This time, it really could be the end for Netanyahu

Michael Gove may turn out to be the last senior foreign politician to visit the Israeli PM while he is still in office.


LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 06: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to meet British Prime Minister Theresa May on Downing Street ahead of a meeting at Number 10 on June 6, 2018 in London, England. Mr Netanyahu is currently on a European tour in an effort to rally support from leaders to scrap the existing Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

April 22, 2021 11:17

There is literally no way to translate into Hebrew either of Michael Gove’s official titles: Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office. So when some Israeli journalists asked the foreign ministry in Jerusalem on Tuesday for details about the person who had just met with foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi, a fact-sheet was sent to the reporters with a potted CV, stating at the top that “Gove is the most senior minister in cabinet after prime minister Johnson”.

That might not have gone down so well with some of Mr Gove’s cabinet colleagues, but this was one ministerial visit that the government — the British government, that is — was doing everything possible to play down.

Gove, who was accompanied by deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam, arrived on an official plane on Monday evening and met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and health minister Yuli Edelstein the next day. But while there was nothing officially secret about his visit, his own staff and the British embassy in Israel did everything possible to keep it quiet.

It was an interesting contrast to Mr Gove’s previous visit in 2013, when he made sure everyone knew that he had overcome his well-known fear of flying because it meant so much to the staunch pro-Zionist to be in Israel.

This time, there was no mention of the visit on any of his personal social media accounts or those of the cabinet office and the British embassy. All the announcements of his meetings came from the Israeli side and they were devoid of any direct comment by Mr Gove.

The Israelis were surprised at the British reticence over publicity. One senior British civil servant described it as “very low profile” and journalists who called Mr Gove’s office for comments were left unanswered. British diplomats involved in organising the visit expressed satisfaction that, with the British media being inundated in the days leading up to the visit by the coverage of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral and then subsequently by the furore over the European Super League and coverage of the verdict in the George Floyd trial, there was little interest in the visit anyway.

British hyper-sensitivity is due to the government’s concern over the widespread public suspicion toward the introduction of any form of a vaccination passport. Despite this opposition, there is still an understanding in Whitehall that such a passport will be necessary — at the very least for the effective reopening of international travel and, through that, the recovery of the airline and tourism industries.

While Britain is one of the few countries without a national identity card, its citizens are used to having a passport for foreign travel, and that is the only context in which introducing a vaccination passport could perhaps be acceptable to the public.

“The meetings were extremely focused on the issues. It was practically a bureaucratic discussion,” said one Israeli official closely involved with the visit. “The British were focused on finding the best way to allow vaccinated people from both countries to travel freely and they know that some kind of vaccination passport is the only way that will allow that to happen soon.”

Whether the lessons learned by Mr Gove and Professor Van-Tam on their visit will help pave the way to a British vaccination passport remains to be seen. Israeli officials said after the meetings that, at the very least, they believe an “air-corridor” between the two countries, allowing vaccinated passengers to enter without need for quarantine, will be possible soon.

But Mr Gove’s meeting with Mr Netanyahu could go down in history for another reason.

He may turn out to be the last senior foreign politician to visit him while he is still in office.

Is he serious?

l Matters took a drastic turn for Mr Netanyahu this week when he was forced to acknowledge that he has no prospect of forming a government.

Ever since the election on 23 March, he had been trying to urge either Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party to agree to sit in a coalition supported by the Islamist Ra’am party, or to convince Gideon Sa’ar, who broke away from Likud back in December, to return to the fold with his six New Hope MKs.

On Tuesday afternoon (shortly after his meeting with Michael Gove), he gave a short televised statement accepting failure. However, since this is Mr Netanyahu, a man who never accepts failure, he wasn’t about to let someone else form a government in the two weeks still left on the mandate he received from President Reuven Rivlin. He had a new idea instead.

“We don’t need Ra’am,” he said, glossing over the fact that for the past four weeks his people had been doing everything they could to get Ra’am in to government. “We need direct elections so that we can form a government. I want to get to the point where we are forming a right-wing government, and the way to do that without relying on one faction or another is direct elections.”

Israel hasn’t had direct elections – in which the public votes for the prime minister rather than a party – since the Knesset decided in 2003 to end the short-lived experiment after three tries. Even then, they had only been held after a long period of consultation — and when the Knesset first passed the direct elections law, back in 1992, they still held the election later that year under the old system, so it wouldn’t seem as if they were trying to change the rules to benefit either side. The first direct election (won by Mr Netanyahu) was held in 1996.

But Mr Netanyahu now has no such qualms. He is now proposing to change the rules in the middle of the coalition-building process, to pass a law with wide-reaching constitutional implications for Israel’s parliamentary system, under which a direct election for prime minister would be held in just 30 days. Does he really believe that such a law could pass – or end Israel’s political deadlock if it did?

Within Likud, the views are split. There are those who insist that he actually believes in the idea and can’t wait to fight yet another election where it will be just him, unencumbered by the party.

Others are more sceptical and reckon that Mr Netanyahu is fully aware there won’t be a majority for passing such a law. His only aim, they say, is to use up the time left for coalition building in the hope of disrupting the ongoing negotiations between Mr Bennet and Yair Lapid, and the other parties which will be necessary to form a new government.

Because this time, the prospect of a government not led by prime minister Netanyahu is the closest it’s been in 12 years.


April 22, 2021 11:17

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