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How the parliamentary snap elections changed so little on Israel

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Israel parliamentary elections of March 17 were won by Likud (centre-right party) that was able to conquer 30 mandates (out of 120) on an electoral night that began with a neck to neck race. Almost 24% (23.40%) of the electors in Israel decided not to punish Likud for calling election two years ahead schedule allowing the ruling party to have twelve more representatives at the Knesset (Israeli Parliament).

The Zionist Union (centre-left party), considered the main opposition bloc to the incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, came in second with less than 19% of the votes (18.67%) and 24 mandates conquered. In an election clearly marked by ethnic and religious concerns, the third place was for The Joint List, an alliance of four mainly-Arab parties, that secured 13 seats with more than 10% (10.54%) of the casted votes.

The new legislative session at the Knesset will also have representatives from seven other political forces: Yesh Atid (11 seats; 8.81%); Kulanu (10 seats; 7.49%); Bayit Yehudi (8 seats; 6.74%); Shas (7 seats; 5.73%); Yisrael Beytenu (6 seats; 5.11%); United Torah Judaism (6 seats; 5.03%) Meretz (5 seats; 3.93%). The election of March 17, 2015, registered an impressive turnout of 72.3%, an increase of 4.5% when compared with the legislative scrutiny of 2013.

The progress of turnout in Israel, quite interestingly, does not show any sort of electoral fatigue like registered in several Western countries. Israeli citizens seem to value democratic institutions, although to several analysts it is clear that voting happens due to nationalistic-conservatism (the need to protect someone’s identity) than to a firm belief on democracy in itself. The mere fact that several jewish orthodox parties gained mandates against the more ideological and less religious based parties seems to prove the dominance of national-conservatism over democracy-defenders.

Minor changes but no transformation

Israel parliamentary elections were supposed to happen only on 2017 but strong disagreements inside the five-parties ruling coalition, that supported the thirty third government of Israel, led the Prime Minister Netanyahu (Likud) to fire the Minister of Justice, Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah) and the Minister of Finance, Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) on December 2, 2014 a few hours after announcing his intention to present a dissolution bill at the Knesset.

Tension regarding budgetary affairs and the so-called “Jewish State Law” (bill that aims to codify Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish people) were the main drive behind the dissolution bill, that was approved on December 8. The eclectic political arena of Israel began moving really fast. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor Party) invited Livni to form the Zionist Union, that performed quite well on several polls before the elections.

The snap elections also brought the novelty of an alliance of four mainly-pro-Arab parties (Balad, Hadash, Ta’al, United Arab List): The Joint List. The alliance was formed due to three reasons: 1.) the understanding that several small Arab parties at the Knesset are a less efficient way to advance the Arab agenda in Israel; 2.) fear that the new threshold (that in March 2014 increased from 2% to 3.25%) would lead to less Arab representatives; 3.) The Joint List can also be seen as a symbolic reply of Arab politicians to the “Jewish State Law”.

The Law, that was immediately criticised by several Western politicians, is seen as a back step against the chance to achieve any sort of peace with the Palestinians. The law also introduces several concerns regarding the capacity of Israel to continue to be a multi-ethnoreligious space, since one ethnoreligious identity (Jewish) will be constitutionally the “owner” of Israel over all other ethnoreligious identities (mainly Muslims, Christians, Samaritans and Caucasian exiled groups). How will a strict-nation-state be in position to negotiate peace with the “other” that is not perceived politically as an equal?

The closer the election day the more mind-puzzling were the polls. No outcome could be predicted and that made the incumbent Prime-Minister very nervous. To the surprise of Washington and many other Western allies, in the end of the campaign Netanyahu stated that there would be no Palestinian state during his mandate, in what was a clear “blink-of-an-eye” to the centre-right-to- right parties that could tip the scale is his favour.

The statement was immediately denounced, by several regional leaders, as clear evidence of the unwillingness of Tel Aviv’s political elite to find a suitable solution to end the everlasting peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Internationally several politicians criticised the remarks of Netanyahu, arguing that they do not help the already tricky peace deal negotiations. Despite all the external criticism, the diplomatically perilous bet paid off on a domestic level.

Interestingly, the incumbent Prime Minister was not only “flirting” with the pro-Zionist centre-right- to-right parties but also with Reuven Rivlin, President of Israel, that is known to be a critic of the two-states solution advocated by Brussels and Washington. The electorate gave to Netanyahu what he ultimately wanted: and that was not the victory of Likud but the defeat of the Zionist Union. Netanyahu knew that if the Zionist Union would come in second, Likud would be in a better position to negotiate with the other pro-Zionist centre-right-to-right parties posed to win seats at the 34th legislative session at the Knesset.

