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Bibi’s Victory: What It Means for Iran, the Abraham Accords, and the Biden Admin

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Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) is expected to serve as Israeli prime minister for the third time, as Likud and its allies have won 64 seats in the recent election. Bibi is currently Israel’s longest serving prime minister, having served over 15 years in two terms. His re-election marks a resurgent right wing in Israeli politics, and showcases the Likud party as the dominant force in Israel since Menachem Begin’s 1977 election to prime minister.

Prior to the recent election, Bibi faced a harsh defamatory campaign against several of his opponents. An MK of the hard-left Meretz party called Bibi “a malignant disease.” The head of Labor repeated the canard that Bibi cooperated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. A Yesh Atid MK likened Bibi to Hitler.

But after the dust settled, such talk didn’t walk. The Labor party will fall to 4 seats (from 7 in last election). Labor’s legacy is a quite dated one, as the party has held the prime minister’s seat for only about 6.5 years total since 1977. The Meretz party fell to 0 seats, the first time it had failed to garner any seats since its founding in 1992.

So, what should we expect from a Bibi victory?

Iran. Bibi will most likely ratchet up pressure on Iran, much like he did in his previous tenure as prime minister. Bibi was at the helm when Israel reportedly participated in the 2020 assassinations of Qasem Soleimani (a key IRGC figure) and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, believed to be the head of Iran’s nuclear program. Bibi was also the prime minister when the Mossad captured Iran’s nuclear file from deep inside Iran. One outgoing Likud member of Knesset stated that he believes that Bibi will strike Iran: “I’m basing my assessment on the fact that when there is no choice, someone has to take command, and that someone will be Netanyahu.” However, back in 2010, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israeli military to go to the highest level of alert in anticipation of attacking Iran, but the military refused, which some have said amounted to a military coup. So it remains unclear if Bibi will have the ability to wage an all-out strike on Iran.

But Bibi does have some strong tailwinds for confronting Iran, as Iran is now particularly vulnerable on the international stage: the nuclear deal talks with Iran appears to have all but disintegrated; Iran faces significant unrest challenging the legitimacy of the regime; Iran has planned to strike Saudi Arabia; Iran has threatened Saudi Arabiaover its funding of anti-regime coverage of the protests in Iran; and Iran has admitted to providing Russia with drones (while Iran says that these were only provided before the war with Ukraine, Ukraine says that Iran is lying). Bibi can use these developments to his advantage to gain support for continued Israeli sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program and military footprint throughout the Middle East.

Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel remains the grand prize, and Bibi has pledged to achieve a deal between the two countries. Bibi could potentially use Iran’s increased threats to Saudi Arabia as leverage to bring it into the Abraham Accords, or at least into the Joint Middle East Air Defense (MEAD). MEAD is an envisioned strategic partnership between Israel, the U.A.E., Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar that Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz had thought would be brokered during President Biden’s trip to the Middle East, but that never materialized. But the Biden administration could remain the spoiler on any of this, given its history of anti-Saudi rhetoric and its fair-weathered support of Saudi Arabia against Iran and its proxies the Houthis.

The existing pieces of the Abraham Accords are set to remain on track under Bibi. Granted, the UAE had expressed concern that Bibi partnering with the far right in his coalition could endanger the Abraham Accords. But this is likely bluster, given the extensive Israeli-UAE economic ties that have already formed since the Trump administration, mutual grievances about Iran, and past unrealized statements from the UAE and others that they would wait to make peace with Israel until there was Israeli-Palestinian peace. Additionally, Bahrain called Bibi’s victory in the election “normal and always expected” and pledged to continue its partnership with Israel, which is reassuring.

Collision course with the United States? Bibi could be on a collision course with the United States, given various policies that the Biden administration continues to pursue despite them being in direct opposition to Israel’s core national interests. These include:

The “two-state solution.” Following the election, Secretary of State Antony Blinken re-affirmed US support for a two state solution, which is not in Bibi’s or Israel’s interest. However, there may be some room for Bibi and Biden to work together, given the Biden administration being “deeply disappointed” with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ public remarks disparaging the US’ role in, and favoring Russia over the US in Middle East diplomacy.

