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Cabinet politics


Israel Hayom and Yedioth Ahronoth lead their Monday editions with a rapidly expanding criminal investigation, centering on a top lawyer, a former prosecutor and several senior figures from the legal system. Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post lead with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's efforts to form a new government.

Almost two months after the election that saw Netanyahu reelected for a fourth term, Israel is on the verge of getting a new government. As of Monday morning, there were two final obstacles that needed to be overcome before Netanyahu can swear in the latest and narrowest incarnation of his coalition – this time, with Habayit Hayehudi, Kulanu, United Torah Judaism and Shas.

The first – a High Court petition filed by Yesh Atid against Netanyahu's proposal to expand the cabinet in order to have more ministerial positions to divvy out among his coalition partners – was overcome on Monday morning. The court rejected Yesh Atid's petition, allowing the Knesset vote to go head. Assuming that Netanyahu can get his wafer-thin coalition to vote in favor of the planned expansion – and, if he can't, then he's in more trouble than anyone imagined – there will be enough ministerial positions for the four parties that will join his government.

The second obstacle – which members of his own Likud party will get which ministries – appears to be much less bothersome for Netanyahu. While there are several seasoned politicians vying for the handful of ministries that remain unallocated, none of them are likely to rebel if they get passed over. This is good news for Netanyahu, who knows that it just takes one member of his coalition to vote against the government in the Knesset and his majority will disappear. According to The Jerusalem Post, all of this may force Netanyahu to postpone the swearing in of his new government – which was due to happen on Wednesday – until next week.

Meanwhile, according to the lead story in Haaretz, defeated Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog is facing mounting pressure from within his party not to join the Netanyahu-led coalition. Describing the issue as 'the elephant in the room,' a senior party official called on Herzog to lay to rest rumors that he may take the Zionist Union into government – rather than serving as a combative opposition, as he has been promising since March 18.

At a meeting of activists on Sunday, MK Itzik Shmuli slammed his party for failing to unequivocally rule out joining the government. 'Until we remove this cloud that’s hovering over our heads, we’ll have great trouble truly functioning as a fighting opposition,' he warned. 'The most important component of succeeding as an opposition is public trust. But where exactly will we get this if they think every move we make is aimed at serving a future rush into Netanyahu’s arms?'

MK Miki Rosenthal echoed that, saying the party’s voters would punish it for joining Netanyahu’s government. 'Joining him would be a betrayal of the voters’ trust, with a corresponding price,' he said. Speaking to Israel Radio on Sunday, Herzog admitted that he had 'looked into the feasibility of creating an alternative' to the 61-seat governing coalition that’s slated to be sworn in later this week. He said he had 'maintained ambiguity' in part 'to preserve flexibility within the political arena.'

The Haaretz report goes on to say that senior Likud officials believe that, if Netanyahu wants Herzog in the government, he will offer him a package attractive enough to land him. Netanyahu would insist that Herzog join without Tzipi Livni one source said. 'But in exchange, he’s likely to give eight ministries to Labor, work toward some kind of diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians and maybe even offer a rotation for the fourth year,' meaning Herzog would become prime minister if the government lasted that long.

In other news, Army Radio reports that Khalil al-Haya, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, has denied reports of the presence of a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Gaza. The denial comes despite threats by a Salafi group in Gaza that is affiliated with ISIS to kill Hamas members 'one by one' in retaliation for the arrests of its members. Last Friday, those threats appeared to be edging to fruition, after an ISIS-affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula claimed it launched two 'bombs' at Hamas posts in Gaza.

Speaking with the Palestine newspaper on Sunday, al-Haya claimed that the Hamas-controlled authorities in Gaza will not allow any entity to harm the security of the region and that anyone who violates the law will be severely punished. 'Hamas is not deterred by threats of any kind by ISIS or Israel,' said al-Haya, who accused Fateh and the Palestinian Authority of deliberately inflating reports of ISIS presence in Gaza.

Elsewhere on the Palestinian front, Israel Radio reports that, according to an unnamed but senior Palestinian official, officials from the United States and the European Union are pressuring the Palestinian Authority to renew negotiations with Israel. The source told Al-Quds Al-Arabi that a proposal was raised for a meeting between Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in an European country or Washington in order to discuss saving the negotiations from the current impasse.


BETWEEN DAMASCUS AND DC: Writing in Maariv, Alon Ben-David comments on the situation in Syria and the upcoming United States presidential election.

