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Analysis

BICOM Briefing Note | Where Israel stands on the political crisis, security tensions, Iran and Ukraine

There are four main challenges facing Israel as the religious holiday period ends and the Bennett-Lapid government look towards the return of the Knesset for its summer session. Firstly, the coalition’s future is in jeopardy following the resignation of Coalition Chairperson (Yamina MK) Idit Silman and the United Arab List’s current suspension. Second, the security situation will remain tense in Jerusalem and on the Gaza border as several major national celebrations approach in May, including Israel’s Independence Day, Jerusalem Day and Nakba Day. Third, with nuclear talks in Vienna between Iran and the US stalling and the possibility of it ending in failure increases, Israel will once again be confronted with the dangers of a nuclear Iran and the potential fallout in the region were the talks to break down. And finally, Israel’s delicate balancing act between its moral desire to support the Ukrainian people and securing its vital security interests in Syria through maintaining relations with Russia could become more difficult if Russia decides to escalate its invasion in Ukraine. Below is a summary of the current status of these challenges.

The future stability of the Israeli government

The coalition’s future is in jeopardy over the resignation of Coalition Chairperson (Yamina MK) Idit Silman and the United Arab List’s (UAL) decision to “freeze” its participation in the government until further notice. 

Following Silman’s resignation the government-opposition is finely balanced 60-60. There has been criticism that the prime minister neglected his Yamina party members and was inattentive to the pressure placed on them by the right-wing opposition. Since Silman’s resignation Prime Minister Bennett has met with his faction in an effort to prevent any further fragmentation. Bennett has expressed optimism that the government could still survive and focus on consensus issues of growing the economy and reducing unemployment.

Mansour Abbas’s announcement to “freeze” his party’s role in the government had little practical significance – the Knesset is in recess. The day after the decision, Abbas posed an ultimatum to the Prime Minister: a commitment to maintain the status quo on the Temple Mount and other Muslim holy sites, a commitment in writing to resolve certain issues now stuck with Minister of the Interior Ayelet Shaked, more intense efforts to collect illegal guns in the Arab society and more. The UAL’s decision is a form of protest intended to neutralise pressure the party is under from the Shura Council (the religious authority for the UAL) and the opposition Arab parties. Abbas is caught between his desire to continue with the coalition and increasingly loud voices in the Shura Council to quit the coalition. He does not want elections; the collapse of the government would be a personal failure which could also come with a steep political price. 

The Knesset returns for its summer session on 8 May and several important bills hang in the legislative balance, such as a new pension framework for the army, a transportation spending bill, and a revised Haredi IDF draft bill. One more resignation would give the opposition a slim majority that could force a vote to disband the Knesset and trigger another general election. However, that vote would require the Joint List to side with the right-wing opposition to bring down the government. The party has not yet voiced a formal position on that scenario.

According to the coalition agreements, if two MKs from Bennett’s camp (Yamina or New Hope) vote to topple the government, then Foreign Minister and Alternative Prime Minister Yair Lapid automatically becomes prime minister. If the Knesset is then dissolved with a 61-MK vote, Israel will go into new elections with Lapid as caretaker prime minister. Given how complicated coalition building was in the past, he could end up serving as prime minister (albeit with limited powers) for quite a stretch of time.

The security situation

Since early March, Israel has suffered from 12 terror attacks – 4 shooting, 7 stabbing and 1 vehicle ramming – which have resulted in 14 deaths and 36 others injured. In response, the IDF have carried out over 400 counter-terrorism operations in the West Bank and arrested at least 80 suspects involved in terror activity. The IDF is at full capacity in the West Bank, deploying 24 infantry battalions instead of the usual 11. During Ramadan, Israeli Border Police have been forced to enter the Temple Mount nearly every day in order to deal with riots and violent demonstrations. 

In April, six rockets were fired into southern Israel in four separate instances from Gaza. Instead of responding with airstrikes, Israel chose to retaliate with economic measures by closing the crossings and not allowing Gazan workers or businessmen into Israel. This measure remained for two days. Israel hoped that by temporarily preventing Gazans’ access into Israel, this would have created internal pressure on Hamas to ensure there would be no escalation of violence. Due to the ability to earn relatively well by working inside Israel, it is estimated that every labourer provides a livelihood for a dozen people.