Jerusalem. A probable point of contention between Israel and the United States will be Jerusalem. It is unlikely that the Biden administration will support Israel’s sovereign rights in Jerusalem, given the Biden administration’s past meetings with the Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem, and its support for a Jerusalem consulate for the Palestinians. Also key will be to what extent the Biden administration turns a blind eye to Israeli Arab and Palestinian incitement of violence against Jews in Jerusalem. For example, Mansour Abbas, MK and head of the Islamist Ra’am party, stated in a veiled threat to Bibi that allowing Jews to pray on the Temple Mount “will lead to war,” echoing Hamas talking points.

Bibi has stated that he will maintain the status quo on the Temple Mount. However, Religious Zionist MK Itamar Ben Gvir, who is expected to join Bibi’s coalition, wants to be public security minister in the new government. If Bibi grants this, Ben Gvir would have enforcement authority over Jewish rights to visit the Temple Mount. Ben Gvir wants to assert such rights, but Palestinians and Arab-Israelis have long claimed that this violates the status quo. It is likely the Biden administration will view an increased presence of Jews praying on the Temple Mount as more of a provocation than as part of an equitable solution.

Other issues. Additional issues that would potentially cause a rift between Israel and the United States include additional payments to the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, and pressure against Israeli building in the so-called “settlements” of Judea and Samaria.

Conclusion

Bibi’s third term as prime minister of Israel will be marked with a ratcheting up of Israel’s clandestine war against Iran, although it is unclear if this will culminate in an overt strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Bibi will also likely strengthen the Abraham Accords, and hopefully, should the Biden administration not get in the way, sign either a defense or full normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia. Lastly, there will likely be revived contention between the United States and Israel on key issues of Israeli national sovereignty and security, including the issues of a two-state solution, Jerusalem, settlements and more.

You can follow Steve Postal on Twitter @HebraicMosaic 

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China Expands Charm Offensive in Southeast Asia to Squeeze out U.S.

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Similar to what is happening in the Pacific, the US is facing a significant uphill battle to balance China’s rise in Southeast Asia. During the recent G20 and ASEAN summits in Indonesia and Cambodia, the Chinese Community Party (CCP) media upped its propaganda war against the United States over Southeast Asia. Outlets like Global Times and Xinhua claim that China’s interests in Southeast Asia are focused on mutual benefits, while the US is a malicious force in the region. The CCP press also claims that China is generously giving robust and purposeful aid to the Southeast Asian countries, while the US is neglecting them.

Claim #1: China’s Interest in Southeast Asia is Peaceful and Mutually Beneficial

China’s approach to Southeast Asia is benevolent and focused on mutual benefits, according to the CCP-run press. “China’s goal is to achieve a truly prosperous and peaceful ASEAN,” and “doesn’t interfere in ASEAN members’ internal affairs,” according to Global Times. “China focuses on pragmatic issues, such as promoting infrastructure construction, living standards, which are needed in those countries,” and “China is seeking a cooperative path toward common development,” according to another Global Times article. That same article quoted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as stating that China and the ASEAN countries “are good neighbors who will always be there for each other…”

One country that is particularly thankful for growing Chinese influence, according to the CCP press, is Indonesia. Indonesians want China to “lead…the world to a more peaceful and prosperous future,” and view Chinese President Xi Jinping “with an apparent sense of affability and affection,” according to Global Times. Marzuki Alie, former speaker of the People’s Representative Council of Indonesia, praised China as “becom[ing] essential in improving global governance,” and that “the visionary concept of building a human community with a shared future proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping shows China is willing to work with other countries to create a peaceful and secure world with openness and inclusiveness,” according to Xinhua. And perhaps the most perplexing aspect of China’s “benevolence” in Indonesia is the “Peace Ark” – a hospital ship that has recently docked in Indonesia, but that is also a navy ship run by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), according to Global Times.

Malaysia has a favorable view of China as well, according to the CCP press. Koh King Kee, president of Center for New Inclusive Asia, a Malaysian think tank, stated that “China is the backbone of the global supply chain and acts as a ballast stone of the global economy in times of uncertainty,” according to Xinhua.

