Where Things Stand

Hello again! I’ve been absent from these parts for a little while. Occasionally, life intervenes and puts blogging on the back-burner. I’ll be making my best effort to get back to regular updates here in the coming weeks, although I still have some looming deadlines that may make that difficult until early October at the latest. I hope you’ll all bear with me as I get through this busy stretch. Also, I’ll note up here that I’m going to be on a panel discussion in DC two weeks from today. Details are in the last paragraph of this post. Please feel free to come by if you’re in the area! 

Since it’s been a while, let’s check in with what’s been happening in Iran and Israel recently.

First, a quick recap of the current Iran situation: Between the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey and the mounting tensions with North Korea, there hasn’t been as much bandwidth in the United States for Iran recently. The big question remains what will happen when the Iran deal comes up for recertification again. The last certification, which Trump only made “reluctantly,” happened back in mid-July. Trump must notify Congress every 90 days as to whether Iran is living up to its commitment to the deal, meaning the next certification deadline comes in mid-October.

I’ve covered this issue before, as have many others, and the consensus view remains the same at the moment. The rest of signatories — namely, the P5+1 and Iran — have all stated on numerous occasions they will remain committed to the accord even if the United States pulls out. Given that the U.S. has prevented most American firms from entering the Iranian market, a U.S. withdrawal would be more symbolic than substantive. It would likely have very little impact on Iran’s economic prospects or national security, but would certainly increase hostility and intensify rhetoric and threats on both sides.

It’s tempting to point to the recent departure of several hardline figures from the White House such as advisors Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka as an indication of a softening of the Trump approach to Iran, but this would be overly optimistic. The rest of the Trump foreign and military policy team remains in place, and they are, pretty much without exception, all intensely hawkish on Iran. (If anything, the departure of a strict isolationist like Bannon may actually increase the chances of expanded military action in the Middle East.) Additionally, as the ongoing North Korean fiasco has shown, Trump himself has no problem threatening military action and risking potential escalation, especially if he feels his ego is being challenged.

Definitely keep a close eye on this story in the coming weeks, as it is sure to heat up when the recertification deadline draws nearer.

With that out of the way, let’s talk Israel for a moment. Things haven’t been going so well for Israel’s first family recently. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself the target in not one, but two corruption investigations, his wife Sara is implicated in another case that could soon bring charges, and his son Yair was recently sued by an Israeli NGO for libel. Predictions of the Prime Minister’s imminent demise are nothing new in Israel. Netanyahu has survived several past scandals that critics claimed would force him from office. This recent wave, however, has a much different feel to it. Rumors of impending indictments have grown to the point where even various Likud members are starting to distance themselves from their leader, and there is open speculation in the press about what comes next after the end of the Netanyahu era.

If Netanyahu’s predicament resembles that of a certain American president, his response to these crisis does so even more. Netanyahu is not choosing to lie low in the face of mounting opposition. Quite the opposite, in fact. He’s fighting for his political life by going on the attack. He has started by lashing out at the Israeli media, borrowing one of Trump’s favorite invectives by calling them “fake news.” In another signature Trumpian move, Netanyahu recently held a rally to fire up his political base. In a speech to his supporters, the Prime Minister blamed leftists as the progenitors of a conspiracy to remove him from office. In his telling, the corruption investigations are the product of a coordinated campaign by Netanyahu’s political and media enemies to remove him from office via subversive and unconstitutional tactics. It is a last-ditch effort born of desperation stemming from the fact that these groups have been unable to defeat him in in legitimate elections. Thus, Netanyahu is subtly discrediting the investigations as political witch hunts before they reach their natural conclusion.

It’s no secret that a lot of this has to do with Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s closest and most important international ally. While Netanyahu claimed impartiality during the 2016 U.S. election, the reaction of many Israelis to Donald Trump’s victory, including many members of his own Likud Party, indicated a strong preference for the Republican candidate. Since Trump’s inauguration, Netanyahu has gone out of his way to cozy up to the U.S. President, even going so far as to avoid issuing condemnations of Trump’s recent reactions to the neo-nazi/white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. For a man who has never been shy about using comparisons to Hitler or the Third Reich to score political points, his silence in response to Trump’s comments has been deafening.

Increasingly, commentators are beginning to take notice of Netanyahu’s style and tactics, with many accusing him of being the latest leader to embrace the tactics of far-right populism. The truth, however, is that Netanyahu is not a new arrival to this movement. In fact, he’s been a member for years. Long before Donald Trump descended the golden elevator in Trump Tower, Netanyahu sought to create a political climate of fear and divisiveness that would engulf Israel in a state of constant chaos and moral conflict that has characterized his second tenure as Prime Minister. Only recently has the rest of the world noticed these tactics for what they are and characterized them accordingly. Ironically, Netanyahu has Trump to thank for that.

There’s plenty more to say on this subject, but I’m going to abruptly stop here for the moment. I confess that I’m highlighting Netanyahu’s populism because I actually wrote about it several months ago (before it was cool) as part of an essay contest for the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ academic journal, The SAIS Review. The essay is due to be published in the journal’s upcoming issue, which should be out sometime later this month. I’ll be sure to post an update about where and how to read it once it is publicly available. For now, I’ll just mention that I’m going to be on a panel for the journal’s fall launch in two weeks, where I’ll be discussing this subject in further detail. The event will be at 4:45 in the ground floor auditorium of the Rome Building at 1619 Massachusetts Ave NW. If you’re in the DC area, please stop by!

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