There is a profusion of events to report on, none of which is likely to be greeted as good news. So we’ll take it as it comes….
We can begin with news about the Israeli election, which has been set for April 9. The Knesset voted to dissolve itself yesterday.
By law, elections were not due until November 2019, but an earlier date had been anticipated – although not necessarily quite as early as April. The razor-thin majority of the coalition, following the withdrawal of Avigdor Lieberman, made it more likely: there was an inherent instability in the situation.
In the final vote on this, of its 120 members, 102 voted for dissolving the Knesset and two against.
Ostensibly, the coalition fell apart over a draft law that the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties would not support.
But there is potentially another issue here, which I have been reluctant to discuss, because it is messy and unpleasant and lacks clarity: There have been investigations of Prime Minister Netanyahu that have led to a recommendation by the police that he be indicted on corruption (bribery) charges.
It now falls to Attorney General Mandleblit to decide whether to indict – police recommendations are just that.
Is Netanyahu guilty? I am not in a position to say with certainty. I recognize it as a possibility but also recognize the principle of innocent until proved guilty.
What I am certain about is that there are strong political elements playing into what is going on here and that there have been throughout. That is what makes it all so unpleasant. And as it proceeds, it gets messier and messier. In truth, I have paid little attention to the investigations because I felt what was taking place was fueled by mixed motivations.
There is the thought that the prime minister was eager to set an early date for elections so that they might occur before an indictment came through – if one was going to come through, or, alternately, might discourage the attorney general from indicting. Netanyahu says he won’t step down if indicted and there are reports – fiercely denied – of Likud pressure on Mandelblit that, should he decide to indict, he should not do so before the election.
I will not pursue this further now. My own strongly held opinion is that there should be no investigative/legal process of this sort, unless it involves potential treason, during the term of a sitting prime minister. Such processes should be held in legal abeyance until after he/she is out of office, when there would be full accountability. For what we see now is a distraction to Netanyahu in terms of where he should be focusing during an exceedingly tense time for Israel.
In due course, I will track this election for my readers. Israeli elections are never a simple matter – we’ve got three months of a campaign circus ahead of us.
All polls indicate that, were the elections held now, Netanyahu’s Likud would win handily. That is, Netanyahu is likely to still be prime minister after April 9. I am not certain that I understand the mind of Israel’s voters, for there has been enormous discontent with the prime minister regarding his lack of strength in handling Hamas and other issues. Does this mean that they believe no one else can lead the country? Certainly the possibility of an indictment does not seem to be affecting voter preference.
Gideon Sa’ar, who took a rest from politics, has returned and will be running in the Likud primary for a position on that list. He aspires to the position of prime minister in due course.
Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, recently announced that he was starting his own party, the “Israel Resistance Party.” There were no particulars forthcoming as to what it would represent. This was followed by an announcement that Moshe Ya’alon, a former IDF chief of staff and former minister of defense, was also starting his own party. Then rumors, which have not been confirmed, surfaced indicating that they would join forces. How this will affect elections, if significantly at all, remains to be seen. Now I see that there is talk of Tzipi Livni joining with Gantz.
This is how it goes in Israel…
It was announced this week that a fifth Hezbollah cross-border terror tunnel had been found some days ago, originating near the Lebanese village of Ayta ash Shab and entering Israel near the farming community of Shtula.
Below you see Maj. Gen. Yoel Strik, the head of the IDF’s Northern Command, as he was supervising destruction of the tunnel on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu, wearing his defense minister hat, I guess, toured the north with the Security Cabinet. There, they were provided a briefing by top IDF brass, and he declared, “The IDF presented us with its actions regarding the neutralization of the tunnels. This operation is almost entirely behind us.”
He then added, “There is an extraordinary job here that has denied the weapons of the tunnels from Hezbollah, which invested a lot in this. But [we] have destroyed it for them.”
And, indeed, this is a first-class IDF operation that is enhancing our security. What Hezbollah intended for our north is chilling. But in point of fact, it is not almost entirely behind us: The operation to locate and eliminate tunnels from Lebanon, which has been in process for just over three weeks now, is still ongoing. IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus estimated that the army still needed an additional “few weeks.”
See an interesting description of the process being utilized:
Additionally, let no one imagine that once all of the tunnels are eliminated we will be “home free” with regard to Hezbollah and Lebanon. Frustrated and chastened though Hezbollah may be, there are still their stockpiled rockets and missiles to contend with. A great deal of discussion is ensuing regarding the wisdom of doing a pre-emptive attack to diminish this threat.
