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February Opinion Piece

Dr. Ron Weiser AM 

The calm before the storm, or the storm before the calm?

Three broad areas fall into the things might get better, or on the other hand rapidly much worse, framework.

The month began with numerous examples of the Trump effect on the Israeli leadership – and the ongoing effort to not upset the President – even in unexpected areas.

The Israeli press reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave an order to withhold a plan to export medical cannabis from Israel so as not to irritate US President Donald Trump. Export profit estimates have ranged between one and four billion dollars.

According to the reports, Netanyahu told ministers that he had had a conversation with Trump, during which the latter reiterated his position against the legalisation of cannabis.

On the 8th of February, Prime Minister Netanyahu cancelled the upcoming vote on legislation to annex parts of the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. This was after Netanyahu’s own Likud central committee proposed the idea and the legislation was then drafted by a member of the Likud and another from his coalition partner, Bennett’s Jewish Home party.

The reason given: that the prime minister wants to coordinate the measure with the White House first”.

From Netanyahu’s point this is nothing new and follows similar previous actions by him to stop various such proposals.

The unpredictable and fickle nature of President Trump was most evident in a major interview he did in the Sheldon Adelson owned, pro Netanyahu, Israel Hayom. Israel’s largest circulation newspaper.

Trump began very positively: “I think Jerusalem was a very big point. And I think it was a very important point. The capital, having Jerusalem be your great capital, was a very important thing to a lot of people.”

And then continued: “I wanted to make clear that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Regarding specific borders, I will grant my support to what the two sides agree between themselves.”

Asked if Israel will have to give something in return for the decision on Jerusalem, Trump said “I think both sides will have to make hard compromises to reach a peace agreement.”

“Right now, I would say the Palestinians are not looking to make peace. They are not looking to make peace. And I am not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace. So, we are just going to have to see what happens.”

“The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements,” Trump said.

In the interview Trump also somewhat walked back his earlier commitment to cut off aid to countries that voted against Israel and the US at the United Nations. “I don’t want to say that because you know, some countries maybe and some countries not. I just don’t want to talk about that.”

Despite his and US ambassador Nikki Hayley’s previous comments, in Trump’s budget proposal, all aid recipients of the 128 countries that voted for the December UN resolution against America’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, retained their full monetary package from the US.

On Monday the 12th of February, just after the Trump interview was published, Netanyahu got into his first public spat with the President.

In an effort to appease his coalition over the cancellation of the annexation legislation, Netanyahu had told them that he “was having talks with the Americans about applying Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.”

Within hours the White House issued a sharp response: “Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false. The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal.”

It was resolved by Netanyahu firstly issuing a “clarification” and when deemed to be insufficient by the US, following almost immediately with a retraction. And there the matter seemingly ended.

Aside from demonstrating the role considerations about Trump play in every decision external and internal, it also reinforces the simple fact that Netanyahu completely dominates his government and cabinet.

Which brings us to, and complicates, the second set of issues.

Netanyahu faces four separate corruption inquires.

In summary, one goes to the acceptance of gifts, the amounts of which are in dispute and the second relates to discussions about a deal to limit the distribution of one newspaper, for more favourable coverage for the Netanyahu’s in another.

In truth, whilst being ugly and in very poor taste, neither provide a real threat to Netanyahu’s continued leadership. None of the alleged deals actually resulted in legislation or changes in government policy.

The third was potentially the most damaging to Netanyahu had the police recommended charges against him, as it involved the possible compromise of Israel’s security in exchange for bribes in dealing with the sale of sophisticated German submarines to both Israel and Egypt.

However, in this case, whilst some of his inner circle are in deep trouble, Netanyahu himself is currently not a suspect.

The fourth, and newer case, has now potentially become Netanyahu’s biggest problem should charges be recommended by the police. Essentially the case revolves around whether bribes were paid to Walla news service owner Shaul Elovitch, to ensure more positive coverage for Netanyahu on the news site. Again, a number of people historically close to Netanyahu have so far been implicated.

It is now up to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee, but who oversaw the police investigations, to decide whether and who to indict. This can take many months.

Netanyahu’s political future depends on that and two further factors.

The continued support of his coalition partners and positive opinion polls – both are of course interrelated.

Not only does Netanyahu completely dominate the government, he dominates the electorate as well.

In so far as opinion polls are concerned, and even after the potentially damaging allegations, whilst Netanyahu is not universally popular, he is far and away the preferred Prime Minister compared to anyone else.

Not only that, the polls show that his own party will do worse under any leader other than him.

Both Kahlon and Bennett, his major coalition partners, have stated that they will support Netanyahu in the absence of any new revelations, until/if he is actually indicted and then consider their positions.

This is a markedly different position to that taken by then Prime Minister Olmert’s coalition partners and party when they all deserted him over seemingly lesser allegations. Of course, Olmert was unpopular with the electorate at the time and such actions carried no electoral risk.

Barring any startling revelations to come, it seems that Netanyahu is likely to be able to stay in power until he calls the next election – the timing of which, is still currently in his hands.

The third area is in regards to the neighbourhood.

Hamas in Gaza is testing the Israelis at a relatively low and sporadic level. And Israel is responding. With Egypt playing a significant role.

In parallel, a massive gas deal has been signed with Egypt, to sell them some $15 billion worth of gas over the next 10 years. Prime Minister Netanyahu called the deal “historic!”

Interestingly Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi went public on Egyptian media declaring that his country “scored a goal” by signing the deal which “will help turn Egypt into a regional energy hub.”

The project “has a lot of advantages for us. And I want people to be reassured,” al-Sissi said.

This step of Arab leaders going public vis a vis Israel, is in the positive spirit coming out of Saudi Arabia under the emerging leader, 32 year old Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

And the sideways charm offensive by Qatari leaders to American Jewish leaders creating some tension with the Israelis on who leads – and when.

Which brings us to the most dangerous part of the neighbourhood at the present time. Iran in Syria.

And in a time when Trump continues the Obama policy of non-involvement, albeit with a much friendlier face to Israeli action there.

The most dangerous escalation came with the Iranian drone entering Israeli airspace, a calculated move by the Iranians, testing the waters.

Strong Israeli action and US statements supporting Israel’s right to self-defence, may have restored calm. Whether that is short-term temporary or mid-term temporary, we will soon see.

But what might make the Iranians think a little longer before they act, were the comments out of Russia – ostensibly Syria’s and by extension Iran’s, ally.

Just days after the drone incursion, Russian Deputy Ambassador to Israel Leonid Frolov said: “In the case of aggression against Israel, not only will the United States stand by Israel’s side, Russia, too, will be on Israel’s side. Many of our countrymen live here in Israel, and Israel in general is a friendly nation, and therefore we won’t allow any aggression against Israel.”

Only five days later Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chastised Iran for calling for Israel’s destruction during a panel discussion in Moscow where Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was sitting with him on the dais saying “We have stated many times that we won’t accept the statements that Israel, as a Zionist state, should be destroyed and wiped off the map. I believe this is an absolutely wrong way to advance one’s own interests”.

Calm or storm? We will soon see.

Dr Ron Weiser AM

Dr. Ron Weiser AM is the Zionist Federation of Australia Public Affairs Chairman and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW.