Netanyahu’s Miscalculation

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán speaks with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in Brasília, Brazil, January 2
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán speaks with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in Brasília, Brazil, January 2 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called early elections in December, he was probably expecting to shore up his mandate and escape allegations of corruption.

But the decision galvanized his opponents. Three former generals set aside their differences and teamed up with the opposition in a bid to oust Netanyahu, who has been in office since 2009.

It is starting to look like Netanyahu miscalculated. Read more

Netanyahu Could Stay in Power Despite Low Poll Figures

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, March 3, 2014
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, March 3, 2014 (GPO/Avi Ohayon)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be unpopular going into elections on Tuesday with his Likud party projected to win fewer seats than ever but the parliamentary arithmetic is still in his favor.

Since Netanyahu called snap elections in December, Israel has seen its first televised debate since 1999, the dissolution of a once ruling party (Kadima), the formation of two new parties (Kulanu, by former Likud favorite Moshe Kahlon, and Yachad, by former Shas leader Eli Yishai) and a new alliance between all Arab parties.

No less than eleven major parties could win seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, this week. The main question, though, is whether Netanyahu will succeed in winning a fourth term as prime minister or whether the once dominant Labor Party — now the senior partner in the Zionist Camp coalition — will lead a government again for the first time in fourteen years.

Given that no single party has ever won a majority in Israel’s 67-year history, what matters more than the number of votes a party gets is how many other parties it can work with.

Once the election results are in, President Reuven Rivlin will consult with the party leaders and decide who should get the first crack at trying to form a coalition.

That is likely to be Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. His alliance with former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s centrist Hatnuah party is projected to win several more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud.

Although a veteran politician, Herzog is seen to lack charisma and thought to be a poor negotiator, evidenced by his agreement with Livni to rotate the prime ministership between the two of them. Analysts say his willingness to give so much power to the leader of a party with only six seats in parliament has set a dangerous precedent for talks with other parties. Moreover, it makes a “grand coalition” with Likud all but impossible. Israel could hardly have three “rotating” prime ministers.

Parties on the right are also still likely to win more seats than the parties on the left. Recent polls give the Zionist Camp, former finance minister Yair Lapid’s liberal Yesh Atid, the left-wing Meretz and the United Arab List around 55 seats together when at least 61 are needed for a majority.

The Arabs have also ruled out joining a government so Herzog and Livni would have their work cut out for them in trying to find suitable replacements. It is hard to see any of the party leaders on the right taking the risk of alienating their constituencies by joining a leftist government.

Kahlon is running on cost-of-living issues that might seem to call for left-wing policy solutions but his voters are largely drawn from Likud. Joining a coalition led by the left could spell an end to any ambitions he may have of ever returning to lead the Likud after Netanyahu’s eventual departure from political life.

Similarly, Naftali Bennet’s and Avigdor Lieberman’s conservative and nationalist voters would probably not welcome a coalition with the left. They also disagree with the Zionist Camp on economic issues, relations with the Palestinians and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Finding common ground under these circumstances would be difficult.

Finally, there are the religious parties that have proven to be pragmatic in the past. But drawing them into a coalition with the Zionist Camp could come at the expense of Lapid’s support. One of the reasons he entered politics in the first place was to keep the religious parties out of government.

At any rate, Yishai has already ruled out joining a coalition with Herzog, stating that he will recommend Netanyahu to be the next prime minister.

Netanyahu, by contrast, has governed in coalition with all the right-wing parties before. He should be able to persuade them to give him another chance. But to get that chance, he must secure more than the twenty seats Likud is projected to win.

Netanyahu may not come out as voters’ top choice but he could still find himself safely tucked away in his current office with a renewed mandate and an even stronger coalition.

Israel’s Netanyahu Battered by Scandals, High Living Costs

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with the chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, January 20, 2012
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with the chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, January 20, 2012 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

With polls predicting a narrow victory for his left-wing rivals in an election next week, it seems Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s magic may have worn off.

The Likud party leader called snap elections in December, hoping for a fresh mandate after spending nine years in power.

Now it seems Israelis would rather make a change at the top and much of it has to do with Netanyahu’s personality. Read more

Israel’s Netanyahu Could Emerge Stronger from Early Elections

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the annual memorial for David Ben-Gurion, November 27
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the annual memorial for David Ben-Gurion, November 27 (GPO/Amos Ben Gershom)

Recent political tensions and strife in Israel culminated on Tuesday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he had fired his finance and justice ministers, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, whom he accused of undermining the government and plotting a legal “putsch” against him.

