Ehud Ya’ari is an Israel-based Lafer international fellow of The Washington Institute and author of Toward Israeli-Palestinian Disengagement and Peace by Piece: A Decade of Egyptian Policy and Sinai: The New Front? A Middle East commentator for Israel’s Channel Two television and former associate editor of Jerusalem Report, Ehud Yaari has been a Middle East commentator for Israeli television since 1975. Among his numerous awards for journalism are the Israeli Press Editors-in-Chief prize for coverage of the peace process with Egypt, the Sokolov Prize for coverage of the Lebanon War, and the Israel Broadcasting Award for coverage of the Gulf War. On Monday 4 November 2019, Ehud Ya’ari addressed The Sydney Institute to review the political situation in Israel following the 2019 election. Ehud Ya’ari’s visit to Australia was sponsored Australia Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

ISRAEL: NETANYAHU, GANTZ OR OTHER OPTIONS

EHUD YAARI

Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here again. I apologise from the outset that I tend to be blunt and speak my mind. With that, I shall try to share with you some of what is going on in the Middle East and, especially, in Israel.

For almost a year now, Israel has been preoccupied with the personal conduct of our “legendary” prime minister. For over a decade Mr Netanyahu – I’ll call him Bibi which he doesn’t mind – has been Prime Minister of Israel for more time than the founder of the state, David Ben-Gurion. It’s quite a record. Today, Israel is preoccupied with a myriad of issues concerning Bibi’s personal conduct, his wife’s personal conduct and the legal problems that have ensued.

For almost a year now, Israel has been preoccupied with the personal conduct of our “legendary” prime minister.

We had the second round of elections following the April elections which didn’t allow any of the parties, any of the candidates, to form a majority coalition. In Israel, you need 61 votes in the parliament or Knesset in order to have the majority out of 120. This year, the second round of elections produced roughly the same results. The question now is whether we’ll be going to a third round of elections sometime in February 2020, or maybe in early days of March, which may also produce the same tie. The reason is that Israeli society has been divided for quite some time between centre right and centre left almost evenly. And there is no tiebreaker in sight.

Israeli society has been divided for quite some time between centre right and centre left almost evenly. And there is no tiebreaker in sight.

One word of background on this. This outcome is a direct result of the demolition of the Israeli Labor Party, the party which led to the establishment of the state and led the state for decades. This party was demolished by the Oslo Accords of 13 September 1993. What was presented as a breakthrough towards peace with the Palestinians turned out to be something else. The Labor Party paid the full price. They now have barely six seats in the Knesset for a party that used to get 50 and more. And I don’t believe if we have another election in a few months that the Labor Party will run on its own.

As I have said, Israel is preoccupied with Bibi to such an extent that the country is basically divided. Divided between saying – “We don’t like his conduct. We wished he could have stayed with wife number one or wife number two, but he didn’t. But, we like the way that he has a pair of hands on the wheel.” This view accounts for about half the electorate saying – “We don’t like it; let him fight his legal battles in the courts. Bibi is not yet indicted – but he’s heads and shoulders about every other politician currently in play. As a strategic thinker, as a skillful politician, as an actor on the world stage. He’s a serious statesman.”

The other half of the Israeli electorate would be saying that Bibi has instilled poison into Israeli society. He has incited against the left in an unprecedented manner. He has incited against the Arab minority in Israel which is 20 per cent of the population and well represented in parliament. He has introducing norms which have been unacceptable forever in Israel. He  has threatened and attacked the judicial system – including the Supreme Court, questioning its integrity, modus operandi and so on. He has undermined the law enforcement agencies of the state. First of all was the police that was responsible for his investigation. He has incited the public, especially his base – the loyal right wing voters, the believers. There are lots of them. He has incited them against the media. That’s the division.

The other half of the Israeli electorate would be saying that Bibi has instilled poison into Israeli society.

