Swaraj’s Israel visit comes at a time of increasing domestic tensions

  • Amir Oren
  • Updated: Jan 15, 2016 01:38 IST
Israeli security forces monitor the site where a Palestinian man was shot dead following a reported stabbing attack in the village of Assira al-Shamaliya near the city of Nablus, in the occupied West Bank, on January 14, 2016. (AFP)

For many Israelis, life could not be better. Winter time and the living is easy, as India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj may see during her visit to Israel over the weekend, if she has some free time.

But under the surface, discontent lurks. Israelis fear random violence. There is no end in sight for the steady stream of attacks, which started on October 1 and are being dubbed ‘limited popular rising’ by the military authorities of the Occupied Territories. Compared to the hundreds and thousands of civilians killed in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other Arab countries, the less than 10 Israelis killed each month by Palestinians is barely a regional footnote, and yet the horizon facing some 8 million Israelis — three out of four belonging to the Jewish majority — is bleak.

The mirror-image of Palestinian violence is Jewish terror, despicable in the arson-murder of a Palestinian family and the gleeful celebration of this horrific crime by racist fanatics backed by settlers and Rabbis — one might call it rabid extremism. Israel’s vaunted security agency, Shabak, so efficient against Arabs, was lax in foiling such crimes and late in rounding up the perpetrators.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is perched on top of this structure, seemingly all-powerful. If he survives through 2016, he will become the record holder for the longest successive time as prime minister in Israel’s history, almost eight years. (David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s over-arching politician for its first 15 years, took a two-year sabbatical mid-term.) Netanyahu drove out all potential contenders within his Likud Party and does not have serious competition in either his ruling coalition or among the leaders of the Opposition.

The real elections impacting on Israel usually take place outside its boundaries — in the United States. The identity of the president and his closest associates — the secretary of state, the national security adviser and the White House chief of staff — has enormous significance for American diplomacy in West Asia. Netanyahu would rather have the administration distance itself from the frozen peace process and indulge Israel with the more than $3 billion annually in security assistance it has got accustomed to for almost three decades. Most of this money is given via vouchers to the US defence industry.

This is fine as far as it goes, but Netanyahu is not a generic Israeli prime minister, with a mainstream security doctrine basically unchanged from Ben-Gurion to retired officers-cum-politicians like Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. They knew that in order to keep the American body politic on Israel’s side, they must keep their distance from US politics. Praising a friendly incumbent was fine, as was signalling some displeasure with certain moves, but manners had to be kept. And the results were unpredictable. The Nixon-Ford administration of the mid-1970s, with Henry Kissinger as master mediator and manipulator, was on the verge of a breakthrough in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Its efforts were cut short by Jimmy Carter’s electoral victory. Yet he pushed ahead with the same goal, though by other means, culminating in the peace accord between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin.

In a similar vein, James Baker was a Kissinger-like diplomatic virtuoso under US President George Bush. Had Bush been re-elected in 1992, Baker was poised for grand manoeuvres between Israel and its neighbours. Again, a Democratic president with no experience in foreign affairs replaced a seasoned Republican one, but Bill Clinton pursued the same interests in his style and gave his blessings to the Oslo process.

Netanyahu is the first Israeli politician who thinks, speaks and acts American, having grown up and graduated from high school and college in suburban Philadelphia and Boston. He meddles in American politics much like the senator or governor he might have become had he not returned to his native Israel in his late 20s. And he has come down unabashedly for one end of the spectrum — the Republican Party. His personal relationship with Clinton was chilly, with Barack Obama even worse, and the spectre of Hillary looms large.

Recently, some of Netanyahu’s political buddies left their positions — speaker John Boehner in Washington and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa being the most prominent. Even if his wildest dreams come true — a Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz is inaugurated in January 2017, pays homage to Netanyahu and permits him to bomb Iran — what then? Will the Israelis have a better chance for peace and prosperity?

And worst of all, corruption scandals could prove his undoing, as his delaying tactics and efforts to install trusted associates in key law-enforcement positions lost their effectiveness, having first shielded him from probes on the eve of the 2015 elections. Graft and breach of trust investigations are slowly but surely climbing up the ladder to the very top, already reaching his wife Sara. Even if Netanyahu escapes being personally implicated, an indictment against Sara could unravel the couple’s hold on Israel’s government.

A most interesting time for Swaraj to officially visit a country India knows a lot about — if she looks down from the beautiful sunny skies to the ugly undercurrents.

Amir Oren writes on defence and government for Haaretz. The views expressed are personal.

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