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December Opinion Piece

By Dr. Ron Weiser AM

Although it is Chanukah, it very much seems as if we are witnessing a Purim spiel in two arenas.

Having put to bed the normalisation deals with the UAE and Bahrain, the more complex deals with Sudan and Morocco rely heavily on US incentives for them to go ahead.

In the case of Sudan it involves removing them as a designated terrorist sponsor state and giving them immunity from future compensation claims by, in the main, US citizens. A very sensitive point in the US itself.

Despite the long-term good relations between Israel and Morocco, to bring them fully into the public sphere, President Trump has given American recognition to Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. A bold move, but one which has potential consequences and fallout.

Once again Trump has shown that he understands what it takes to make deals in the Middle East and that he is willing to take even controversial steps to make them happen and very importantly, to support Israel’s interests.

Simultaneously, what is happening inside the US itself is descending into farce and in which Trump is the central character.

Could these latter two normalisations have happened in 2021 under a Biden presidency? We just do not know, but it would seem far less likely.

For Israel the main policy an incoming President Biden will be judged on, and what will influence the relationship with him, will be his approach to the issue of Iran.

Biden has so far signalled a desire to return to an agreement with Iran (type of agreement as yet unspecified), in a stark departure from the tougher, sanction led approach, by Trump.

In Israel the same type of paradigm is playing out.

In foreign policy, success after success.

Internally, a Machiavellian spiel and in this case also revolving around one player, Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Israel is certainly going to elections. Israel is certain to avoid elections. Pick your own headline.

The trigger remains the passing or otherwise of a budget for 2020 – the current almost completed year would you believe?

Either the bill to dissolve the Knesset will pass or it will automatically happen by the failure to pass the budget on December the 23rd.

Or there will be some strategy to create yet another deadline.

Netanyahu has to make a calculation as to what gives him the better chance of continuing as Prime Minister for longer – going to an election or delaying one.

Passing a budget can push an election off, but would have the additional complication for Netanyahu of having to deal with the rotation agreement with Gantz.

Almost every day the political landscape changes and all we have to go by are the notoriously inaccurate opinion polls.

But what they all reflect is that the challenge to Netanyahu comes not from the centre left or left, but from parties and personalities to his right.

The left is completely out of the picture with little following and the centre left is destroying itself by people jockeying for the position of potential leader and is also racked by internal divisions.

In any case, no matter whether this is the fourth election in the one cycle or not – the only real issue remains as for the previous three – ‘Yes Netanyahu’ or ‘No Bibi’.

Naphtali Bennett has never been higher in the polls. He has dropped his leading ideological policies from the public eye and depending on who you believe, either temporarily or for the longer term – to fight Netanyahu on Covid and internal mismanagement.

Bennett is drawing support from the right but importantly from the centre and left as well, with his focus on the economic damage of the response to Covid.

Indeed Caroline Glick, who was a candidate in Bennett’s party in the April 2019 election is now warning people off Bennett.

Glick alleges that: “Bennett proceeded to abandon (Yamina’s) ideological foundations: sovereignty in Judea and Samaria and legal reform”

Whether she is correct or not – Bennett loomed as the single real threat to Netanyahu.

That is until the events of the last week when along came Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar.

Sa’ar is considered very popular inside Likud and is in the Menachem Begin Likudnik mould being also a strong supporter of the State’s legal and democratic institutions.

He was however badly beaten by Netanyahu in the most recent internal Likud leadership election.

Sa’ar is to the right of Netanyahu politically.

Indeed in an ongoing irony, it will almost certainly be Netanyahu who will be the most centrist serious potential prime ministerial candidate following the next election.

Sa’ar’s announcement that he is leaving the Likud to form yet another new party has changed the political calculus.

His stated aim is simple – to unseat Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Sa’ar said: “The Likud has changed and became a tool serving the personal interests of its leader, including in his criminal trial. I can no longer support the government under Netanyahu and I can no longer be a member of Likud under his leadership. Israel needs unity and stability now and Netanyahu cannot provide either one.”

To show just how little role policy plays and how big is the issue of being for or against Netanyahu, two other members of the current government which is of course led by Netanyahu, have now defected to Sa’ar’s new party.

Yoaz Hendel and Tzi Hauser, political nomadic gypsies, came into the Knesset originally as part of Boogie Ya’alons’ Telem party, defected to Blue and White under Gantz to join the current Netanyahu coalition, therein formed a new party that they established on the run and comprised only of themselves called Derech Eretz and have now announced that they will defect again and join Sa’ar.

And like most of Netanyahu’s opponents Sa’ar, Hendel, Hauser, Bennett, Shaked and Lieberman all worked for Netanyahu in senior roles at one time or another – and all now want to end his prime ministership.

Sa’ar’s move tips the balance further away from a guaranteed Netanyahu victory and together with Bennett and Lieberman – all of whom are to the right of Netanyahu and likeminded ideologically – as well as being unified in wanting to unseat Netanyahu and deny him any Knesset approved immunity from prosecution, have what appears to be a blocking group.

In one of the strangest twists, Netanyahu who had been shouting as loudly as possible for some years that anyone who considered joining into any coalition with the Arab parties of the Joint List to unseat him are traitors to Zionism, has done what no erstwhile Zionist party had till now.

There has been a mutual self-interest bromance between Netanyahu and Mansour Abbas who leads a four seat faction within the Arab party Joint List called Ra’am. As a result, Abbas has repeatedly stated that he will support Netanyahu when asked, as long as his constituents receive the allocations that he demands.

Abbas already assisted Netanyahu by voting against the Knesset dissolution bill in early December and by not supporting the rest of the Joint List in the vote to topple Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has to take a real gamble with his future one way or the other.

Theoretically the polls are showing that Netanyahu will struggle to form a government after the next election. Not that anyone else has a clear chance either.

Gantz too is plummeting in the polls.

Both have an interest to avoid an election now.

Will it be enough to encourage them to pass the budget and work out some new deal between them on rotation in order to leave Sa’ar out in the cold and hope that by the time the next elections come around Covid will be but a memory?

Or will Israel head to elections in March 2021, which is the earliest opportunity if the Knesset does actually dissolve this month?

Coincidentally, just a few weeks after Purim………..

Dr. Ron Weiser AM

Dr. Ron Weiser AM is an Hon Life Member of the Zionist Federation of Australia Executive, and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW.