Iran, Lieberman, and more

Here is a roundup of commentary on the past week’s events in Israel:


Regardless of how talks with Iran are faring – and so far no agreements have been reached – Israel appears to be increasingly irrelevant.  Despite President Obama’s reassuring phone call to Benjamin Netanyahu last Friday, several recent meetings between Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry and and the arrival of a delegation of US State Department officials in Israel, it is clear that the consensus among the P5+1 is that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis must be found and that military action is not on the table.  Although Israeli Diaspora Affairs minister Naftali Bennett and Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman have conjured images of massive US Jewish protest against an Iran deal, the Jewish leadership is far more likely to engage in noisy protests than the Jewish Democrat-voting rank and file.  True, the US Congress may scuttle a deal, but Israel would be but one of many factors influencing congressional behaviour. The steadfast opposition to a deal with Iran voiced by Persian Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates is no less significant than Israel’s objections….

Negotiations with Palestinians

are stuck and likely to be set back into negative territory by recent developments:

Swiss and Russian medical experts concur that it is possible that former PLO leader and PA President Yasir Arafat was killed by polonium poisoning.  Although the Swiss are cautious and the Russians even more so, the Palestinian and in general Arab world has wholeheartedly accepted this story.  This in and of itself is not sufficient to spark off a third intifadeh, but given the  recent economic woes of the Palestine Authority, which is propped up by insufficient and tardy inflows of foreign aid, every additional inflammatory event could be exceedingly dangerous.

In the wake of the latest round of releases of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the government has announced plans for 5000 new housing units in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.  What will be no doubt seen from abroad and by the Palestinians as a blatant provocation may well be seen at home as an act of moderation. Why?  Because the units are to be developed in major “settlement blocs” that virtually all Israelis believe will remain part of Israel under a peace accord – Maalei Admumim, Gush Etzion, and “east Jerusalem,” an area twelve times the size of old Jordanian Jerusalem but whose borders were set by Israeli annexation.

The Housing Ministry has issued three new tenders that for first time in Israel’s history make no separation between proposed developments on either side of the Green Line.  Previous tenders had come only from the Israel Lands Authority and distinguished between Israel and the West Bank,  Now this process is being initiated by the Housing Ministry, led by Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party.

In recent months there have been increased attempts by Jews to clandestinely pray while on the Temple Mount, site of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque,  or to legislate permission for them to do so openly.  As an Israeli security figure quoted recently in Haaretz said, “The Temple Mount is like an irritable bowel.  It can always flare up, and there will always be someone to irritate it.”

Lieberman’s back

The acquital of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman on all counts of corruption relating to the appointment of the Israeli ambassador to Belarus brings to an anticlimactic end 17 years of investigation for a variety of serious infractions. (Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein focused on a relatively minor matter, thinking it would be easier to prove, but he was wrong.)  Libermann is likely to quickly return to the cabinet as FM – and will be the kingpin of the coalition as his Yisrael Beitenu party shores up the Likud party (11 of its 31).  Lieberman’s party is at record low support as Russian-Jewish voters have assimilated into Israel culture and left Yisrael Beitenu, an ethnic interest-group party, for the Likud or Jewish Home.  Lieberman, however, is a masterful political manipulator and is re-entering politics at a time when Netanyahu is vulnerable to attack from the right for even considering the two-state option.  Whether Lieberman supports Netanyahui, or allies with the Likud’s more hawkish internal opposition led by the likes of deputy foreign minister Danny Danon, who firmly opposes a two-state scenario, negotiations with the Palestinians are even less likely to move forward than they are now, and settlement expansion is likely to continue.

Note Liebermann’s thanksgiving visit to the Kotel: this fiercely secular man is beginning to walk the road towards accommodation with the Orthodox parties without which he cannot become a national leader.

The Economy

is on target to grow a bit more than three percent in CY2013.  The incoming Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug is concerned mainly about the high rates of unemployment in haredi and Arab sectors.  This might sound like old and/or bad news but so far as I know no top governmental figure has seriously acknowledged let alone tried to address these problems, as the haredi issue has centred largely around the symbolic issue of the draft, and only very recently have attempts been made to integrate Israel’s Palestinian citizens into the high-tech labour force (currently 3% of high-tech labour force though 23% of the population).  The construction, sponsored by Stef Wertheimer, CEO of Iscar, of a high-tech park near Nazareth, opened with little fanfare last spring as the government stayed away)    Although much of Israel’s high tech boom is fuelled by experience gained in IDF, in which most Arabs don’t serve, thousands of Arabs graduate in computing and information technology services every year, and there is a lot of money to be made in computing services in the Arabic language.