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.
The Unbelievable Confluence of Two Very Worrisome Historic Events in Israel
Q. As you are writing this Q & A, the Israeli public is watching the simultaneous unfolding of two key events: in an East Jerusalem courtroom, the evidentiary phase of the trial of PM Netanyahu, in his presence; and across town at President Rivlin’s official residence in the Talbiya neighborhood, the beginning of what looks like a hopeless process of forming a new government. How jarring is the contrast?
A. Even for cynical Israelis like myself, the juxtaposition on April 5 was deeply disturbing and challenging. On the one hand, the well-oiled wheels of governance in Jerusalem are working. Each of these events is starting on schedule. Each is following constitutional and legal procedures. The judges are judging at Saladin St. 40. The president, at his residence at 3 HaNasi St. scarcely a mile away as the crow flies, is receiving delegates from each political party represented in the Knesset.
Yet on the other hand, if we pause and consider what is transpiring, there is great cause for concern. Outside the courtroom, large crowds demonstrated Monday morning for and against an indicted prime minister; only the police kept them apart. Chief Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari arrived at the courthouse escorted by an impressive security contingent due to multiple threats against her on social media--an unprecedented situation in Israeli legal history. Back at the president’s residence, the ritual of forming a government is being enacted for the fourth time in two years--also an unprecedented situation. The likelihood of success this time is lower than ever.
The dissonance is jarring.
The key human link between these two dramas is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He symbolizes--nay, embodies--all that is wrong and dysfunctional in Israeli democracy today. Rivlin had to respond Monday morning to the Likud’s request to entrust Netanyahu yet again with the mandate to form a government because it is far and away the party with the most votes. He noted that his decision could be influenced by the fact of Netanyahu’s indictment and active trial on three counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Indeed, by all rights the president should inform the Likud that an indicted politician cannot and will not be entrusted with the task of forming a government.
Still, assuming as we must that for reasons of realpolitik this does not happen, the sordid drama will continue. If only we could just blow into a wild boar whistle and all this would go away. Yes, you heard right: a Technion student in Haifa invented a whistle that shrieks at decibels that scare away the boars that have invaded Haifa during the past year of empty and silent streets during covid lockdowns. He is mass producing the whistles on a 3D printer and selling them for five shekels each.
Q. In the same spirit, surely things aren’t that bad. True, Israel hasn’t had a fully functional government for two years and four hapless elections. But the latest transitional Netanyahu government dealt effectively with covid-19 and normalization with four Arab countries.
A. Indeed, Netanyahu deserves credit for his successes. He hasn’t been without accomplishments in his 15 years in the premiership. And by hook or by crook, Israel may muddle through the current impasse as well. Yet the negative dual dynamic of a prime minister on trial and a fourth successive crisis of governance--both engineered by Netanyahu and beholden to his ego and seemingly criminal appetite--has consequences. Israel’s international strategic situation and domestic governance needs are not being tended to successfully. A governance crisis has generated acute neglect of critical issues.
Q. What specifically concerns you?
A. Let’s start with Jordan, where over the weekend King Abdullah II took action against some sort of a coup or insurrection that was seemingly in the planning stage. At the center of the drama was former Crown Prince Hamza, a charismatic half-brother of the king who is now under house arrest, his communications cut. Several former officials with ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE were also implicated. At one point, accusations flew that a former Mossad operative with business links to Hamza was involved.
Most of the accusations seemed exaggerated. There was no coup and no Israeli involvement other than, apparently, a concerned friend of Hamza offering to shelter the latter’s family for a while. No security personnel have been detained. Rather, this seems to have been a preemptive move by King Abdullah against all those, led by Hamza, who are grumbling about the regime's corruption.
Fact is, a lot of well-placed people in Jordan are unhappy with their king, as apparently are some of the Bedouin tribes whose support is vital for the Hashemite monarchy. The economy is in bad shape and the covid virus is sweeping the country. As for outside Arab involvement, with a record of meddling brutally with neighbors and butchering those who bother him, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might indeed have somehow been involved.
If Jordan’s monarchy is in trouble, this must be seen as a warning sign for Israel, which needs a stable, friendly Jordan as a buffer against Sunni and Shiite Islamists to the east and as an ally in managing the Palestinian issue. Jordan is geopolitically a vital Middle East keystone state and its stability is important to Washington as well.
