Quarterly Updates for (16 Aug 2018 — 31 Dec 2018)

                In Israel the biggest political story relates to the Israeli attack on Gaza amid the cease-fire negotiations on 8 November (see Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Intra-Palestinian Relations). On 14 November the Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned from his position because of the cease-fire agreement reached between Israel and Hamas which he called a “surrender to terror.” With his resignation he pulled his party Yisrael Beiteinu out of the governing coalition which prompted Naftali Bennett, the Israeli education minister and leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party, to request the defense portfolio on the following day, a request promptly rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Education Minister Bennett had indicated that he would leave the governing coalition if he did not get the defense minster position but ended up staying, leaving the governing coalition with a majority at the Knesset. However, on Monday 24 December Prime Minister Netanyahu ended up calling for early elections on 9 April 2019 instead of the planned elections in November 2019. Prime Minister Netanyahu cited difficulties governing with the small majority the governing coalition was left with after Defense Minister Lieberman took his party out of the coalition and that Israel was finishing up Operation Northern Shield (see below). With Defense Minister Lieberman’s resignation Prime Minister Netanyahu became the health minister, foreign minister, and defense minister in addition to being the Prime Minister.    

                In between Defense Minister Lieberman’s resignation and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for early elections, the Israeli police and securities authority recommended (12/2) indicting Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife Sara for bribery and charges of corruption in what has become known as Case 4000. Later in December (12/19) the state prosecutor’s office also recommended indicting Netanyahu for Case 4000 in addition to Case 2000. Whether Prime Minister Netanyahu will be indicted is up to the Israeli attorney general. By the end of 2019 the attorney general had not made an official decision yet, however Haaretz reported that the early election process could slow down the attorney general’s decision. Case 4000 is the third of its kind this year brought against Prime Minister Netanyahu.   

                Also in the midst of election speculations Israel launched (12/4) what was dubbed Operation Northern Shield, an operation that according to Israeli officials sought to destroy Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon to Israel. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Ronen Manelis said that the IDF had been preparing for the operation for a “very long time.” Israeli opposition leaders, among others, questioned the timing of the operation as it was launched less than 2 days after Prime Minister Netanyahu was recommended to be indicted for corruption and amid the crumbling of his coalition. On the day that Operation Northern Shield was launched Prime Minister Netanyahu asked U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo for the U.S. to sanction Lebanon, a request that was denied. The operation that lasted through the end of the year caused altercations (12/17) with Lebanese soldiers as Israeli soldiers were rolling out barbed wire inside of Lebanon. The 2 sides were separated by United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon soldiers that intervened. On 19 December the United Nations Security Council held a session where both Lebanese and Israeli diplomats accused each other’s countries of breaching United Nations (UN) resolutions, Israel referring to the Hezbollah tunnels and Lebanon citing the IDF crossing the Blue Line into Lebanon. UN under-secretary for peacekeeping operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix confirmed at the session that tunnels did cross the Blue Line but further stated that none of them had exit points inside of Israeli territory. By the end of December, Israeli officials reported that they had located 5 tunnels in total.

                Also in December, Israel fired missiles at Damascus striking an arms depot. 3 Syrian soldiers were wounded in the attack that according to Haaretz was targeting an Iranian facility. The attack happened (12/25) less than a week after U.S. president Donald Trump announced we was pulling the U.S. troops out of Syria, a decision that made U.S. secretary of defense Jim Mattis resign (see United States). When asked where the pullout would leave Israel, President Trump said, “I told Bibi [Prime Minister Netanyahu], you know we give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they are doing very well at defending themselves.” Russia condemned Israel’s attack on Syria for the violation of Syrian sovereignty and for endangering 2 civilian aircrafts. Earlier in September a Russian military plane was struck down killing 15 Russians in Syrian airspace. According to Russian officials an Israeli F-16 struck Syrian targets while hiding behind the Russian plane that was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles.

                The U.S. also blocked a $500 million arms deal between Israel and Croatia in December after Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the deal back in March. The deal would have included the sale of 12 refurbished U.S manufactured F-16s with Israeli-made software. According to Axios, the deal was shut down because Israel did not have permission to resell the F-16s and because the U.S. was a direct competitor for the Croatian bid.