So, what are the charges? I will not go into all the details as it’s very complicated and they’re open for debate. Basically, the main charge against Bibi is not that he got –  from one Israeli billionaire tycoon in Hollywood and his friend Australian billionaire James Pecker – deliveries of pink champagne for his wife and good Havana cigars for himself. He has now stopped smoking – better safe than sorry. The main charge against Bibi is that he, as the regulator in his position on top of being Prime Minister as the minister of communications, granted Israel’s biggest telephone company, Bezeq, all sorts of advantages and benefits, to the tune of one billion shekels. That’s a quarter of a billion Aussie dollars. In return for what? In return for having a secondary, not very important news website owned by the guy who owned the telecom company, to get them to print occasionally, not on a continuous basis, stories favourable to Bibi with very nice pictures of his wife. The right angle.

The main charge against Bibi is that he, as the regulator in his position on top of being Prime Minister as the minister of communications, granted Israel’s biggest telephone company, Bezeq, all sorts of advantages and benefits

Many people in Israel, including top jurists, question the validity of these charges. If you’re going to question, and interrogate and investigate, a relationship between the media and politicians, there are lots of stories. It’s very complex. And Bibi’s lawyers will call to the witness stand every publisher, editor, political pundit and political correspondent in Israel along with all the publishers of newspapers and owners of media networks, etc, to testify about their relationship over decades with politicians. It’s going to be a long process and it’s not going to be nice. But, the recommendation of the attorney general is to charge Bibi with that.

There is another issue. This involves two conversations, taped by Bibi’s aid who has now turned state witness, of Bibi’s discussions with his main enemy, the publisher of the biggest evening newspaper in Israel in which a deal was discussed. The publisher’s request of the PM was that he kill a rival newspaper financed by Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire from America, a big supporter of Trump. His paper was distributed for free. The deal called for a dramatic decline in the circulation of that rival newspaper. Bibi was promised support from that publisher that would ensure he was Prime Minister for as long as he wished. And it’s all on tape. And lawyers in Israel, once they get evidence material, are very quick to provide their journalist friends with copies. The network where I am employed has tapes of conversations and interrogations and investigations and whatever; it’s there.

The publisher’s request of the PM was that he kill a rival newspaper financed by Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire from America, a big supporter of Trump.

The Attorney General of Israel was previously the secretary of Bibi’s cabinet; he was close to him There was a hearing in which Bibi’s lawyers had a chance to convince the Attorney General to change the charges or drop them altogether. And this is the point we are in now. The Attorney General has to decide whether the original charges stay or whether he makes some amendments or even drops one of the three main charges. The Attorney General, in my opinion, is waiting for the outcome of coalition negotiations. He doesn’t want to be seen as putting the judicial system into the very sensitive or volatile political process taking place right now. But, at some point, he will have to decide.

The next point is this. Israel is a complex place. It’s a tiny piece of real estate, and very complicated. We have a law, passed by our Knesset long before Bibi felt that he would ever become prime minister. It says that a Prime Minister against whom criminal charges are filed in the court, can stay in office until convicted at the last instance by the Supreme Court. With all the appeals, we are talking here of two or three years. The Prime Minister and the Prime Minister only is allowed to stay in office while standing trial. So, in a way, Bibi has a built-in immunity. Not against prosecution but he can stay and have his day in court while he is in power.

It says that a Prime Minister against whom criminal charges are filed in the court, can stay in office until convicted at the last instance by the Supreme Court.

Bibi’s problem is that his potential partners after the last election will not accept it. And Another Prime Minister, Mr Olmert, once he was charged, his partners to the coalition said, “Now you go”. And he had to go, and he served time in prison. Israel is a dangerous place for politicians. We had the Prime Minister in prison, we had a minister of the treasury in prison, we had the President, an ex-President.who  was charged when he was President for rape and was convicted.

We are now at the point where Bibi has been given his 28 days to form a government and failed. He’s blocked his 55 seats, with all the other right wing ultra-orthodox parties. So far, it’s a solid block. Now it’s the turn of his main rival, the leader of Blue and White, retired major general Benny Ganzt, to try to form a government. But he has, at best, only 53 seats, and he cannot do it. He needs to get defectors from the right wing, centre right block, an ultra orthodox party, some defectors from Bibi’s own party the Likud who are now waiting for his departure, or some combination of these. Or, he could theoretically form a minority government with the 53 he has which will be supported by the 13 votes from the Unified Arab List.

