Joe Biden leaves and then the Axis of Evil arrives

No sooner had the presidential visit of Joe Biden ended than the Axis of Evil took their turn to gather in Tehran

July 21, 2022 13:02

No sooner had the presidential visit of Joe Biden ended than another grand diplomatic event in the Middle East kicked off. It was the Axis of Evil’s turn to gather in Tehran, where Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived to pay homage to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and pose for a group photograph with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

It was unclear whether there was any actual substance to the dictators’ summit. But reports that Iran is going to supply Russia with drones for use in Ukraine has put the Israeli defence establishment on edge at the prospect of deepening security cooperation between Russia and Iran. Not that this is going to change Israel’s neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine War. Officials in Jerusalem emphasise that is not on the agenda. The Government is too invested in its current position and they’re not about to change course with a new prime minister just three weeks into office.

Likewise, the Government isn’t responding publicly to the statement made over the weekend by a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader that his country is capable of making a nuclear weapon, though the decision to do so has not yet been made. Kamal Kharrazi, Israeli officials believe, was simply responding to Mr Biden’s warnings that he wouldn’t allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. His words do not reflect a change in Iran’s nuclear capabilities or policies. No need for Israel to respond.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has been foreign minister for the past year, is not eager for the Iranian issue to become part of the election. No Israeli prime minister could survive being seen as having allowed Iran go nuclear on his watch. Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made Iran the central issue of so many of his election campaigns in the past, is hesitant as well. Not that he doesn’t want to blame his successors for going soft on Iran, but he is fully aware that any such criticism could backfire and he could be the one facing difficult questions on why Israel had no plan B for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat after Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran Deal back in 2018.

“There needs to be a debate on whether Iran is already a threshold nuclear state and what it means for Israel if it is,” said a former intelligence analyst specialising in Iran. “But the politicians won’t allow that debate to take place.”

Not another contest

While the Tories have been tearing themselves apart in blue-on-blue warfare, trying to elect their party’s new leader and Britain’s next prime minister, Israel’s main parties are having an easier time of it. The current ruling party Yesh Atid was scheduled to hold its first leadership election late last year, a decade after the party’s foundation, but since no-one cared to challenge Yair Lapid, the primary was called off.

Israel’s largest party, Likud, prides itself as having a democratically-elected leadership, unlike Yesh Atid. But in this regard it is now the same. On Monday, the party’s election committee announced that since no-one had put forward their candidacy for leader, Benjamin Netanyahu has been re-elected once again, unopposed. The former and perhaps future prime minister wasn’t rejoicing, however. “Bibi wanted an election,” said one of his Likud allies. “It would have helped wake up the party during a long summer before the real election.”

He had looked forward to fighting a campaign against former Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. He had little reason to believe that Mr Edelstein would do any better than the last challenger, Gideon Sa’ar, no longer of Likud’s parish, who in the leadership election of 2019 won only 27 per cent of members’ votes. But having the contest would have strengthened Likud’s democratic image and also served as a useful exercise in energising the party’s rank-and-file. Mr Edelstein dropped out two weeks ago, aware that he was staring at a colossal defeat and not wanting to anger Mr Netanyahu’s faithful ahead of the primaries for the candidates’ list.

The one major party, or at least formerly major party, which has held a leadership election is Labour, where Merav Michaeli was re-elected by an 81 percent landslide, even greater than Mr Netanyahu’s. She overcame her bete noir, the obstructionist party secretary-general Eran Hermoni, whom she has failed so far to depose. It was an achievement of sorts in Israel’s historic party of power — the first time in over three decades when a serving leader has won a second consecutive term. That’s good for internal stability but if the polls are anything to go by, not of much interest to the wider public. Labour, at least for now, doesn’t seem to be doing any better than the meager seven seats it secured in the last election.

Ms Michaeli has won the poisoned chalice for a second time. Now she gets to try once again to keep the party that founded Israel, and ruled it for half its existence, alive for another term.

Or, as one of the party’s MKs said this week: “Merav has done a decent job in bringing us back from the dead but the truth is that no-one wants to be Labour leader anymore. It’s an impossible job. The expectation that we can be restored to our former glory is unrealistic for at least another generation.”

Point of conflict

With over three months to go until the election, the main question at this point is what, if anything, will be the main dividing issues of the campaign, other than the personal. For a moment on Wednesday it looked as if the battlefield could be in the West Bank, as Nachala, a settlers movement, launched a campaign to build six new settlements overnight.

Nachala is led by a group of activists who include some of the original founders of the settlement movement and their younger followers, who accuse the current settler leadership of being too “bourgeois,” focusing more on quality of life in the existing settlements, and less on building new ones. They deny that their operation had any connection to the upcoming election but the potential to create a massively controversial event, especially with left-wing groups like Peace Now calling upon the government to arrest the organisers, was obvious.

The Lapid government ordered the security forces to obstruct the movement of those trying to get to the new locations but kept silent in public. They didn’t want to make too much noise, partly due to the elections and partly from the concern that it could cause unrest in other places; within the army, for example.

In one reserve battalion with a large proportion of religious soldiers, some of the troops circulated a petition saying: “We, reserve soldiers, are proud to come and protect the residents in the sector, and to leave our families and jobs to do so. We are not interested in any way in taking part, neither directly or indirectly, in blocking Jews from building new settlements.”

The battalion commander had to promise his soldiers that they wouldn’t be taking part in the operation and indeed, on Wednesday, the area was filled mainly with police roadblocks trying, with varying degrees of success, to prevent the convoys reaching their destinations. A few dozen managed to evade the roadblocks and by evening, tents were pitched at each of the six proposed sites, despite the IDF designating them “restricted military zones”.

Border police units were on standby to remove those who got through during the night but the government is anxious not to provoke a wider confrontation. Even if they do, this may not become a defining moment of the election campaign, as Mr Netanyahu himself is not sure whether he wants to be associated with them. As one of his allies said this week: “Bibi knows everyone there will be voting for parties in his bloc anyway, but he needs to get more moderates on board if he has any hope of winning an election. So why risk it?”

July 21, 2022 13:02

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