The announcement came after days of rising tension between Netanyahu and his top ministers and means Israelis will go back to the polls less than two years after this government took office. Read more

Protective Edge: A Change in Israel’s Security Doctrine?

An Israeli tank in Gaza, July 31
An Israeli tank in Gaza, July 31 (IDF)

Although it may be premature to judge whether Israel or its enemies in Gaza have gained the most from the recent fighting there, some preliminary conclusions can be drawn as the conflict appears to be winding down.

These conclusion pertain mainly to the military aspects of the operation and more specifically as to how the principles upon which the Israeli army has operated in the current operation diverge from its established (although rarely formally declared) and hitherto successful security doctrine. This divergence is especially important to note since both Israel and its enemies usually draw their lessons for future fighting from the last round of hostilities. It is therefore safe to assume that the operative principles currently at play will guide the parties’ behavior in the future.

As a country that faced severe security challenges even before its inception, Israel was quick to formulate and adopt a comprehensive security doctrine. The doctrine’s principles have successfully led Israel to victory in all six major wars it fought against enemy Arab states and are based on a sober assessment of Israel’s geostrategic realities.

The basic assumption guiding those military and political thinkers who shaped Israel’s strategic thinking was that because of Israel’s small size and geographical conditions, any war fought for too long and within Israel’s borders would have devastating social and economic consequences which could severely inhibit its ability to withstand a future attack (and to attract Jewish immigrant from around the world).

Therefore, any conflict would have to be fought based on two strategic principles. First, since Israel’s standing army was too small compared to the armies its enemies could field, it became necessary that any conflagration would have to be as short as possible. Any Israeli victory would have to be achieved before Israel’s enemies had a chance to mobilize their full potential in terms of equipment and manpower.

Second, because of the natural devastation caused by war, any fighting could not take place on Israel’s densely populated soil but would have to be fought on Arab land — especially if the impression that Israel was in fact winning was to be created.

Despite Israel’s general strategic defensive posture, these realities led to a clear emphasis on operational offensiveness. The famous preemptive strike of the 1967 war, in which Israel destroyed the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian armies and doubled its combined territory by taking over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River in a mere six days, demonstrated the utility of this principle.

These principles have been successfully pursued in all of Israel’s military engagement since the state was declared in 1948.

However, Israel’s main enemies today are no longer the major Arab states. It has signed peace treaties with two (Egypt and Jordan) while a third (Syria) is in the process of imploding as a result of a protracted civil war.

Instead, Israel’s main enemies are the Palestinian and Islamic terror groups Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad which, while no less committed to the cause of destroying Israel, differ greatly in their modes of operation and fighting tactics. Because these organizations are too weak to directly engage Israel’s army on the battlefield, they have adopted strategies that try to bypass their inherent weaknesses. Their main attempt is to attack the Israeli population in the hope that it will become wary and either demand the government make concessions to the Palestinian cause or even cause the Jewish state to collapse. In addition to terror attacks, the main tool to achieve this effect is using rockets and missiles. In the recent round of fighting, Hamas has fired more than 2500 rockets at Israel.

So how does Israel’s performance Operation Protective Edge figure in this context?

First, the operation, which was launched almost a month ago, threatens to become one of Israel’s longest and most protracted military endeavors. It is already longer than the two previous operations. Cast Lead in 2008-2009 took twenty days, Pillar of Defense in 2012 a week. This is especially striking when one considers that the current operation has surpassed some of Israel’s most difficult wars. For instance, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, in which Israel had to overcome a massive Egyptian-Syrian invasion that saw Egyptian army tanks stationed less than fifty kilometers from Tel Aviv and nearly brought the Israeli Defense Forces to the brink of collapse, lasted only eighteen days.

Protective Edge also threatens to overtake the Second Lebanon War of 2006 which was fought against the much bigger, better trained Iranian-backed and entrenched Hezbollah organization but lasted just over a month.

This prolongation of the conflict is the result of a deviation from Israel’s second longstanding doctrinal principle — its emphasis on initiating attacks following the need to transfer the fighting to the enemy’s territory. While like most Israeli operation in the past two decades, the current operation began with a massive air attack which wrought considerable devastation on the Gaza Strip, Israel’s government showed a clear reluctance to take the initiative offensively.

Indeed, the current round of fighting was initiated by an increasingly frustrated Hamas desperate to wriggle out of a physical and political blockade and not from any Israeli intention to target the organization — in contrast to the previous operation, Pillar of Defense, which began with the targeted killing of Hamas’ top military commander. As a result, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hesitated to widen the offensive to include a ground incursion of Gaza, despite considerable political and public pressure on him to do so. His initial hesitation was aided by the overwhelming success of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in intercepting rockets from Gaza. Consequently, the home front sustained only minimal damage and almost no injuries and deaths.

