this and additional strategic challenges, on top of managing the corona virus economic burden. All this, against a constant backdrop of Netanyahu’s masterful political manipulations and dirty tricks aimed at retaining power and staying out of jail.


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