And in response to US concerns over rising Chinese influence in Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian dismisses the base as not targeting any third party, according to Global Times. Cambodia’s Minister of National Defense Tea Banh further claimed that the Chinese involvement in that base is benevolent, stating that the base helps Cambodia “in cooperating with friendly countries and help[ing to] maintain regional peace, stability and prosperity,” according to that same article.

Claim #2: The US’ Interest in Southeast Asia is Manipulative, Malevolent

In contrast to China’s benevolence, the United States “only wants [ASEAN] to serve as its pawn to counter China, and to fulfill its own hegemony goal, according to Global Times. At the G20 conference in Bali, the US takes a “hegemonic, unilateral and protectionist approach,” and “is preaching war and confrontation,” according to that same article.

The US and the West are merely using the G20 summit in Bali “to advance their own geopolitical agenda against Russia, therefore preventing the crucial meeting from tackling serious economic issues,” according to another Global Times article. “Such a geopolitical focus “will worsen this uncertain and unstable world,” according to Veronika S. Saraswati, China Study Unit Convener at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia.

According to another Global Times article, the US is using ASEAN “to drive a wedge between China and Southeast Asian nations in the future,” is attempting to “rope in the region via political, security, and value-oriented agendas,” and is trying “to buy off” Southeast Asian countries “by pledging to spend certain amount[s] of money.”

Claim #3: China gives Robust, Targeted Aid to Southeast Asia

CCP media taunts the extensive aid that China is giving to Southeast Asian countries. China has pledged $1.5 billion in “development assistance” to ASEAN countries in November 2021, and Chinese-ASEAN trade was about $878 billion in 2021, according to Global Times. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang claims that of the 160 “cooperation initiatives” that China has suggested with the ASEAN countries in the previous 10 years, over 99.5 percent of them have been implemented, as reported by another Global Times article.

Li also stated that China is planning to build emergency storage for medical supplies and rise within the ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) framework, according to Global Times.

Chinese state-run media is particularly touting China’s Belt and Road investments in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and Laos. According to Global Times, the Jakarta-Bandung high speed railway will be operational in June 2023, and as a “flagship project of China-Indonesia cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative,” will be the first high speed train in Southeast Asia, according to Xinhua. China’s ambassador to Indonesia praised the project, claiming that the railway “will greatly reduce traffic jams, make travel more convenient for local people, improve local investment environment, boost businesses and tourism along the route, and accelerate the building of a high speed railway economic corridor.” The ambassador also mentioned that existing Belt and Road initiatives with Indonesia like the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park and the PT Virtue Dragon Nickel Industry Park, “have generated tax incomes, job opportunities and foreign exchange earnings, and provided Indonesia with opportunities for greater participation in global industrial chains of stainless steel and new energy.”

Meanwhile, Global Times asserts that the China-Laos Railway has generated at least $1.7 billion in trade and has transported almost 10 million tons of goods.

Claim #4: US Investment Lags Behind China

On the other hand, the CCP media claims that the US is lagging far behind Chinese investments in Southeast Asia. President Biden’s newly announced “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” with the ASEAN countries “…looks more like a symbolic act. The US is playing the catch-up game with China,” according to Koh King Kee, president of a Malaysian think tank, according to Global Times.

US and ASEAN trade, at $441 million in 2021, was almost half that of Chinese investment for that same time, according to Global Times. President Biden pledged to ask Congress for $850 million in aid for electric vehicles and clean energy to ASEAN countries, but this amount is “symbolic” and a “mere ‘drop in the bucket’,” according to Global Times. In May, Biden “announced a $150 million development and security package” for the ASEAN countries according to that same article, which pales in comparison to the amounts in aid that China claims it is giving those same countries.

According to Global Times, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang mentioned that US investment in ASEAN is “a drop in the bucket if compared to US support for Ukraine” during the Biden administration, which Global Times claims is “over $18.9 billion in security assistance.”

Conclusion

CCP media is waging a charm offensive targeting Southeast Asia. While China is investing heavily in these countries, the US has yet to devise a credible counter to such influence.

You can follow Steve Postal on @HebraicMosaic 

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