Israel’s New Government

Israel’s new government has today, finally, been sworn in, after the rather awkward situation political parties were left in during the election earlier this year.  In many ways much is the same: Benjamin Netanyahu will return for a second term as Prime Minister, and the coalition will include parties which support Israeli settlements in the West Bank (most notably, ‘Jewish Home’, who I feared would become part of government).  The new Defence Minister and Housing Minister are both supporters of settlements.

However, there are also some marginal changes.  For the first time in around a decade, orthodox Jewish parties have not been included in government.  There are more ministers who would be described as moderate within this government than there were previously.  Most surprisingly of all, the liberal Hatnuah party, which supports the two-state solution, has also been included in the coalition.  What effects this will have, I do not know.

Although the government appears slightly more favourable now than it did last year, I don’t think a lot will change.  I highly doubt there to be a breakthrough in peace talks with Palestine, and I imagine the rhetoric against Iran will continue.  Perhaps the government will be marginally less likely to support military action against Iran now, but I really couldn’t say.

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Israeli Election Analysis

I’ve been far busier than I expected to be (if you ever study Advanced Higher History in Scotland, anticipate the amount of research you’ll have to do!), which is likely only to get worse for the next two weeks, so I apologise if this isn’t as in depth as I would like.  The matter is also incredibly complicated and I know woefully little, but here is a basic analysis of the Israeli election held on the 22nd January.

The results:

As you can see, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu coalition did indeed win the most votes of any party, and by a large margin.  But this is Israeli politics where votes tend to be scattered among a large number of parties, so even the ‘winner’ of this election won less than a quarter of the popular vote, which corresponds to its particular influence.

Predictions for the election suggested that the Israeli electorate would shift into the far-right, with expectations that the Jewish Home party and orthodox Jewish parties would do well.  And while collectively these parties did gain around a quarter of the vote, the main winner of the election seems to have been the centrist party, Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, which is almost certain to be included within any potential coalition.  But even if Netanyahu does ally with Yesh Atid, which could easily happen despite their opposing views on Palestine and other issues*, they’ll collectively still only hold 50 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.  They could form a minority government, but with Israel’s divided and potentially unstable system this might be unwise.

Possibilities to complete this coalition with one more party would be with either Labor, The Jewish Home or Shas.  The most commonly cited party is The Jewish Home, though it stands opposed to Yesh Atid on many issues – such as forcing ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the armed forces – so it’s unclear how successful this would be.  I’m not sure why Labor hasn’t been touted as a greater possibility; perhaps because it disagrees with Likud Beiteinu on so many issues.  Neither side seems willing to engage with the Jewish religious factions.  The Liberals don’t have enough seats to join a coalition, and I can’t see the Arab parties being included.  But this process of negotiating the formation of a government could go on for months, and even then could end in failure and force a second election to take place.

So this could go any way.  I personally do not want The Jewish Home to be part of any potential government, though the surprising and welcome success of Yesh Atid may counteract the negative impact they could have.  Stay tuned!

*Netanyahu, going by his settlement policies, appears to support the one-state solution – i.e. that Israel takes control of the West Bank and incorporates it into its territory.  Lapid would prefer a two-state solution in which Palestine would achieve independence, though even he is in agreement that Israel should occupy the entirety of Jerusalem.

The Israeli Election

Tomorrow, the people of Israel will vote for their next government.  The most significant election to happen in the region since President Morsi was elected in Egypt last June, the way the vote goes will have a profound effect on relations within the Middle East.  Israel is arguably the most democratic country in the Middle East (unless you live in Palestine) and also has the most powerful military, currently being the only country to possess nuclear weapons.

The election will be held in the context of, as ever, a country which sees itself under siege.  There is the old problem of Palestine, which will particularly be in the public mind after the occurance of what Israel terms ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’, though according to reports this is having a surprisingly small impact on the election.  Most parties appear committed to Israel’s current covert strategy of slowly absorbing the territories and denying them of sovereignty; even the opposition, Labor, has been silent on the issue.  Which is surprising, really, considering recent clashes, Palestine’s recent admission as a non-member observer state in the United Nations, and the government’s decision to build more settlements.

More significantly, the old foe Iran is perceived to be the greatest threat to Israeli security.    Expected to soon reach nuclear weapon capabilities – though this is a highly contested statement – the debate in Israel is not if action should be taken in the event of Iran coming close to acquiring nuclear weapons, but the severity of that action.  It’s no secret that Prime Minister Netanyahu, seeking re-election, would love to launch military strikes against Iran, but it’s less clear if he would do so without US support.

