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Israel on a knife edge before elections




The answer is that there was no Iron Dome system deployed there. Perhaps few people realise this, but there are only ten Iron Dome batteries in the country, meaning that not all of Israel’s airspace is protected. The system is hugely expensive, and each time a missile is fired – and usually two are – at an incoming rocket, it costs more than $50 000 (R723 411) per launch. (By comparison each Hamas rocket costs around $500 (R7,185) to $1 000 (R14,370) to produce). For all its impressiveness, Israel’s security is not totally fool proof.

At the time of writing, there’s an uneasiness in the country. Reserve soldiers have been called up, and tanks are in position along the Gaza border. For the first time since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a snap vote next month, questions are being asked if those elections will indeed take place.

It’s in Netanyahu’s interest that they do. Timing is everything in politics, and a war in Gaza two weeks before Israelis head to the polls won’t win him any votes. However, should the prime minister feel he has no choice but to respond harshly to what are clearly Palestinian provocations from Gaza, the country could find itself embroiled in a war rather than in the midst of parliamentary elections.

In this respect, the timing could not be worse for Netanyahu. Not only was he in the United States when the situation with Gaza flared up, but his meeting with American President Donald Trump was overshadowed by events back home. Instead of congratulating him over Trump’s public recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights, most Israelis were preparing their bomb shelters.

Of course they were excited by the recognition, but practically-speaking, most Israelis realise it won’t make any difference on the ground. Already Britain, France, Russia, and China – the remaining five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, all of whom hold veto power – have said they will continue to consider the area “occupied territory” in line with international law.

Jerusalem could also be shooting herself in the foot further down the line.

Palestinians already dismiss Washington as a neutral broker, and it seems hard to imagine how this latest move will endear them further to the White House’s long-awaited peace plan, whenever it is released. As for Syria, there seems no incentive now for Damascus to create peace with Israel, although to be fair, the civil war has made that a distant priority.

Trump’s proclamation also opens up a can of worms. From the standpoint of international law, the capture of the Golan Heights is no different from that of the West Bank. This means that for Netanyahu’s right-wing support base, the logical next step is to demand the annexation of Judea and Samaria, and perhaps Gaza.

It’s worth pointing out that previous Israeli governments, from the left and right, have rejected this because of the large Palestinian populations in those areas. It also sets a precedent for recognising other territories like Russia’s recent takeover of Crimea, which the United States has said it will never recognise.

But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doesn’t think so. He insists that the Golan recognition is unique because in 1967, Israel was defending herself from external threats. It’s a murky argument.

The last time there was such a dramatic statement by Trump regarding Israel was when he recognised Jerusalem as the country’s capital, and subsequently moved his embassy there from Tel Aviv. But unlike the mass violence that accompanied that move ten months ago, this time there were no protests along the Israel-Syria border. Both Trump and Netanyahu knew there wouldn’t be.

About 22 000 Druze – an Arab minority who practice an offshoot of Islam – live on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. Many have relatives living across the border on the Syrian side. Publicly these “Israeli Druze” consider themselves Syrian, and have rejected Israeli citizenship, but it’s believed (by most Israelis) that in private they’d rather be part of Israel instead of Syria. Be that as it may, they did not take to the streets in anger and neither did others in the international community aside from the to-be-expected condemnations.

Damascus called Trump’s proclamation a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty. There was direct and implied criticism from European and Middle Eastern countries, but nothing more. Syria is in disarray, and so the timing is most opportune for Trump to make such a statement and for the international community, unlike with the embassy move, to remain inactive over it.

The American president is clearly helping Netanyahu in his election fight, and the Israeli premier is making the most of it. Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed that it was on his clock that the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem and, now, that Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights was recognised. Trump has even appeared alongside him in an election-campaign poster that has the two leaders shaking hands above the slogan “Netanyahu, in a different league.”

Earlier this month, Trump went so far as to boast that if he was to run in the Israeli elections, he would poll at 98%. He wasn’t far off. His popularity inside Israel has jumped from 56% two years ago to 69% today, and climbing. His friendship with Netanyahu is a major plus for the prime minister.

Still, Trump’s gestures of unconditional support for Israel are less about Israelis and Zionist Jews and more about American evangelicals who he hopes will help him win him re-election in 2020.

Jews make up only 2% to 3% of the American electorate. Evangelical Christians make up 25% of the US population.

Trump’s Republican Party is purposefully creating the impression that Jews are leaving the Democratic camp that they’ve traditionally supported for the Republicans. The term “Jexodus” has even been coined. But while this might be happening, it’s on a smaller scale than Washington would have us believe.

And yet, everything could change in the blink of an eye. Netanyahu’s fate come 9 April is still undecided. A war with Gaza or a rocket attack that kills Israelis (unlike the two this month that fortunately had no fatalities) could tip the scales.

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