Bibi's government seems intent on spending the Knesset break on infighting

Amid a bitter row over judicial reforms, Netanyahu's government is locked in a row over transferring billions of shekels to Arab local councils


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during the weekly cabinet meeting in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, on June 25, 2023. (Photo by ABIR SULTAN / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

August 09, 2023 18:30

Instead of taking advantage of the Knesset recess and a temporary respite from the battles over the judicial overhaul, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government seems intent on spending August on infighting.

The decision by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to prevent the transfer of 200 million shekels to Arab local councils, in what should have been a routine move to help them balance their books (the government annually transfers billions to local authorities for this purpose) angered both the prime minister and Shas’s Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, who is in charge of signing off on the “stabilising funds.” 

Smotrich’s claim is that the Arab local councils are actually run by organised crime groups and the money will not go to improve the lives of local residents. This is just one of a series of decisions he has taken in recent days that angered Netanyahu.

Another was to block funds for supporting academic courses for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, another long-standing policy of successive Israeli governments. This time he claimed that the money went to Palestinian students involved in terror and incitement against Israel. 

But above all, the prime minister is enraged with Smotrich for, together with Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben Gvir, vetoing a modest package of gestures towards the Palestinian Authority which include transferring half a billion shekels of tax revenue which Israel has frozen, allowing a new industrial zone to be built in the West Bank and easing the procedures at the Allenby Bridge crossing to Jordan.

Netanyahu has already promised the Americans to do all of these but has now been shown up as incapable of imposing his will on his cabinet. 

In an interview with Bloomberg this week, Netanyahu said that he was determined in the Knesset winter session to change the makeup of the Judicial Appointments Committee and made it sound as if that was a climbdown from the government’s full programme of “legal reform”.

Technically that may be true, though the man who decides on such matters is Justice Minister Yariv Levin and he has yet to say that he’s relinquishing parts of his grand plan. The strictly-Orthodox parties are also still demanding an “override clause” for the law exempting yeshiva students from military service which they intend to pass as well. 

But even if the coalition is on board with the prime minister’s proposal, the Judicial Appointments Committee has always been the key part of the legislation and the most controversial. Any attempt to pass it will make the protests of the past seven months look tame in comparison.

In his Bloomberg interview, Netanyahu also sounded bullish on the prospects of an imminent breakthrough towards a peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But for such a deal, which will include also major concessions to the Palestinians, he will need a new coalition as well. Religious Zionism will never go along with it.

But will the leaders of Israel’s centrist parties give him cover if the far-right bolts the coalition? Both Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid indicated in recent days that’s not on the cards. One opposition politician speculated this week that “by letting Smotrich and Ben-Gvir do whatever they want, Netanyahu may be thinking that this will change Gantz and Lapid’s minds and they will decide that it’s crucial to replace them in government.”

But how close are we to a critical juncture on the Saudi deal where Netanyahu will have to decide between it and his coalition, and Gantz and Lapid will have to decide whether they are prepared to save him?

“It’s hard to assess at this point what the chances are of a deal with the Saudis,” said one slightly sceptical Israeli diplomat. “What is clear however is that the Americans are eager to achieve such an agreement over the next year before the election, so that Joe Biden can have a foreign policy success. And that the Saudis have therefore realised that this probably the best conditions they are going to get.”

What is less clear is how much the Israeli government, or more accurately parts of the Israeli government, want this deal. 

Second Lebanon War anniversary:

Next week will be the 17th anniversary of the end of the Second Lebanon War, the 34-day conflict in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah in which the IDF failed to prevent the Lebanese Shia militia from firing rockets on Israel throughout the war. It ended in a stalemate that Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah could, with some justification, present as a victory. 

In recent weeks, Israeli intelligence analysts have raised the level of alertness in their assessments of the probability of another war with Hezbollah in the not-too- distant future.

There are multiple reasons for this: Hezbollah is at a nadir right now within Lebanese politics, with many in the failed country blaming its stranglehold on the economy and government for the nation’s woes.

Its Iranian patrons are at something of a dead end as well, with little prospect of sanctions relief now that the nuclear negotiations are going nowhere and the possibility of a US-Israel-Saudi agreement increasing their regional isolation. They may see a war with Israel as a way to divert attention from their other problems and bolster Iran’s negotiation powers.

Another reason is their perception that with Israel torn from within by the Netanyahu government’s policies and the protests, and with thousands of key reservists suspending their service, it is at a weak and vulnerable point. 

One of the key flaws in Israel’s battle plans back in 2006 was the difficulty of its armoured columns in penetrating deeply into southern Lebanon and cut off the logistical corridor from Beirut and the Bekaa Valley to Hezbollah’s forces closer to the Israeli border.

Dozens of tanks and armoured personnel carriers were hit by Hezbollah anti-tank missiles, which were also used to strike at temporary bases the IDF set up in Lebanon.

Only in the last three days of the war did the IDF change its tactics. Instead of trying to capture stronghold after stronghold of Hezbollah, it sent its armoured divisions northwards while landing in helicopters an airborne force deep in Hezbollah territory. 

But by then the United Nations was already finalising a ceasefire and when Hezbollah succeeded in shooting down one of the helicopters, the advanced stalled.

Few of the objectives were realised but an important lesson was learned. All of the units which had been sent deep into Lebanon had been able to operate relatively freely once there and destroyed multiple Hezbollah targets. The IDF needed more ways of taking large numbers of soldiers deep into Lebanon, with their equipment, early on in a conflict.

Last Tuesday, the Israeli Navy received the first of two large landing-craft Israel ordered from the Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. They are being acquired to fill an operational gap in Israel’s capabilities.

Since 1993, when the navy’s landing-craft squadron was closed down, the IDF had no way to carry out a large-scale sea-landing. The new “logistic support vessels” as they are called in the US Army will not be ready to land tanks and infantry battalions on the coast of Lebanon if war breaks out with Hezbollah in the next few months. They have to be first sailed to Israel and fitted out with locally-made electronic systems and then both naval and ground-force commanders will have to train personnel in their use and redevelop long-forgotten sea-land doctrines.

 The absence of veteran reserve naval officers who have suspended their service in protest over the government’s policies, which has already impacted on the navy’s training courses, won’t make that any easier.

“Let’s hope that Nasrallah doesn’t make the mistake of taking advantage of this period,” said one senior Israeli officer. 

August 09, 2023 18:30

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