What we need to turn our attention to now is the very volatile situation with regard to Syria:
As all, or almost all, of my readers undoubtedly know, just over a week ago, President Trump announced that he was going to be pulling US troops, some 2,000 in number, out of Syria because ISIS had been defeated and the job of America there was done. Several things about this state of affairs seemed alarming:
— The decision was apparently made without consultation with key advisors or the Pentagon, which was opposed, and so it seemed that Trump was acting very impulsively.
— Although the presence of ISIS was very significantly diminished, it was not totally defeated. ISIS pockets remain and there is worry about a resurgence in the absence of American troops.
— Consultation with Turkey’s President Erdogan played a role in Trump’s decision. Erdogan? That trouble-making Islamist? Trump reportedly told Erdogan, “It’s all yours,” as he left it to the Turkish leader to wipe out the remaining ISIS pockets. This was of considerable concern, for turning matters over to the Turks might well put the Kurds, a US ally, at great risk.
The thought that Trump might throw the Kurds under the bus was deeply worrisome, first, for the sake of the Kurds, but then also worrisome with regard to how Trump might respond to Israel in the future, if Israel’s needs and US needs did not dovetail.
—While ISIS was a primary reason, it was not so that it was the only reason for retaining US troops in Syria. There is also the matter of Iran, which is always seeking to strengthen its presence in southern Syria, near the Golan, and to forge a corridor from Teheran to Beirut, coming across Syria from Iraq to Syria’s east. That corridor would enhance Iranian ability to transfer weapons and troops to Hezbollah.
This map might make the complicated situation a bit clearer:
The last scenario described above – with withdrawal of US troops creating a vacuum into which Iran can more readily move – is particularly worrisome for Israel. Israel’s leaders, however, were circumspect in their comments (all emphasis added).
Prime Minister Netanyahu, who, as I understand it, attempted to change Trump’s mind in a phone conversation, first let it be known that US decisions are respected:
“This is, of course, an American decision. We will study its timetable, how it will be implemented, and, of course, its implications for us…In any case, we will take care to maintain the security of Israel and to defend ourselves in this area.”
He later elaborated:
“The decision to remove the 2,000 troops from Syria will not change our ongoing policy: We will continue to act against Iran’s attempt to establish military bases in Syria, and if necessary we will even expand our operations there.
“I would also like to reassure those concerned – our cooperation with the United States continues in full force and is carried out in many areas: operational, intelligence and many other security fields.”
As for Erdogan, Netanyahu, cut him no slack, calling him an “antisemitic dictator’ who Is “obsessed” with Israel.
While Chief of Staff Eisenkot said:
“It is a significant event, but there’s no need to overstate it. We’ve been dealing with this front alone for decades.
“This was an American decision. The IDF has been working independently this whole time, including during the period of American and Russian presence.”
And, indeed, the point must be made that Israel never expected the US to provide military protection. It is understood that Israel protects Israel.
In the wake of my first alarm about the situation, I did research that uncovered additional information which mitigated some of my concern. I do not pretend to be happy with this, but I think it can be managed.
What I found fascinating is that there were almost as many opinions as there are commentators: there seems to be no consensus among serious thinking persons about the implication of the withdrawal.
While many commentators are deeply concerned, some actually see positive implications. Some have advanced the thought that it is a plus that Saudi Arabia will work more closely with Israel against Iran in the absence of the US, and others see a new rapport between Israel and Russia as a result of this shifting dynamic.
All of this remains to be seen. It turns out that the withdrawal will not be precipitous, but is to be accomplished in stages over four to six months. Who knows what will happen in that six months and how a shifting dynamic might change Trump’s mind.
At least one political analyst, Daniel Greenfield, expressed praise for Trump’s flexibility, and his unpredictability, which keeps enemies of America off guard:
“They foolishly misread Trump by confusing commitment with consistency, and unpredictability with inconsistency…. Trump has brilliantly wielded his unpredictability to make America into a mobile piece on the world chessboard.”
With regard to risks to the Kurds, who are a strong fighting force, it has been noted that they have not fled, even as they had the chance to do so, and have not carried out some original threats made regarding intentions of making the situation more difficult for Turkey. Apparently Erdogan did promise Trump he would leave the Kurds alone, and that he would not cross the Euphrates River into Kurdish territory.
Whether Erdogan should be trusted at his word, and whether Trump was foolish or naïve to do so, is another story. It was however reassuring to know that Trump did think about protecting the Kurds.
I further note that Trump paid a surprise visit this week to American troops in Iraq, which he intends to keep in place. While in Iraq, he said:
“I have no plans to withdraw our forces from Iraq, and we can use Iraq as a base if we want to operate in Syria.”
This provides some minimal hope that he would respond as he saw the need – perhaps moving in to protect the Kurds.
I close by noting that this week Israel hit in Syria, thus once more exhibiting determination to stand strong against Iran. And now, with the shifting situation, we are acknowledging this openly: