Netanyahu exploits coronavirus pandemic to build up dictatorial regime in Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu after Thousands Protested In Front Of Israels Embassy In Cairo. Photo: Ahmad Nady (Wikimedia Commons)

By Jean Shaoul

Hundreds of demonstrators protesting against the government’s surveillance measures and the closure of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, converged on the capital Jerusalem Thursday, in defiance of a ban on large gatherings imposed because of the spread of the coronavirus.

They accused caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of using the pandemic to consolidate his own position—he faces charges of bribery, corruption and breach of trust in three separate cases—and establish a dictatorship. Their banners read, “No to dictatorship” and “Democracy in danger.” They called Netanyahu the “crime minister.”

The police, in an effort to block the protesters’ entry into the city, turned cars away, leading to scuffles and five arrests. Opposition leaders accused the police of trying to stifle protests at the behest of an un-elected government acting without the Knesset’s authority, accusations the police denied.

The rally’s organisers said their aim was “to save Israel’s democracy” following Netanyahu’s announcement in the early hours of Tuesday morning that the cabinet—not the Knesset—had approved a highly controversial measure that would allow the domestic security service, Shin Bet, to track Israelis’ phones to locate where carriers of the coronavirus had been, and then send a text message to everyone who may have been in the vicinity, telling them to self-isolate.

It means that the same technology that Shin Bet and the police have long used to track Palestinian militants will now be used against Israeli civilians as a weapon against the pandemic. It would affect a great many people, not just those infected but those who are in their proximity.

The Adalah legal centre and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) have filed a petition against the government’s decision authorising Shin Bet to track Israelis’ phones on the grounds that the regulations violate the privacy of the citizens in a disproportionate way. They say, “The usefulness of the draconian measures, obtained after sweeping restrictions on the public have already been imposed, is marginal compared to the serious violation of individual rights and the principles of the democratic regime.”

These measures are being imposed in the context of the terminal decay of Israeli democracy, which has collapsed in the face of the three-fold pressures of the decades-long military suppression of the Palestinian people, the rising social inequality within Israel itself, which ranks among the highest in the developed world, and now the health and economic crisis triggered by the pandemic.

Netanyahu had fast-tracked the measures through the cabinet, using emergency laws, after the outgoing Knesset intelligence committee, led by former IDF chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, refused to approve the proposal without a full discussion by the committee of the incoming Knesset. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit approved the cabinet’s decision, promising that the information collected would be destroyed after 30 days.

The emergency laws Netanyahu used to give the surveillance measures a veneer of legality were originally passed by the British Mandate government that ruled Palestine from 1918 to 1948. Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, they have been used extensively against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and only occasionally against individual Israeli citizens, but certainly not in such a wide scale manner as is now proposed.

On Wednesday, the Knesset Speaker and member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party Yuli Edelstein refused to convene the Knesset to vote for a new Speaker as required. He also refused to allow the Knesset to vote on setting up parliamentary oversight of the government’s surveillance measures, saying he was locking the plenary, at least until next week. While he cited the need for unity talks with the opposition Blue and White bloc and coronavirus regulations that prevented gatherings of more than 100 people, this was widely seen as cover for holding on to his own position and paralysing parliament for as long as possible. His purpose was evidently to delay the selection of his successor, since that would be followed by legislation preventing an incoming indicted prime minister from serving and any oversight of the government during the most severe political crisis in the state’s 72-year history.

The Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon ruled Edelstein’s closure of the plenary into next week as out of order, while President Rivlin called Edelstein to tell him to reopen parliament. The President’s Office said that Rivlin “implored” Edelstein “to ensure ongoing parliamentary activity, even during the coronavirus crisis.”

The Blue and White party, for its part, filed a High Court petition against Edelstein’s decision to close the Knesset, with Ofer Shelah, a Blue and White Knesset member saying that Netanyahu and Edelstein “are not only trying to destroy Israeli democracy, but also to cause the election results to be disregarded.” He added that Edelstein “hijacked” the Knesset by preventing a plenum vote on a new Knesset speaker, knowing there is a majority for replacing him. He said, “We won’t let that happen.”

Edelstein’s closure of the Knesset, less than 48 hours after the new Knesset members were sworn in, is the latest manifestation of Israel’s deadlocked political system.

Netanyahu was forced to announce elections in late 2018 after one of his coalition partners, Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home), quit the government. Since then, following three deadlocked elections in less than a year, he has led—or more precisely dominated—a caretaker government that, unable to set a budget or pass legislation, in effect rules by decree without any effective parliamentary oversight.

After the last election on March 2, President Reuven Rivlin called on the Blue and White’s leader, former Israel Defence Forces (IDF) chief of staff Bennie Gantz, to form a government. Despite being nominated by 61 members of the 120-seat Knesset, it is far from certain that Gantz will be able to do so.

Netanyahu, in the meantime, has used the pandemic to press Gantz to join “without hesitations” in forming an “emergency unity government” so that “together we will save tens of thousands of citizens.” He made it clear, however, that an emergency unity government would not include the third largest party, the four Arab parties in the Joint List, telling Gantz that “There is no place for supporters of terror, in routine times and during emergency.”

His Justice Minister Amir Ohana has declared a state of emergency in the justice system due to the coronavirus outbreak, thereby enabling him to postpone Netanyahu’s trial, set for March 17, to May 24.

Netanyahu has exploited the coronavirus to cast himself as the only figure capable of responding to a national emergency. He has used his daily press conferences to sow fear. While introducing a series of sweeping restrictions that are no doubt justified by the threat of the pandemic—requiring all visitors and citizens returning to the country to self-quarantine for 14 days, closing schools and universities, banning gatherings of more than 100 people and ordering people to stay at home—he is utilizing the state of emergency to consolidate his dictatorial grip over the Israeli state apparatus.

On Friday, the cabinet imposed further restrictions—again bypassing parliamentary oversight by using state emergency regulations—making the restrictions imposed earlier in the week legally binding and enforceable. It ordered Israelis not to leave their homes or visit parks and beaches, other than for food, medicine, medical care and essential work.

The health authorities confirmed 705 COVID-19 cases, of which at least 10 are in serious condition. Two ministers and two legislators are in quarantine after being in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. In the West Bank, there are 47 confirmed cases.

The health care system, neglected for years, has been the victim of repeated budget cuts, as Israel’s war machine took priority over everything, including a growing population, resulting in a service that was already on the point of collapse. It faces the current crisis totally unprepared, with serious shortages of necessary medical equipment to fight the outbreak. The staff at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv wrote to the hospital administrator saying that they did not feel properly protected from the coronavirus outbreak and they were “beginning to fear for our health.”

Netanyahu, as befits the leader of a garrison state, promptly called on Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, to use its web of secret contacts around the world, including Arab and Muslim countries that were better supplied but with which Israel has no diplomatic relations, to find relevant medical supplies. Mossad announced that it had bought 100,000 test kits, only to find they were the wrong ones.

This article first appeared on World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) on 21 March 2020, and was republished with permission.

US and UK struggle to find friends against Iran – and Iraq wants its sky back

President Donald J. Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron in close conversation Saturday June 29. 2019 at the G20 Japan Summit in Osaka Japan (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

by Paul Rogers

Is it 2003 all over again – but with Iran and Iraq on the same side this time?

Last week’s G7 meeting in Biarritz was notable for hypocrisy about the Amazonian fires. Brazil’s pyromaniac president, Jair Bolsonaro, is certainly a serious problem and the spreading destruction of forests bodes ill for the future, but it hardly becomes the likes of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and Canada to lecture the Brazilians on the risk of climate breakdown.

Donald Trump at least did everyone a favour by keeping a low profile on this one issue but for six countries at the forefront of high carbon emissions for decades to preach change in Brazil is one more indication of the increasing irrelevance of the G7 itself.

At least on one issue, Iran, there was a worthwhile initiative, with Emmanuel Macron inviting the Iranian foreign minister first to Paris before the summit and then to Biarritz itself. Macron just managed to keep Trump sweet even if US media outlets reported that his advisors were caught on the hop and were furious with the French.

