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Saturday, June 12, 2021

What diplomatic challenges await a Bennett-Lapid government?

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Not long after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the premiership in 2009, his adversaries began to warn about massive international pressure. Two days after the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, then-defense minister Ehud Barak coined the term “diplomatic tsunami” that followed Netanyahu in the subsequent years, which he claimed would crush Israel if there was no progress in peace talks with the Palestinians.

Back then, the concern was that the Palestinians would ask the UN Security Council for recognition of statehood, which the US under then-president Barack Obama would begrudgingly veto, but then the UN General Assembly would declare the Palestinians a state, leaving Israel in dire diplomatic straits.

Ten years later, Israeli-Palestinian peace is no closer than it was, and though the UN upgraded Palestine to “nonmember observer state” in 2012, the diplomatic tsunami never materialized.

Here are some of the big challenges the new government will likely face in the international arena its early days.

Jerusalem and Guardian of the Walls’ aftermathOn his way out of office, Netanyahu planted a land mine for the coalition to try to disarm in its first days. The cabinet voted this week to postpone a march in Jerusalem’s Old City to Tuesday, just two days after the planned Knesset vote to install the new government.

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if(window.location.pathname.indexOf(“656089”) != -1){console.log(“hedva connatix”);document.getElementsByClassName(“divConnatix”)[0].style.display =”none”;}Jerusalem is often the excuse for tensions with the Palestinians. “Al-Aqsa is in danger” has sparked violence against Jews at least going back to the 1929 riots in which Arabs murdered 113 Jews. The difference is that now we have our own country and our own army to protect us.

So, when Hamas used Jerusalem to incite violence and boost its standing among Palestinians, laying the groundwork during the Palestinian election campaign, ramping up the rhetoric after the vote was canceled and shooting rockets into the capital, the IDF responded in what it named Operation Guardian of the Walls.

But things are more complicated than the army facing off against Gazan terrorists – which is complicated enough as it is.

Part of the lead-up to the operation was rioting on the Temple Mount, with Muslims launching rocks and Molotov cocktails and Israeli police trying to stop them from harming the Jews praying at the Western Wall below. The images of Israeli police entering al-Aqsa Mosque sparked outrage across the Muslim world and gave Hamas its excuse to launch missiles at Jerusalem.

The other part is the pending verdict in the Sheikh Jarrah property dispute. There is a documented chain of Jewish ownership of the property in question since the 19th century, but when Jordan occupied part of Jerusalem in 1948-1967, it housed Palestinian refugees there. Those Palestinian families have claimed the right to remain in their homes – with some refusing to pay rent – while a Jewish Israeli organization seeks to use the property it owns. The Palestinian families were due to be evicted in early May – another reason Hamas cited for the violence – but the High Court of Justice postponed it.

As all of these things were happening in Jerusalem last month, Jerusalem Day came along, and the traditional “flag dance” march through the Old City was set to take place. Police, with government backing, rerouted the parade in order to avoid further fueling the flames, but thousands still danced with flags at the Western Wall. Still, the organizers wanted to follow the path of the paratroopers who liberated Israel’s capital in 1967, and asked for a do-over on the secular anniversary of the victory, which was on Thursday. Now, the government will have to deal with a parade on Tuesday.

Outside of Israel, leaders widely see the parade as a provocation, and there already is pressure to stop it. The Israeli Left more or less views it the same way, though some graciously admit that even the Right has the right to political expression, even if they think this is a bad time for it. The Right takes issue with the idea that simply walking around waving Israeli flags in Israel is viewed as a provocation and sees that as a withdrawal of Israeli sovereignty. The new government will have ministers with both views.

The High Court will likely make a decision about Sheikh Jarrah soon. The US, EU, UN and many others view “evictions” as provocative, and have pressured Israel to stop them entirely. Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, however, does not think the government should intervene in what is a private property dispute, even if it has taken on greater symbolism for activists. Israeli diplomats have echoed that, telling interlocutors that Israel has an independent judiciary, as any democratic country should. Still, this will be a major source of controversy and pressure for the new government.

Meanwhile, the world is looking to improve the humanitarian conditions in Gaza after Operation Guardian of the Walls. The challenge, which Western donors openly acknowledge, is to get aid into Gaza without it getting into Hamas’s hands.

Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen said this week that the way things were done in recent years – with Qatar being allowed to send millions of dollars into Gaza regularly, in hopes that it would keep the peace – “got a bit out of control.”

Bennett has said that improving Palestinians’ quality of life is important to peace, but his new government will need to find a new way to do that, because the old way simply allowed Hamas to build up an arsenal and a tunnel network ahead of last month’s round of fighting.

Iran dealThe indirect nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran are continuing in Vienna, and if the Iranian and Russian diplomats are to be believed, they’re going swimmingly and will wrap up soon. The Americans are a bit more circumspect and indicate that it will take more time. The Iranian presidential election this month may delay things a bit, but since Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is really in charge and will continue to be after the election, it’s hard to believe Iran would withdraw from the talks he authorized earlier this year.