With things calmer on the northern border with Lebanon, Israel’s main secondary threat is now a consequence of the Arab Uprisings.  It faces an Islamist-dominated government to the south in Egypt, which although seems dedicated to peace now may not always be.  Egyptian instability has also resulted in the advancement of insurgents in the Sinai region, leading to another wall.  To the east, Israel’s traditional foe from whom it still occupies territory, Syria, is wracked in a deadly civil war.  On this issue Israel is torn; Syria is an ally of Iran so it may seem in their interests to support the rebellion, but this risks bringing radical Islamic extremists to power, who would be all but certain to oppose Israel’s very existence – at least they know where they stand with Assad.  So it’s no surprise that Israel has stayed quiet, fearful of either outcome.

The debate within the election does seem to be mostly on the issue of defence and security, rather than the typical discussions on economic policies we’re seeing in Western countries at the moment.  This election quiz by Al Jazeera, despite providing confusing results, gives an indication of which issues are being discussed in the current climate.  It’s quite terrifying.

So how will the election go?  The latest opinion poll has predicted 32% will go to Netanyahu’s coalition party Likud Beiteinu, which would make it the largest party in the Knesset despite having a combined 10% fewer votes than in 2009.  Labor is polled at 17% – 4% more than in 2009.  The ultra-nationalist, and frankly extremely dangerous ‘Jewish Home Party’ is polled at 12%.  The remaining 39% is scattered among a variety of populist, Zionist and liberal parties.  It is clear that Israel is a very divided society and no party will achieve a majority, meaning more extreme parties will play a ‘kingmaker’ role in forming coalitions.  Although I am a supporter of proportional representation, I believe there is a strong argument to introduce a plurality system in Israel, considering the current political climate.

I expect Israel to continue down its current path after this election, with few changes in the near future.

Israel’s Obsession with Walls

Israel appears to be developing an obsession with walls and barricades that would have made the Romans proud.*  First came the infamous West Bank barrier, which upon completion will cover around 700km, clearly separating the territory of Israel and the West Bank.  The Gaza Strip is separated similarly.  The stated purpose of this was to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian terrorism, and in that respect is appears to have been a success.  But underneath this reasoning there may be a humanitarian disaster for the Palestinians.  The Palestinian economy declined between 2000 and 2002 as work on the barrier began, and has only made a feebly recovery.  Communities have been cut in half.  They have lost their human right to the freedom of movement.  This isn’t even getting into Israel’s highly criticised settlement policy.

The city of Jerusalem is increasingly becoming cut in half, between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem.  Both Palestine and Israel consider Jerusalem their capital city – and of course, neither respect the right of the other to exist.  Israel, having won the most wars and gaining the most foreign military aid, now appears to exist more so than Palestine.  But that’s a different subject/rant altogether.  Jerusalem is bearing more and more resemblances to  Cold War Berlin, separated by the Berlin Wall.  We can only hope this wall will be brought down as peacefully.

Then I read the news article which inspired this post, commenting on the Israel-Egypt barrier being built along the border at Sinai.  And then, just as I was planning this post in my head, I read this news story of yet another barrier being planned, this time along the eastern border of the Golan Heights as a result of the Syrian Civil War.

The Golan Heights were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and have remained in their possession ever since.   As the Syrian Civil War becomes ever more violent and bloody it has begun spilling into other countries – this can be seen in both Lebanon and Turkey.  Israel has remained neutral during the war – again a whole other subject – and does not want to be affected by the instability.  So up goes another wall.  Once more this barrier protects Israel from terrorism, this time the terrorists being radical Islamist insurgents who have gained influence in the Sinai region since the Egyptian Revolution.  However it was also intended to cut off the flow of African migrants into Israel, and in that respect it will certainly be successful once reaching completion early this year.  It is also hoped to crack down on illegal drug trafficking.

While there may be some legitimate reasons for all this obsessive building of walls, the fact is that it does nothing for Israel’s image of being an imperialist occupier, and the idea that a Second Apartheid is developing between the Jews and Arabs of the region.  In fact, a quick search with the words ‘barrier’ and ‘wall’ brings up results for every single one of Israel’s neighbours, though not all of these are quite so dramatic in scale.  Virtually, there are walls over every single one of Israel’s borders.  Extreme paranoia, an abuse of human rights or necessary defence?  I could not say.

