Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Labour pains

While Netanyahu was able to form a government at the last minute, its clear fragility raises fears among Palestinians as to what it will do to bolster its popularity, writes Ahmed Al-Sayed in Gaza

Al-Ahram Weekly

Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud Party who won the Israeli elections on 17 March, succeeded at the 11th hour of the 42-day grace period to form a coalition government that includes Likud, Beyit Yehudi (Jewish Home), the United Torah Jewry (UTJ), Shas and Kulanu.

Netanyahu’s success may be momentary in exiting the bottleneck he put himself in when he definitively refused to form a coalition with the “Zionist Camp” composed of the Labour Party led by Yitzhak Herzog and The Movement (Hatnuah) led by former minister of justice Tzipi Livni.

According to analysts and media inside Israel, Netanyahu will face many difficulties in preventing his fragile coalition government from falling apart, because he has majority of just one (61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset). This would make his cabinet vulnerable to collapse under any pressure, whether from within or without the coalition.

In order to remain prime minister, Netanyahu agreed to the demands of his partners in the coalition, which will make him vulnerable to extortion, especially from the right-wing Bayit Yehudi led by Naftali Bennett who is known for his racist positions, rejection of a Palestinian state, and support for settlement building. Netanyahu was forced to appoint Bennett’s party colleague, Ayelet Shaked, as minister of justice.

“Although he won the elections, Netanyahu did not change a thing,” according to Palestinian analyst Tawfik Abu Shumar. “His cabinet is very weak and will not last long. He will remain vulnerable to blackmail by right-wing parties because a majority of 61 Knesset members is no guarantee that the government will be stable.” Shumar added: “Netanyahu’s government is also narrow, which makes it easy for the opposition to obstruct all his actions and make it short-lived.”

Netanyahu, 66, has been in power since 2009. This is his third consecutive cabinet and fourth after his first tenure 1996-1999.

He had hoped to form a coalition with a 67-seat majority, but the announcement by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that he and his extremist right-wing nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu (with six Knesset seats) would not join the coalition government dashed Netanyahu’s hopes.

Israeli media compared Netanyahu to “a general without soldiers” who will be under the thumb of any Knesset member in the coalition who can cause the government to collapse if they so wish.

Abu Shumar believes Netanyahu will work on expanding his coalition in the next months. “He has two choices. First, to fracture Yisrael Beitenu and Yesh Atid led by former minister of finance Yair Lapid, by tempting members of these two parties in the Knesset to join his cabinet. The same is true for the ‘Zionist Camp’ if he lures some of its members.”

The second option, Abu Shumar continued, “is to directly negotiate with the ‘Zionist Camp’ to form a united nationalist cabinet, even if he has to share the premiership with opposition and Labour leader Herzog.”

Netanyahu kept the position of foreign minister to himself as the “next bribe” for another party joining his government. He also quickly passed legislation to increase the number of cabinet members to more than 18, and deputy ministers to more than four, in order to avoid a rebellion within the Likud because of overwhelming discontent among key party figures who view themselves as more deserving of ministerial posts.

Shalom Yerushalmi, an Israeli writer and political analyst, mocked Netanyahu’s coalition government in Maariv newspaper: “I want to now announce the main candidate in the coming elections that could take place in May or June 2016, because a 61-seat government will not last longer than one year. Can you believe that?”

In an article titled “Nightmare cabinet”, Yerushalmi said: “This cabinet will be a nightmare for Netanyahu. His coalition partners will exploit his weakness to blackmail him, and take everything they want. Naftali Bennett already started extortion a long time before the coalition even saw the light.”

He added: “We are witnessing a political miracle before our own eyes. Bennett lost in the last elections one third of his parliamentary power, and after this defeat he remained silent and showed much affection and readiness to reconcile with others. He sat there waiting for a telephone call from Netanyahu, but the call never came. As usual, Netanyahu acted recklessly and impulsively during coalition negotiations; he kept Bennett at the back of the line and preferred to speak with Moshe Kahlon (leader of the Likud splinter party Kulanu) and Haredim religious blocs.”

Yerushalmi said Lieberman’s resignation gave Bennett great power. He used the time factor and approaching deadline for forming a government, and toyed with Netanyahu’s already frayed nerves, and came out of coalition talks that lasted exactly 90 minutes with three cabinet appointments: education, justice and agriculture, as well as the District Settlement Committee, which is a very important institution for settlers. This means that with eight Knesset seats Bennett gained what he could not manage when he had 12 seats in the previous Knesset.

According to the Israeli analyst, if Bennett wanted to force Netanyahu to sign a deal for the rotation of the premiership he could have done so easily. But he didn’t, perhaps because he realised this will be a short-lived cabinet, and he should give Netanyahu a few more months in power.

