terça-feira, 3 de julho de 2012

Mideast on Target

Netanyahu: The Next Year and a Half, a Socio-Economic Look
By Yisrael Ne'eman

Last month Shaul Mofaz brought his Kadima party into a national unity government coalition with PM Benyamin Netanyahu's Likud. Speculation was rife as to why the two made the agreement. Everyone was preparing for the last vote in the Knesset to legislate early elections for September 4. Mofaz and Kadima were far behind in the public opinion polls and Netanyahu appeared to have the up coming elections wrapped up with some 31 seats. He would form another right wing/religious government while the Kadima centrists and the left would continue sinking further into the opposition quick sand.

But something did not add up. Let's call it multiple contradictions. Did Netanyahu want to remain in a right/religious coalition where the settlement movement in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) calls the shots on foreign policy as far as Palestinian issues are concerned? Did the PM and his party want to be beholden to the Sephardi ultra-orthodox party Shas (11 seats) and their Ashkenazi counterparts in United Torah Judaism – UTJ (6 seats) where rabbinical determinations trump policy decisions by elected officials especially when confronting the Supreme Court decision demanding equality between all sectors in light of the military draft? The "social justice" movement was brewing for another summer of protests not only by the middle class but by the lower classes who see themselves as constant losers especially in the wake of the illegal immigrant surge from Africa. And of course there is the Iranian problem. Should one take action and if so, when? Netanyahu preferred Kadima and Mofaz who having recently replaced the more liberal Tzipi Livne, decided that fateful decisions were not made in the opposition. Is this a marriage of convenience or a confluence of interests? There is a bit of both.

First a word about Mofaz. He is the son of Iranian immigrants who worked his way up to becoming army chief of staff at the end of the 1990s when he defeated Matan Vilnai who was considered a shoe in for the position. He later became defense minister under PM Ariel Sharon until the 2006 elections. Mofaz followed Sharon and former PM Ehud Olmert into Kadima (even though he first announced he would remain in the Likud), made his way to #2 and now leads the faltering party. Kadima retains the same neo-liberal economic ideals as Netanyahu and the Likud but is centrist-left on foreign policy. Under Livne Kadima wallowed in the opposition. Before the next elections Mofaz wants to prove his party will make a difference in overall policy implementation.

The picture at the moment is getting quite a bit dimmer:
The middle class "social justice" movement demos of last summer will return with the housing issue in the forefront. The government promise of free schooling from the age of three is expected to be implemented this September and there is the continual discussion of a tax reform of sorts. Such expectations may prove major disappointments. But a much larger question is in the offering – Will the explosive lower classes take to the streets demanding decent low income (and government subsidized) housing, schools where children actually get an education, a drastic lowering of food prices (which are 20% higher than the average OECD nation), jobs and physical security on their streets? As is known the revolt against the illegal African immigrants, especially from Sudan and Eritrea is here with the accompanying violence. The Knesset right wing, including certain Likud members, is fanning the flames for political reasons but it may blow up in everyone's face since no real solutions are being offered. Putting illegal immigrants into detention is one thing, solving all the other issues is far more difficult. We may be in for a very volatile summer with Israel's under classes in the starring role pushing aside the polite, fairly well connected genteel middle class professionals whose idea of a demonstration includes a trek with baby carriages and some good music.

Let's recall that most of Israel's working class population votes for the Likud and right wing parties. Despite their situation they are loathe to take on the government. If pushed to the wall they may, but first they will take out their anger on the African migrants, tens of thousands of whom are in Israel illegally but obviously must enjoy basic human rights and police protection against bodily harm. We may have a situation of displaced aggression being meted out against this unfortunate group when the real anger is against the government. One would think that their disappearance will greatly improve the socio-economic status of Israel's lower classes. If well organized, lower class anger will pour into the streets and make a difference and if not we may be in for the soccer fan variety of hooliganism, but on a fairly large scale.

The government is constantly stressing its great economic success. The expectation is for a "trickle down" capitalist economy. Unfortunately for Netanyahu the economy is extremely centralized around twenty families or so. Israel's GDP grows by more than 4% yearly since the mid-2000s but the average person feels he is being left out. The overall cry for an economic decentralization and more taxes on the rich will be heard. Officials from the World Bank and the governor of the Bank of Israel Stanley Fischer (similar to the US federal reserve chairman) have voiced similar criticisms.