Let the negotiations begin

Formally speaking, Netanyahu was only be invited by President Rivlin to form government, after the scrutiny of March 17, on March 25. The incumbent Prime Minister will have until April 22 to conclude the coalition deals and ministerial posts distribution. The deadline can, nonetheless, be extended to May 6 if needed. A national government with the Zionist Union is not discarded but the chances of that to materialise are slim, at best.

The new governmental coalition will most probably include Kulanu (whose leader is expected to become the new Finance Minister), Bayit Yehudi (whose leader is inclined towards the Defence and Foreign Affairs ministries but Netanyahu aims to have him with the Education post), Shas (that is seeking to secure positions at the Interior and Religious Services ministries) United Torah Judaism (with clear interest on the Health portfolio) and Yisrael Beytenu (whose leader aims to be Defence Minister despite Netanyahu’s apparent unwillingness to comply).

Although the new governmental coalition is still under negotiation what seems clear is that Tel Aviv political scenario did not changed that much with the snap elections. Likud remains in power with a deeper entrenchment in the electorate; ethnic/religious devisions are now wider and not narrower; national unity (that can only be achieved via an inclusive dialogue) remains a non-priority and the settlement of the Palestinian Affair is doomed to continue on murky waters.

Elections in Israel also showed the double standards of Western countries in what regards the defence of democratic principles. The same West that is always so vocal against the vibrant rhetoric of Hungary’s Jobik or against the nationalistic-ultraconservative style of France’s Le Pen seemed to be unable (or unwilling) to criticise the virulent nationalistic rhetoric adopted by Likud’s leader in the end of the electoral race. This double standards however are dangerous in a time in which basic pillars of democracy are being challenged by multiple contenders!

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Middle East

Saudi oil attacks put US commitments to the test

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States is rushing to retaliate for a brazen, allegedly Iranian attack that severely damaged two of the kingdom’s key oil facilities.

That is not to say that Saudi Arabia and/or the United States will not retaliate in what could prove to be a game changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Yet, reading the tea leaves of various US and Saudi statements lifts the veil on the constituent elements that could change the region’s dynamics.

They also shine a spotlight on the pressures on both countries and shifts in the US-Saudi relationship that could have long lasting consequences.

With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting the kingdom to coordinate what his office described as efforts to combat “Iranian aggression in the region,” Saudi Arabia and the United States will be seeking to resolve multiple issues.

These include collecting sufficient evidence to convincingly apportion blame; calibrating a response that would be appropriate but not drag the United States and the Middle East into a war that few want; deciding who takes the lead in any military response and managing the long-term impact of that  decision on Saudi-US relations and the US commitment to the region.

A careful reading of Saudi and US responses to the attacks so far suggests subtle differences between the two. They mask fundamental issues that have emerged in the aftermath of the attacks.

For starters, Mr. Pompeo and President Donald J. Trump have explicitly pointed the finger at Iran as being directly responsible, while Saudi Arabia stopped short of blaming the Islamic republic, saying that its preliminary findings show that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Iran has denied any involvement.

The discrepancy in the initial apportioning of blame raises the question whether Saudi Arabia is seeking to avoid being manoeuvred into a situation in which it would be forced to take the lead in retaliating against the Islamic republic with strikes against targets in Iran rather than Yemen.

Political scientist Austin Carson suggests that Saudi Arabia may have an interest in at least partially playing along with Iranian insistence that it was not responsible. “Allowing Iran’s role to remain ambiguous could reduce Saudi leaders’ need to appear strong… The Saudis are reportedly unconvinced by shared US intelligence that attempts to link the attacks to Iran’s territory. Some experts suggest this may reflect a more cautious approach to escalation,” Mr. Carson wrote in The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to unambiguously blame Iran may have a lot to do with Mr. Trump’s America First-driven response to the attacks that appeared to contradict the Carter Doctrine proclaimed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.

The doctrine, a cornerstone of the Saudi-US relationship, stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf.

Mr. Trump’s apparent weakening of the United States’ commitment to the defense of the kingdom, encapsuled in the doctrine, risks fundamentally altering the relationship, already troubled by Saudi conduct of the more than four-year long war in Yemen and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Signalling a break with the Carter doctrine, Mr. Trump was quick to point out that the attacks were on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States, and suggested that it was for the Saudis to respond.

“I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them,” Mr. Trump said without identifying what kind of support the US would be willing to provide.

Despite blustering that the United States was “locked and loaded,” Mr. Trump insisted that “we have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now.”

Mr. Trump’s response to a tweet by US Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend of the president who favours a US military strike against Iran, that “the measured response by President @realDonaldTrump…was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness” was equally telling.

No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand.” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump further called into question the nature of the US-Saudi defense relationship by declaring that “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

The Saudi foreign ministry maintained, with the attacks casting doubt on the Saudi military’s ability to defend the kingdom’s oil assets and Mr. Trump seemingly putting the onus of a response on Saudi Arabia, that “the kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks.”  

