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Blinken’s dilemma: Who can make commitments for Israel

CM 25/05/2021

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Nothing better illustrates the continuing dysfunction of Israel’s political landscape than seeing pictures of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken – eager to come to the Mideast immediately after the latest round of fighting – meeting separately with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Because who knows if in another week’s time any of those gentlemen will be holding the same key position they hold right now. Certainly Ashkenazi won’t – he is no longer a member of the Blue and White faction in the Knesset; and the jury is still out on what political fate awaits both Gantz and Netanyahu.
Blinken was also slated on Tuesday evening to meet opposition leader Yair Lapid, a man who – though very unlikely to succeed – is still trying to figure out a way to displace Netanyahu. Had Blinken really wanted to hedge all his bets, he should also have spoken with Yamina head Naftali Bennett, or New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar. In certain scenarios, one wilder than the next, each of those men could serve a stint – perhaps the first stint – as rotating prime minister.
It is clear why Blinken – who did not seem to be in any great rush to visit the region before the fighting, reflecting the diminishing importance of the Mideast in US foreign policy – felt the need to visit now.
Following President George W. Bush’s move into the White House in January 2001, it took only a month before his secretary of state, Colin Powell, was on his way to Israel. The same was true of secretary of state Hilary Clinton, who visited Israel on her first trip as secretary just a month after Barack Obama took office in 2009.
Those were secretaries of state in a rush to come to the Mideast. Neither Blinken nor Biden radiate any such urgency, with Blinken’s visit now only dictated by events.

His need to come now to show that America – following Operation Guardian of the Walls – was fully involved and completely engaged; that it was going to take the diplomatic lead immediately following the recent war and not leave a vacuum for others to step in and fill.
But, some argue, maybe it would have been better for practical purposes to wait a week. On June 2, Lapid’s mandate to form a government expires, and the country will have a better sense if it will be going to yet another election. The political picture should be a bit clearer by then.
If Lapid fails in his effort to form a government, the Knesset will have 21 days to rally 61 members around one candidate. If they fail, as they did in December 2019 after both Netanyahu and Gantz could not put together a coalition, then the country heads to the polls for the fifth time in 2½ years.
And there’s the rub.
Let’s say Blinken would have waited a week to see if Lapid could put together a coalition, so that he could then come and talk to the leaders who would be calling the shots going forward. But what if Lapid fails and cannot form a government? Should Blinken then wait another three weeks during Knesset deliberations? And let’s say he does wait that long. Does he then continue to wait until a new election is held and a new government – maybe – is formed? 
This logic has no end. So Blinken came now, despite Israel’s intense political instability. It must be extremely confusing, however, for the secretary of state – or any diplomat – to sit across from Netanyahu or Ashkenazi or Gantz and not know whether they can keep any of the promises the might make. Not because any of them don’t want to, but because in a short while they may not be in a position to be able to deliver.
This problem, now in full view, has dogged the country since the long winter of its political dysfunction began in December 2018. The lack of permanent government ministers has made it difficult for other countries to deal with Israel on a bilateral basis, simply because they are unclear about who their interlocutors are, and whether their counterparts even have the authority to speak for the country or deliver on their promises.
In standard speeches Netanyahu gave in 2017 and 2018, he often hailed Israel’s enhanced international status, and spoke of the country’s historic breakthroughs in ties with Latin America, Africa and Asia. He would often mock those who predicted that he would lead Israel into diplomatic isolation, listing the number of high-profile visits to Israel that month, from presidents to prime ministers and foreign ministers.
At the start of every month, the Foreign Ministry used to send out a list of VIPs expected over the next four weeks, and the list would be long and impressive. Over the last two years, however, those lists have shrunk considerably.
The instances in which Jerusalemites scratch their heads looking at some flag flying on the city streets trying to figure out which world leader is in town are few and far between now. Last week was an exception, as several European foreign ministers visited in the wake of the war.
But the airlift of high-level visitors has stopped – not because of a problem that countries around the world have with Israel or with visiting, but because it is difficult to deal with what seems like a government in perpetual transition.
What the Bilinken visit shows, however, is that certain matters can’t wait – not even a week –  even if it is not clear who will be making policy in Jerusalem in just over a month.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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