*Well, okay, the Romans would have resented any attempt of wall-building by Israel, but that’s besides the point…

2013 Predictions

Finally, gonna end this busy day with a list of predictions for next year.  I didn’t plan to publish these – I was writing them for my own interest – but decided to give it a shot, in case miraculously they’re all correct, so I can prove I predicted them!  Rather rushed:

  • UK
    • Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    • The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
  • Abroad
    • The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    • The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    • Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    • A war will not start over Iran.
    • Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    • Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    • Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    • Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    • The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    • I expect more crises from North Korea.
    • Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    • This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    • There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    • Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    • Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    • Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    • More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    • Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    • Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    • The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    • Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.

Syria: Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War

As you will have no doubt heard – due to the fact that the media has finally cottoned on to the horrors occurring – there is a vicious and bloody civil war being fought in the country of Syria.  Unrest began in March 2011 after demonstrations against the Assad regime broke out as part of the Arab Spring uprisings.  The regime responded in the form of tear gas, bullets, shells, warplanes, and recently, cluster bombs.  Violence spiraled in a series of massacres and resistance from a growing rebellion army, dragging the country into the largest civil conflict in the country’s history.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 after a rebellion was launched by Fascist forces, led by General Francisco Franco and aided by the established Fascist dictatorships in Europe, sought to topple the democratic left-wing government.  The war raged for three years between the ‘Republican’ forces and the ‘Nationalist’ forces, and by 1939 the Nationalists had taken control of the country, imposing a military dictatorship which would last for decades.

There are many similarities between the two conflicts in some ways, and differences in others, but enough similarities to be worth commenting on.  Whether Syria will be one of many cases where history is repeated remains to be seen, but hopefully this post will explore where these repetitions may occur.  As ever, I am not an expert and there are merely my own views – as misguided they may possibly be.

Both the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, from a Western Liberal perspective, can be interpreted as a war between freedom and tyranny.  The lines blur, as they always must in wars, but overall this seems to be the case.  In Spain the combatants were the democratic (to begin with) Republican government and the dictatorial, Fascist Nationalists.  There is little doubt that, having seen the atrocities in Spain’s totalitarian government under Franco, which was to follow, the Nationalists were not on the side of freedom.  With the Republican government increasingly becoming a puppet of the Soviet Union, almost entirely dependent on Soviet support, it is debatable whether this side could be considered the side of ‘freedom’, but as the war began the Republicans were certainly fighting in the defence of democracy and freedom.

Syria is more clear cut.  The regime of Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has ruled Syria for nearly four decades.  The government’s rule has been characterised by brutal oppression; Syria is a country where mass imprisonment and torture are commonplace.  An Islamic revolt occurred between 1976 and 1982, culminating in the mostly undocumented Hama massacre which razed the city and killed tens of thousands of people.  In retrospect, this can be seen as a sort of blueprint by the government in handling civil unrest.  Assad’s regime is undeniably on the side of oppression and tyranny.  The rebellion to oust him began as mass protests by hundreds of thousands of Syrians across the country, and the rebel army which followed is dedicated to fighting for a free, democratic future.  Yes, there are extreme factions within the rebellion – most worryingly Islamic jihadists – whose growing influence is a cause for concern, but I believe a majority of the fighters would reject their views.

Another similarity, which in my view is the strongest, is how both wars rapidly became a proxy war.  A proxy war is the situation where a major power, or often two major powers, instigate or support sides in a conflict which the power itself if not directly involved in.  I’ve already mentioned how the Spanish Civil War became a proxy war, with the Nationalists supported by the Fascist dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Portugal, and with the Republicans supported by the Communist Soviet Union.  This level of support on the Fascist side extended deeply.  The Guernica bombing is a famous example of German intervention, and over 10,000 German soldiers fought in the war.  Italy’s level of support went further, with over 60,000 Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side, as well as in the form of aid such as warships, ammunition and over 700 warplanes.  The Fascist powers of Europe were desperate for a Nationalist victory as this would further isolate the dwindling democratic powers of Europe – namely Britain and France.

Support for the Republicans came almost exclusively from the Soviet Union, whose motives were more halting the spread of Fascism than to install Communism in Spain.  Its level of support was also large, with many thousand Soviet soldiers fighting for the Republicans and large amounts of aid being sent.  The Republicans also received aid from Mexico, though this was nowhere near comparable to the amount provided by the European dictators.

The attitude of what would today be perceived as ‘The West’ was one of non-intervention.  In fact, many officials in Britain were open about their desire for a Nationalist victory, as this was seen as preferable to a potential spread of Communism.  Britain, France and the USA pledged to not become involved in the war, limiting their role to that of sending humanitarian aid.

