Could Israel’s vote be the end for Netanyahu?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks through the Machane Yehuda market during a campaign event in Jerusalem on April 8, 2019. (AFP)
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Benny Gantz, center, leader of the opposition Blue and White Party, during a campaign event in Tel Aviv. (AFP)
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Benny Gantz, second left, of the leaders of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) political alliance leads a caravan of 100 bikers in Tel Aviv during a campaign event. (AFP)
Updated 09 April 2019

Could Israel’s vote be the end for Netanyahu?

  • No matter who is chosen to form the next coalition, observers say there is not likely to be dramatic changes in Israeli policy vis-à-vis Palestinians
  • His proposal to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank may backfire, giving rival Benny Gantz the upper hand

AMMAN: Six million Israelis are expected to cast their votes for the 120-member Knesset (Parliament) on Tuesday, in an election with many ramifications for the country and the wider Middle East.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the four-time Israeli prime minister, is fighting for his political life to stay in power and delay indictments for fraud, bribery and breach of trust placed on him by Israel’s attorney general. Spooked, and under pressure from the rival Blue and White Party and its leader, former Israeli army chief Benny Gantz, Netanyahu has pandered to the far right, promising to annex all Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
While the election has been focused on individuals, the political system in Israel is parliamentary. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, whose job is normally symbolic, will decide which party leader he will ask to form a government.
The problem for Netanyahu is that if enough far right Israelis shift their votes to him and his Likud Party, this could lead to the loss of parliamentary seats for smaller partners in his potential coalition, who then might not pass the threshold of 3.75 percent of the votes needed to enter the Knesset.
Equally concerning for Netanyahu is his strained relationship with Rivlin, a political moderate who may turn to Gantz should the Blue and White win more votes.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu has commitments from the Union of Right-Wing Parties, the New Right, the two ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, and the Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu parties. The libertarian Zehut, led by a former Likud member, will almost certainly follow suit.
Ofer Zalzberg, a senior researcher at the International Crisis Group, said that while Netanyahu’s chances remain good, Gantz could still form a center-left government. “The critical question is not who will receive the most votes, but which party can convince 60 members of the Knesset to recommend its leader to form the next government,” he said.
It is possible neither Netanyahu nor Gantz will be able to form a coalition. In that case, either they will establish a government of national unity with a rotating premiership, or Rivlin will call a new election. History suggests that in a national unity government, Gantz would seek control of certain areas rather than demand Netanyahu adopt specific policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to Zalzberg.
While Palestinian-Israelis will vote, they are not expected to make much of a difference unless they do so in large numbers. The Joint List, headed by Ayman Odeh and which won 13 seats in the last election, has been broken up into two lists, with the smaller group in danger of not passing the threshold.
Most observers believe that there is little reason to expect dramatic changes in Israeli policy on Palestine, no matter who leads the next coalition. However, Netanyahu’s statements about annexing Israeli settlements in the West Bank have raised tensions.
“The settlements themselves are a war crime according to international humanitarian law,” said Dr. Anis Kassim, the publisher of the Palestinian Yearbook of International Law.
Ghassan Khatib, a senior member of the Palestinian People’s Party and a lecturer at Bir Zeit University, told Arab News that the US had a legal responsibility to ensure that Netanyahu does not proceed. Khatib, who participated in peace talks in the 1990s, said that if permitted, the US “would have violated the 1993 declaration of principles, of which Washington was a witness and a guarantor in terms of the integrity of the Palestinian territories.”
Martin Indyk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, noted in a study by the Carnegie Middle East Center that, in the past, Netanyahu had resisted talk of annexing settlements, knowing the US would oppose it. “But by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, Trump has given them all a green light.”


Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

Updated 17 September 2019

Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

  • The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is putting increased pressure on the nation’s armed factions, including Shiite-dominated paramilitary troops and Kurdish guerrillas, in an attempt to tighten his control over them, Iraqi military commanders and analysts said on Monday.

Military commanders have been stripped of some of their most important powers as part of the efforts to prevent them from being drawn into local or regional conflicts.

The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq. 

Each side has dozens of allied armed groups in the country, which has been one of the biggest battlegrounds for the two countries since 2003. 

Attempting to control these armed factions and military leaders is one of the biggest challenges facing the Iraqi government as it works to keep the country out of the conflict.

On Sunday, Abdul Mahdi dissolved the leadership of the joint military operations. 

They will be replaced by a new one, under his chairmanship, that includes representatives of the ministries of defense and interior, the military and security services, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Ministry of Peshmerga, which controls the military forces of the autonomous Kurdistan region.

According to the prime minister’s decree, the main tasks of the new command structure are to “lead and manage joint operations at the strategic and operational level,” “repel all internal and external threats and dangers as directed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” “manage and coordinate the intelligence work of all intelligence and security agencies,” and “coordinate with international bodies that support Iraq in the areas of training and logistical and air support.”

“This decree will significantly and effectively contribute to controlling the activities of all combat troops, not just the PMU,” said a senior military commander, who declined to be named. 

“This will block any troops associated with any local political party, regional or international” in an attempt to ensure troops serve only the government’s goals and the good of the country. 

“This is explicit and unequivocal,” he added.

Since 2003, the political process in Iraq has been based on political power-sharing system. This means that each parliamentary bloc gets a share of top government positions, including the military, proportionate to its number of seats in Parliament. Iran, the US and a number of regional countries secure their interests and ensure influence by supporting Iraqi political factions financially and morally.

This influence has been reflected in the loyalties and performance of the majority of Iraqi officials appointed by local, regional and international parties, including the commanders of combat troops.

To ensure more government control, the decree also stripped the ministers of defense and interior, and leaders of the counterterrorism, intelligence and national security authorities, and the PMU, from appointing, promoting or transferring commanders. This power is now held exclusively by Abdul Mahdi.

“The decree is theoretically positive as it will prevent local, regional and international parties from controlling the commanders,” said another military commander. 

“This means that Abdul Mahdi will be responsible to everyone inside and outside Iraq for the movement of these forces and their activities.

“The question now is whether Abdul Mahdi will actually be able to implement these instructions or will it be, like others, just ink on paper?”

The PMU is a government umbrella organization established by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in June 2014 to encompass the armed factions and volunteers who fought Daesh alongside the Iraqi government. Iranian-backed factions such as Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah represent the backbone of the forces.

The US, one of Iraq’s most important allies in the region and the world, believes Iran is using its influence within the PMU to destabilize and threaten Iraq and the region. Abdul Mahdi is under huge external and internal pressure to abolish the PMU and demobilize its fighters, who do not report or answer to the Iraqi government.

The prime minister aims to ease tensions between the playmakers in Iraq, especially the US and Iran, by preventing their allies from clashing on the ground or striking against each other’s interests.

“Abdul Mahdi seeks to satisfy Washington and reassure them that the (armed) factions of the PMU will not move against the will of the Iraqi government,” said Abdullwahid Tuama, an Iraqi analyst.

The prime minister is attempting a tricky balancing act by aiming to protect the PMU, satisfy the Iranians and prove to the Americans that no one is outside the authority of the state, he added.