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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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Eurasianism wins in Turkey even if ideologue loses election

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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He’s been in and out of prison during Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule and is running against the president in this weekend’s Turkish elections with no chance of defeating him and little hope of winning a seat in parliament.

Yet, Dogu Perincek wields significant influence in Turkey’s security and intelligence establishment and sees much of his Eurasianist ideology reflected in Mr. Erdogan’s foreign policy.

With Mr. Erdogan likely to emerge victorious from Sunday’s election despite the opposition posing its most serious challenge to date, Mr. Perincek looks set to be a winner even if he does not make it into parliament.

Messrs. Erdogan and Perincek seem at first glance poles apart. Mr. Perincek is a maverick socialist and a militant secularist whose conspiratorial worldview identifies the United States at the core of all evil. By contrast, Mr. Erdogan carries his Islamism and nationalism on his sleeve.

Nonetheless, Mr. Perincek’s philosophy and world of contacts in Russia, China, Iran and Syria has served Mr. Erdogan well in recent years. His network and ideology has enabled the president to cosy up to Russia; smoothen relations with China; build an alliance with Iran, position Turkey as a leading player in an anti-Saudi, anti UAE front in the Middle East; and pursue his goal of curtailing Kurdish nationalism in Syria.

Tacit cooperation between Messrs. Erdogan and Perincek is a far cry from the days that he spent in prison accused of having been part of the Ergenekon conspiracy that allegedly involved a deep state cabal plotting to overthrow the government in 2015.

It was during his six years prison in that Mr. Perincek joined forces with Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakki Pekin, the former head of the Turkey’s military intelligence, who serves as vice-chairman of his Vatan Partisi or Homeland Party.

His left-wing ideology that in the past was supportive of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PPK) viewed as a terrorist organization by the Erdogan government, has not stopped Mr. Perincek from becoming a player in NATO member Turkey’s hedging of its regional bets.

Together with Mr. Pekin, who has extensive contacts in Moscow that include Alexander Dugin, a controversial Eurasianist extreme right-winger who is believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Perincek mediated the reconciliation between Moscow and Ankara following the Turkish air force’s downing of a Russian fighter in 2015. The two men were supported in their endeavour by Turkish businessmen close to Mr. Erdogan and ultra-nationalist Eurasianist elements in the military.

Eurasianism in Turkey was buoyed by increasingly strained relations between the Erdogan government and the West. Mr. Erdogan has taken issue with Western criticism of his introduction of a presidential system with far-reaching powers that has granted him almost unlimited power.

He has also blasted the West for refusing to crack down on the Hizmet movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, whom Mr. Erdogan holds responsible for an unsuccessful coup in 2016, in which more than 200 people were killed.

Mr. Erdogan has rejected Western criticism of his crackdown on the media and dismissal from public sector jobs and/or arrest of tens of thousands accused of being followers of Mr. Gulen.

Differences over Syria and US support for a Syrian Kurdish group aligned with the PKK have intensified pro-Eurasianist thinking that has gained currency among bureaucrats and security forces as well as in think thanks and academia. The influence of Eurasianist generals was boosted in 2016 when they replaced officers who were accused of having participated in the failed coup.

Eurasianism as a concept borrows elements of Kemalism, the philosophy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire; Turkish nationalism; socialism; and radical secularism.

It traces its roots to Kadro, an influential leftist magazine published in Turkey between 1932 and 1934 and Yon, a left-wing magazine launched in the wake of a military coup in 1960 that became popular following yet another military takeover in 1980.

Eurasianism is opposed to liberal capitalism and globalization; believes that Western powers want to carve up Turkey; and sees Turkey’s future in alignment with Russia, Central Asia, and China.

Mr. Perincek’s vision is shared by hardliners in Iran, including the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who advocate an Iranian pivot to the east on the grounds that China, Russia and other members of the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) were more reliable partners than Europe, let alone the United States.

The Guards believe that Iran stands to significantly benefit as a key node in China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative and will not be confronted by China on its human rights record.

Some Iranian hardliners have suggested that China’s principle of non-interference means that Beijing will not resist Iran’s support of regional proxies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen in the way the United States does.

Their vision was strengthened by US president Donald J. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran. China, Russia and Europe have vowed to uphold the deal.

Iranian empathy for Eurasianism has been reinforced by Chinese plans to invest $30 billion in Iranian oil and gas fields, and $40 billion in Iran’s mining industry as well as the willingness of Chinese banks to extend loans at a time that Mr. Trump was seeking to reimpose sanctions.

Turkey’s embrace of the Eurasianist idea takes on added significance after Russia and the European Union slapped sanctions on each other because of the dispute over Russian intervention in Ukraine. The EU sanctions halted $15.8 billion in European agricultural supports to Russia. Russian countermeasures prevent shipment of those products via Russia to China.