                Another big development in Israeli foreign policy was the Israeli attempt to establish diplomatic ties to former foes. As has been reported in previous updates, the Saudi Arabian crown prince Muhammed bin Salman has displayed a more reconciliatory tone when it comes to Israel than his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz. The growing ties were on display after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi when Prime Minister Netanyahu said in December “what happened in Istanbul is nothing short of horrific. But it’s balanced by the importance of Saudi Arabia and the role it plays in the Middle East.” In October, Prime Minister Netanyahu travelled to Oman to visit Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and the president of Chad Idriss Deby journeyed to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu in November. At a press conference with President Deby in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu said of his visit to Oman and the change in attitudes of Middle East countries: “There will be more such visits in Arab countries very soon.” The spokesperson for Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Bahrain would be next in line for a Netanyahu visit. Israel only has official relations with 2 Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. Later in December, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced (12/10) that Oman had opened up its airspace for Israel’s national airline El Al. The permission was granted while Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Oman in October.       

                After the passing of the Nation-State Law in June (see Israel in issue 189) Israel continued its lawfare against the Palestinians. A bill dubbed the cultural loyalty bill passed a vote at the Ministerial Committee on Legislation on 21 October. The bill is aimed at targeting cultural displays of dissent within Israel by allowing the Ministry of Culture and Sport to retroactively cut funding for works or institutions that disrespect the symbols of Israel or refer to the Israeli Independence Day as a day or mourning, which includes the commemoration of the Nakba. The so-called Nakba Law already allows the Israeli finance minister to cut funding from institutions that commemorates the Nakba on Israel’s Independence Day. The ultimate fate of the bill became uncertain after the government’s by then fragile coalition didn’t manage to secure its future as finance minister and leader of the Kulanu party, Moshe Kahlon, told (11/26) his members that they could vote according to their conscience at the Knesset. Later, in December another bill, aimed to displace families of Palestinian assailants from their homes to other places in the West Bank, passed both the Ministerial Committee for Legislation (12/13) and the Knesset on a preliminary vote (12/16). The head of the Shin Bet, IDF chief of staff, and the attorney general all objected to the bill citing fears that it would have a negative effect on the stability of the West Bank. An unstated but obvious consequence of the bill would be that Israel would be able to transfer Palestinians out of cities such as Hebron to other places preferred by the Israeli state. At the same sessions at the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and the Knesset, as mentioned above, a bill that would legalize 66 West Bank settlement outposts passed. If the law is enacted then demolitions of the outposts are suspended for 2 years while they will be reviewed for ‘legalization’, in that period they will receive Israeli government services. A bill, Basic Law: Equality, drafted by the left-wing Meretz party to counter some of the provisions of the Nation-State Law was voted down (12/12) in the Knesset. The bill sought to stipulate that “[t]he State of Israel shall maintain equal political rights amongst all its citizens, without any difference between religions, race and sex.” In November, Prime Minister Netanyahu allowed a bill, which would permit sentencing Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis to death, to go to the floor of the Knesset. The bill had been stalled since January of this year but is now being pushed forward to the Knesset. At the end of this year no date had been set for a vote.               

                The largest supplier of electrical power in Israel, the Israel Electric Corporation, announced just before the beginning of Hanukkah (11/29) that those living in the “Jewish sector” who had failed to pay their electric bills during Hanukkah celebrations would be exempted from power cutoffs. The discriminatory policy came half a year after the Nation-State Law that cemented Israel as a state for the Jewish people. Another case of discrimination against Palestinians in Israel unfolded with much international attention in October when the Palestinian-American student Lara Alqasem was detained for 2 weeks after she arrived in Israel (10/2) to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Israel claimed that they had revoked her visa due to her involvement with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. On 18 October the Israeli Supreme Court overturned her deportation after she had appealed. In a swift reversal the Israeli minister of labor, social affairs, and social services Haim Katz announced that he had ordered the certification of hundreds of social worker graduates from Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem to be frozen. His decision came 1 day after he had signed a document recognizing the social worker’s degree. Katz said, “I will not give recognition to an institution that supports terror.” The decision, which is not based on any substantiated claim, is further dubious given that the graduates of the university’s medical school are certified to work in Jerusalem. Also in October (10/4), the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat said that Israel would be taking over the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) services in East Jerusalem. He did not provide a timetable or plan. UNRWA provides schooling for about 1,800 Palestinian refugees living in East Jerusalem. The UN agency declared that it would continue its work despite the mayor’s announcement. The attack on UNRWA comes as the US has been cutting their funding (see United States and Donors).        

                The Israeli cyber company NSO Group was sued for selling spyware that was used by Saudi Arabia to track Saudi Arabian journalist Khashoggi before he was killed (10/2) in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul. The connection to the Israeli company was revealed by Haaretz (11/25) and their reporting was used for the lawsuit by Khashoggi’s friend and Saudi Arabian dissident Omar Abdulaziz who also was subject to Saudi surveillance before the murder of Khashoggi.