Israel's transitional gov't needs to manage US overtures to Iran -analysis

Unfortunately, the world does not stop until Israel gets its political house in order.

THEN-US vice president Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016. (photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
THEN-US vice president Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016.
(photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
Unfortunately, the world does not stop until Israel gets its political house in order.
The Biden administration is not putting off exploring how and when to re-enter negotiations with Iran – and what demands to make of the ayatollahs – until Israel finally gets itself a stable, functional government. Decisions in Jerusalem need to be made now on very fateful issues for the state, such as what its policy should be regarding Washington’s early moves to restart talks with Tehran.
What positions should Israel present to the Americans? What should its public posture be? What should it present as its “redlines?” How should it act if those redlines are crossed?
These would be weighty issues for even the most harmonious government to tackle, let alone a dysfunctional, transitional one in which the principals – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on one side, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on the other – clearly have no trust in one another and have a political interest in seeing the other side crash and burn, especially Netanyahu and Gantz.
Ever since the government was set up last May, Netanyahu has barely hid his disdain for Gantz, a disdain manifest in his keeping both Gantz and Ashkenazi completely out of the loop on the Abraham Accords, as well as reportedly not keeping them informed of US plans to sell the United Arab Emirates F-35 fighter jets as part of that deal.
And Gantz has told the nation in no uncertain terms on a number of occasions over the last two months exactly what he thinks of the prime minister.
“I never believed Netanyahu, but I was willing to cooperate with him for the good of the country,” he said in a speech in January, saying that his party’s crowning achievement would be “the ending of Netanyahu’s political path.”
In another speech, he called Netanyahu a “serial promise-breaker” who continues to “incite and divide, simply because it serves his personal interests, and to allow him to escape the courts.”
And now these two men are sitting together and coordinating policy vis-a-vis the US on Iran.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz will say that they can rise above personal animus for the security of Israel and the good of the nation, and that they will not be the first example of political rivals who found a way to work together despite mutual contempt. The problem is that they have not proven an ability to do that when dealing with the year-long coronavirus crisis.
The government’s handling of the pandemic has been a chronicle of decisions made not necessarily for the good of the country, but because of political expediency, because it is good for one candidate or the other, one party or the other. This has been evident everywhere from the failure to enforce coronavirus regulations in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector, to the rush to open various parts of the economy despite the Health Ministry experts warning against it.
If as critical an issue as how to deal with the coronavirus became a political football, might not Iran policy become one as well – with each side taking positions they believe might help them at the ballot box?
Discussions on Iran were held Monday evening involving Netanyahu, Gantz, Ashkenazi, Mossad head Yossi Cohen, National Security Council head Meir Ben Shabbat, and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Already, on Tuesday morning the media was reporting differences of opinion between Netanyahu and Gantz and Ashkenazi regarding the approach to take toward the Americans on this issue, with Netanyahu favoring a harder line, and Gantz and Ashkenazi a softer one.
Furthermore, the sharp fault lines between Netanyahu and Gantz and Ashkenazi could also invite the Americans to play one side off against the other, a very unhealthy position for this country to be in. Ashkenazi reportedly worked with the Americans last summer to scuttle Netanyahu’s desire to annex some parts of the West Bank.
And the problem is compounded because this is a situation that could last for months. The current government – this so-called parity government evenly split between Likud and its allies and Blue and White and its ally – will remain in power until a new one is sworn in, although if Blue and White does not pass the electoral threshold this will become a huge legal bone of contention: Can a party be in the government if it is no longer in the Knesset?
If the electorate delivers an uncomplicated verdict on March 23, and there is a clear victor with an ability to form a government, then the current situation will only last into May. But if not, if – as was the case following the elections of April and September 2019 – no government is formed and a fifth election is called, then this current situation, where each half of the government distrusts and holds in disdain the other, would likely be a fixture for months on end.
And that would be bad for the country, because it is tough to make fateful decisions when those making them have so little trust and faith in – and regard for – their colleagues sitting around the government table.