"Will there be a war this summer? Many Israeli seem to think so. But the truth is that the chances of that happening are slim. Hizbollah is preoccupied with its wars in Syria and Lebanon. Hamas is bending over backwards to intimate that it has no interest in another conflict at this time and that, if Israel agrees to lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip, it is open to a long-term ceasefire. Iran, meanwhile, is heading toward a nuclear agreement with the West and will not do anything to upset the applecart. The IDF, however, is behaving as if war is just around the corner; it is holding training exercises at a dizzying pace. Just last week, the air force held a major training operation, there were two exercises in the Jordan Valley and reservists were training on the Golan Heights. In terms of the amount of training exercises going on, last week was extremely unusual, but IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot would like this to be the norm: an army that never stops training.

Concern about further attacks from Hizbollah, in response to Israeli airstrikes in Syria, has faded. The terrorists – apparently led by Samir Kuntar – who tried to place a bomb on the border fence, were spotted and killed. It now seems that Hizbollah does not have the time or the luxury to deal with revenge. It has shown over the past two weeks just how stretched it is, given its involvement in Syria.

The counteroffensive that Hizbollah planned, along with Bashar al-Assad's forces on the Golan Heights, has been blunted and turned into a defensive battle. The rebels – members of the Free Syrian Army and the al-Nusra Front – are attacking Assad's troops and Hizbollah from the rear, while they hunker down in Quneitra and the northern Golan Heights. These two organizations have also started to attack members of Shuhada al-Yarmouk, which recently joined forces with ISIS, and is enjoying success there too.

Hizbollah, which for weeks prepared its spring offensive along the Qalamoun mountain range close to the Syria-Lebanon border, suddenly discovered that it is no longer relevant. The rebels routed Assad in Idlib and Aleppo, and are now threatening the Alawite enclave in the coastal city of Latakia. Hizbollah was quick to move its fighters in order to protect that strategic port city – and has sustained many casualties in the Qalamoun area.

Assad himself, who for weeks believed that he had managed to stabilize the situation, is no longer sleeping soundly at night. ISIS has captured the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus and rains down rockets and mortars on the area of the presidential palace, where the elite of the Baathist regime live.

The war in Syria, which appeared to be static for the past 12 months, is once again dynamic; Assad is on a downward slope from which it will be impossible for him to recover. Syria is rife with rumors of a massive Alawite exodus from the Damascus region to the coast. It's hard to verify these rumors, but what is clear is that the Makhlouf family – Assad's maternal relations – has left Syria en masse. This is a total vote of no confidence in the way that Assad is handling the war.

Assad's inner circle is also starting to crack: Rustum Ghazaleh, the influential head of the Syrian National Intelligence Agency who dared to criticize growing Iranian involvement in the country, was severely beaten by the commander of Syria's Military Security branch, Rafik Shehadeh, and his bodyguards. A month later, Ghazaleh died of his injuries. Shehadeh was subsequently dismissed from his position. There is a growing sense that the Assad regime is on its last legs and that its demise is imminent. Hizbollah and Iran will do whatever they can to prop it up, but it’s doubtful whether even they have the power to prevent it collapsing.

In Israel, meanwhile, there is continued talk about Syria, but the truth is that there is no longer any such entity. Syria as we knew it and as appeared on the Sykes-Picot maps in 1916, no longer exists and will not come back into being. To Israel's north-west there is a jumble of organizations, each at war with its neighbors, who are trying to impose some kind of order over the territory they control. The Israeli Air Force is currently updating its list of targets in Syria; in addition to targets belonging to Assad and Hizbollah, there are also those belonging to ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to al-Qa’ida. These are our new neighbors.

Iraq, too, will not go back to resemble anything we knew in the past. It is doubtful whether any power will emerge that is strong enough to rule Iraq in its old borders. The same can be said for Libya. The Middle East is once again reverting to the kind of regime that was prominent a century ago: familial, tribal and religious. Apart from Egypt, it is hard to find a single Arab entity that has a clear national identity.

But none of what is happening in the Middle East – not the revolutions and not the bloodshed – can deter the Americans from pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are now meeting on a weekly basis. After every meeting, Zarif's smile seems broader than before. Kerry, it seems, is already working on the speech he will give when he is awarded the Nobel Prize for peace. Iran, which is seen by most players in the Middle East as the biggest regional problem, has become the solution, according to the Obama Administration.

In an interview with Channel 10 News, Kerry argued that Jerusalem's reaction to the Iranian nuclear deal was 'hysterical.' In contrast, Kerry himself appears to be in a state of euphoria. But beyond the attempt to insult Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Kerry's comments – coupled with recent statements by President Obama – would seem to indicate that Washington wants to rebuild its ties with Israel. Obama's political rivals long ago stopped adhering to the normal rules of polite discourse and even some of his allies have raised their eyebrows over his inexplicable obsession with Iran.