He could theoretically form a minority government with the 53 he has which will be supported by the 13 votes from the Unified Arab List.

The Unified Arab List consists of Muslim Brothers, Palestinian nationalists. The communists or ex-communists are the most important faction within this unified list. But what is important is the fact that, for the first time in the 70+ years history of the Israeli parliament, we have arrived at this situation where the Arabs, representing that fifth of the population, under pressure from their constituents, the Arab street, have been saying for quite some time to their representatives, “You may sit at the back benches in parliament and scream as much as you want about occupation, Palestinian State, etc, that’s fine, but what about us?”

There is a major problem of violence in Israel’s Arab society, too many weapons, police not very effective in the Arab villages and people complaining loudly. The police want more police stations. There are questions of employment and development and budgets for the municipalities. A whole range of issues. And they are saying to the members of the United Arab List – you play politics the way you play politics but get some benefits  for us. The same way that the Israeli ultra orthodox parties do. They charge for their participation and votes in parliament. This is a very positive development because it’s another step towards the integration of the Arab minority more and more in the life of the state and the politics.

There is a major problem of violence in Israel’s Arab society, too many weapons, police not very effective in the Arab villages and people complaining loudly.

Now, a word about Gantz.   Our former Defence minister, whom I had the honour to serve when I was very young. General Dayan used to say about certain officers. He would say, he’s a very good officer, in the bad sense of the word. The meaning was that this guy is a very good officer where he is now but he’s not up to promotion. That’s Gantz. He became a chief of staff by accident. He was an extremely unimpressive chief of staff but he is the opposite of the way Bibi is portrayed and seen by the public. He is decent and straight forward, almost two metres tall, blue eyes, the ultimate whatever, dreamland Israeli. If Gantz is not able to perform a miracle and get defectors then he will have to return the mandate to the president like Bibi did after 28 days. He still has three weeks to go, and then we enter the minefield.

The minefield is a period of 21 days in which any member of parliament can try to form a coalition. And this is money time, as we say in sport. This is when members of the Knesset will have to make up their minds whether they go for a grand coalition, or a national unity coalition of Bibi and Gantz together. If the latter, Bibi and Gantz together with their own parties have a clear majority of 65 leaving other parties not much say.

Bibi and Gantz together with their own parties have a clear majority of 65 leaving other parties not much say.

The formula on the table was proposed by the President of the State, Mr Rivlin. He comes from Bibi’s party but they are not friends. He offered the following formula. They go to a national unity, grand coalition, with rotation in the position of Prime Minister. Bibi serves first, which is Bibi’s condition and, once the indictments are filed, although he is not required to do so by law, he will declare himself incapacitated, will remain at the Prime Minister’s residence but Gantz will take over the position of Prime Minister. And they will split the portfolios 50/50.

I think it’s a smart proposal. We need to see whether the pair can bring themselves, themselves to do that. But it is not simple.

All this is happening when the country is half paralysed. We call it transition government which, by law, is not allowed to take major decisions, it’s a care-taking cabinet. It’s happening when Israel has just surpassed Japan in per capita per annum income. The explosion of innovation in Israel in many fields is mind boggling, even to Israelis. On the other hand, the skies over Israel are becoming very cloudy.

Instead of dealing with the major challenge that Israel is facing now, the politicians are dealing with the results of an undecided election. It is a major challenge in terms of security. We haven’t been in such dire straits for many decades. The Iranians are slowly, but consistently, trying to tie the noose around our necks. I believe we are on a collision course for a major war with the Iranians all over the Levant, the Fertile Crescent. We have never had anything like this before.

Instead of dealing with the major challenge that Israel is facing now, the politicians are dealing with the results of an undecided election

To illustrate, the Iranians are working to upgrade the 140 thousand missiles of Hezbollah in Lebanon, to convert them into accurate missiles. It’s just a matter of inserting a GPS kit you can carry in a suitcase into the missiles that they already have, the Zelzal 2, the Fateh 110, etc. And the Israeli airforce has been carrying out more than 1000 strikes over the past three and a half years against this Iranian shipment which go through Syria, with the consent of Russia’s Putin. We did not stop it altogether and the Iranians are still at it. Israel cannot live with such danger, with the spectre of thousands of accurate missiles, missiles that can hit a target chosen within 50 metres. Whatever air defence we have, there are going to be salvos of hundreds of missiles.

