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Netanyahu's Political Troubles Could Reverberate Across Mideast

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in Jerusalem, April 7, 2021.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

There is a lot going on in Israel’s Middle Eastern neighborhood that has gotten little attention in the media. Israel is maintaining its policy of aerial attacks in Syria, which sometimes involve considerable friction with Iranian bases and advisers. The domestic unrest in Lebanon is causing exceptional distress for Hezbollah. And there’s uneasiness in the West Bank over the possibility that the Palestinian Authority will in the end scrap parliamentary elections.

Of all the military fronts, the Gaza Strip actually seems to be the calmest of them all at the moment. Hamas is very eager to pursue a long-term understanding with Israel that would include progress on infrastructure projects in exchange for total quiet from a military standpoint.

The main threat to the quiet in Israel’s south at this time is the spread of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip, which under extreme circumstances could coax Hamas to send military signals (in the form of rocket fire) to expedite the arrival of medical assistance from Israel and the international community.

LISTEN: On trial and struggling to cobble a coalition, bankrupt Bibi is teetering on the brink

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On Monday, a squad of two Jordanian air force helicopters landed at the Muqata – the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in Ramallah – and then took off carrying Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He was on his way to Germany via Jordan for medical tests, which were described as routine.

But at the age of 85 and in the middle of a pandemic, such a trip is no small matter. Inevitably it gave rise to rumors, apparently unfounded, of a deterioration in Abbas’ health.

Keeping track of Abbas’ health, amid a measure of concern, has for some time been on the list of the key issues of interest to the Israeli intelligence community. Every head of the Israeli army’s Central Command over the past decade has been quick to set up a team to deal with “the day after,” preparing for developments that would follow Abbas’ resignation or death.

All the Central Command chiefs found the Palestinian leader firmly ensconced in office when they completed their own terms in office. As an Israeli security figure once remarked, as a rule, there don’t seem to be any senior Palestinian officials without a long list of medical problems – but all of them enjoy a long life.

The concern over Abbas illustrates how dependent Israel is, even under Benjamin Netanyahu, upon a partner whom it usually disdains, and what little stability there is on every front. With the potential for instability running high, an escalation, or at least an ongoing atmosphere of alarm, might serve the prime minister’s political needs.

That’s the route he followed in a different context following the third round of elections in March 2020, when he enticed Benny Gantz and half of the Kahol Lavan party into joining his short-lived government due to the coronavirus crisis. Even earlier, following the second election, in September 2019, in a failed effort to achieve that same goal, he deliberately inflated intelligence reports about new Iranian deployments in Yemen.

Now, more than ever, Netanyahu has his back against the wall, facing formidable difficulties in forming a new government coalition as well as the start of witness testimony in his criminal trial. Two unusual speeches that he delivered this week attest to his situation. On Monday, following the opening statement by Liat Ben-Ari, the lead prosecutor in his case, the prime minister gave a speech in which he bizarrely accused the prosecutor’s office of trying to engineer a judicial coup.

Two days later, he outdid himself in remarks at the annual ceremony opening Holocaust Remembrance Day. They were an extreme, tasteless mix of the Holocaust, the coronavirus and the International Criminal Court. The impression gleaned from the speech is not only that in Netanyahu’s view “l’état, c’est moi,” he is Israel, but that the history of the Jewish people is now completely intertwined with his own personal history: His achievement in getting Israel supplied with major stocks of COVID-19 vaccine is comparable to rescue efforts in the Holocaust. And if only he had been there to lead the way, he would probably have saved the lives of millions of Jews.

In both speeches, Netanyahu was a more articulate version of his friend former U.S. President Donald Trump. There was the same extreme narcissism, the same degree of disconnect from the citizenry. He is so deeply immersed in his struggle for survival that he doesn’t notice the uncomfortable reaction of many of his listeners.

President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, March 25, 2019.Credit: Susan Walsh/AP

His conduct raises two questions. First, as the trial progresses, how will the prime minister, in an acting or permanent capacity, be able to continue handling complex affairs of state when his entire being is devoted to efforts to avoid conviction and imprisonment? And secondly, in the immediate future, won’t the temptation grow for him to resort to a security-related excuse to shake things up and thereby indirectly improve his political and legal positions?

As this column has noted on many occasions, over the years Netanyahu has demonstrated a large measure of responsibility and caution when it comes to security issues. In deciding to use military force, he has been very much aware of possible complications and the risk of loss of life. Only once, on the eve of the second round of elections in 2019, did he stray from his usual practice and press for a disproportionate offensive in the Gaza Strip. The army and the attorney general stopped him, and the operation was delayed by two months, when the political situation was no longer relevant.

Now, with Netanyahu in an even more complicated situation, the temptation is great. And the responsibility of the leaders of the defense establishment to fulfill their statesmanlike roles is greater than ever. In other words: get ready for a few more tumultuous weeks on both the domestic and foreign fronts – and that doesn’t mean just a wild ride in efforts to form a new government coalition.

Vanquishing the virus

More than ten days have passed since the Passover seder, and yet the pessimistic scenarios that had troubled public health experts haven’t materialized. The people of Israel sat down at their holiday tables yet the many large family gatherings did not result in a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases. The virus is receding in Israel: the combination of those who have been vaccinated (about 57 percent of the population) and those who have recovered from the virus (officially 9 percent but probably far higher) is not permitting the illness to spread.

The final remaining question involves the effects of the imminent lifting of restrictions in the county’s schools, where students under the age of 16 have yet to be vaccinated.

The rise in the R factor, the extent to which one infected person infects another, isn’t relevant, because the new figure reflects a larger number of tests (and therefore more infected people being found) at the conclusion of the week-long Passover holiday. Other data are of greater importance: only roughly 0.5 percent of those tested are testing positive; there are fewer than 5,000 confirmed cases in the country; and fewer than 300 patients are seriously ill.

Coronavirus hospital wards are emptying out and being shut down. The health system has no problem in meeting the current challenge, given its dimensions. The real challenges lie elsewhere: in the need to closely monitor new variants entering the country on flights from abroad, and the rapid handling of localized outbreaks the disease, when they do occur.

For the time being, until clearance is received to vaccinate the 12 to 16 age group, the national vaccination campaign has nearly ground to a halt. The pace of vaccinations this week was between roughly 20,000 and 30,000 a day, although one vaccination site continues to do a brisk business.

It’s the vaccination facility for foreign nationals that the Tel Aviv Municipality opened with support from the Health Ministry in the Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood, which is home to a large number of asylum seekers and migrant workers. Between 500 and 1,000 people a day are being vaccinated there, amid quite long lines – something no longer seen elsewhere in Israel any more.

A line at the coronavirus vaccination center for foreign residents in Tel Aviv's Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood, Feb. 2021.Credit: Hadas Parush

In addition to the foreign workers, ambassadors and other diplomats have been receiving the jab there, along with priests and nuns, foreign students and UN personnel. The city is not insisting on clarifying the precise status of everyone showing up, and in practice, all that’s required is the presentation of a passport.

It appears, however, that even among this group of foreign nationals, the vaccination drive is nearing its potential. The site will shut down next week, to be replaced by a more modest facility in the form of a mobile van run by Israel’s Magen David Adom emergency medical organization.