So far there has been little real cooling of tensions and, as it is so often the case in international security issues, it is what the military are doing away from the spotlight that deserves more attention.

Lonely Sentinel

Until a week or so ago the US and its junior partner, the UK, were the only two members of Operation Sentinel, Washington’s intended multinational endeavour at patrolling the Strait of Hormuz. With anything led by the US seen as provocative by Iran and its allies, the British had tried but failed to get a European force together: the Germans would have none of it and the French, too, were dubious.

It cuts little ice with the Trump White House, but the few US diplomats still around who have some understanding of the Middle East know only too well that they badly need truly international action if their Iran policy is to be credible. Long-serving diplomats in the UK Foreign Office understand this much better, not least because of their memories of the way the Iraq war went so badly wrong in 2003.

Their concern, even if not even understood by their current political masters, is that one of the issues that turned the Iraq war into an American endeavour in 2003 was the failure to get a broad international coalition together. The UK ended up as the only country apart from the US that contributed credible forces in that long war that followed, and this could now happen with Iran.

Where are we, then, with the plans for Sentinel? At first sight there has been some progress, but look a little deeper and it is revealed as little more than superficial. As expected, the Royal Navy has expanded its forces in the Gulf, adding a frigate and destroyer to the existing frigate in what was previously a small force focused largely on mine hunting. The hope was that the US would persuade the Australian government and others to come on board.

Canberra has indeed agreed to join Sentinel, according to this week’s Jane’s Defence Weekly, but if we look at the detail its commitment is little more than nominal. A single P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft will deploy to the Gulf for just one month before the end of the year, one frigate will be based there for six months next year and some Australians will join the operations team in Bahrain.

Moreover, the Australian government is playing it down. “This will be an enhancement of our existing and long-standing contribution to counter-piracy and counter-terrorism mission in the waters of the Middle East,” it said. “Our contribution will be modest, meaningful and time limited,” (italics added).

The one other leader who has made a commitment is King Hamad of Bahrain, a state which is already the home of the US and UK naval forces, is deeply suspicious of Iran and has a singularly bad reputation for suppressing dissent among those of its people who, like most Iranians, follow the Shia branch of Islam.

Iraq pushes back

More significant has been the surprise announcement that Iraq is seeking to restrict coalition military operations in its airspace by requiring approval for them in advance, according to another report in Jane’s Defence Weekly. Iraq’s government leans strongly towards Iran, not least because its support stems from Iraq’s own Shia majority, and it has become increasingly concerned at Israeli attacks on Shia militia facilities in the country.

Israel’s frequent attacks on Hezbollah and Iran-linked groups in Syria and Lebanon are well-known but such operations now seem to have extended to Iraq, with two attacks in July. More recently, on 12 August an explosion at a weapons storage facility at Camp Falcon near Baghdad killed one person and injured 30 others. While these included members of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Force, they also involved Iraqi federal police personnel.

These are assumed to have been Israeli drone attacks, and the Iraqi government’s insistence on controlling its airspace might make it easier to intercept such operations in the future. A more fundamental message to Washington, however, is that Iraq’s relationship with Tehran comes first. That was underlined earlier this week when the powerful Fatah coalition in the Iraqi parliament called for the withdrawal of all 5,000 US troops from the country, following a further presumed Israeli drone strike near the border with Syria last weekend that killed a Popular Mobilisation Force commander.

In short, the Pentagon’s multinational military operation to pressurise Iran is limited to just one major country, the UK, plus a nominal contribution from Australia, but with a key state in the region, Iraq, sending an indirect message of caution.

Add to this the Iranian abilities in irregular warfare if tensions did escalate and it becomes clear that Macron’s efforts at the G7 summit really were worth making. Whether Trump and the noted hawks around him will get the message is far from certain but it may just be that the White House will come under increasing pressure from the US military to tread with caution. Perhaps the Pentagon will even ‘speak truth to power’, but don’t bank on it.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy’s international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

This article first appeared on openDemocracy 30 August 2019