Mr. Perincek may, however, be pushing the envelope of his influence in his determination to restore relations between Turkey and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The first thing that we will do after victory in the election is that we will invite Bashar Assad to Ankara and we will welcome him at the airport. We see no limitations and barriers in developing relations between Turkey and Syria and we will make our utmost efforts to materialize this objective,” Mr. Perincek vowed in a campaign speech.

More in line with Mr. Erdogan’s vision is Mr. Perincek’s admiration for China. “China today represents hope for the whole humanity. We have to keep that hope alive… Every time I visited China, I encountered a new China. I always returned to Turkey with the feelings of both surprise and admiration,” Mr. Perincek told China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

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Bahrain’s Peaceful Gandhi might be executed

Sondoss Al Asaad

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Tomorrow, Thursday, 21 June 2018, Bahrain’s High Criminal Court is expected to hand down the maximum sentence possible against the opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, which might be the death penalty. Sheikh Salman’s trial is politically motivated and based on fabricated and arbitrary charges of espionage. Sheikh Salman; detained in December 2014 in his capacity as the now-dissolved Al-Wefaq opposition bloc’s Secretary-General, was sentenced to four years on alleged charges of “inciting disobedience and hatred.”

However, in November 2017, he was shockingly charged for “conspiring with Qatar” to overthrow the regime. Bahrain’s Public Prosecution relied its accusation on the well-known telephone conversation between Shiekh Salman and the Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem, in 2011; which aimed to resolve the 14 February 2011’s unrest. This call, indeed, stems from an open and documented mediation attempt that was originally encouraged by the United States.

In April 2018, the U.S. State Department issued a report in which it expresses concern over the continued arbitrarily prosecution of Sheikh Salman. Urgently, the international community, the United States and the United Kingdom, mainstream media, press, human rights organisations, activists and all free people around the globe must pressure Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release Sheikh Salman as well as all other prisoners of conscience. In addition, the government must halt this political unfair trial and reinstate all arbitrarily dissolved political blocs.

It is worthy to mention that Sheikh Ali Salman was detained in 2014 due to his bloc; i.e. Al-Wefaq’s boycott to the parliamentary elections, then. Al-Wefaq has long complained the political and economic discrimination, lack of impunity and the absence of an independent judiciary. Interestingly, the bizarre allegations were raised once the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s states witnessed a diplomatic dispute with Qatar, since June 2017.

Bahrain’s Public Prosecution has called in March for the “maximum penalty” against Sheikh Salman and his two in absentia co-defendants, who are too figures in Al-Wefaq. The three could face capital punishment on politically motivated charges of establishing “intelligence links with Qatar […] to undermine its political and economic status as well as its national interest and to overthrow the political system.”

The Bahraini authorities have long suppressed the opposition particularly this time; prior the elections for the lower house of Bahrain’s National Assembly in November, which constitute a quite vivid and blatant violation of the fundamental rights to freedom, fair trial, free expression, and free association. In fact, this groundless trial and the ongoing clampdown have virtually left no political freedom in the country. Clearly, Bahrain has been openly violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Sheikh Salman is currently serving his 4-years sentence in Jau Central Prison, along with the rest of the opposition leaders. His co-defendant, in this unfair trial, Sheikh Hassan Sultan was publicly defamed in pro-government media, in June 2017.  At the same time, the National Security Agency (NSA), repeatedly detained and tortured his son, in an attempt to coerce him into becoming an informant in order to target his father; who is exiled and has been arbitrarily stripped of his citizenship in 2015.

In 2016, Bahrain forcibly dissolved Al-Wefaq; seized its assets, blocking its website, and closing its headquarters. It has taken similar action against nearly all opposition groups, including Amal and leftist blocs Al-Wehdawi and Wa’ad. The government’s systematic campaign against the opposition has intensified despite the UN Universal Periodic Review’s recommendations, in May 2017, which called on Bahrain to “review convictions, commute sentences, or drop charges for all persons imprisoned solely for non-violent political expression.”

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The Saudi-Moroccan spat: Competing for the mantle of moderate Islam

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Lurking in the background of a Saudi-Moroccan spat over World Cup hosting rights and the Gulf crisis is a more fundamental competition for the mantle of spearheading promotion of a moderate interpretation of Islam.

It’s a competition in which history and long-standing religious diplomacy gives Morocco a leg up compared to Saudi Arabia, long a citadel of Sunni Muslim intolerance and ultra-conservatism.

Saudi Arabia is the new, baggage-laden kid on the block with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman asserting that he is returning the kingdom to a top-down, undefined form of moderate Islam.

To be sure, Prince Mohammed has dominated headlines in the last year with long-overdue social reforms such as lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening restrictions on cultural expression and entertainment.

The crown prince has further bolstered his projection of a kingdom that is putting ultra-conservative social and religious strictures behind it by relinquishing control of Brussels’ Saudi-managed Great Mosque and reports that he is severely cutting back on decades-long, global Saudi financial support for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative educational, cultural and religious institutions.

