Middle East Monitor / September 11, 2020
Iraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a number of crises. On a personal level, the most serious are the corruption charges against him. If found guilty, he will be out of office, labelled as a corrupt prime minister and possibly even imprisoned.
He believes that he can escape this fate by juggling the officials in charge of his trial, and changing the law to protect himself. To do this, he needs an absolute right-wing majority, with just a small push required to boost his popularity and achieve a political victory. Ironically, this push might come from the Arabs. If it is not enough, he may resort to war. Netanyahu needs a new victory over the Arabs, peacefully or by force, if he is to stay in power.
Although Netanyahu is responsible for war crimes and the killing of thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Syria and even Iraq, he is only being charged with corruption. This reveals the true face of Israeli “democracy”, which dazzles the West and some Arabs even though it rewards war criminals, and only holds to account those found to be financial corrupt; it is the logic of criminals.
Regardless of this paradox, there has been a remarkable increase in the admiration of some Arabs for all things Israeli recently, and a fascination with Israel’s democracy, which puts prime ministers on trial. Let’s look carefully at the hands of Israeli officials, though; they are bloodstained. Such admiration betrays a lack of morality.
Although Israel is confident that it can act with impunity, there is real fear among its political, security and judicial elites about possible decisions by the International Criminal Court against a large number of Israeli officials who have violated international law and committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. ICC judgements may affect Israeli leaders, military personnel, ministers and settlement officials.
Unsurprisingly, Israel is desperate to prevent this, with Washington’s support and assistance from an increasing number of Arab friends, who are complicit by their silence. Netanyahu has said repeatedly in international forums, “If the Arabs are with me, why are you against me?” I’ve heard this directly from a number of European officials in recent years. Such Arab support should not be underestimated, as it strengthens Israel’s position globally.
Straight after the UAE-Israel agreement was announced, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi went to Europe and asserted that obstacles have been overcome and so the level of economic, research and political relations with the EU can be raised. He declared that the UAE deal and the freezing of annexation plans have created a new atmosphere. The development of Israel-EU relations is important for the Israeli economy.
With the indictments that he is facing, Netanyahu’s policies are formulated to stop his trial and prevent his conviction; this is his priority. He wants to contest an early election at the first opportunity and win an absolute majority, enabling him to form a right-wing government supportive of his war on the judiciary, the police and the deep state, which he considers to be obstacles to his personal and political goals. In particular, he seeks to replace the public prosecutor, the attorney general, the inspector general of the police, a number of judges and all those connected to his trial in order to weaken the hostility of the parties pursuing him and make them seek an acquittal.
Furthermore, Netanyahu wants to introduce legislation that will grant him immunity and prevent the Supreme Court from interfering to annul any judgement in his favour, as has been done in similar cases in the past. With a sufficient majority, he will seek to pass the so-called French Law, which would postpone the investigation and trial of prime ministers until their term of office comes to an end. Judicial experts familiar with the details of his case, including his defence team, believe that as things stand there is a strong possibility that the trial will end with Netanyahu going to prison. He needs a majority in the Knesset in order to stage what would be nothing less than a coup against Israel’s judiciary.
It is thus certain that another General Election will be held next year, with the timing based on Netanyahu’s assessment of his chances of obtaining an absolute majority, which he has failed to do in the last three polls. He judges that now is not the right time to call a snap election, because he will lose if he does.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets of Israel to protest against Netanyahu’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Opinion polls suggest that more than 60 per cent of respondents believe that he has failed in tackling the spread of the coronavirus, putting political considerations over the health of the nation. Here, it must be pointed out that Israel is not the omnipotent state that some Arabs believe. Despite its limited capabilities, Jordan, for example, has managed the pandemic far more effectively than Israel, and yet the UAE insists on cooperating with the rogue occupation state in the struggle against Covid-19 rather than with the relatively successful Arab countries.
Israel is now in recession, with a 10 per cent fall in its GDP, one million people unemployed and tens of thousands of small businesses going bankrupt. Tourism has collapsed — as it has in other countries regionally and globally — with a resultant effect on airlines and dozens of related companies. In the context of a General Election, millions of voters have been affected negatively on Netanyahu’s watch, with many now below the poverty line, which is a new phenomenon in Israel.
The coalition government cobbled together by Netanyahu has not met for an entire month, which is unprecedented. It was established as an emergency government to confront the health and economic crises, but has failed to approve a budget, an economic programme or a plan to tackle Covid-19, which has only made matters worse. It is gripped by paralysis, apart from the army and security services, and it sometimes appears as if Netanyahu and his Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz have handed over decision-making to the generals, who are usually less reckless than the politicians. If Netanyahu senses that his ship is sinking, though, he will immediately take back the right to make decisions and engineer a security crisis so that the imagery linked to a military victory over the Arabs will help him no less than that of the surrender of the UAE’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed.
Despite the ongoing demonstrations calling for Netanyahu to step down because of his corruption and sabotage of democracy in Israel — they are taking place at intersections, over bridges, opposite his house in Caesarea and around the prime minister’s residence in Paris Square in West Jerusalem — the prime minister has been able to fragment the opposition. However, this is not enough for him to be sure of victory in another election.
Relief may be at hand, though, and it may come courtesy of the Arabs, who have not failed him so far: they kept quiet when he committed war crimes, and were silent when he agreed with Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US Embassy there; nor did they say or do anything when the US gave its approval to illegal settlements and the annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights.
As Netanyahu has started to drown, it is the UAE which has thrown him a lifeline; other Arab lifelines then followed. The announcement of the UAE-Israel deal; the launch of flights from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi through Saudi airspace; and the talk of more Arab normalisation, breathed some life back into Israel’s prime minister.
As he prepares for the election that he believes will save his political life, he knows that losing is still possible. However, where not so long ago we would have said that a loss was a certainty, the winds of Arab normalisation have boosted his popularity among Knesset members. Will it be enough for him to form a government without relying on coalition partners? More regional support would almost guarantee it, so are we about to see the Arabs saving Netanyahu?
Jamal Zahalka is an Palestinian citizen of Israel who serves as a member of the Knesset representing the Balad party – part of the Joint List