A political-diplomatic forecast for the year ahead: Netanyahu wins but his era ends, war in the north, Trump plan fizzle, Supreme Court domineering, and more Jews abroad in distress. But Israel grows stronger than ever.
The peril of predicting political and diplomatic developments has been made crystal clear over the past topsy-turvy week. Nevertheless, my forecasts of one year ago were accurate: that there would be no elections and no big wars in 2018. Can’t say the same for 2019.
* Fate of Prime Minister Netanyahu: He will form his fifth coalition government after the April elections, with Benny Gantz as defense minister and Yaacov Litzman (again) as health minister. But the expected indictments against Netanyahu will sooner or later force him into a plea deal to leave politics and avoid jail. Which makes the current election somewhat of a temporary, counterfeit campaign.
Everybody in the arena smells the big shakeup in Israeli politics coming just around the bend – a post-Netanyahu era. They are maneuvering for pole position for the next campaign, perhaps in 2020. That is why so many political parties are splintering and clustering in the search for the holy grail: something “new” for the ravenous Israeli voting public.
* Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett: Their “New Right” political party is merely a springboard to Likud leadership, say, in 2020. I believe that when Shaked runs in post-Netanyahu Likud primaries she will win the party leadership hands down – roundly defeating all likely contenders including Gideon Saar and Yisrael Katz.
* The vaunted Israeli center: Expect more new political parties to pop-up over the next month, all promising “renaissance,” “togetherness,” “brotherhood,” “resilience,” “strength,” and fealty to “Jewish, Zionist and democratic values” along with commitment to fight “corruption” – but with no clear policies relating to economy, diplomacy and defense.
These parties will boast carefully calibrated lists with candidates who supposedly bridge all divides: Ashkenazi and Sephardi, secular and religious, men and women, center and periphery, young and experienced (– with “experienced” being a code-word for vapid politicians with flip-flop multi-party records like Tzipi Livni); plus Arab, Bedouin, Circassian, Druze, Ethiopian, LGBTQ and even Haredi talent.
This mode of synthetic and cynical politics reminds me of James Watt’s notorious quip that forced his resignation in 1983 from Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Mocking affirmative action in composition of a government panel, Watt said: “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.”
* Supreme Court over-interventionism: Court President Esther Hayut is getting ready to declare the Jewish Nation State Law “unconstitutional,” even though the law itself is meant to be a constitutional anchor and thus the court has no real jurisdiction. That is the meaning of her recent decision to hear petitions against the law before an expanded 11-justice panel. This is outrageous buttinsky behavior, making it even more necessary that the next Knesset pass a law allowing for override of out-of-bounds court decisions.
The court also has been domineering and unhelpful about haredi draft exemptions, striking-down the Tal, Plesner and Shaked plans successively – which were intelligent political-societal compromises that could have worked. Unfortunately, there are no better arrangements in the offing, given the rigidity in haredi society and Israel’s convoluted coalition politics.
* War in the north: Israel has conducted over 200 known strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, and acted against Iranian-Shiite targets in Iraq, yet the Iranians seem to be digging-in for the long term and are further weaponizing Hezbollah with precision arms too. Therefore, a full-scale Israeli military operation to degrade enemy capabilities is just a question of time; perhaps this summer. “Operation Northern Shield” against Hezbollah’s attack tunnels was the warm-up act.
* Palestinians: US President Trump’s peace plan will be tabled in 2019, but I don’t see any Palestinian capacity or willingness to engage, even if Arab leaders weigh-in to support the plan and Israel embraces it. (This includes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who will overcome the Khashoggi kerfuffle).
Give the Trump team credit for taking a fresh look at what is safe and wise in today’s Israeli-Palestinian reality. The very fact that the Trump team may “move the markers” – suggesting new parameters for the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab future and gutting the stale and unrealistic Clinton-Obama parameters – is a welcome development.
But in the meantime, the situation on the Gaza border remains tense; only those monthly suitcases of Qatari cash maintain some modicum of calm. In the West Bank, there were 33 shooting and 17 stabbing attacks in 2018, with more than 3,000 terrorists arrested – preventing another 530 planned attacks. While there is a threat of increased violence as the hold of Mahmoud Abbas’ regime shrinks, the IDF and General Security Services have a decent handle on the situation.
Moreover, the Palestinian Authority won’t collapse itself, even when Abbas steps or gets pushed aside this year. That’s because there is no precedent in business or international affairs of anybody walking away from a $3 billion enterprise. More than 200,000 Palestinian families – that is one million people – depend on PA salaries and pensions paid by the international community and buttressed by Israeli bayonets.
* US President Trump: His isolationist bent will increasingly come to the fore this year as he goes into re-election mode. He will yet withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan and slash America’s NATO commitments too. He is getting nowhere in talks with North Korea, has no plans to confront Russian expansionism, no plans to tackle Iranian aggression other than through sanctions, and no game plan for resolving the China-US trade wars. Kim, Putin, Rouhani and Xi are going to wait-out Trump.
* Jews in distress: Frighteningly, the fiercely anti-Semitic and anti-Israel Jeremy Corbyn is likely the next prime minister of England. British Jews should be packing-up and moving to Israel, but they won’t. They will stay and suffer in silence, like the proverbial Jewish grandmother who sits meekly in the dark.
The 2014-15 wave of French Jews coming on aliyah has passed, despite the continuing gains of radical Muslims in French society and an increase in violent attacks on Jews. It would be good if Jerusalem would implement a long-promised absorption plan to smooth the move of more young French Jews to Israel, but alas don’t hold your breath for the plan or the move.
American Jews had better start paying attention to anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on the hard-left wing of the Democratic Party, not just to Jew hatred on the extreme nationalist right (and Trump’s perceived forbearance for the hard right); or else their widespread acceptance in liberal circles could wane and their progressive paradise decay.
* The good news: At 9 million strong, sizzling with creativity, Israel will continue to be envied far and wide. All in all, it is a great place to live, especially in comparison to the crumbling Arab states in this region or the fading countries of Europe. Israel’s economy is strong, its technological edge formidable, its diplomatic reach expanding, its security forces vigilant, its democratic culture healthy, its faith vibrant, and its grit undiminished.