This relative protection allowed Israel to accept no less than six ceasefire proposals from various international actors. It finally decided on a very limited land incursion into Gaza only eighteen days after the beginning of the operation, designed to expose and destroy underground tunnels used by Hamas operatives to infiltrate Israeli territory. The only reason why the decision to enter Gaza was made was because Hamas repeatedly refused to accept ceasefire offers, forcing Israel to increase the pressure on the organization in the hope that it would cause it to adopt a more flexible position.

What does this mean for the future?

No doubt, the first lesson is that, notwithstanding the great achievements of Israel’s air defense systems, which seemingly allow it to sustain a prolonged conflict relatively unharmed, the principle of taking the offensive still has merit. Both previous operations against Gaza were fought, and ended, on much better terms. Cast Lead brought four years of relative calm to the south of the country which had until then been victimized by relentless rocket strikes. Operation Pillar of Defense similarly saw Hamas quickly request and subsequently agree to a ceasefire, including an understanding to completely cease all rocket attacks against Israel.

Similarly, the Second Lebanon War, in which a ground invasion was also taken, albeit reluctantly, ended with Hezbollah acknowledging that if it had known about the Israeli response in advance, it would never have sought to initiate hostilities.

The devastation in Gaza has yet to convince Hamas to make similar concessions. Insofar as successive Israeli governments continue to fear the high death toll associated with fighting on the ground, future operations will likely continue to be lengthy, costly and ultimately even more politically and militarily frustrating.

Secondly, despite accusations made in the international press, the most recent operation clearly demonstrated Israel’s inherent disinterest in controlling or occupying Arab populations around it. Despite Hamas’ political isolation, hostility between it and Egypt’s new regime, economic difficulties and especially Israeli public support which make this point of time almost ideal for a comprehensive military offensive that would see its control over Gaza completely terminated, Israel has gone to painstaking lengths to avoid toppling Hamas. This unwillingness primarily stems from Israel’s disinterest in once again ruling over nearly three million Arabs and proves Israel has no secret designs to regain or retain control over Palestinian territories.

Thirdly, depending on the terms of the eventual agreement between the parties to cease the fighting, Hamas has made some significant gains. It rehabilitated its ties with its former patron Iran, much to the chagrin of Syrian president Bashar Assad, and proved its ability to exact a high price on the most powerful army in the region.

However, it suffered many losses as well. Not only did it sacrifice its population and showed that it cares very little about its welfare; it exposed its two primarily weapons to strike at Israel — above ground, via rockets launchings, and especially underground, via tunnels. While Israel has a pretty effective answer to the first challenge, it will have to develop a more suitable solution for the second. Hamas may very well find that its current success has merely motivated Israel to develop methods to deprive it of its two most important weapons, rendering the organization virtually defenseless in the future.

Israel Changes Strategy Against Gaza Militants

An Israeli tank leaves Gaza, September 12, 2005
An Israeli tank leaves Gaza, September 12, 2005 (IDF)

As Operation Protective Edge enters its fourth day, it is unclear when and how it will come to an end. Yet some clear observations can already be made as to how the current military operation measures up to similar efforts in the past, as well as to how it might affect relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Read more

Chinese Shopping Spree Raises Concerns in Israel

Premier Li Keqiang of China welcomes his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Bejing, May 8, 2013
Premier Li Keqiang of China welcomes his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Bejing, May 8, 2013 (GPO/Avi Ohayon)

Last month, Israel’s commissioner for capital markets, insurances and savings indicated that it would not, “at this time,” allow a group of Chinese investors to buy control of one of the country’s largest insurance corporations, Klal Insurance Ltd. According to a report in the financial newspaper Calcalist, the commissioner could not obtain sufficient information to satisfy her concerns on whether the investors were indeed suitable to control Israel’s second largest insurance empire, despite an approach to Interpol for information about the anonymous investors.

The announcement, which effectively terminated the deal, joined other prospects relating to the sale of major Israeli companies to foreign investors, specifically Chinese ones.

Chinese groups have expressed an increased interest in investing in the Israeli economy. In 2011, Chemchina bought 60 percent of the shares in Machteshim-Agan, Israel’s foremost producer of chemicals and pesticides and a global leader in this field. In 2013, Fuson, a Chinese pharmaceutical giant bought Alma lasers for $240 million. Most recently, two weeks ago, it was announced that the Chinese Brightfood Corporation had bought 56 percent of the shares of Tnuva from the British investment fund Apax. Tnuva, which was founded 85 years ago as an agricultural cooperative and is Israel’s biggest dairy producer, is a leading and beloved household brand.