Palestinians from across the spectrum agreed that the new Israeli government is a war cabinet that will expand settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank, continue aggression on and the siege of the Gaza Strip, and is opposed to peace and stability in the region.

The Palestinian presidency said that the new cabinet should “choose between peace and settlements and mayhem”. Meanwhile, Hamas, which does not recognise Israel, said the new cabinet “reflects growing racism and extremism among Israelis. This requires us to bolster national unity and end the settlement plan with the occupation.”

“Palestinian demands to end the crisis in the political process are clear,” asserted Nabil Abu Redeina, spokesman for the Palestinian presidency. “Namely, accepting a two-state solution, end settlement building on Palestinian land, end policies of aggression and abuses, and arbitrary measures against our people.”

Abu Shumar believes the chances of restarting talks with Netanyahu’s government are “very small” since it is a cabinet of ultra-fanatics and settlers. He asserted the new cabinet would continue settlement policies in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Indeed, no sooner had Netanyahu’s cabinet been formed, Israeli politicians gave orders to the Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee to approve building 1,500 settlement units in Ramat Shlomo settlement in northern occupied Jerusalem after a suspension of more than one year. It also approved another 77 units at Pisgat Zeev and the Prophet Jacob settlements inside the Holy City.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation’s National Office for the Defence of the Land and Resistance of Settlements said the Jerusalem District Committee immediately responded to the request and approved on Friday, 8 May, the construction of 900 new housing units at Ramat Shlomo in Shaafat in occupied Jerusalem.

According to Abu Shamar, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has three options in dealing with Netanyahu’s right-wing pro-settlement government. First, maintain the freeze on negotiations while continuing to move on the international stage to join international organisations and treaties, once again present the UN Security Council with a draft resolution to end the occupation, and continue preparing documents against Israel to file before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“The second choice,” he continued, “is to unite Palestinian ranks by activating reconciliation with Hamas, which would help shore up and bolster the Palestinian position.”

Finally, the PA can entirely reject negotiations with the right-wing Israeli cabinet, citing the failure of US-sponsored talks more than one year ago. Abu Shumar, however, believes this would be a difficult route because of mounting international pressure from the US and EU urging the PA to return to the negotiating table. Among the tools of pressure is financial assistance.

Negotiations ground to a halt on 29 April 2014, at the nine-month deadline chosen by the US administration that sponsored direct talks between the Palestinians and Israel, but resulted in little. Soon after, the Palestinians began applying for membership at several international organisations, most recently the ICC, after Israel refused to honour its commitments most notably freezing settlements and releasing the last group of long-term prisoners who were detained before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

In order to restart talks in the future, Palestinians want the international community through the UN to set a deadline for negotiations by the end of 2017, based on a two-state solution that creates a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Abu Shumar said Netanyahu is likely to launch another military campaign against Gaza with the support of right-wing parties in his coalition if this is the price for him to remain in power.

“Gaza may be Netanyahu’s lifeline… instigating a crisis by firing a missile from the Gaza Strip towards nearby settlements or attacks in the West Bank against occupation forces, similar to the kidnapping of three settlers in Hebron in June last year that was followed by Operation Protective Edge that lasted 51 days last summer.”

He noted, however, that there are many calls within Israel urging for de-escalation and easing the siege on Gaza, most recently the call by former National Security chair General Giora Eiland whose opinion is highly respected by decision makers in Israel.

Eiland said in a recent article published in Yedioth Ahronoth, under the title “Hamas, for the sake of security,” that: “Israel’s only interest in Gaza is security, and this interest manifests itself in two forms. First, maintaining calm as long as possible. Second, decreasing the level and rate of Hamas armament. Israel has no other interest in the Gaza Strip, whether economic, regional or political.”

Eiland added: “This Israeli interest can be achieved in three ways: a final and permanent agreement with the PA, which would include a solution for Gaza and conditions there; continued economic pressure on Gaza until the ruling Hamas regime there collapses; boosting joint interests with Hamas to prevent another round of aggression. The third option is the most realistic.”

He believes that handing the PA the portfolio for reconstructing Gaza was a serious mistake by Israel and international community.

“Israel should have led the international construction operation and delivered construction material to the actual rulers of Gaza, the Hamas government. Since our interest there is purely related to security, we should have shown openness on every other issue, including building a seaport in Gaza. In return, we would insist on the creation of a strong international agency to prevent improper use of materials and resources going to Gaza. Since such an agency does not exist now, the cement that Israel allows to pass through to Gaza will easily find its way to the tunnels.”

Eiland concluded his article by saying: “Anyone who wants to expand Israel’s interests in Gaza and seeks political goals such as bolstering [Mahmoud Abbas’s] stature in Gaza is putting Israel’s only real national interest  namely security at risk.”

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