By Monday, all of the Arab rulers implicated in the ‘coup’ by the Jordan rumor mill had published statements of support for Abdullah. Only Netanyahu, who has been badly neglecting the Israel-Jordan relationship (see our Q & A three weeks ago for details) had yet to issue a public statement of support for Abdullah (Alternate PM Gantz did). Good relations with the king of Jordan are extremely important for Israel.
Israel’s prime minister says he can manage both his trial and running the country simultaneously without difficulty. Here is one indication he is mistaken.
Q. What about Iran? And the US? They are meeting this week in Vienna to begin seriously discussing restoring the Iran nuclear agreement, the JCPOA, that Netanyahu so vehemently objects to.
A. Indeed, the Vienna meeting points to an area of critical strategic neglect on Netanyahu’s part. While Israel is successfully interdicting Iran’s military proxies and allies in Syria in the ‘campaign between wars’, it is missing the boat with regard to the JCPOA. President Biden has made no secret of his desire to repair the damage done by his predecessor in withdrawing from the JCPOA. Most Israeli military strategic experts concur that the JCPOA was and is the ‘least of all evils’ available for constraining Iran in the nuclear sphere and that without it Iran has begun moving closer to a nuclear option.
Netanyahu has a different point of view. It is strategically unsound, but nevertheless legitimate. One way or another, Israel must enter into intimate strategic coordination with the US in order to ensure that its views are heard behind the scenes in Vienna and that damage is minimized: damage to Israel’s strategic interests regarding Iran and damage to the Israeli-American strategic relationship. By all appearances, this is not happening. Netanyahu and President Biden are not on the same page.
Iran just entered into a major strategic economic alliance with China. Its proxies in Yemen threaten to fire Iranian missiles from there to southern Israel. Apropos ‘missing the boat’, the Israeli public has recently learned that the campaign between wars now comprises the naval sphere, where Israel has acted to disable Iranian ships bringing fuel and weapons to Syria in violation of an embargo, and where Iran has struck back against Israeli-owned ships.
In all these areas and more, Israel’s responses must be coordinated with Washington, where Biden is downgrading the Middle East in general as a central American strategic preoccupation. Yet in Jerusalem, the Cabinet and Security Cabinet are rarely if ever convened by Netanyahu to discuss them. The list of seemingly neglected Iran-Israel-US issues goes on and on.
One wrong move by Iran or Israel, and matters could get seriously out of hand. Lest we forget, Iran is the only state in the world whose leaders call repeatedly for Israel’s destruction.
Q. What else is being neglected due to Israeli governmental paralysis?
A. Netanyahu has just four days to provide Israel’s reply to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which accuses Israel of war crimes both in the last war against Hamas in Gaza and in the West Bank settlement enterprise. Apropos the Palestinian Authority, where elections are going into high gear, Israel’s huge stake in the election process itself (whether and how to provide for East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote) and in its outcome (what if Hamas wins? what if Marwan Barghouti, imprisoned in Israel, wins?) is nowhere on the national radar.
Then there is the covid epidemic in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. While Israel appears to be winning the covid battle, it is almost completely neglecting the opportunity to help out the Palestinians with spare vaccines and thereby score points with Palestinian, Arab and even US congressional opinion. By the by, it could help Jordan, too. Netanyahu prefers to offer spare vaccines to allied rulers in far-away places like Kosovo, Hungary and Guatemala in return for ‘diplomatic support’ for his worst policies.
The list goes on and on. With the prime minister on trial, there is currently no justice minister because Netanyahu prefers the chaos of empty ministries. Empty embassies too: dozens of ambassadorial posts have been vacant for many long months: in Canada since December 2019; in France since January 2020. This list too goes on and on.
Q. Your bottom line?
A. The Netanyahu trial is predicted to drag on for years. In parallel, there is no clear end in sight for Israel’s governance crisis, already two years old.
Netanyahu has options: step aside from the premiership and fight his court battle full time; make a plea deal, perhaps one that includes a presidential pardon; get himself elected president this summer and enjoy immunity for seven years. So far, it looks like he prefers to drag out the suffering on both fronts for an entire country. The outcome could be dangerous for both Israeli democracy and Israel’s security.