Only indisputable evidence that the drones were launched from Iranian territory would incontrovertibly point the finger at Iran.

So far, the Saudis have stopped short of that while US officials have suggested that the drones were launched either from Iran or by pro-Iranian militias in southern Iraq.

Holding Iran responsible for the actions of a militia, whether in Iraq or Yemen, could prove more tricky given long-standing questions about the degree of control that Iran has over various groups that it supports, and particularly regarding the Houthis.

The argument could turn out to be a slippery slope given that by the same logic, the United States would be responsible for massive human casualties in the Yemen war resulting from Saudi use of American weaponry.

Military retaliation may not be immediate even if the United States and Saudi Arabia can produce convincing evidence that Iran was directly responsible.

No knee jerk reactions to this – it’s very systematic – what happens with patience is it prevents stupid moves,” a US official said.

The United States is likely to attempt to first leverage that evidence in meetings on the sidelines of next week’s United Nations General Assembly to convince the international community, and particularly the Europeans, to drop opposition to last year’s US withdrawal from the international nuclear accord with Iran and the harsh economic sanctions that the Trump administration has since imposed on Iran.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia will also want to use the opportunity of the UN gathering to try to ensure that the fallout of any military response is limited and does not escalate into a full-fledged war that could change the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

Said foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook: “How the Trump administration responds will indicate whether U.S. elites still consider energy resources a core national interest and whether the United States truly is on its way out of the Middle East entirely, as so many in the region suspect.”

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Middle East

Growing Tensions on the Road to Persian Gulf Security

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The 14 September 2019 drone attacks on oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia have dimmed hope for U.S. – Iranian discussions aimed to reduce tensions and potentially end the armed conflict in Yemen.  Tensions have increased, and oil prices have risen. Certain hopes created by the initiatives of the French President during the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France and the forced departure of John Bolton as U.S. National Security Advisor have lessened.  In fact, the aim of the attacks may have been to lessen the possibility of Iran – U.S. discussions which might have taken place during the start of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later in September.

There is a good deal of speculation as to who fired the drones and from where.  The Ansar Allah Movement (often called the Houthis) has taken credit, but some specialists doubt that they have  the technical knowhow to send drones from Yemen to the targets in Saudi Arabia.  Some speculate that the drones were sent from southern Iraq, possibly by Iranian-backed militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces or by units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in Iraq.  The Revolutionary Guards are nearly “a state within the state” and could take initiatives without orders from the Iranian President or the Foreign Minister.  The Revolutionary Guards could have motivations to prevent fruitful U.S. – Iranian talks at the U.N.  There is also speculation that the drone attacks could be linked to increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates concerning the future of south Yemen where the two countries support different factions.

Whatever the locations from which the drones were launched and whomever pulled the switch, the consequences are clear.  At a time when governments were speaking of a possible path to reduce tensions a “No Exit” sign has been put up near the start of the road.  The road leads to ever-greater tensions which may slip out of the control of governments.  Thus, in addition to the French proposal at the G7, there was an earlier Russian government proposal.

On 23 July 2019, the Russian Government’s “Collective Security for the Persian Gulf Region” was presented in Moscow by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov.  The Russian proposal for Collective Security for the Persian Gulf follows closely the procedures which led to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.  Bogdanov stressed multilateral ism as a mechanism for all involved in the assessment of situations, the decision-making process, and  the implementation of decisions.

It is not clear how the Russian proposal for a Helsinki-type conference will progress.  Russia does not play a leading role in the Middle East today as the USSR did in Europe in the 1970s.  In the lead up to the Helsinki Accords of 1975, non-governmental organizations had played an active role in informal East-West discussions to see what issues were open to negotiations and on what issues progress might be made.  There is a need for such non-governmental efforts today as the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East are growing ever-more tense.

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Algeria’s political impasse: What is next?

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Seven months after a wave of protests began in Algeria; people are still pilling onto the streets of the Algerian capital “Algiers” and other cities nationwide every Friday, reiterating their main demands: the departure of the regime and its symbols and the application of Articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution stating that the constituent power belongs to the people.

The demonstrations have gained a familiar rhythm and worldwide admiration since tens of thousands of Algerians first took, peacefully, to the streets on 22 February. Thousands of students turn out on Tuesdays and there are larger protests each Friday revolting against former opaque group of power-brokers that have run the country for decades.
After weeks of mass demonstrations, President of the Republic Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, ceding power after 20 years of rule and abandoning his re-election bid. The protesters pressured the authorities, again, to cancel presidential elections originally scheduled for April.
Despite the postponement of the election, the public anger continued to mount. Thus, Army chief Gaid Salah emerged as the key powerbroker positioning himself in favor of El Hirak “Popular movement”. He publicly disavowed the former leader and called for his impeachment, winning legitimacy in the streets.

