Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister, has been facing different challenges in the current Israeli political situation, both at domestic and at an international level. On a more accurate glance, it could be possible to affirm that they represent a whole layout. On the domestic level, Israel is going to face the second legislative election in two years and, according to the latest polls, it is not certain that Netanyahu would be re-elected prime minister as his party, the Likud, is in a head-to-head with the opponent Zionist Union party.
Thus, to assure his victory, Netanyahu might had played an ace up his sleeve, the card of addressing US Congress on March 3rd on the nuclear Iranian threat, and the resulting security of Israel, just two weeks before the elections.
The circumstances that have brought to the advance poll rose on November 23rd when the Likud Party submitted a nation-state law proposal entitled “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” that provoked a deep political crisis within Netanyahu-led government. Although the bill raised strong criticism within the Cabinet, it has been approved by 14 votes with six ministers from Likud’s opposition party voting against it, and has been formally proposed to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Moreover, after a passionate debate, Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered the dismissal for Justice Minister Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, decision that led to dissolve the government on December 9th and to convene legislative elections, which have been set on March 17th 2015.
The law is intended to become part of the country’s Basic Law (which is the fundamental of the legal system in the absence of a constitution) and defines Israel’s Jewish character, institutionalizing the identity of the State of Israel as a nation-state of the Jewish people. That would not only mean that the Hebrew language would be considered the only official language (dropping the Arabic language as a special status) or that the country’s national holidays are Jewish religious holidays, that the Hebrew calendar would become the official calendar of the State or that the flag is the Magen David. It will also mean that the Jewish law would be the source of inspiration for the country’s legal system.
In this concern, individual Israeli Arabs are considered equal in the eyes of the law, but their communal rights aren’t recognized. The proponents of the bill have stated that the intention is to anchor the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence and of praxis in law, but opponents are concerned that it would marginalize the Israeli Arab minority (20% of Israeli population), rising tension among the population.
The crisis within Israel has nothing to deal but with the idea of Israel itself as the bill proposal suggests a theocratic vision of the State, on the narrow line between the status of “Eretz Israel” (the Land of Israel) e “Medinat Israel” (the State of Israel). Former minister Tzipi Livni, leader of Hatnuah party, deeply took position against the bill proposal and agreed to run on a joint list with Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party, in the Zionist Union. The latest polls show a tie between Likud and Zionist Camp, with around 23 seats for each party, therefore not enough for a full majority in the Knesset. This campaign seems to be led not only on the political agenda, but even on the charisma of leaders and in this concern, Netanyahu continues to maintain his lead over Herzog and Livni and the others, who although being skilled politicians, they lack charisma and security background.
In this frame, the speech that Netanyahu addressed first the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and then at the US Congress on March 3rd, has represented a political lever to be re-elected, as the Prime Minister presented himself as the guardian of Israeli’s security, putting back on the agenda the Iranian issue, even if it cost a collateral damage with regards to the Obama administration. On one hand, Netanyahu’s speech has coincided with a new round of talks in Switzerland between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Zarif, arranged to prepare the negotiations to March 24th deadline, when Iran and the 5+1 Group (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) should reach a framework long-term agreement. The agreement would be aimed at persuading Iran to reconfigure critical installations and to reduce the centrifuge machines and it would be barred from enriching uranium above 5% (the level needed for power and medical use). Furthermore, Iran is committed in freezing of 10 years its nuclear activity, in turn to relief international economic sanctions.
