The emergency government created in Israel to cope with the coronavirus – which is looking to be, so far, a government for rescuing Benjamin Netanyahu – will be entrusting him to make the decision about annexing parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu has a green light to start dealing with this, in coordination with the Trump administration, beginning on July 1. In the meantime, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who popped over to Israel on Wednesday for a rare visit during a time of global pandemic, also signaled that the ball is in the premier’s hands.
Neither Benny Gantz nor Gabi Ashkenazi, the leaders of the Kahol Lavan party, which is part of the new government to be sworn in – barring further delays – on Sunday, will stop Netanyahu from implementing this dangerous unilateral move. Nor, probably, will senior figures in the defense establishment, even if they dare to express their professional opinions against the move. The decision rests completely with Netanyahu, the first prime minister in the history of Israel who will lead the country while being tried for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. If no new, last-minute coronavirus “miracle” occurs, just one week will separate the swearing-in of the 35th government of Israel and the start of his trial.
As far as can be ascertained, it was not concern about the annexation that brought Mike Pompeo suddenly to Israel. The talks here apparently focused on two other subjects: Iran and China. The Americans are giving their full backing to Israel’s actions in Syria, which are aimed at reducing the Iranian presence there. The recent uptick in the number of Israeli attacks in Syria – according to reports in the foreign media – could induce Tehran to shift the bases of the Revolutionary Guards and the Shi’ite militias from the center and west of Syria, to the eastern part of the country.
In a speech on Wednesday, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah responded sneeringly to a claim heard in Israel to the effect that Iran is about to pull all its forces out of Syria. Nasrallah added an implied threat: Israel is basking in the success of its attacks on Hezbollah’s missile “precision project,” but at some point it will make a mistake that will ignite the entire region.
In the meantime, the Trump administration is trying to reach agreements with the new government in Iraq and to redeploy U.S. troops there. Washington may have an interest in ensuring that Israeli moves against Iran will not upset Iraq and interfere with its plans.
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In an interview with Gili Cohen from the Kan public broadcaster, Pompeo stated that the United States is concerned about Chinese investments around the world. “We don’t want the Chinese Communist Party to have access to Israeli infrastructure and to Israeli communication systems – all of the things that put Israeli citizens at risk… We think these risks are very real, and we share information about that,” he said.
Two years ago, scholars from the University of Haifa were the first to detect emerging tensions between Washington and Jerusalem over the growing involvement of Chinese companies in Israeli infrastructure projects, notably in the port of Haifa. A report this week by Benjamin Miller and Moran Zaga, geostrategists at the university, about the regional ramifications of the pandemic, noted that it could expedite America’s disengagement from the region and intensify Chinese penetration in the Middle East.
China has a totally different view than the Americans about Iran, and Israel will not be able to count on Beijing for help in restraining Iranian designs on the region. According to the report, Washington will be preoccupied for years with the economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus crisis. Concurrently, the growing Chinese involvement worldwide will expand the cold war between the two powers.