Analysis |

From Gaza to Lebanon, Coronavirus Presents Israel With New Opportunities

Israel is able to manage risks and promote new alliances. But the entire region is entering a waiting game, with all eyes on the U.S. election

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The same coronavirus epidemic battering the Israeli economy is generating opportunities for Israel in the Middle Eastern arena. With the disease spreading in all the neighboring countries and making a shambles of their economies, few regimes and organizations can afford to engage in a lengthy military escalation.

These circumstances are making it possible for Israel to engage in risk management and promote new alliances. Netanyahu is proficiently leveraging a desire of U.S. President Donald Trump to score a diplomatic achievement along with the interests of the Gulf emirates in order to cobble together an important agreement for normalization.

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There was an added bonus this week in the form of Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow Israeli airliners to use its airspace and fly over the kingdom while en route to other destinations. This is a long-term achievement – in the short term, few Israelis have a wish to fly abroad under all the restrictions, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis and economic woes.

Netanyahu’s bypass move has improved Israel’s standing with the Sunni countries and is forcing the Palestinians to recalculate their plans, after discovering that they have lost the backing of the Gulf states.

Besides the agreement with the UAE which might be signed in Washington later this month, the entire region is entering a tense waiting period, pending the results of the U.S. presidential election in November.

The coronavirus and the economic crises are also impacting developments in two areas critical to Israel: the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. In the former a ceasefire was achieved this week, following weeks in which Hamas launched incendiary balloons and rockets, to which Israel responded with attacks by aircraft and tank fire.

El Al plane carrying the Israeli delegation lands in Abu Dhabi, UAE, August 31, 2020.Credit: Christopher Pike/Reuters

The Qatari envoy, Mohammed Al-Emadi, arrived in Gaza with suitcases bearing $30 million in cash, but declined to distribute the money until the sides committed to a new agreement. Within the framework of the understandings – which are never signed – Qatar will promote large projects in Gaza, Israel will not interfere and Hamas will hold its fire.

A senior security figure told Haaretz that “a strategic opportunity has been created in Gaza. Everyone understands that there is a chance here for a long-term regularization, which can also include broader economic moves, such as establishing industrial zones along the border and also resolving the problem of [the Israeli] captives and soldiers missing in action.”

A senior Israel Defense Forces officer added that the time has come to thoroughly examine long-term economic strategies to help preserve the quiet. For example, he says, the establishment of joint “committees of technocrats” could be considered, which would include Palestinian experts not directly identified with Hamas.

Those are positive ideas, but their implementation depends on Netanyahu, who is generally not enthusiastic about making moves that right-wing Israelis will label as concessions.

Hamas’ agreement to the latest arrangement was due in large measure to the renewed outbreak of coronavirus infections in Gaza, where hundreds of people who have contracted the disease - the highest toll since the start of the pandemic.

In the wake of the calm, Israel is expected to approve the inflow of a large quantity of medical equipment into Gaza. That is necessary, but insufficient, aid to an impoverished health system which even in normal times can barely cope with abnormal events in its midst.

Lebanon is marking a month since the explosion in Beirut harbor, which killed at least 190 people, wounded around 6,000 and left some 300,000 people homeless. The direct damage from the blast is estimated to be at least $10 billion. This week, Lebanon’s ambassador to Berlin, Mustafa Adib, received a mandate from parliament to establish a new government.

On the agenda are offers of European aid packages, which Lebanon needs desperately. In the background, there is no ignoring the elephant in the room: the status of Hezbollah. French President Emmanuel Macron lost his cool this week when it was reported that he had met with a representative of the organization in the Lebanese parliament. That’s a different approach from the one taken by Germany, which in April categorized Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Two members of IDF’s intelligence officers are this month publishing, via the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, a collection of articles about Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah. In their summation they write, “Without calling it such, Lebanon is experiencing a kind of prologue to a civil war.

Nasrallah is dealing with the question of whether to jump the gun and showcase Hezbollah's strength, as well as its distance from the voices of change against the Lebanese order it has been defending for three decades, or wait and contain the event based on the awareness that it lacks the ability to shape reality on its own as it did in the past.”

According to the authors, “A new Lebanese order is liable to require Nasrallah to be flexibile about principles and core issues, which rest on a constellation of his rigid concepts.” A reality is taking shape in Lebanon which Hezbollah will no longer be able to ignore, they believe. “If Nasrallah’s wish is to ensure his survival, he will have to adjust to [that emerging reality].”

The authors also note growing opposition in Lebanon to Hezbollah's continued retention of its weapons depots while holding hanging on to the reins of power.

In their estimation,“It is hard to imagine Nasrallah forgoing his life project. It cannot be ruled out that if the protest against the communal system intensifies, and Hezbollah will feel that its status is under threat, its right to bear arms, Nasrallah, pushed into a corner, will opt to employ his strength, suppress the protests and in an extreme case forge a new Lebanese order of his own, under his leadership.”

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