The second issue is that the Iranians are trying to build their own war machine on Syrian territory – an arsenal of missiles, heavy missiles, long range, with launchers, everything, a good number of attack drones. Along with that, there is anything between 50-100,000 militia men, shiite militia men, not Iranians. The Iranians also are upgrading, by providing inteligence to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, allowing them to upgrade their missile arsenal and rockets arsenal. Just two days ago, 11 missiles were sent into Israel for no reason – some local commander decided it was a good time to launch missiles into Israel. The Israeli airforce responded – as routine.

The second issue is that the Iranians are trying to build their own war machine on Syrian territory – an arsenal of missiles, heavy missiles, long range, with launchers, everything, a good number of attack drones.

In the villages and townlets around the border of the Gaza Strip which are hit by those missiles, if you want to buy a unit, a one bedroom or two bedroom, in any Kibbutz or townlets, you will have to stand in queue for two, three years because there is such demand. People will tell you it’s the quality of life, the good education system, etc, etc. This is the paradox. Israel cannot wait for Iran to put everything planned for in place. And we have disrupted, our generals believe, about 80 per cent of the Iranian plan in Syria but they are still at it. So it’s going slower than they have expected or hoped for. This is what we are facing.

There is one scenario to consider. You’re all aware of the attack that the Iranians mounted against the Aramco oil installations in Saudi Arabia – a worst scenario. People didn’t believe something like this would happen. Of course, there was no American response. Twenty-five cruise missiles and attack drones fired from Iran, mostly, and the rest from Iraq, destroyed what they wanted to destroy in the single most important oil installation on the globe. But, what will stop the Iranians from doing the same, and the cruise missiles can do the 1000+ kms. What will prevent the Iranians from deciding one morning that, in retaliation for some Israeli airforce attack on a convoy or shipment of missiles in Syria, they are not mounting a similar attack against Israel.

Twenty-five cruise missiles and attack drones fired from Iran, mostly, and the rest from Iraq, destroyed what they wanted to destroy in the single most important oil installation on the globe. But, what will stop the Iranians from doing the same

The Americans have, basically, accepted it as a fait accompli, a done deal. So we are on a collision course, not imminent, but we are getting there. This means we have vast expanses of land which will cover Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, parts of Iraq, probably Iran itself and certainly Israel. That’s a big one. We have never had a war of this scale in the Middle East. The Americans are out.

Russia’s Putin, with 40 pieces of aircraft since September 2015, managed to change the course of the war in Syria. Putin has good relations with Bibi; they like each other. Putin is allowing us to attack the Iranians provided we don’t touch Assad. And we don’t. But he can change his mind. With the US in the region, their bases in Qatar, UAE, Iraq and so on, they have 300-400 planes which did only one thing, target ISIS.

Arabs have reached the conclusion that they are on their own. They gave the red carpet to Putin’s coming to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the UAE etc. They understand the Americans are not there. And if they are there they are not there to fight and protect. There is no umbrella anymore.

Israelis have reached the same conclusion. Trump may love us, he may be a great friend of Israel and he moves the embassy, what does it mean move the embassy? He takes the sign from the embassy in Tel Aviv and sticks it under consulate in Jerusalem. And he recognises that the Golan Heights is part of Israel etc. But at the end of the day, we are left to face, alone, Putin and the Russian airforce as an immediate next door neighbour.

Trump may love us, he may be a great friend of Israel and he moves the embassy, what does it mean move the embassy?

Israel has been left alone to block the Iranians. President Trump has all the rhetorics about stopping the Iranians, sanctions, sanctions and sanctions doesn’t stop the Iranians. Therefore, I’m going back to the beginning. A grand coalition, a unity government, is what Israel needs. Only a government like this can make the dramatic decisions that are called for not only in terms of the domestic policies and so on, but also in terms of Iran, while there are steps that have to be taken concerning the Palestinians.

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