So this brings us to the 2013 election year state budget. There is an immediate need for a 7-10 billion shekel cut but this apparently will not be enough. Overall, there is a cumulative 32 billion shekel deficit over the past year or so, much the result of the slowing world economic picture and export decline. There are options of raising taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations while slashing the defense budget. Or one can cut social services to the lower classes. And any combination of the above comes to mind. The tax burden as usual will fall on the middle class bringing about the exact opposite result of the Trachtenberg Report recommendations for partial budget restructuring following last summer's protests. Expectations were raised while the economic picture worsened.

While economic disparities in Israeli society annoy many, the state legislated inequality in favor of the ultra-orthodox (haredi) communities is infuriating. As is well known most haredi youth continue studying in yeshivas (or pretend to) while Israeli high school graduates go to the army. The haredi population is growing much faster than any other in the Jewish sector, yet they are barely present when asked to serve the country. The Supreme Court ruled recently that the haredim must be treated equally and not be given special privileges. The last government initiative on this matter known as the Tal Law was recently struck down by the Court and is due to expire on July 31. The government is scrambling to find an alternative without violating the Court decision and it is quite probable the Shas and UTJ ultra-orthodox parties will leave the coalition taking 17 seats with them. Augmented by 28 Kadima seats there will be no government crisis. However how will the army draft yeshiva students who refuse military service while enjoying the full support of their rabbis to defy the Court and the State? Will they do the acceptable national service instead or will there be a form of deferment and/or job arrangement which in itself may entail legal difficulties? Here is one more social-political crisis for the summer.

Netanyahu and Mofaz have their work cut out for them on the socio-economic front but this is only half the story. The government must deal with the settler movement and the Givat Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El which pits the hard line right wing and religious against Netanyahu, the center and the left in a battle not only over the future of a neighborhood but in an ideological confrontation over the fate of the State of Israel, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Israel's relationship with the Palestinians. Add to this the greater picture of the continuing political Islamization of the Arab World and the Iranian nuclear threat and the picture begins to sharpen. Netanyahu prefers decision making with Kadima at his side and does not want to rely on the ultra-orthodox and/or pro-settlement Jewish Home party (3 seats) for support as he seeks out a more centrist position. Mofaz and Kadima must prove they are players in the game and that only they can move the government towards a more secular and middle position, if they fail they the 2013 elections may be their undoing.


Netanyahu and Mofaz: Broadening the Middle Eastern Perspective?
By Yisrael Ne'eman

While Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu may be seen as a strong virtually irreplaceable leader he certainly faces overwhelming challenges. As daunting as domestic issues appear the full existential threat is erupting on the outside in the form of the Iranian nuclear threat and the Islamic Awakening in the Arab World. On the local level, the continuing stand offs with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the potential instability in the PA/Fatah ruled West Bank (Judea and Samaria) produce daily conflicts. Add in the continued economic deterioration of Israel's largest trading partner in the Euro zone and the future is at best unsure. Here are just a few more reasons why Netanyahu preferred Shaul Mofaz's Kadima faction at his side and did not want to be dependent on the ultra-orthodox factions for coalition stability.
As concerns EU economic relations Israel has a small economy and a fair amount of flexibility in finding other markets. Since the mid 2000s Israeli entrepreneurs with government support are opening markets in the world's two most populous countries, mainland China and India. Israeli exports need to be and are being redirected for a more balanced trade picture.

