• Read ZFA President Philip Chester’s most recent statement on Israel’s newly sworn in Cabinet and President Obama’s visit to Israel
• Watch ZFA President Philip Chester being interviewed on Sky TV’s Newsnight on Obama’s visit
After a three week break in Israel, the two big news stories from there upon my return have been the swearing in of the new Israeli Cabinet, and President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel.
Following the January elections, Israeli President Shimon Peres gave Prime Minister Netanyahu the task of forming a coalition, a task which he had 28 days to complete. With a new range of options including Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party (19 seats) and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi Party (12 seats), Prime Minister Netanyahu was involved in tense discussions and by the end of the 28-day period, he had only secured a deal with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah Party (6 seats). After asking President Peres for a 2 week extension, he managed to secure deals with the other two parties on the final day. This means that his broad coalition consists of 68 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, and for the first time in over a decade, it excludes the two haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. While Bennett and Lapid might not seem like natural partners, both agreed on a significant key issue of universal draft to the IDF and a fixed exemption quota for Yeshiva students, as well as an integration of haredim into the workforce, which made a coalition with the haredi parties very unlikely.
On Monday evening, the new Israeli Cabinet with 22 Ministers was officially sworn in. Some of the key posts include Moshe Ya’alon as Defence Minister (Likud), Gideon Sa’ar as Interior Minister (Likud), Yair Lapid as Finance Minister, Shai Piron as Education Minister (Yesh Atid), Naftali Bennett as the Economics and Trade Minister, Uri Ariel as Housing Minister (Habayit Hayehudi) and Tzipi Livni as Justice Minister. PM Netanyahu will take on the role of Foreign Minister until the end of Avigdor Lieberman’s trial. If Lieberman is convicted, the Foreign Minister’s role could go to Yuval Steinitz, who has been given the title of International Affairs Minister. For a full list of Ministers and Deputy Ministers, click here.
In terms of our local papers, the Australian has dedicated two days to offerings from Middle East Correspondent John Lyons, who seems to be concerned with the issue of settlements, the number of Ministers in various positions that are seen as strong supporters of the settlements and what this means for the peace process. Please read ‘Israelis dismal on peace prospects’ from yesterday’s newspaper and ‘We can end conflict’ from today’s paper. As usual, when it comes to the issue of the settlements, John Lyons misses the point because the settlements are not the sticking point in the stalled peace negotiations. Rather, they have become a convenient excuse for the Palestinian leadership, often aided by segments of the media and operatives within the United Nations to place the blame on the Israelis. Nothing is asked of the Palestinians. An interesting article is Eric Rozenman’s article from the Washington Times from earlier this month entitled ‘Ban Ki-Moon is wrong about Israeli settlements’.
The last few days have also seen the issue of the settlements being brought up once again in the United Nations. In a stunning defence of Israel, please watch Lord Trimble take the floor at the UN Human Rights Council to slam the inquiry, accuse the UN of selectivity, and urge them to work with others “to advance the cause of peace, not to hinder it”.
In terms of the settlements and peace process, yesterday’s Editorial from the Australian was on the mark when they stated “the principal roadblock to negotiations remains, as always, Palestinian opposition to talks without preconditions and Hamas’s refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist. Mr. Netanyahu, by contrast, has long been willing to talk without preconditions”. ZFA President Philip Chester made the same point in Monday night’s interview with Stan Grant on Sky TV’s Newsnight.
This brings us to the next issue, which President Obama’s visit to Israel, his first since becoming President, and notably his first visit outside of the United States to any country since his re-election last November. President Obama is due to land in Israel at 12:00pm (Israel time) after which he will embark on a 51-hour whirlwind tour of Israel and the West Bank before heading off to Jordan. Before his visit, Obama sat down with Yonit Levy, a reporter from Israel’s Channel 2 News, to discuss his trip. To watch the interview, click here, and to view a live-blog of the interview, click here.
Much has been said about Obama’s visit and what it can actually achieve, especially given its brevity, which does not leave a lot of time to delve into the issues. Please click here for a detailed look at his itinerary, which includes viewing a battery from the Iron Dome missile defence system, visiting the Dead Sea Scrolls, laying a wreath on Theodore Herzl’s grave, a visit to Yad Vashem and meetings with President Peres and PM Netanyahu. He will also travel to Ramallah to meet PA Chairman Abbas, and to Bethlehem where he will visit the Church of the Nativity.
If you read Fairfax Middle East Correspondent Ruth Pollard’s offering yesterday, entitled ‘Israel dresses up for Obama’s visit but it’s shaping up as all show and little else’, you would have once again noticed her less than subtle anti-Israel agenda, where she managed to mention Palestinian protests, checkpoints, “Israel’s separation wall”, Palestinian prisoners and Israeli settlements, but again asked nothing of the Palestinian leadership. While all of the fanfare may not lead to specific outcomes immediately, this visit should be seen as a stepping stone to kick-start the process and reinvigorate both sides into coming back to the negotiating table, without preconditions. If President Obama can convince Abbas of this, perhaps a timeline can be set for future discussions to take place. In the meantime, pessimism and cynicism will not help the situation or bring an end to the stalemate.
Watch this space just before Pesach next week for the low-down on what actually happens when President Obama comes to town.
Media and Advocacy Director
Zionist Federation of Australia