Delayed or not, it seems likely that the talks will come to fruition. The Biden administration wants Iran back in compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s nuclear restrictions, and Iran wants US sanctions lifted, and the way for that to happen is for both to rejoin the Iran deal. The negotiations are focused on which sanctions the US will lift – Iran wants them all gone, but there are some the US wants to keep – and whether that will happen before, after or during Iran scaling back its nuclear operation.

Israel has been watching these developments with concern. Security officials across the board oppose the Iran deal, as do Lapid and Bennett, because the limits on enriching uranium expire in 2030; because its inspections regime is not strict enough; because it does not limit Iranian aggression and proxy warfare in the region; and more.

Netanyahu and his allies argue that his 2015 tack of aggressively opposing Obama’s overtures toward Iran and the deal that came with it, including speaking before both houses of Congress, was effective. It caught former US president Donald Trump’s eye and, combined with the daring Mossad operation to steal Iran’s nuclear archive, convinced him to withdraw from the deal. And it drove moderate Sunni states to cooperate with Israel against Iran, which in turn brought about the Abraham Accords.

Still, Netanyahu has toned down his rhetoric on Iran since US President Joe Biden came into office in January. The prime minister doesn’t hesitate to express his opposition to the deal, saying Israel is not bound by it and will defend itself when necessary, even when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is standing right next to him. But insiders in the Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Ministry have said that the Biden administration is transparent with them and frequently updates Jerusalem on progress in Vienna, and the Israeli government has responded in kind, instead of waging a public campaign.

This attitude suits Lapid, who, while opposing the Iran deal itself, has been critical of Netanyahu’s early approach. How Bennett, who is more hawkish than Netanyahu, will approach the matter remains to be seen.

Bipartisan US support for IsraelIn a farewell briefing with Israeli diplomatic reporters this week, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi identified shoring up bipartisan support for Israel in the US as one of the most important things his successor will have to do. And sources in Lapid’s inner circle say he is well aware of that need and plans to make good use of the connections with members of Congress that he has built up in his eight years in the Knesset.

Ashkenazi also said that the issue of progressives in the Democratic Party aggressively opposing Israel is not something that comes up in his conversations with Blinken. It would be inappropriate to bring up internal US politics, he said.

That encapsulates some of the challenges ahead for anyone who wants to make inroads in the American Left. Support on the Right mostly just needs to be maintained at this point, but Democratic members of Congress in the “Squad” are calling Israel an apartheid state equivalent to Hamas. And even those who don’t demonize Israel in those terms are questioning US military aid to Israel.

Biden has thus far said that his party “still supports Israel” and there is “no shift in my commitment to the security of Israel.”

But the pressure is real, and the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party shares these views with influential intellectuals and cultural figures who have grown increasingly brazen in their public attacks on Israel. The public demonization of Israel as uniquely evil seems to be the spark that set off the wave of antisemitic attacks in the US in recent weeks.

The new government will have an easier job in one way: Netanyahu will no longer be prime minister. Many Democrats are frustrated with Netanyahu for not working toward a two-state solution and enthusiastically supporting Trump. And on the far Left, he is a bogeyman accused of being a “warmonger,” despite actually being cautious on security matters. The moderates will likely seek to give Bennett a chance, despite him being right-wing, and embrace Lapid. On the Left, there is a fair chance that the Squad’s mask will slip, and it will be apparent that it’s not just Netanyahu they detest.

THOSE ARE just three of the more immediate diplomatic challenges out of the myriad this government will face.

There is still the pending war crimes trial in the International Criminal Court and an investigation of Israel in the UN Human Rights Council, pressure to pursue a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, a global push by NGOs to label Israel an apartheid state and tensions with the US over Chinese involvement in Israeli infrastructure.

Plus, the loss of Netanyahu, who is such a major figure on the world stage, could make some things more difficult, especially when it comes to working with leaders with whom Netanyahu had a good personal relationship, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s no longer in fashion to call it a tsunami, but a tidal wave may fit. Yet, taking a more optimistic view, there are also plenty of diplomatic opportunities ahead.

In fact, Netanyahu is likely to hand over the reins to Bennett on Sunday with Israel in excellent diplomatic shape, with the chance to continue positive trends.

More countries want to cooperate with Israel than ever before. In just the past year, Israel established diplomatic relations with four Arab countries (UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan) as well as two others (Kosovo, Bhutan). The Abraham Accords just weathered their first challenge in Operation Guardian of the Walls, and this government can work to reinforce and expand that circle of peace with the professed support of the Biden administration.

Israel has long been a regional military power, but its economic might has only grown; in the past decade it bolstered its status as a world leader in technology and innovation and became a regional player in the energy sector, as it began exporting natural gas, factors that cultivated and strengthened Israel’s diplomatic ties. Israel is a founding member of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, with improving ties with many of the countries involved, including Greece, Cyprus and Egypt.

Plus, Israel’s medical and logistical prowess became known worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic year, and Jerusalem sent aid, from PPE to vaccines, to many countries.

Between the challenges and opportunities ahead, one thing is certain: It won’t be boring. The new government won’t have the privilege of prioritizing other things; it will have to jump into diplomatic matters right away.•

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