Israel Update for December 2012

David Dolan
David Dolan

The Israeli government came under fresh international criticism in December after it was announced that hundreds of new Jewish homes would be built in the northeast perimeter of Jerusalem. The area, near the largest Jerusalem suburb, Ma'ale Adumim, is considered "occupied territory" by the Palestinians who hope to include it in any future state. Israeli leaders defended the intended new construction on land that they note has been a central part of the Jewish people's ancient biblical heartland for over three thousand years. They added that the area, like nearby Jerusalem, will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any final peace deal with the Palestinian Authority. The new construction announcement came just hours after the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to recognize "Palestine" as a non-voting UN member "state" - a move that was strongly opposed by Israel and some of its allies, but endorsed by many others.

Meanwhile the political campaign heated up in Israel during the last month of 2012, with fresh Knesset national elections scheduled for January 22. The government was rocked when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suddenly resigned after fresh criminal charges were leveled against him. Earlier Lieberman, who heads the current Knesset's third largest political party, announced he was forming a political alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's popular Likud party. Despite the unexpected resignation, opinion surveys continue to forecast that Netanyahu will easily retain his post, with his Likud party and its centrist and rightwing allies expected to receive ballots from a clear majority of Israeli voters. One small national religious party is projected to emerge as the third largest in the next Knesset under the charismatic leadership of a relatively young Israeli businessman whose parents immigrated to Israel from the United States.

In the wake of November's fierce eight-day conflict between Israeli forces and rocket-firing Palestinian militiamen in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas movement celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary during December with large support rallies held in Gaza City and north of Jerusalem. As they marked the founding of their violence-driven Islamic militia movement in December 1987, Hamas leaders reiterated the anti-peace positions spelled out in their founding charter. The seminal document declares that Hamas will never recognize Israel as a legitimate country, but will instead continue to work night and day for its total destruction. Palestinian Authority leaders attended the celebrations in an apparent bow to the growing street popularity of the radical movement that was founded with help from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement, which now controls the largest regional Arab country, neighboring Egypt.

In Cairo, anti-government protests continued the first half of December as a final draft of the Arab country's new constitution was stitched together. The constitution upholds strict Islamic Sharia law as a moral basis for all Egyptian law. Non-Muslim fundamentalist delegates who had earlier walked out of the drafting sessions to protest a move by Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi to thwart judicial review of the official document stayed away as the final version was put together. Later in the month, a national referendum was held on the new constitution, which was not surprisingly supported by most of the same 70% of the public who had earlier chosen Islamist parliamentary candidates to represent them. A new round of parliamentary elections has now been scheduled for later this winter.

Israeli leaders held urgent talks with their Jordanian counterparts in December to discuss the ongoing fighting in nearby Syria, which the UN now says has left around 60,000 people dead since March 2011. Officials in Jerusalem reportedly want to cooperate with the Hamshemite Kingdom in attempts to prevent Syria's massive chemical weapons arsenal from either falling into rebel Sunni Muslim hands or being transferred to Shiite Hizbullah forces in Lebanon. Meanwhile another senior Syrian military official defected to the opposition, which has been increasingly deploying sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles and other advanced weapons against the Assad regime's embattled military forces. In an apparent acknowledgment that the tottering regime's days are probably numbered, the Russian government began to evacuate its citizens from Syria during December. Many Russians work in the country, mostly in the defense industry.

An American group released pictures during December showing that construction is continuing at an Iranian nuclear site where experts suspect nuclear weapons were tested over the past few years. Iranian leaders responded that they would allow United Nation's Atomic Energy inspectors to examine the area if "international threats" to take military action against the Shiite regimes nuclear sites were "defused." Many Middle East analysts say they believe Israeli leaders are planning some sort of major military action against the Iranian nuclear programme sometime before next summer, possibly with American and other Western support. Meanwhile Kuwaiti leaders warned that an Iranian nuclear reactor located just over 100 miles east of the small Arab country poses a threat to the region and should be immediately opened to UN inspection.

On a brighter note, Israel received large amounts of much needed precipitation during the last month of 2012, with higher than normal rates of rain and snow forecast for the rest of the winter. Water officials said the level of the Sea of Galilee recently reached a high December mark that has not been achieved even once over the past decade. They noted that Israel's main above ground fresh water reservoir already began to rise in late October, nearly one month before average. Israel normally receives virtually no precipitation between April and October, with almost all of its average 14 inches falling between December and March.

Lieberman Steps Down

Israeli voters will head to the polls on January 22 in a national Knesset election that is being held ten months earlier than formally scheduled. All opinion surveys continue to show that current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will easily remain in power, but probably with a more rightwing coalition than is currently in place. The Likud party and its usual coalition allies are expected to win around 68 seats in the Knesset, which should leave the Premier with substantial majority backing in the next legislature. Such broad support may prove to be crucial if Netanyahu orders a military strike upon Iran's nuclear programme facilities in the coming months.

However Netanyahu's Likud party's political merger in November with the current third largest Knesset party, Yisrael Beiteinu, is no longer expected to add any seats to the two party's current total of 42 (27 of those seats belonging to the Likud). In fact, polls taken in late December showed the conjoined parties would only secure around 35 seats, down from some 37 to 40 in earlier surveys. Analysts said one reason for the drop in support was the resignation mid-month of Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman from his post as Foreign Minister. The dramatic action came just hours after Israeli prosecutors said they had uncovered enough evidence to formally charge the Soviet-born politician with financial fraud and related charges. Lieberman, who has served in the Knesset since 1999, said he preferred to fight the charges out of office, but also announced that he was still heading up his joint party Knesset candidate list with the Likud party. Under Israeli law, legislators can remain in the Knesset while legal proceedings are underway against them, but cannot serve in any cabinet position.

After submitting his resignation letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Lieberman predicted that his departure from office would be very brief. "I am leaving temporarily," he told reporters in Jerusalem. He added he anticipates that the legal proceedings against him would be "speedy," saying he intended to personally argue his case in court. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced in early December that he would indict Lieberman for promoting Israel's former ambassador to Belarus to a high foreign ministry position. This reportedly occurred soon after the envoy allegedly handed the Foreign Minister confidential information on moves by Israeli authorities to investigate Lieberman's questionable financial dealings in the former Soviet republic.

By late December, it became apparent that Avigdor Lieberman's time in government service may have come to a final end when a revised indictment was issued by the Attorney General's office. The amended indictment charges the former Foreign Minister with "moral turpitude," which would effectively prevent Lieberman from holding public office ever again if the allegations are proven to be true. Earlier in the month, it had appeared that Lieberman would work out a plea bargaining deal with the Attorney General. However new evidence emerged against the veteran politician when Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon startled the Israeli political world by becoming a witness for the prosecution. This unexpected development came soon after Lieberman removed his former deputy from his party's upcoming election list. Reports of bad blood between the two men had often surfaced over the past few years. The articulate Ayalon was often called upon to represent his country on the world stage since he spoke much better English than Lieberman, which pundits said provoked jealousy from his boss.

New Political Force In Israel

The big political story in Israel in the run up to the January 22 elections is the emergence of a significant new political force, The Jewish Home party, known in Hebrew as Ha Beit Ha Yehudi. Strongly supported by many Jewish residents of contested communities located in territory that Israel captured from Jordan in 1967, the party is now expected to emerge as the third largest in the next Knesset, winning up to 15 seats. Jewish Home was created in 2008 when the National Religious Party merged with two smaller parties, winning three seats in the 2009 elections. Since then, two other rightwing Knesset members joined the party, giving it a current total of five seats in parliament.