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Netanyahu loses election he has already won

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost an election he had already won. For the first time in the country’s history, a party (in this case Netanyahu’s Likud) was unable to form a majority coalition after parliamentary elections.

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Israel

PAULA SLIER

Following the 9 April poll, Netanyahu was given 42 days (that included an extension) to put together a new government. Not for one moment did anyone think he wouldn’t succeed. But suddenly, former ally and Defense and Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman became a wild card. Without Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu (“Israel is our home”) party’s five seats, Netanyahu had only 60 out of 120 Knesset (parliament) mandates. He needed 61 to hold a majority.

An immigrant from Moldova in the former Soviet Union, Lieberman has been pushing for years for ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This put him at odds with the religious parties Netanyahu also needed as part of his coalition. As things currently stand – and how religious parties would like them to continue – ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt from national service, unlike the rest of the Jewish population in Israel.

But this was a smokescreen. The real reason for the stalemate was a political power fight between Lieberman and Netanyahu for Israel’s top job. Lieberman wanted the position of deputy prime minister, which would have meant that should Netanyahu travel abroad or for another reason be unable to perform the duties of premier, it would be Lieberman who would have had to step in. No doubt he was hedging his bets that if Netanyahu went on trial over the pending corruption charges that have been brought against him, he would automatically become the next prime minister.

Lieberman has also been much firmer on Gaza than Netanyahu, repeatedly calling for a full-scale invasion to topple its ruler, Hamas. Netanyahu was against this because of the massive use of force and inevitable casualties it would entail.

Many observers believe that Lieberman was counting on Netanyahu’s time in power coming to an end. He presumably identified this moment as his best chance at the premiership. His supporters backed him on the ultra-Orthodox conscription issue, and so he could mask his play for power in more palatable terms, even though he essentially prevented a right-wing government from coming to power.

This does not mean that Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc won’t win again come September, the month new elections are slated to be held. In fact, the latest polls this week showed the right would get even more votes than it did in April, but there are risks. Arab-Israelis, who voted in historically low numbers in the past election, could turn out en masse, boosting the left. Alternatively, right-wing supporters might stay at home and view the second elections to be held in six months with a growing sense of apathy.

What’s more, the country now needs to spend a lot of money that could have been used for other projects to arrive essentially at the same position.

The treasury estimates that new elections will cost 475 million shekels (R1.9 billion). This excludes the loss to the economy of an election-day holiday, estimated at more than $1 billion (R14.6 billion). There’s reportedly no money in the budget for this, so the cash will need to come from spending less on other activities.

Likud supporter and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Ayalon, said that in spite of his years of zigzagging, Lieberman had worked over the years to foster an image of himself as a “bulldozer”, but in practice had no real record to speak of.

“According to my assessment,” said Ayalon, “Lieberman has reached the understanding that, as a member of Yisrael Beytenu, he has no chance of making it to a position from where he can replace Netanyahu as prime minister.”

The timing was far from ideal. On Thursday morning, Jared Kushner, senior advisor to American president, Donald Trump, arrived in Jerusalem to see Netanyahu. Kushner is in the Middle East seeking support for an “economic workshop” that Washington plans to host at the end of next month in Bahrain as part of Trump’s Middle East peace plan. The administration has offered Palestinian businessmen billions of dollars in investment if they come on board, but the Palestinians and several other countries, most notably Arab states and Russia, have said they will shun the event. Israel has indicated it will attend.

Kushner planned his trip to the region in advance on the assumption Netanyahu would by now have formed his new government. His arrival in Jerusalem unintentionally sent the message that it was “business as usual” no matter what happened in the Knesset.

This isn’t actually Trump’s position. Taking to Twitter on Monday, the American president expressed support for Netanyahu.

“Hoping things will work out with Israel’s coalition formation,” he tweeted, and “Bibi [Netanyahu] and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever. A lot more to do!”

What remains to be seen is whether Trump will be willing to put his highly touted “deal of the century” on hold should new elections need to be held. (He clearly did so without admitting it earlier in the year, waiting until Netanyahu had won the April vote before advancing – at least publicly – with it.)

The irony is that while the White House allowed Netanyahu to set its schedule vis-à-vis the United States’ plan, it’s now found out that it was Lieberman who was setting Netanyahu’s.

As for the left-wing Blue and White party headed by former IDF chief, Benny Gantz, and journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, which came second to Likud in April, the maximum number of seats, including the support of the Arab parties, it could garner was 55 out of 120.

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Israel-UAE deal brings hope of further normalisation

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Bahrain, Kuwait, Mauretania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia… will these be the next Arab or Muslim states to establish full diplomatic and economic ties with Israel?

They could be, if the seeds of moderation and normalisation sprout successfully in the wake of the Israel-United Arab Emirates (UAE) deal.

Unthinkable a decade ago, the new discourse in the Middle East is about peace and prosperity, rather than the Palestinians.

This message emerged from a Zoom webinar on Monday night, ‘Israel/UAE Deal: Insights from behind the scenes’, hosted by the South African Zionist Federation. Moderated by Mpho Tsedu, chief executive of the Institute of Foreign Affairs, the speakers were Dr Nir Boms, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University and member of the Israeli Council on Foreign Relations, and Haisam Hassanein from Egypt, an expert on commercial diplomacy in the Middle East, recently based in Abu Dhabi.

On 13 August, the UAE became the third Arab country to formally recognise Israel’s right to exist, following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. The telephone lines have been unblocked, and an El Al flight overflew Saudi airspace for the first time last week as it brought diplomats and businesspeople to Abu Dhabi. Embassies are set to open in both states soon.

Dubbed the ‘Abraham Accord’, this deal did not emerge overnight. Relations were subterranean for decades. There was substantial interaction by entrepreneurs, academics, and civil society organisations before an elite peace deal was struck. Some 500 Israeli companies already operate in the UAE, according to Boms.

“It was the right time to bring these relations into the open, from under the table,” Boms said. “It was a win-win-win formula for Israel, the United States (US) [which backed the deal] and the UAE. Their interests aligned.”

The agreement supports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political approach. US President Donald Trump could do with a foreign policy win heading into the November elections, to show the world and his constituency that he can, in fact, make a deal. For the UAE, it promised closer collaboration with both countries, including for military hardware and Israel’s high-tech knowhow.

“This agreement offers Israel the greatest chance to restore its image in the region,” Hassanein said. “It has been seen through the prism of Arab nationalism since the 1950s, and was negatively portrayed. The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan never resulted in normalising people-to-people relations.” The Arab countries punished their citizens for drawing closer to Israel, which had a chilling effect.

Hassanein sees the Israel-UAE deal differently. Both sets of leaders and businesspeople have given interviews on each other’s TV stations and in newspapers. Intellectuals in both countries have supported the accords. Soon, Muslims from around the world may be praying at the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount by travelling through Abu Dhabi. The geopolitical centre of the Arab world has shifted from Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad to the capital cities of the Persian Gulf.

Neither analyst was naïve enough to believe this rapprochement would be universally praised. As expected, there has been opposition for the UAE’s enemies, including Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. Much of the Arab media has rubbished the deal. “But it has opened the door for more moderate voices to speak up for the first time, to speak about the advantages of peace,” Hassanein said.

Boms said that the deal could break a stalemate. “Ten years ago, everything was seen through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab Spring changed that paradigm, but it ushered in an Islamist Winter … the Gulf States are worried about Shi’a radicalism from Iran and Sunni radicalism from ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, and their interests align with Israel’s.”

Hassanein noted that there is a difference between the older generation of Arab nationalists that blamed everything on Israel, and a younger generation that recognises the havoc Iran is causing. Boms agreed, noting that 70% of the Middle East’s population is under the age of 30.

Boms said the UAE offers a positive third way, different from the Islamism of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the anti-normalisation and delegitimisation strategy of the Palestinian Authority. “The Palestinians have to realise that the train may leave without them,” said Boms. “If this deal works, if it brings better medicines, technology and jobs, it’s an alternative to old ideologies. It must therefore show tangible results and progress.”

There are early signs that this normalisation can spread to the region and to Africa. Malawi is opening an embassy in Jerusalem and Serbia, and Kosovo and Mali are talking about moving their embassies from Tel Aviv. The UAE is the only place in the Arab world where the Jewish population is growing, and a kosher restaurant has opened in Abu Dhabi.

Boms said this new discourse and mindset made South Africa’s support for the delegitimisation of Israel “obsolete”.

Asked Hassanein, “Who should South Africa applaud and support? Those demonstrating peace, tolerance and acceptance, or those who destroy and have no vision?”

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Malawi may be first African country to open embassy in Jerusalem

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The president of Malawi has said that his country would open an embassy in Jerusalem, making it the first African country to take this step, either for a diplomatic office or an embassy.

Local analysts say this is a significant move and may have been influenced by the recent ‘Abraham Accords’ between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Malawian President Dr Lazarus Chakwera made the announcement on Saturday. “The reforms will also include a review of our diplomatic presence, including our resolve to have new diplomatic missions in Lagos, Nigeria, and Jerusalem, Israel. I will be sharing more details about this in the near future,” he said as he addressed his country’s parliament. He became president in June 2020. Although he spoke of a diplomatic mission, experts believe he is referring to an embassy.

Chakwera was in Israel in November 2019 and visited Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Western Wall. Malawi is a mostly Christian country with 19.2 million inhabitants. Israel’s non-resident ambassador to Malawi, Oded Joseph, is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

On Sunday, chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that the Palestinian Authority would sever relations with any country that opens an embassy in Jerusalem. Within Malawi, a group of concerned citizens voiced their opposition to the plan, according to the Nyasa Times. “We object to having a Malawi embassy in Jerusalem. If Malawi is to open an embassy in Israel, let it be approved by parliament, and the mission should be in Tel Aviv,” said a member of the group, Mussa Ibrahim.

The head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, Steven Gruzd, says: “The announcement could be connected to the positive momentum generated by the UAE deal.

“Remember, Chakwera is a newly-elected president in a court-ordered rerun election in Malawi,” says Gruzd. “He is setting out his governing agenda. Although both countries have maintained relations since 1964, neither has had an embassy in the other country.”

Gruzd says the announcement is significant. “If a small and resource-strapped country like Malawi sees opening an embassy in Jerusalem as strategic for its interests, it may encourage others to move their embassies from Tel Aviv. It may also be a move to draw closer to the Trump administration. Once it is opening an embassy, it does not make sense to open in Tel Aviv and then have to move.”

He believes the move may encourage other countries to think about opening embassies in Jerusalem. “It may well have a demonstration effect. In the last five years, Prime Minister Netanyahu has put considerable effort into wooing African states and breaking the anti-Israel bloc in forums like the United Nations.

“These efforts seem to be paying off. The decision to move embassies is a highly politicised one, and not without risks. So far, only Guatemala has followed the United States lead on moving its embassy. Kosovo, Serbia, and Mali are said to be considering it. But sovereign states will make their own choices.”

Local political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga says: “I think the opposition victory in Malawi provides an interesting turn of events, and anomaly in the region. I do not find it surprising the country is intending to open an embassy in Jerusalem – this seems to usher different politics in the country.

“Malawi is trending an interesting path that has not been seen in the region. A response to this on a regional level is difficult to anticipate, in the sense that most member countries on the continent seem to prioritise a bilateral relationship with Israel, while at the same time maintaining solidarity on the Palestine matter at the United Nations level or at a multilateral level,” he adds.

“The global community would watch in anticipation how Malawi might further break the ranks with other countries in the region or the continent on Israel matters or other matters. A lot is possible with Malawi, yet one cannot tell exactly how it will go.”

Sara Gon, head of strategic engagement at the Institute of Race Relations, also believes that the UAE deal has opened the space for Malawi, even though it is not a Muslim country.

“I suspect that it has wanted to support Israel wholeheartedly hence going for an embassy in Jerusalem, but the opprobrium that has faced the United States for the move has held it back,” she says. “The UAE deal makes it less risky. I think the fact that it is going to Jerusalem signals that Malawi wants a completely normal relationship with Israel – no-holds-barred. The intention is a good, solid relationship.”

Looking at how this may impact Israel’s relationships with other African countries and if they will also think about opening embassies in Jerusalem, she says: “I think they might, on the basis that in diplomacy there are usually other countries who want to make the same move but they need just one country to make the first move. I think this is particularly so with the majority of Christian countries who are tired of having to show support to the Palestinians and hatred against Israel just because they belong to the block of what were once ‘non-aligned states’.”

Regarding the global community’s response if Malawi went ahead with this, Gon says she “suspects it will be more muted than previously, except of course from the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah, etcetera”.

She continues: “The problem is they have nothing to offer Malawi, so they’ll be ignored. Obviously, Malawi is desperately poor and not particularly influential, and it needs what Israel can offer it, but it is a start.”

“The South African Zionist Federation warmly welcomes Malawi’s decision to establish an embassy in Jerusalem as the recognised capital of Israel,” says its national chairperson Rowan Polovin. “This news is part of a momentous tide of improved relations between Israel, the Middle East, and Africa. We encourage the South African government to participate in this momentum of improved relations that Israel is achieving across the world, and share in the benefits that it will bring.”

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Arab-Israeli actor finds himself with Fauda

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For Arab-Israeli actor Ala Dakka, a character isn’t just a role. It’s another identity. Known to millions as Bashar the boxer from hit Israeli TV series Fauda, the 25-year-old superstar commits himself to acting in the most authentic way possible, and his career is on the rise.

Dakka shared stories from on and off the set with South Africans this past Saturday night in a live Zoom event hosted by the SA Jewish Report in partnership with the South African Zionist Federation and World Zionist Organization.

Born to Muslim parents, Dakka was raised in Be’er Sheva, surrounded by a predominantly Jewish population. “I grew up in the Jewish community, and throughout my life, I wondered where I belonged,” he said. “I didn’t know where to put myself. As a kid, I just wanted to be popular, so I decided to be friends with everyone.

“My life was pretty usual. I didn’t experience racism, though I knew I was different, and it made some things a little harder. I grew up in a beautiful mixture of all kinds of identities that you find in Israel. At the time, though, I cared only about soccer.”

A career in acting was never a foregone conclusion, says Dakka. In fact, he set his heart on becoming a singer, but only towards the end of his high-school career.

“I never sang before I was 17,” he laughed. “It was only in Grade 12 that I stood on a stage and sang. It really came late for me. Only when I turned 22 did I feel I wanted to be an actor, and until today, I’m not sure if I will be an actor for the rest of my life. I’ll just go with the flow.”

Dakka spent a year doing volunteer work with children in Bat Yam after matriculating, and when he contemplated a career, his family wanted him to pursue law.

“My dad is a lawyer, and he really wanted me to go to law school,” he says. “I wasn’t sure, but after volunteering, I realised that I wanted to do something that had nothing to do with law or university just yet. I wanted to be a singer.”

Dakka auditioned on the Israeli version of The Voice, but his initial reception wasn’t too encouraging. None of the judges turned their chairs when he performed, casting doubt on his aspirations.

“It was heartbreaking,” he says. “It took me some time to be willing to try again as an artist. I haven’t been back on stage as a musician since then, but I decided then to become an actor. I’m still optimistic about going back to music one day but acting quickly became the best thing in my life.”

Dakka honed his skills, starring in productions at his local theatre in Be’er Sheva, slowly growing in ability and confidence. He eventually auditioned for roles in television and film, landing his first screen role in an Israeli comedy series before starring in his first film, Beyond the Mountains and Hills, in 2016. More was to follow.

“The roles came one after the other, and I started making a living as an artist, which is a lot more than you can wish for,” Dakka says. “My parents were very scared, afraid I wouldn’t be able to support myself or a family. They’re still scared, but they saw I could be successful.”

Dakka clinched his now famous role in Fauda last year after hearing about the role of Bashar in July.

“I signed up at the gym and started running, slowly changing my way of living,” he says. “I was a smoker, and used to wake up late. I realised I needed to give it 100%, so I committed to getting up to go to gym and change my state of mind. It wasn’t easy, but it gave me a new opening in life.”

After auditioning in July, Dakka was informed that he had landed the role only in December. He says he took to the role immediately, finding a boxing coach and giving himself completely to the part. Even his family seemed to welcome the development.

“My family admits that I’m talented, and my dad says I should be proud of myself,” Dakka says. “Since I started, my family has started believing in me more and more, and it’s brought me closer to them. They really like the show, and are proud of what I have done.”

“The role in Fauda taught me how much you need to put yourself through for a role. I was never an athlete, so I needed to learn how to be one first. My commitment has enabled me to make a living and be proud of what I do, so I enjoy every moment.”

While shooting scenes can be gruelling, Dakka enjoys the time he shares with his co-stars on and off set.

“It’s a 12-hour day,” he says. “It’s tough, but it’s fun, and it’s what we love doing. We want it to be unique. We always try to make it the best we can for the audience so they can enjoy it and feel it’s authentic.”

There’s is a real bond on set, he says. “We spend hours together. We’ve had parties together, and we’re still in touch today. As an actor, you work with a team and have to make sure everyone feels comfortable. If one person is upset on set, we all feel it. We build connections between us, and we share the same love.”

Dakka has received mixed reviews from fans and detractors of the series, but says he welcomes all views because the show itself presents a variety of viewpoints.

Fauda talks about a conflict and its complexities,” he says. “How good people become evil or how evil people become good. The good and bad is so mixed, you never know what’s actually good or bad.

“The fact that it talks about the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what’s making a change. People are talking about it, and the fact they are is a good thing.”

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