On the other hand, the decision of Israeli PM to accept the invitation of the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, to address the Congress has represented a further rift in the current relationship with President Obama. Since that moment the administration was not consulted in advance of the visit organized by the Republicans, and President Obama refused to meet the Israeli Prime Minister and Vice President Joe Biden and other several Democratic congressmen didn’t attend the event. President Obama’s refusal to meet Netanyahu has been justified as his custom not to meet foreign leaders close to elections in their country, but according to the latest news, that refers to the decision US State Department to not fully brief Israel on Iran talks. It seems clear that the Iranian issue is a reason of disagreement and, moreover, the support to Israeli campaign against a deal with Iran had become a partisan (republican) rather than bipartisan issue among the US Congress. Indeed, Netanyahu said he wanted to make his case before Congress because there is bipartisan legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran, and right after the speech the US Senate majority leader said the Senate would debate a bill in this regard. The White House has already said that Obama would veto it.
During his speech, Netanyahu urged his audience to reject the deal currently under negotiation and stated two main objections to it: the first is that the agreement would not force Iran to dismantle its nuclear facilities and would permit the ability of enriching uranium; the second is that the restriction of 10 years to freeze Iran’s capability to produce nuclear fuel is not enough. Furthermore, Netanyahu denounced the threat that Iran poses to Israel and to the region, through its support of President Assad, Shiite militias in Iraq, Houtis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon: “American leaders worry about the security of their country, Israeli leaders worry about the survival of the country”.
By his side, Obama dismissed the speech, stating that Netanyahu didn’t offer a viable alternative, nothing new has been told, underlying the rhetorical agenda of Netanyahu, concerned on safety and protection of Israel against the enemy threat. The relationship between Obama administration and Netanyahu seem to be at the lowest point and the gap is not only how to deal with the Iranian talks, but if to use the power versus the diplomacy. Israeli PM mistrusts Iran, as he sees the Islamic Republic as the ultimate devil determined to destroy the Jewish State, and doesn’t believe that a diplomatic bargain could prevent the construction of nuclear weapons.
Obama is concerned in rehabilitating relations because that could allow Iran to foster foreign relations and work together for the stabilization of the Middle East against the threat posed by the Islamic State. On the opposite site, Netanyahu obviously fears an empowerment of Shiites in the region, as Shiite enemies already encircle the Jewish State.
Surely, even if Netanyahu’s speech provoked a wider deterioration of the relationship with President Obama, Israeli PM succeeded in transforming it into a political asset, just two weeks before elections, by diverting attention from the domestic social-economic crisis and the recent scandal related to the official residence, to the security issue. Indeed, the speech has determined a decisive moment within the Likud’s campaign, that is facing a slow spill out of personalities and Netanyahu is fighting to get more seats with the right-wing parties. To unseat the head-to-head with the Zionist Union, the Likud is fighting for votes against Economy Minister Bennett (Jewish Home), Foreign Minister Libermann (Yisrael Beiteinu) and former Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid).
That being so, one of the domestic urgent issue has been not considered as heart of Netanyahu’s electoral campaign: the ongoing occupation, the rising tension in the Occupied Territories and the tension in the northern border with Hezbollah. In December the European Parliament voted the resolution on recognition in principle of Palestinian statehood and the two states solution, on the basis of 1967 borders, hand in hand with the development of peace talks. Furthermore the resolution declares and reiterates that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. Moreover, at the U.N., the Palestinians and the European Union would press for submitting draft UN Security Council resolution they have postponed, at the request of Secretary of State Kerry, and at the International Criminal Court (ICC) the “State of Palestine” would achieve the full membership on April 1st, opening the way for war crimes complaints against Israel.
Once the elections would be ended on March 17th and Israeli President Rivlin will designate the winner to form the new government, the bill proposal on Israel as Nation-State of Jewish people should be discussed again at the Knesset, all these symptoms have to be taken into account. Perhaps, Netanyahu lost the chance represented by the invitation to the Congress to arise concern over these issues and convince US administration to face these developments and set the agenda on them. In case of approval of the bill, should be cautiously considered future developments, in the light of the domestic and international situation. By now, to win elections, it seems clear that Netanyahu chose his agenda on the Iranian nuclear issue, then it would be up to the Israeli public to judge and vote.
Master’s degree in International Relations of Asia and Africa (University of Naples “L’Orientale”)