Yet, Prince Mohammed has also signalled the limits of his definition of moderate Islam. His recurrent rollbacks have often been in response to ultra-conservative protests not just from the ranks of the kingdom’s religious establishment but also segments of the youth that constitute the mainstay of his popularity.

Just this week, Prince Mohammed sacked Ahmad al-Khatib, the head of entertainment authority he had established. The government gave no reason for Mr. Al-Khatib’s dismissal, but it followed online protests against a controversial Russian circus performance in Riyadh, which included women wearing “indecent clothes.”

The protests were prompted by a video on social media that featured a female performer in a tight pink costume.

In a similar vein, the Saudi sports authority closed a female fitness centre in Riyadh in April over a contentious promotional video that appeared to show a woman working out in leggings and a tank-top. A spokesman for the royal court, Saud al-Qahtani, said the closure was in line with the kingdom’s pursuit of “moderation without moral breakdown.”

Saudi sports czar Turki bin Abdel Muhsin Al-Asheikh said “the gym had its licence suspended over a deceitful video that circulated on social media promoting the gym disgracefully and breaching the kingdom’s code of conduct.”

Mr. Al-Sheikh’s sports authority moreover apologized recently for airing a promotional video of a World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., event that showed scantily clad female wrestlers drawing euphoric cheers from men and women alike.

To be sure, the United States, which repeatedly saw ultra-conservative Islam as a useful tool during the Cold War, was long supportive of Saudi propagation of Islamic puritanism that also sought to counter the post-1979 revolutionary Iranian zeal.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia’s more recent wrestle with what it defines as moderate and effort to rebrand itself contrasts starkly with long-standing perceptions of Morocco as an icon of more liberal interpretations of the faith.

While Saudi Islamic scholars have yet to convince the international community that they have had a genuine change of heart, Morocco has emerged as a focal point for the training of European and African imams in cooperation with national governments.

Established three years ago, Morocco’s Mohammed VI Institute for Imam Training has so far graduated 447 imams; 212 Malians, 37 Tunisians, 100 Guineans, 75 Ivorians, and 23 Frenchmen.

The institute has signed training agreements with Belgium, Russia and Libya and is negotiating understandings with Senegal.

Critics worry that Morocco’s promotion of its specific version of Islam, which fundamentally differs from the one that was long prevalent in Saudi Arabia, still risks Morocco curbing rather than promoting religious diversity.

Albeit on a smaller scale than the Saudi campaign, Morocco has in recent years launched a mosque building program in West Africa as part of its soft power policy and effort to broaden its focus that was long centred on Europe rather than its own continent.

On visits to Africa, King Mohammed VI makes a point of attending Friday prayers and distributing thousands of copies of the Qur’an.

In doing so Morocco benefits from the fact that its religious ties to West Africa date back to the 11th century when the Berber Almoravid dynast converted the region to Islam. King Mohammed, who prides himself on being a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, retains legitimacy as the region’s ‘Commander of the Faithful.’

West African Sufis continue to make annual pilgrimages to a religious complex in Fez that houses the grave of Sidi Ahmed Tijani, the 18th century founder of a Sufi order.

All of this is not to say that Morocco does not have an extremism problem of its own. Militants attacked multiple targets in Casablanca in 2003, killing 45 people. Another 17 died eight years later in an attack in Marrakech. Militants of Moroccan descent were prominent in a spate of incidents in Europe in recent years.

Nonetheless, protests in 2011 at the time of the popular Arab revolts and more recently have been persistent but largely non-violent.

Critics caution however that Morocco is experiencing accelerated conservatism as a result of social and economic grievances as well as an education system that has yet to wholeheartedly embrace more liberal values.

Extremism is gaining ground,” warned Mohamed Elboukili, an academic and human rights activist, pointing to an increasing number of young women who opt to cover their heads.

“You can say to me this scarf doesn’t mean anything. Yes, it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s isolating the girl from the boy. Now she’s wearing the scarf, but later on she’s not going to shake hands with the boy . . . Later on she’s not going to study in the same class with boys. Those are the mechanisms of an Islamist state, that’s how it works,” Mr. Elboukili said.

Mr. Elboukili’s observations notwithstanding, it is Morocco rather than Saudi Arabia that many look to for the promotion of forms of Islam that embrace tolerance and pluralism. Viewed from Riyadh, Morocco to boot has insisted on pursuing an independent course instead of bowing to Saudi dictates.

Morocco refused to support Saudi Arabia in its debilitating, one-year-old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar but recently broke off relations with Iran, accusing the Islamic republic of supporting Frente Polisario insurgents in the Western Sahara.

Moroccan rejection of Saudi tutelage poses a potential problem for a man like Prince Mohammed, whose country is the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities and who has been ruthless in attempting to impose his will on the Middle East and North Africa and position the kingdom as the region’s undisputed leader.

Yet, Saudi Arabia’s ability to compete for the mantle of moderate Islam is likely to be determined in the kingdom itself rather than on a regional stage. And that will take far more change than Prince Mohammed has been willing to entertain until now.

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