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Internal divisions threaten to derail Israel’s many external successes

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The visit to Israel by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week showcased the paradoxical position in which Israel finds itself. While Jerusalem’s long-held positions on the danger represented by Iran have received a very significant boost on the global stage over the past year, stark internal divisions and growing security challenges closer to home are casting dark shadows.

Washington clearly finds it impossible to ignore the direction of events in this corner of the Middle East, despite the current US focus on the Russia-Ukraine war, and the long-term American pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region as the crucial centre of global strategic affairs.

The Blinken visit followed a series of dramatic developments. A raid on a drone facility in the Iranian city of Isfahan on January 28, carried out by Israel according to statements by US intelligence officials, reflected the growing scope, and effectiveness of Israel’s “shadow war” against the Islamist regime in Tehran.

Once Israel’s campaign on Iranian soil focused narrowly on the country’s nuclear program. During the prime ministership of Naftali Bennett, it became apparent that the focus had widened, and that Israel now had both the capacity and the desire to strike at will at a far wider bank of targets inside Iran.

The list now included officials engaged in Iran’s broader program of influence-building and subversion across the Middle East. It also, as reflected in the most recent ­action, includes Iran’s drone and missile programs.

The apparent use of quadcopters in the raid suggests that it was carried out by individuals located on Iranian soil, and in fairly close proximity to the facility itself. This is a further indication that Israel appears to have established a network within Iran, which it can activate and then stand down at will, under the noses of the authorities.

A raid the following day by ­unidentified aircraft on a convoy of trucks carrying Iranian weapons across the Albukamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria indicates that in addition to actions on Iranian soil, Israel is continuing to monitor and, where required, target Tehran’s efforts to supply its various proxies and franchises in Syria and Lebanon.

Global events with regard to Iran are moving in Israel’s direction. Once Western diplomats would listen sympathetically to Israel’s expressions of concern, while privately concluding that this was not their country’s problem. Not any more. Iran’s assistance and support of the Russian war effort in Ukraine, and the emergent strategic axis which it reflects, have changed this picture. Efforts to ban the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the EU and Britain showcase the extent to which Israel’s long war against the Iranian regime is increasingly located within the Western consensus.

Unsurprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his remarks following his meeting with Blinken on Monday, chose to focus on this issue. He noted that in the recent period, “many in the international community – I would say most of the international community – have seen the true face of Iran”.

Blinken, too, acknowledged this process and its cause, confirming the US and Israel’s “deepening co-operation to confront and counter Iran’s destabilising activities in the region and beyond”.

“Just as Iran has long supported terrorists who attack Israelis and others, (it) is now providing drones that Russia is using to kill innocent Ukrainian civilians,” Blinken said.

The efficacy of Israel’s long arm against Iran, however, was not the only generator of Israel-related headlines over recent weeks. Nor, evidently, was it the main focus of the US Secretary of State’s visit.

Blinken opened his remarks by expressing condolences “for the seven Israelis who were killed in the horrific terrorist attack early this week outside their synagogue”.

The attack in Neve Yaakov in Jerusalem on January 27, in which seven Israelis were killed, was the latest incident in a significant uptick in violence over the past two years to which the Israeli authorities have struggled to find a response. The attack was the bloodiest in Jerusalem since 2008.

The current violence differs from previous rounds in significant ways. The perpetrators are for the most part not dispatched by any ­organisation. Some of them (perpetrators of attacks in Jerusalem, Hadera and Beersheba over the past year) identified with the ideas of the Islamic State organisation. Others are connected to a loose nexus of militants in the northern West Bank, centred around the cities of Jenin and Nablus.

For the most part, their radicalisation takes place online or via their immediate milieu, leaving no obvious organisational chain for the authorities to trace and unravel. It is nearly 20 years since the Second Intifada ended.

Three thousand Palestinians and more than 1000 Israelis were killed in that period. Since then, a kind of quiet has largely prevailed.

This period appears to be drawing to a close. The underlying causes of the conflict remain nowhere close to resolution, with no diplomatic process on the horizon.

Blinken, on a number of occasions during his visit, reiterated US support for a two-state solution as the only way of resolving the conflict. This call, to both Israeli and Palestinian ears, seems increasingly to bear little connection to the observable reality.

Meanwhile, over the past two years, the month of Ramadan has witnessed a sharp uptick in violence. This year, Ramadan is due to commence on March 22. The increased religious focus of this month, and perceived threats to the al-Aqsa mosque, appear to be the factors that serve to galvanise the politically unaffiliated youths who carry out the attacks.

The presence of a far-right radical, Itamar Ben-Gvir, serving as Israel’s National Security Minister, may further ­affect the situation in as yet unpredictable ways.

Ben-Gvir’s presence in government reflects the second main focus of Blinken’s visit, obvious US concern at the direction of events within Israel itself.

Israel is today starkly divided on the issue of proposed judicial reform. The country’s “activist” Supreme Court, and the belief that its rulings reflect a liberal political bias, is a longstanding focus of anger among significant parts of the Israeli right. The current proposed reform is set to sharply reduce the powers of the court.

According to the provisions of the proposed reform, the court’s powers of judicial review will be ­significantly reduced. The Knesset (parliament) will be able to overturn a court decision to nullify a law by a simple majority vote.

“Unreasonableness” as a grounds for reviewing administrative decisions will be abolished. The process by which judges are appointed will be changed, giving a greater role to the executive and legislature, and the role of the attorney-general will be reduced.

But this issue has come to mark the faultlines of a deep and profound division in Israeli society. A significant part of Israel’s secular middle class looks at the make-up of the current government and notes that 32 of the 64 parliament members belong to religious or ultra-Orthodox factions. They fear a transformation of their country into something unrecognisable, with the judicial reforms as merely the first step. Large demonstrations have taken place in protest against the proposals.

Blinken, in his public remarks, appeared to acknowledge their concerns. He noted, pointedly, that “building consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure they’re embraced and that they endure”, while suggesting on a number of occasions that “shared interests and shared values” underlay the bond and alliance between the US and Israel.

Blinken made a point of seeking out and meeting with Israeli civil society organisations, devoting a number of hours to dialogue with them.

The point he was making was clear, though tactfully made (at least publicly). The US is concerned at the direction of events in Israel. Washington wants minimum problems in the Middle East, while it focuses elsewhere.

Some commentators have remarked that internal discord in ­Israel is now at its greatest height since the 1990s.

The shadow war with Iran continues to register its successes. The West Bank simmers on. Continued success against external challenges, though, must ultimately be based on maintaining a certain required level of internal cohesion.

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Article source: The Australian | Jonathan Spyer |February 4, 2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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