Hillary Clinton, who is the leading candidate to snag the Democratic nomination for the 2016 presidential election, has taken great care to distance herself from the president's positions. She knows he can only harm her chances of getting elected. If she is to win, however, Obama must start tempering his policies so as not to alienate Jewish donors and voters. Despite previous warnings, Obama has already told key Jewish groups that the United States will use its veto to block any United Nations Security Council resolution that would recognize a Palestinian state. This could help to forestall a planned European Union boycott of Israel.

It is not yet certain, of course, that Clinton will be the Democratic candidate in 2016. Even though she has been at the epicenter of American decision-making for decades, she will find it hard to market herself as a new force. Just like Americans felt enlightened and liberal because they voted in a black president, Clinton will try to instill them with the same sense of achievement for electing a female president.

That is why it is incredibly important who the Republicans select. Jeb Bush appears to be the candidate with the most hands-on experience, but he will also find it hard to position himself as something new. Clinton will easily be able to portray him as belonging to yesterday. In contrast, Marco Rubio – the senator from Florida – may be conservative and inexperienced, but he will offer voters the opportunity to elect a Hispanic president for the first time.

In any case, there will be intense battles within both parties for the nomination. Those Jews who support Israel – including many who have been bitterly disappointed by Obama – have still not decided who they will vote for. There is one thing that almost everyone agrees on: whoever is elected cannot be worse for Israel and the entire Middle East than the current administration."



EUROPEAN HYPOCRISY: Writing in Israel Hayom, Omer Dostry says that, since the European Union is both biased and hypocritical – Israel should take its condemnations of fresh construction in Jerusalem with a pinch of salt.

"Last week, the United States criticized the Israeli decision to build 900 new housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. This week, the European Union added its voice to the criticism, saying that 'the decision endangers the two-state solution.' In addition, European foreign ministers called – in an obtuse and absurd statement that was issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day – for a boycott of Israeli products by means of special markings on those products manufactured in the settlements. On top of all this, during a United Nations discussion on the standing of women, Israel was accused of harming Palestinian women.

The frequency and virulence of international condemnations of Israel are testimony to the dangerous hypocrisy of the international community toward Israel – especially for its 'sin' of continuing to develop its country and for providing its citizens with somewhere to live. Meanwhile, thousands are still being killed in the Syrian Civil War; the American-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is killing dozens of innocent civilians and Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting for control of Yemen and not showing any great concern about innocent lives.

Israel's sanctification of life – which expresses itself through construction, development and prosperity – is viewed by the international community as a crime against humanity. The problem is that many of the other 'crimes against humanity' being committed on an almost daily basis across the world are not criticized by the same people who seem to be obsessed by Israel. In fact, it seems that they may not even be aware of them.

The Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem – which is already home to more than 17,000 people – has been compared by European Union officials to an illegal outpost in Judea and Samaria. Yet the international community has willfully decided to turn a blind eye to the path of death and destruction that the Palestinians have chosen. Our so-called partners in Ramallah organize riots and terror attacks across Jerusalem. These are a direct result of incitement against Jews, of the sanctification of terrorists and of active encouragement of terrorist attacks. And the roots of all this can be found in the Palestinian education system and in the Palestinian media.

The diplomatic moves that the past two Netanyahu governments have carried out – coupled with the concessions they made (such as the 10-month settlement construction freeze and the release of terrorists) as part of a package of good-will gestures to the Palestinian Authority, which needed a bribe before it was willing to even engage in negotiations with us – disappeared without a trace. And when they did, Palestinian President Mahmoud 'Abbas reverted to his policy of rejectionism; as soon as the gifts dried up and the concessions came to an end, he decided to stop negotiating with Israel.

The European Union's accusations of illegal construction sound even more absurd when that very same body is guilty of funding construction that also impedes implementation of the two-state solution. In the past few months, for example, there have been revelations that the European Union is funding illegal Palestinian construction in Area C of Judea and Samaria – which is under complete Israeli control – with more than 400 homes built for Palestinian families. This is another case of blatant external interference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The past few years have shown anyone with half a brain and without vested interests that it is not Israel's settlement policy that is an obstacle to peace, but Palestinian Authority rejectionism and its ongoing and deeply rooted incitement. The European Union – which has adopted a deliberately blind policy, driven by cynical political motives – cannot, therefore, be seen as an honest broker. Its condemnations of Israel must been seen in this light."