A review of the responses to the Tnuva (and other) sales reveal a curious trend. Israel is an integral part of the global economy. Many of its companies operate in foreign countries and are often partially or fully owned by foreign investors, something Israelis are very proud of — especially when it comes to foreign companies buying small Israeli startups.

Yet when it comes to Chinese investors, Israelis are more suspicious. While some commentators welcomed the Tnuva deal, others lamented it, both on economic and social grounds. The most interesting response came from Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad. In a parliamentary hearing convened after the sale, he warned of an increased Chinese control of Israel’s economy, mentioning that after the sale of Machteshim-Agan to a Chinese investor, the company changed its name and was struck from the Israeli stock exchange, effectively terminating it as an Israeli company.

What explains this objection — and perhaps hostility — toward Chinese involvement in what is a legitimate economic activity? Is it a case of prejudice or are there legitimate security concerns involved?

The gist of the argument against foreign involvement in Israel’s economy is that in light of its unique security situation, it cannot afford to surrender control of vital industries. When the day comes, proponents of this argument, including Halevy, claim, who is to say that those foreign investors will have Israel’s best interest at heart? It may turn out to be in their interest to dissolve the companies and transfer their knowledge and expertise out of Israel. In extreme cases, investors may even side with Israel’s (economically much more powerful) enemies, forcing the government’s hand by leveraging their control of Israeli industry and crippling its ability to effectively respond to security threats.

Recent years have seen an enhanced Chinese access to Israeli markets, a policy that has been enthusiastically encouraged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is keen to strengthen ties with the Asian superpower. The Chinese have expanded their commercial presence throughout the Middle East, in fact, in an attempt to ensure the continued flow of critical oil and gas imports to their growing economy. For this purpose China has invested heavily in building a network of roads, railways, ports and terminals, which would connect China with Europe and Africa, both by land and by sea. As part of this attempt, China has forged close ties with some of Israel’s main rivals in the Middle East region, including Syria and especially Iran.

While Israel has little to offer in the way of oil and gas, its advanced technologies can provide relatively cheap and effective solutions to many of China’s social and environmental problems, solutions which other partners in the region cannot provide.

Furthermore, Israel is strategically located on the nexus between three continents and can be seen as the perfect gateway to connect Europe with Asia.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has formed an ambitious vision of his own for an enhanced relationship between China and Israel. This vision is symbolized by his attempt to connect, by rail, the southern port of Eilat, in the Gulf of Aqaba, with the port of Ashdod and from there to the rest of the country.

The project is designed to create a cheaper and faster trade route between Europe and East Asia, bypassing the Suez Canal and cementing Israel as a center of the international trade activity. While the project has received interest from various companies, it appears that Netanyahu is determined to grant the contract for the building and maintenance of the renewed Eilat port to a Chinese contractor, the China Communication Construction Company. Since this company is owned by the Chinese state, it would grant the country a strategic foothold in the region. This possibility has raised major concerns in Israel. In the campaign waged against the project, Halevy has again featured prominently.

In a lengthy report describing the arguments against the project and especially China’s involvement in it, Halevy argued that there is no way of knowing how China will react in a future conflict between Israel and its neighbors. Will it use its control of a major transport route crossing Israel in order to pressure the Israeli government into making concessions to China’s Arab allies?

Halevy also stated that Israel will not be able to resist Chinese pressures during future conflicts and cited examples in which Israel has bowed to Chinese pressure even when its own strategic interests were involved. For example, China recently persuaded Israel not to support a trial held in the United States in which a Chinese bank was accused of knowingly financing Islamic terror groups. While combatting international Islamic terrorism by tracking the way it is financed is a core Israeli security interest, Prime Minister Netanyahu bowed in to the Chinese demand, even after Israel had encouraged the family to file the lawsuit.

Finally, Halevy pointed out that closer Sino-Israeli relations could complicate the Jewish state’s alliance with the United States. Giving the rivalry between America and China, the Chinese tendency to diplomatically and rhetorically support Israel’s enemies and Israel’s strong security relationship with the United States, the question of how it should, and will, react to the growing Chinese presence in the Middle East is of paramount importance.

While Netanyahu, seeing the financial benefits accruing from an enhanced relationship with China — and bearing in mind the slow American withdrawal from the region — seems eager to strengthen the partnership, valid strategic concerns, stemming from past experience and especially from China’s overall foreign policy and behavior in international relations, will no doubt be a continuing obstacle to closer relations.