March 2009 Israel News Review
By David Dolan
Narrow Coalition on the Horizon
Prime Minister designate Binyamin Netanyahu struggled to put together a viable coalition government during March. The political party that was expected to be his main ally - the right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party - refused to sign a coalition agreement unless various conditions were met that Netanyahu found unacceptable. However by mid-month, most of the obstacles had been overcome, and Netanyahu initialed his first coalition pact with Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman on March 15. Under the agreement, Lieberman will assume the important post of Foreign Minister in the new government. The Likud leader followed this up by finalizing a pact with the religious Shas party on March 23, giving him a total of 53 seats as the basis of his coalition.
Netanyahu was granted a two week extension to form a viable coalition by President Shimon Peres on March 20. The extension was requested by the Likud leader in an attempt to draw the currently ruling Kadima party and the smaller Labor party into a broad national unity government. However Kadima, which garnered the most votes in the February 10 election, continued to rebuff the Likud leader's offer to join such a coalition. Netanyahu did at least manage to meet again with party leader Tzipi Livni in an attempt to persuade her to join his government. But she repeated her insistence that she must rotate with Netanyahu as Prime Minister in any such coalition - a condition the former Premier is not willing to accept.
Attempts to negotiate a release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit stalled when the Israeli government balked at demands being made by the radical Palestinian Hamas movement, which kidnapped the soldier in June 2007. This came as reconciliation talks in Cairo between Hamas and Palestinian Authority officials produced no fruit, causing Egyptian leaders to send rival negotiators home.
Israeli media outlets published reports in March that questioned the morality of various actions carried out by IDF soldiers during the Gaza conflict that ended in mid-January. The reports produced immediate ripples on the Israeli political stage, with some calling for an official government probe of how the war was conducted. Others said the country could not afford another gut wrenching military investigation while the threat of further clashes with Hamas was a real possibility this year, along with the sobering prospect of a major conflict with Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah movement, backed by Syria.
COALITION DEAL SIGNED WITH YISRAEL BEITEINU
Israeli Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu struggled to form a viable coalition government during March as one potential partner after another posited political demands that the veteran Likud leader found unacceptable. However the former Premier did manage to finally secure a coalition pact with the third largest party in the Knesset, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, and the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party one week later. The first accord was signed on March 16 after weeks of intense negotiations that had seemingly broken down several times. The main sticking points, as expected, were Lieberman's initial demand that non-religious civil marriages be allowed in Israel, along with a pledge by the government to carry out "regime change" in the Gaza Strip - in other words, to militarily oust Hamas from power.
Netanyahu pointed out that he would never be able to persuade any of the three religious parties he needs in a narrow center-right coalition to agree to such a significant change in the long-established Orthodox-run marriage system. He also stressed that while he shared Lieberman's desire to see Hamas removed from power once and for all, he did not want to spell out in advance how or when a military operation to achieve that far reaching goal might take place, especially with the Iranian nuclear threat looming on the horizon.
As part of the coalition pact, Lieberman agreed to drop his demands for civil marriages and Gaza regime change in exchange for being appointed to the prestigious and influential post of Foreign Minister in a narrow right of center government. He also secured Netanyahu's commitment to name several of his Knesset party members to senior cabinet posts, including the strategic Internal Security ministry, the Tourism ministry, Infrastructure ministry, and the less influential Immigrant Absorption ministry. Lieberman also secured a pledge from the Likud party leader that the Knesset's Law and Justice Committee and the Constitution Committee, which works closely with the Justice ministry, be headed by Yisrael Beiteinu legislators. This means that nearly half of Lieberman's 15 Knesset legislators would hold significant posts in the new government and Knesset.
Proving once again that Israeli politics are rarely dull and predictable, it was reported shortly after the coalition pact was signed that Israeli police investigators are stepping up a nearly 10 year criminal probe of Lieberman, who is suspected of committing bribery, breach of trust, fraud and money laundering when he served in the first Netanyahu government in the 1990s. This came after a senior aid to Attorney General Menachem Manuz said a significant amount of new information had been uncovered over the past 12 months concerning the various allegations against Lieberman. This revelation was later confirmed by Asaf Valpish, who heads the National Fraud Unit. He averred that new evidence is coming in all the time. The populist politician will shortly be questioned by the police, said the Attorney General's office, which could force Lieberman out of any high government portfolio, with unsettling consequences for Netanyahu's expected narrow coalition.
ATTEMPTS CONTINUE TO FORM UNITY GOVERNMENT
Netanyahu reportedly stressed to his longtime political associate, who immigrated to Israel from Azerbaijan in 1978, that he would have to assign some of the promised government portfolios and parliamentary leadership positions to other politicians if he is able to form a broader national unity coalition in the coming days. Analysts say it is particularly clear that Kadima would at least demand the Foreign Ministry position for party leader Tzipi Livni if she agrees to join a Likud led government.
However the prospects of that happening appeared slim at best after Netanyahu held an unscheduled meeting with the current Foreign Minister on March 14. Noting that one clause in his accord with Lieberman stressed that both share the goal of establishing such a broad government, he reportedly promised to pursue a unity coalition even after he announces the formation of a narrow government of just over 60 seats. Such an announcement is expected by the end of March.
In other words, the Likud leader would lure his final bait before Kadima and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Labor party after insuring that he would indeed be sworn in as Prime Minister in the coming days. Facing the relative weakness of sitting in the political opposition wilderness, Netanyahu hopes that at least one of the remaining large parties will jump on board his coalition train, giving his government a cushion it will never secure if he remains the head of a bare majority right wing government.
However media reports said that Livni again insisted that she be allowed to rotate with the Likud leader as head of government, as Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres did in the mid-1980s. But Netanyahu deflated her trial balloon, saying he intends to serve in the top post during the government's full four year term.
TWO STATE SOLUTION
The Kadima leader also again stressed her commitment to the long touted "two state solution" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meaning a sovereign Palestinian state would arise in Judaism's biblical heartland, Judea and Samaria, with Jerusalem at its center, along with the Gaza Strip. Along with many Israelis, Netanyahu believes that the time is hardly ripe for such a "solution" given that any independent Palestinian state may well fall under Hamas control, and thus become an outpost for Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah movement - and this just miles from Israel's largest urban civilian and government centers, military bases and transport hubs.
Meanwhile Netanyahu continued his attempts to woo the 13 seat Labor party into his coalition. Party leader Ehud Barak did not hide his desire to remain in his prestigious post as Defense Minister, but media reports said he was only able to persuade five of his party legislators to join him on board, meaning a majority wish to head to the opposition. Analysts said the long dominant party might split apart if Barak accepts Netanyahu's offer - a prospect that the Labor leader cannot afford to gamble on. Therefore most expect a narrow right of center coalition will be formed instead, with the possibility of other parties joining it if the security situation worsens. Labor party leaders were slated to hold a special concave to discuss the issue on March 24.
Army radio reported on March 20 that the Likud leader had obtained unspecified "new and serious information" on the security threat posed by Iran, and on the Israeli economic downturn associated with the world financial crisis, which caused him to ask for a two week extension of his allotted time to try to form a broad coalition government. President Shimon Peres readily granted him the extra time, as allowed under Israeli law. Still, most political pundits expect Kadima and Labor to stay on the sidelines, at least for the time being.
Apart from serious security and economic concerns, analysts say the Likud leader has another major reason for wanting to form a broader coalition government - widespread skepticism and opposition to the prospect of Avigdor Lieberman becoming Israel's chief diplomat in a time of mounting national and world crisis.
The Yisrael Beiteinu leader is not only facing possible criminal indictment, but also opposition due to some of his past statements, including that Israel's Arab population should be transferred to the control of a future Palestinian state in exchange for Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria being incorporated into Israel's final borders, his strongly negative remarks about Egypt's ruling Mubarak regime, along with controversial comments on several other hot button issues.
This has left him with many political opponents both at home and abroad. Netanyahu knows that any substantial military action against Iran in particular will leave Israel extremely exposed internationally, and he therefore prefers a more centrist politician to serve as his Foreign Minister.
PALESTINIAN UNITY TALKS STALL
Egyptian officials expressed frustration in March as talks they were mediating between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas became deadlocked. Cairo had been attempting to get the two sides to agree to the formation of a Palestinian unity government that would formally return Hamas as a political player over Palestinian Authority-ruled portions of Jordan's former West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip, which was seized exclusively by Hamas in a violent coup in June 2007. Egyptian mediators ordered negotiators from both sides to return home until they are ready to make significant compromises to reach a unity deal. However a Fatah official said the two sides would resume their bargaining after an Arab summit meeting is held in late March.
Palestinian Authority officials said the main sticking point was a Hamas demand that it be given a leading role in any new Palestinian interim government. Such a government would rule until fresh Palestinian legislative and presidential elections could be held, probably late this year. Another major issue was whether or not Hamas would honor previous peace treaty commitments made by PA officials, especially the Oslo peace accords signed by the late PLO chief Yasser Arafat in 1993 and 1995. Those commitments included a formal recognition of Israel's permanent existence in the Middle East and an end to all terrorist violence against Israeli civilians. Hamas negotiators again balked at the prospect of ending their popular jihad war against "the Zionist enemy." Hamas negotiator Fawzi Barhoum told reporters that his notorious group would never recognize Israel or honor Arafat's signed peace commitments.
At the same time, the army launched a new crackdown on Hamas operatives in the West Bank on March 19, arresting 12 senior activists in pre dawn raids. Among those detained were four Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The operation came just hours after reconciliation talks broke down in Cairo.