WHO NEEDS ASSAD?: Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Gilad Sharon says that, if Bashar al-Assad's regime was to fall, the border between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights would remain as chaotic as it is now – but the border with Lebanon would become quiet, since Hizbollah would lose its direct patron.

"As long as the northern border was quiet, it was in Israel's interest that Bashar al-Assad clings on to power. A weakened dictator who takes pains to keep the border quiet – until recently, Israel's most peaceful border, in fact – is better than the chaos and terror of ISIS gangs. We're better off with a familiar if crazy neighbor, with whom we have certain understandings about how the border zone will behave, than new neighbors that are just as insane but who abide by no rules.

This was true as long as the rules were observed. But now that the border on the Golan Heights is starting to become a terror border – now that the situation has been reversed and the Lebanon border is relatively quiet while the Syrian border has seen a spike in terrorist activity by Hizbollah, which is made possible by the chaotic situation in Syria – we need to rethink what is good for Israel.

The fall of Assad's regime will open the door for ISIS to set up shop on our borders – and that's a problem. But it would also be a death blow for Hizbollah. Without the Assad regime and the Hizbollah-Syria-Iran axis, the threat from Lebanon would significantly decline. That will not happen overnight, but it will doubtless happen.

The quiet on the Golan Heights was, to a certain extent, a warrantee for the survival of the Assad regime. It was thanks to this quiet that we experienced an increased threat from Lebanon, in the shape of a militia armed and trained by Iran – Hizbollah – which posed an even greater threat to Israel's national security than Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Now there is no quiet and Assad's warrantee should expire. If the Golan Heights has become a battleground again, then Israel has no interest in the continued existence of Assad's totalitarian regime. Unlike Assad and unlike Hizbollah, there is an international coalition which is fighting against ISIS. Israel would not have to face this new threat alone, as it is facing the Iranian threat alone. There would be no international pressure for Israel to give back the Golan Heights – and that’s a good thing. The Golan will remain an integral and vital part of Israel forever.

That is not to say that we should welcome such an insane organization as ISIS on our border, but it cannot be any worse – and may even be better for us – than Hizbollah, which is the Lebanese proxy of the ayatollah regime. The people who operate Hizbollah do not pay the price for the organization's aggression and the decision to launch attacks against Israel is taken far away in Tehran. The reasoning has nothing to do with regional issues, but is more connected to Iran's global aspirations. Iran – a strong and powerful country – is providing Hizbollah with money and arms, which makes the Lebanese organization far more dangerous to Israel than ISIS. If, in any case, there is going to be chaos on our border with Syria, then at least we can enjoy increased security on the Lebanon border.

In short: who needs Assad? I am not calling for direct intervention in the Syrian Civil War, but it's good to know what's good for Israel. Sometimes when you wish for something, it happens by itself."



HELP SAUDI ARABIA: Writing in Haaretz, Amir Oren says that, if Israel wants to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East – or duopoly with Israel, as Iran’s foreign minister claims – it should help the Saudis achieve parity.

"If Iran violates the deal taking shape with the world powers and insists on obtaining nuclear weapons, Israel’s response must be the opposite of its traditional line. Israel shouldn’t keep threatening to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities; this would produce short-term gains. Instead, it should warn that it will obstruct an Iranian nuclear monopoly in the Persian Gulf by helping Saudi Arabia obtain a nuclear capability.

This runs contrary to the traditional approach, in which Israel fears a chain reaction of a nuclear Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia once Iran gets the bomb. It’s a nightmare for strategic planners in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (and Washington).

A different tack would aim to convince the Iranians that it’s better to forgo the bomb. Incentives so far have centered on economic sanctions (and the lifting of them). The Israeli and American threat of military action remains in place, but its operational and political credibility is a problem.

Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons, which arose during the shah’s regime, stemmed from a mix of motivations: the ethos of Iran as an ancient and proud regional power, prestige and a fear of falling behind in the race — not with Israel but with Iraq, the enemy next door that was pursuing a nuclear program. The first-ever assault on a nuclear facility (a failed assault) was a sortie of Iranian Phantom jets against the reactor on Baghdad’s outskirts in October 1980.

Nuclear weaponry comes into the world arithmetically. The Americans had it, so the Soviets needed it, and then the Chinese, who were afraid of the Soviets. But a nuclear China triggered a nuclear India, then a nuclear Pakistan. And if the Americans cooperate with the British, you can be sure France isn’t about to forgo a nuclear weapon.