This was similar to the situation in Syria in many ways.  Although to not as great a degree or from as many sources, much military and logistical aid is making its way to the opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.  The regime’s most outspoken backer is Iran, which sees its unusual alliance with the secular dictatorship as a way of maintaining influence in the Middle-East and applying pressure onto Israel.  The regime is also, more covertly, receiving aid from Russia – both politically and militarily.  Russia’s political support of Syria, due to its presence on the UN Security Council, has prevented any meaningful international intervention in the conflict, thus giving the Assad regime the opportunity to clamp down on resistance without interference.  Russia is also a large supplier of arms to the regime, despite international condemnation.

Support for the rebellion comes from an even stranger source; the highly oppressive Gulf States – most significantly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  The rebellion in Syria is being fought, mostly, for freedom and democracy, so it may at first appear odd that these Islamic Monarchies are supporting the movement, but their motivations are down to politics.  Fiercely opposed to Iran, the Gulf states see this as an opportunity to sever Iranian influence upon the region.  Democracy would be an unfortunate side-effect to this goal.

Dark green shows countries which have recognised Syria’s opposition. Light green shows countries which have officially supported the opposition.

Very much like in the Spanish Civil War, the role of ‘The West’ has been minimal.  Although there is clear vocal support from most democracies towards the rebel movement, most governments are unwilling to become involved without a legally-binding resolution from the UN, which is currently being blocked by Russia and China.  To date France, Turkey, the UK and Spain have recognised the ‘Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and, along with the USA, have been providing non-lethal aid – including communications equipment.  Turkey is also allowing its territory to be used by rebel fighters to organise and supply.

However, although there are many similarities between the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, there are also many differences.  One significant difference is the root of each conflict.  The Spanish Civil War began as an armed insurgency and coup attempt by the Nationalist Forces, whereas the Syrian Civil War began as a popular uprising against President Assad’s regime and the armed elements followed later.  From my perspective this gives the rebel factions in Syria more legitimacy than those in Spain had, as they are actually fighting for the will of ‘the people’ (but not all).

The forms of warfare are also different.  The war in Spain was fought in trenches, land battles and with heavy aerial capabilities from both sides.  The rebels in Syria are far more disadvantaged: they’re fighting a guerrilla war across the cities and country side of Syria, fighting street by street and making minimal gains against the regime’s artillery and air-power.  The role of warplanes is significant in both conflicts, but in Syria this role is far more one-sided with the air virtually dominated by Assad forces.

The war in Syria has not attracted the number of foreign volunteers to join the rebellion as would be expected.  The most significant volunteer movement from abroad would be the emergence of Islamic Jihadist groups, whose numbers make up over 5,000 fighters.  This pales in comparison to the 32,000 volunteers who joined the Republicans in Spain to fight against Fascism.

And finally, although the most difficult at present to judge, is the direction in which the war is flowing.  The Nationalists made steady gains all throughout the Spanish Civil War and were heading towards a victory from early on.  The situation in Syria, being far from conclusion, can only be predicted.  Although the regime has an upper hand in virtually every respect, it is gradually being pushed back in all areas of the country be rebels.  Despite this, the war is currently in a state of stalemate.  Most analysts and observers do not believe the Assad regime will survive, however, due to the wide opposition to it both domestically and internationally.  It appears likely that both wars will be won by the rebellion and end in revolution, but where in Spain this was a triumph for Fascism, in Syria this will, it is hoped, be a triumph for democracy.

In conclusion, there are both many similarities and differences between the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011-present.  It may be futile to explore the similarities, or it may also give an indication of the direction Syria as a country will go during the war and after.  It is said that history repeats itself, and I believe this is and will increasingly be one of those instances.

UN General Assembly Resolution 76/19

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https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/02/UN_Resolution_of_Palestine_as_Observer_State.svg

A few days ago the UN overwhelmingly voted to upgrade Palestine to a non-member observer status. This map shows how isolated the Israel-USA position on the issue is, with reds voting against the resolution, greens voting for, and yellow abstaining (blue countries were not present).

Palestine is the issue which always seems to break the typical ‘West/Rest of World’ divide, with the USA seeming to abandon its support for freedom and self determination in attempts to placate Israel. You can tell it’s a complex issue when North Korea and Japan all vote the same, for instance.

It is difficult to say what effect this resolution will have, but it’s certainly a significant step towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Though it appears to have also inflamed Israeli opinion over the issue.