Meanwhile Egyptian government leaders asked the Obama administration to allow Hamas to participate in any new Palestinian unity government. This came after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in a visit to Israel earlier in the month that the US would boycott any Palestinian Authority government that included the extremist Iranian backed movement unless Hamas alters it call for Israel's destruction and recognizes its permanent existence. She also repeated American support for a "two state solution" to the conflict during meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu again stated that forming such a state is premature at this time, given that Hamas would probably strongly influence it, if not actually end up ruling it.
With Palestinian rockets continuing to land inside Israeli territory near the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army launched additional Air Force strikes during March upon illicit smuggling tunnels being built along the southern Gaza border with Egypt. Acting PM Ehud Olmert again warned that additional and substantial military action would be launched if the rocket assaults continue. Hamas claimed that it was not behind the attacks, but Israeli officials repeated their position that the renegade group is at the very least responsible for halting them since it controls the small coastal zone.
Olmert told his cabinet on March 22 that "a disaster" was narrowly averted the night before when Israeli security forces successfully defused a powerful car bomb that had been set to explode outside a crowded Haifa shopping mall. He said that only "the vigilance of citizens and the quick response by police and security services prevented it." The successfully thwarted terror attack was claimed by a group calling itself "Free Galilee," which officials believe is a Muslim fundamentalist group linked to Hamas that operates from Arab towns near Haifa. Olmert told his ministers that "the launch bases for the group include the West Bank, where Hamas wishes to strengthen its infrastructure and status, while continuing its terror activity to cause severe damage to Israeli citizens."
While security officials were dealing with the latest terror attempt, a major controversy erupted in Israel concerning the army's conduct in the conflict with Hamas earlier this year. This followed the media's publication of various accounts by soldiers and officers who took part in "Operation Lead Cast." The accounts spoke of unethical, and even criminal, conduct by many of the troops who participated in the three week military campaign to halt Hamas rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
The Army brass ordered an official investigation of the reported abuses, which included shooting at unnamed civilians, evacuating Palestinian families to dangerous firing zones, acts of vandalism and obstruction of humanitarian aid being sent to help civilians caught up in the fighting. Several right wing politicians questioned the decision to launch an official probe while the threat of further military action with Hamas is looming. They also noted that the radical Palestinian group deliberately targets Israeli civilians for death all the time in total disregard of international rules for the conduct of war.
SHALIT REMAINS IN HAMAS CAPITIVITY
Hopes grew to a crescendo in mid-March that Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas gunmen near the Gaza border fence in June 2007, might finally be set free as part of a prisoner exchange with Hamas. Egyptian officials played a central role in mediation efforts. However the indirect negotiations came to naught after Hamas demanded the release of over 300 jailed terrorists, including many directly involved in planning or carrying out the murders of Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Acting PM Olmert's security cabinet balked at the demands, stating that no Israeli government could agree to fulfill them even though everyone wants to see the young soldier with duo French-Israeli citizenship set free.
"Israel will not give in to Hamas' dictates as long as I am Prime Minister," Olmert told his cabinet colleagues. He added that "we will not cease our efforts, but we have red lines and will not cross them. We are not a defeated nation." Olmert repeated these remarks in a special speech broadcast across the country after the depressing news leaked that Shalit would apparently not be released from captivity anytime soon, despite growing public demands that he be set free as soon as possible.
At the cabinet meeting, Ofer Dekel, the government's chief negotiator, revealed for the first time what Israel had offered - the release of 325 Palestinian prisoners, including some who murdered Israelis. However, Olmert insisted that 144 of the most notorious prisoners be deported to the Gaza Strip or to other countries abroad rather than be allowed to return to family homes in Judea, Jerusalem and Samaria. Shin Bet security chief Yuval Diskin told the cabinet that Hamas continued to demand freedom for an additional 100 plus prisoners who constitute the senior leadership of the group's so called "military wing, which Israel also rebuffed." He said Hamas negotiators refused to agree to the proposed deportations.
Adding insult to injury, overall Hamas leader Khaled Mashal told an Australian newspaper on March 19 that additional soldiers might be kidnapped if Israel did not meet all of the group's demands. In an interview conducted in his bunker south of Damascus, the senior Hamas leader called upon Barack Obama to radically alter his predecessor's "failed policies in the region." This came just before the US President released an unprecedented video appeal to Iran to "join America in a new beginning of diplomatic engagement" that would "address the "full range of issues before us" aimed at "establishing constructive ties." Iranian leaders immediately rejected the appeal.
As always, this month's news from Israel provides much fuel for prayer. May you be blessed as you give praise to the merciful God of Israel who told us long ago that "Only if the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below be searched out, will I reject the descendants of Israel because of all they have done" (Jeremiah 31:36).