The key question is when the nuclear club gets closed to new members. Any candidate wants to be the last one in and adopt the veterans’ opposition to new members. That has remained the main argument for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty since it became a key effort of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and in the 45 years since its passage: closing admission to the club and keeping tabs on anyone forgoing the treaty’s rights and responsibilities — India, Pakistan and Israel. The treaty also envisions oversight of signatories trying to play tricks — Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and in the past South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa.

So far, regional nuclear arms races have been scuttled in two ways: through an agreement between two competitors of equal power (Brazil and Argentina) or through American guarantees to defend allies (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) against nuclear aggression (from North Korea or China). In addition, there is a general commitment to NATO members that have kindly eschewed nuclear weapons, notably Germany.

Without a reliable American nuclear umbrella, including defending the kingdom from Iranian regional power, Saudi Arabia might go the complicated path of acquiring a nuclear weapon. There have been signs of this in recent years; it could buy a finished product, particularly from Pakistan. Israel would see this as a negative, but there are positives.

Israel, as an observer at the nonproliferation treaty’s review conference in New York, could announce that it will not let Iran have a nuclear monopoly (or duopoly with Israel, as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would have it). Instead, it could help the Saudis achieve parity. In the process, Iran would have to reexamine the advantage of going nuclear. It would face a new choice. Its huge investments would be offset; it wouldn’t be the nuclear club's only member in the region."



JERUSALEM JUBILANT AS TORIES TRIUMPH: Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Herb Keinon says that there was palpable relief in Jerusalem when it became clear that David Cameron and his Conservative Party had defeated Ed Miliband's Labor Party in the UK general election – since the Tories understand what Israel is up against.

"The rapidity with which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu congratulated British Prime Minister David Cameron on his reelection Thursday tells the whole story: Jerusalem is pleased that it is Cameron, not Labor’s former leader Ed Miliband, who will lead the next British government.

Netanyahu posted a congratulatory message to Cameron on Twitter early Friday afternoon, and called him personally on Saturday night. 'I look forward to continuing to work together with you on behalf of peace and security in the region, as well as to deepen the cooperation between Israel and Britain,' he told Cameron in an understatement that belies the real sense of relief in Jerusalem.

With Cameron’s reelection there will be more of the same in British-Israeli ties. Though more of the same is no honeymoon with London, with which Jerusalem has had its disagreements during Cameron’s term in office since 2010, it is far better than what was expected under Miliband, whose tone has been much more critical of Israel. Cameron, according to diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, understands what Israel is up against, which is why the official statements from London last summer during Operation Protective Edge were much milder than the mood on the street or some of the comments made by British politicians.

One of those politicians was Miliband, who said in Washington last July immediately after meeting U.S. President Barack Obama and National Security Adviser Susan Rice that 'we oppose the Israeli incursion into Gaza. I don’t think it will help win Israel friends,' he said. 'I don’t think this will make the situation better. I fear it will make it worse.'

And during a speech to a Labor forum last summer he said, 'I defend Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks. But I cannot explain, justify or defend the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, including children and innocent civilians.'

The concern in Jerusalem prior to Thursday’s election was that if Miliband had won, then the public tone – reflecting those types of comments – would have changed for the worse, even if London’s policy toward the Middle East would not have undergone any radical change. And that policy, at least from Israel’s perspective, has been mixed.

On the one hand Britain is among the strongest critics of Israel’s settlements policy inside the EU, and its foreign minister was among the 16 EU foreign ministers who signed a letter to EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini last month calling her to move swiftly to ensure the labeling of settlement products. But by the same token, at the UN Security Council vote last December on a Palestinian Authority resolution that would have set the parameters for a peace deal as well as a two-year deadline, the British helped torpedo the resolution by abstaining in the vote, denying the Palestinians the nine yes votes needed for it to pass, or at least needed to trigger a U.S. veto. Britain and Lithuania abstained in the voting, while two other EU countries – France and Luxembourg – voted in favor.

Cameron, during a warm speech to the Knesset last year, said that many people come to the Israeli parliament from around the world 'and talk about maps and population numbers and processes and deadlines. They tell you how to run your peace process. I will not do that. You know I want peace and a two-state solution. You don’t need lectures from me about how to get there.'

The concern in Jerusalem is that had Cameron lost, Israel would have been in for a great deal of lecturing from Miliband and the Labor Party. Arye Mekel, Israel’s former ambassador to Greece, who is currently a senior research fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, put Britain somewhere between Germany – Israel’s strongest supporter inside the EU – and France, which has announced that it will push its own resolution in the Security Council, much to Jerusalem’s chagrin.

That position on the EU scale is now unlikely to change. Under Miliband it very well may have."




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