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June Opinion Piece by Dr Ron Weiser AM: Israel is going back to the polls

How did that happen?????

Notwithstanding the individual party count from the April 9th elections, the single outstanding overall result was that fully 65 members of the Knesset (out of 120), recommended to President Rivlin that Netanyahu be invited to form government.

With only 45 recommending Gantz.

This in itself signalled a decisive victory for Netanyahu with a crystal clear majority.

However right up to midnight on the 30th of May, even as Netanyahu was unable to stich a coalition together, we saw the absurd situation that concurrently, all those 65 members of the Knesset were still insisting that they would support only Netanyahu for Prime Minister, including Lieberman.

Or perhaps put another way, that they would not support anyone else for Prime Minister, including Lieberman.

And yet, no government. And another election on the 17th of September.

As discussed previously, Lieberman knows how to play hardball – and so he did. Did he overplay his hand? Did he go too far? Or did he establish himself as the leader of the secular right or even left/right?

We won’t know till September, but that is a few months hence and it can go either way. What we do know is that for the moment, the biggest loser is Netanyahu.

In his attempts to form a coalition by making increasingly generous offers to potential coalition partners, including increasingly unlikely partners – and yet without success – he simply looked desperate.

It reached such an absurd point that Ayman Odeh MK, the leader of one of the two Israeli Arab parties, brought some comic relief by rising to the Knesset podium and announcing that Netanyahu had offered to bring his party into the coalition and in return Israel would withdraw to the 1967 Green Line and recognise ‘Nakba day’.

At least Odeh has a sense of humour.

One beneficiary is Naphtali Bennett who was all but gone for the next few years, but will now have another chance to test whether his electoral appeal remains lower than his expectations yet again, or not.

Have these almost farcical events killed off the Trump ‘deal of the century’?

Whilst the first part of this process will take place with the economic conference in Bahrain later this month, the real political plan may never now see the light of day. It is unlikely that Trump will press on until a government is finally established in Israel – unless he simply loses patience, which is always possible. And then we move into the whole US presidential campaign cycle in 2020.

Timing from day one has never been on this deal’s side. The political play is the critical one for Israel.

Whether one agrees with it or not, and whether one does or does not feel that it is even feasible, the ‘two state solution’ has been the longstanding mantra of the world since the 29th of November 1947 with UN Resolution 181.

The Trump administration’s ‘deal of the century’ will either endorse that, or more likely look at a state minus or autonomy type solution for the Palestinians, if the leaks are accurate.

If that is the case, it is important for Israel, that at least a suggested solution from a superpower makes it to the table as an official alternate proposition.

Just as the Trump plan was looking like becoming public, its automatic opponents, in this case not the Palestinians alone, but also the Europeans including the British, have ramped up their support for the ‘two state solution’.

For example, last week Israel published tenders for 460 housing units in Pisgat Ze’ev and 345 in Ramot. These suburbs are in what the world calls ‘East Jerusalem’ but are long established suburbs of Jerusalem and which no Israeli government will cede. They are completely within the Israeli consensus.

Moreover, as with the vast majority of settlement building over the Green Line generally, they do not increase the footprint of these areas.

In fact, even the anti-settlement Peace Now organisation noted that these new housing units “are intended to add housing units to the existing neighbourhoods in a way that increases the density of the built-up area and does not actually expand the area on which the neighbourhoods are spread.”

The British official comment came from Britain’s new Middle East minister Andrew Murrison who said: “We are clear that settlements built on occupied Palestinian territory are contrary to international law and an obstacle to a two-state solution. Regrettably, this takes us further away from a negotiated peace agreement.” He continued that when he visited Jerusalem, he reiterated “his country’s support for a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital for both states.”

This was followed by a statement from the EU saying: “The policy of settlement construction and expansion in East Jerusalem continues to undermine the possibility of a viable two state solution with Jerusalem as the future capital of both states, which is the only realistic way to achieve a just and lasting peace.”

If Trump has a different plan and if it never sees the light of day, the idea of the ‘two state solution’ will continue to be preeminent in the eyes of the world.

Meanwhile over in Syria, Russian forces aided by Syrian regime forces under their command, have in recent weeks expelled pro-Iranian militias that had taken over a civilian dock at the Tartus naval facility.

As Alex Fishman wrote in Ynet: “the recent Russian-Iranian dispute over the Tartus port is yet another episode in a series of clashes between the two nations over control over strategic, economic and political assets in Syria. The latest episode comes just before national security officials from Russia, the United States and Israel are set to meet this month in Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced two weeks ago.”

The international Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat based in London quoted this week, “Western sources reporting on the deal being stitched by the three national security advisers — Nikolay Patrushev of Russia, John Bolton of the US and Meir Ben-Shabbat of Israel — regarding the future of Syria. According to the deal, Israel and the US will commit to recognising the legitimacy of the Assad regime, the US is expected to remove some of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia and in return, Russia will limit Iranian activity in Syria.”

The summit was scheduled when Netanyahu visited Moscow ahead of the April elections. President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to establish a regional workshop. The upcoming summit is the first phase of the scheme.

If that does occur, that would indeed be both an interesting and positive move.

And in a sign that Trump’s sanctions on Iran are both effective and biting, the Iranians have cut 50% of their financial aid to Hezbollah for 2019, and Western intelligence sources say that Iran warned the organisation that the cuts will be even deeper in 2020.

Caretaker government or not, business seems to be carrying on as usual.

Considering we have already been in election mode for most of this year and that the September 17th elections fall just before Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot which will make building a government quickly of any colour quite difficult, this year will end up being known as perhaps the most unusual year for Israel’s democratic system.

Who knows, the Israeli public may even decide that this sort of non government is somewhat safer and more preferable with no radical decisions being able to be made.

In any case, the Israeli summer holiday season is upon us, who needs to be distracted by small things like forming a government?

And after all – Netanyahu is still the (caretaker) Prime Minister – almost same same.

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.