The security issues are far more dire. All may be coming to a head by July first when full European sanctions are expected to go into effect against the Khomeinist Shiite Iranian regime should they not halt their nuclear weapons program. Recent negotiations between Tehran and the West came to nothing and even should there be an agreement, the Iranians will follow the North Korean example and violate all commitments. It is well known Pres. Ahmedinejad & Co. are committed to Israel's destruction and are only buying time. The Israeli dilemma remains in place: When does the West knock out the Iranian nuclear potential? If the West delays to the point of Iranian nuclear armament at what point does Israel take matters into its own hands and strike? And what will be the political – diplomatic price to be paid by Jerusalem? What will be Tehran's rocket response? As declared "centrists" Netanyahu wants Kadima's consent to whatever policy decisions must be implemented. Let's recall that Kadima leader Mofaz is against attacking the Iranian facilities but this too can change as everything is a matter of timing.
Here Iran's Syrian and Lebanese Hezobllah allies/proxies come into play when ordered to drop rockets on Israel. As for Syria, Israel needs to prepare for the fall of Assad, but no one knows which Syrian opposition will replace his Baath Party. The best bet is the Muslim Brotherhood, meaning a worse option than the present reality. The Lebanese cannot take on Hezbollah and win. Only a complete Iranian demise will end that threat.
The Islamic Awakening and removal of Arab secular regimes is the most serious long term concern for Israel and the West. Egypt's military is attempting to hold off a full Muslim Brotherhood election sweep but in the end they will be forced to concede defeat. It appears that Gen. Tantawi and the SCAF military rulers were hoping for some form of hybrid arrangement with the Brotherhood in an attempt to hold back a much more fanatical Islamic takeover by the Salafists and Al Qaeda down the road. Mohammed Morsi may have taken the presidential elections but his declared moderation cannot be expected to last. The street will speak and the military, despite the amount of force used, will fail in the long run. Israel faces a low intensity conflict (LIC) on the Negev border in the short term as Islamic terror groups increasingly operate in Sinai to the detriment of Egyptian security forces. The Egyptian military brass view the 1979 peace treaty as a strategic pillar for national security and are not willing to initiate a full scale war in the name of Jihad, Allah or anyone else. To do so means to break ties with the West and get crushed on the battlefield. The smoldering border conflict with Gaza is moving south and spilling over onto the Egyptian frontier. Israel needs a measured response not endangering the already fragile relations with Cairo while simultaneously damaging Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and/or Al Qaeda terrorists in Sinai. To win, the Egyptian army needs to regain control of the region. It is here that Netanyahu wants to hear from former army chief of staff and ex-defense minister Mofaz in the hope of outmaneuvering the more right wing elements in his government.
Much worse is the long term forecast. The revolution may peak with a Salafist extremist push replacing a "cold peace" with a very hot border, if not a war. But should they only try and fail, deeper turmoil in Egypt can be expected with no positive outcome in sight. It just might take longer for an extremist victory.
Turning to the Palestinians Kadima is once again part of the larger picture. To retain calm on the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) front Netanyahu needs at least the semblance of negotiations and someone to take the blame whether they succeed or not. The issue here is less one of keeping Palestinian Authority PM Mahmud Abbas happy and more of satisfying the Americans and Europeans. Any agreement with the Fatah led West Bank administration will ignite an anti-government reaction by the settler activists who enjoy support in the Likud's right wing. Netanyahu needs bolstering from the center, meaning Kadima, to ensure any advancement on the peace front. No major shifts are to be expected, rather there may be a broadening into Stage II of the Bush Road Map whereby an interim Palestinian State is formed but without permanent borders. Netanyahu is consistent in first demanding an "economic peace" whereby there is Palestinian state-in-the-making development and something to lose should such a future regime prove belligerent. This may very well be the "price" the Likud must pay not only to stay in power but to ensure US and EU support in the continuing confrontation with Iran. The West wants to prove that not all the Arab/Muslim world will go Islamist. The Abbas regime is to be an example of a secular western leaning Arab nationalist regime bringing development, security and peace to its people. Such an option is to stand in full contradiction to the Hamas Gaza radicals.

Speaking of Gaza, every three months there is another round of shelling into the Negev and counter attacks by Israel - so here we are again. Israel has every interest in a quiet border but cannot take major action until the Iranian contest is solved and that may take until the end of summer. Afterwards Israel will have a much freer hand, in particular with Kadima in the government and even more so should there be a "peace process" on the Fatah/West Bank front.
Netanyhu moved towards the middle to allow more room for maneuver. Any price to be paid especially as concerns the Palestinians or containing of the settlement movement will be blamed on Kadima. Any credit for "success" on these fronts will be claimed by Mofaz. Each side will take credit or appropriate blame for their own advantage. Behind closed doors both are seeking similar policies and outcomes. With the Likud as the front runner by far the pressure is more on Mofaz to prove Kadima can impact policies by shifting them more middle road.
On the foreign policy front there are far too many factors completely beyond Israel's control to predict any sort of direction. One aspect appears fairly sure, European sanctions will intensify against Iran as of July. The Iranian reaction will determine much of what happens this summer, at least as a first step. What that response will be nobody knows. Quite possibly it is here where the dominoes will begin to fall.

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