Purging Corruption

Gaid Salah responded favorably to protesters’ demands, launching a sweeping anti-graft campaign targeting high-ranked officials that have served the Bouteflika government as well as influential tycoons and businessman.

Two Prime Ministers, namely; Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, the deposed President’s brother Said Bouteflika, tens of ministers, leading industrialists, tycoons, key businessmen, Governors,  and two former Intelligence chiefs, have been remanded in custody for accusations ranging from money laundering, embezzlement, misuse of public money to using officials posts to influence industrial and commercial contracts and granting undue privileges, affiliation to suspicious parties that plot to destabilize the country, plotting against the army, and instigating the opposition to call for a transitional phase before holding any election.

Bouteflika’s resignation puts Abdelkader Bensalah, Speaker of the upper house of parliament, in charge as caretaker Head of State for 90 days until elections are held. However, elections (scheduled for July 4th) have been postponed for a second time and protesters are demanding his departure.

For his part, Bensalah, and in a bid to calm them, set a Panel of Dialogue and Mediation, composed of political actors, the civil society, the representatives of the trade union organizations and many citizens, with the aim to mediate between public authorities and people  and hold a “serious and responsible” dialogue to reach a national consensus which would help resolve the political crisis in Algeria, through the organization of a fair and transparent presidential election, as soon as possible.”

However, the Panel itself is facing rejection by protesters who are taking into the streets denouncing its formation, saying it does not represent them along other claims, such as the departure of Bensalah, a former head of the upper house of parliament, and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, who are regarded by them as part of the old guard.

Despite all these arrangements, Algeria is still at an impasse, with two camps facing each other in seemingly irreconcilable positions.

To resolve this stalemate, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Deputy Minister of  National Defence, Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army (ANP), launched, last week, a call, saying that it would be “appropriate” to convene the electorate on the 15th of September, and that the elections could be held within the deadlines set by law.

In my previous speech, “I have spoken about the priority to seriously launch the preparation of the presidential elections within the coming weeks, and today, based on our missions, prerogatives and our compliance with the Constitution and the laws of the Republic as well, I confirm that we regard as appropriate to summon the Electorate on September 15th and the elections can be held within the deadlines provided for by the law. Reasonable and acceptable deadlines which respond to the insistent demand of the people,” said Lieutenant General.

Theoretically, if the head of state, Abdelkader Bensalah, summons the electorate on September 15, 2019, as desired by the head of the army, the presidential election should take place before the end of the current year (mid-December).  The Organic Law No. 12-01 2012 (Electoral Code) provides in article 25 that “Subject to the other provisions of this organic law, the electorate shall be convened by presidential decree within three (3) months preceding the date of the elections “.

As a response, Algerian street has expressed its rejection of elections in the current political conditions. According to demonstrators, no election should take place as long as Bouteflika-era officials remain in positions of power.

For their parts, the opposition parties and civil society groups have also demanded the resignation of the government which constitutes “a popular demand”, voicing rejection of the holding of the elections.

The people are determined to pursue the hirak until the establishment of a state of institutions, widening gap between them and the power constrained, for lack of serious candidates, to cancel the vote twice.

According to observers, these presidential elections are unachievable for the moment because the approach advocated by Ahmed Gaid Salah ” requires the revision of some texts of the electoral law to adapt to the requirements of the current situation, and not a total and profound revision that would affect all texts, as claimed by the demonstrators. The partial amendment means the holding of elections basing on the same mode of organization. This is likely to trigger the street again as the popular movement with its magnitude unparalleled in the contemporary history of the country will, likely, sabotage the preparations for this election. The political climate also does not allow the organization of such an election with the absence of total trust between voters and the political class.

However, it is imperative to go quickly to a presidential election provided that it is transparent, where the mediation initiatives of the Panel or other organizations, can lead to a consensual platform far from the occult practices of the past which saw the majority of the population sulking the ballot boxes, reflecting the state-citizen divorce, noting that an independent election monitoring commission and the departure of the Bedoui government are two prerequisites for a transparent presidential election.

This necessarily implies the cleaning up of the electoral file, the creation of an independent election supervision body where neither the executive (the government – especially the Ministry of the Interior and the Walis) nor the deputies/senators and representatives of the current APCs denounced by Al Hirak, will be stakeholders. 

Only a democratically elected legitimate president, elected on the basis of a transparent agenda, pledging to include the legitimate demands of Al Hirak including a new balance of power and the moralization of management (fight against corruption and embezzlement), can amend the constitution and carry out the profound political and economic reforms to bring Algeria to the new world and make it an emerging country: a pivotal country regionally and internationally.

Economically, it is imperative to quickly resolve the political crisis before the end of 2019 or at most the first quarter of 2020, to avoid towards a cessation of payments at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022, and prevent Algeria the depletion of its foreign exchange reserves which would culminated in the economic, social, political insecurity.

From our partner Tehran Times

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