Middle East in Focus
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has endured a succession of bad news in recent weeks. Domestically, Mr. Netanyahu is mired in legal trouble and struggling against political opponents, including many within his own political party who are unhappy with his management style and what they see as failed policies and a foreign policy with few victories. Most gallingly for some of his countrymen, the leader of the self-proclaimed Jewish state failed to provide a clear rebuke to the violence committed by far-right marchers, including many anti-Semites, in the U.S. city of Charlottesville. Mr. Netanyahu’s standing up for U.S. President Donald Trump’s equivocation over the matter has opened him up to further charges of hypocrisy. It has been a succession of crises, with many expecting more to come.
Times of Israel’s Andrew Tobin notes that Mr. Netanyahu will continue to face a difficult reality at home with the “New Likudnik” bloc threatening to upend any semblance of governing cohesion: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under investigation for corruption, has often claimed that his left-wing political enemies are out to get him.... Now his supporters have alleged that leftists are even infiltrating his right-wing Likud party…. Netanyahu has continued to provide fodder for the New Likudniks’ criticism of the party’s alleged anti-democratic tendencies, including by calling in January for the pardon of an Israeli soldier who shot dead a wounded Palestinian terrorist, backing a law passed in February that allows retroactive legalization of West Bank outposts, and this month alleging that Israel’s ‘fake news’ media and law enforcement are conducting a ‘witch hunt’ against him.... Members of the New Likudniks have played into criticism of the group: Numerous members and even officials have told Israeli reporters that they are Meretz voters and have no intention of voting for Likud in a general election.”
Perhaps in an attempt to escape the acrimonious political debates in Israel and his personal legal troubles, Mr. Netanyahu travelled to Russia, reportedly to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to drop his support for Iran. However, as Maria Dubovikova suggests in this Arab News op-ed, it is unlikely the Israeli PM received the assurances he was seeking: “The Israeli prime minister arrived in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday accompanied by his spy chief Yossi Cohen, the director of Mossad, and Meir Ben-Shabbat, head of Israel’s national security council – an indication of how seriously Israel took the meeting....Though the Russian president did not directly address Netanyahu’s remarks, his silence was much more eloquent. Russia listens and takes into account the positions of the players, but moves according its own interests, especially now when its stock is so high.... For Israel, the vital interest is to exclude Iran from that process, giving Tehran no space to be involved. That will be impossible, since Iran is one of the guarantors of the existing de-escalation zones, alongside Turkey and Russia, and expelling Iran would inevitably lead to the failure of the peace process.”
The cold shoulder from Russia and, allegedly, the United States over Iran seems to have angered at least one Israeli observer, with Yedioth Ahronoth’s Shimon Shiffer complaining that Tel Aviv may be left alone to deal with Tehran: “Prime Minister Netanyahu often boasts about his close relationship with his friends Russian President Putin and U.S. President Trump—but what do we actually get from the close ties with these friends, whom Netanyahu is mostly trying not to anger?... Netanyahu is not expected to get help from his friend Trump—the US under his presidency has no presence in the civil war in Syria, nor does it show any particular interest in aiding its allies.... But what will Israel do when the Iranians consolidate their control of the area? Will Netanyahu set new red lines?... And so, Netanyahu might also discover his red lines are losing their potency in light of the new balance of power his good friend Putin is establishing in the area along with the Iranians. And this will be the prelude to an entirely different chapter in the tumultuous story of Israel's efforts to neutralize the Iranian threat.”
The Israel Prime Minister has also come under attack for his weak and belated response to the events in Charlottesville and Mr. Trump’s own botched response. Characterizing Mr. Netanyahu as an “enabler,” the Jerusalem Post’s Douglas Bloomfield is dismayed that “Netanyahu seemed unperturbed when Trump saw a lot of ‘fine people’ among the neo-Nazis, Klansmen and anti-Semites. It was also that way during last year’s campaign when Netanyahu, whose longstanding Republican allegiance was barely concealed, ignored Trump’s dog whistles and courtship of the anti-Semites because the GOP candidate gave off strong anti-Muslim and pro-Israel vibes. The message the prime minister and others in his coalition sent to American Jewry was ‘we place a higher priority on not offending Trump than on defending you’. It only widens the rift between Israel and the Diaspora and encourages Trump’s coziness with the hate mongers.”
For the Jordan Times columnist, Daoud Kuttab, the lack of a strong and timely response on the part of the Israeli government underlined the hypocrisy of the Israeli rhetoric and condemnation of those who oppose Israeli policies: “After torch-wielding white supremacists, and anti-Jewish, anti-black and anti-Muslim neo-Nazis marched in Virginia, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, waited three days before making a public statement. This speaks volumes about the insincerity of Israel’s usually vicious attacks against anyone opposed to Israel worldwide, which is labelled anti-Semitic.... American and Israeli condemnation of terrorism and anti-Semitism sounds very hollow now that they were tried and tested in a case coming from their own political environment. The various justifications Americans use to blindly support Israel are quickly falling apart as white supremacists are flexing their hateful muscle to the deadening silence from Israel, which itself applies daily discriminatory and racial policies against the Palestinians. It is high time to stop using terms like terrorism or anti-Semitism and focus on terms like settlement reversal, Israeli army withdrawal and ending the occupation.”
Given the charged political atmosphere and the bribery investigations against Mr. Netanyahu, many, including Gulf News columnist As’ad Abdul Rahman, fear that the Israeli PM may attempt to artificially increase the tension in the region: “Despite Netanyahu’s efforts to distract attention from the ongoing investigations, his tactics and escalations regarding the ‘Al Aqsa Mosque flare-up’ and the Gaza Strip, (ridiculed and even condemned by a number of Israeli politicians, researchers and media people) did not succeed in sidelining those contentions. In this regard, former Israeli prime minister Yehud Barak said: ‘Netanyahu is ready to ignite the situation in the region in order to avoid the current investigations with him on a number of corruption-related issues. The events in [occupied] Jerusalem [offer] only a glimpse of Netanyahu’s behavior down to the abyss’.”