Following the May 2021 escalation, Israel has tried to incentivise quiet by improving economic prospects for Gazans, including expanding work permits into Israel, allowing entry of funds from Qatar and approving reconstruction and infrastructure projects.

Despite the rise in tensions throughout the month of Ramadan the government has adopted a policy of ‘distinction’ to avoid further escalation and to ensure freedom of worship for all religions in Jerusalem. The government has continued to allow 100,000 West Bank Palestinians to enter Israel for work whilst stopping illegal entry through gaps in the security fence. More than 700,000 Palestinians entered the Temple Mount to pray during Ramadan, even though a few hundred Palestinian youth continue to riot and clash with police in the early mornings. About 4,650 Jews visited the Temple Mount during the Passover holiday – a record-breaking number and double the number of visitors recorded during Passover 2021. Meanwhile, 4,000 Christians attended the ‘Holy Fire’ ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over Easter.

Israel is also committed to maintaining the Status Quo on the Temple Mount. Last week Foreign Minister Lapid said: “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount, non-Muslims visit. There is no change. There will be no change. We have no plans to divide the Temple Mount between religions. We call on Muslim moderates, on Muslim states, to act against this fake news, and to work together with us to ensure our common interest: preservation of the Status Quo and calming the situation.”

Iran: Deal or No Deal?

Indirect negotiations between the US and Iran in Vienna over returning to the JCPOA nuclear agreement have reached a standstill due Iran’s demand to delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) from the US State Department’s foreign terror organisation (FTO) blacklist. According to reports in mid-April, the Biden administration apparently decided not to send a counter proposal to Iran containing ideas for how to close the final outstanding issue.

Israel has come out strongly against the Iranian demand, with Prime Minister Bennett releasing a statement after his discussion with US President Joe Biden on 24 April: “I am sure that President Biden, who is a true friend of Israel and cares about its security, will not allow the IRGC to be removed from the list of terrorist organisations. Israel has clarified its position on the issue: The IRGC is the largest terrorist organisation in the world.”

According to reports in Israel, US administration officials are close to admitting defeat on Biden’s stated goal to return to the 2015 deal. However, Iranian diplomats have argued that the negotiations pertaining to nuclear issues have concluded and what remains are outstanding issues between Iran and the US, in which both sides have agreed that talks should continue.

Whilst the JCPOA lengthened Iran’s breakout window – i.e. the time it would take to amass enough fissile material for one bomb — to over a year, that window has shrunk to only a few weeks, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told US lawmakers in late April. In its March 2022 report on Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) noted that “Iran is now closer than ever to having enough highly enriched uranium-235 that, when further enriched, would be enough for a nuclear bomb.” The IAEA said Iran has about 33kg of uranium enriched up to 60 per cent purity. Iran would need about 40kg of uranium enriched to 60 per cent uranium-235, which if further enriched to 90 per cent, would constitute enough uranium for one nuclear bomb.

In April, Iran confirmed that it had opened a new centrifuge workshop at its underground Natanz site. The start of work at the new workshop comes after Iran’s centrifuge facility in Karaj was attacked in June 2021. Natanz itself has twice been targeted in sabotage attacks in the past, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.

Israel is concerned that new understandings between the US and Iran to return to the JCPOA are more dangerous than the original agreement. The Biden administration has reportedly agreed not only to remove the sanctions prior to the singing of the 2015 original deal, but also to remove additional sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, based on laws relating to terror and human rights, and including sanctions on the Central Bank. Furthermore, many in Israel’s defence and political establishments see the revival of the JCPOA as almost pointless, due to the progress that Iran has made on its programme in the past two years, in particular in research and development on advanced centrifuges, which constitutes knowledge that cannot be erased by any deal.

Israel has continued its discreet strategic dialogue with the US administration over the need to seek a new, longer, stronger agreement that would keep Iran away from nuclear weapons for decades, as well as the need to agree upon a concrete plan for dealing with Iran’s acceleration of its nuclear programme if the JCPOA is not renewed.

Israel and Ukraine

Israel is supporting the Ukrainian people with humanitarian aid. Recently, Defence Minister Benny Gantz announced that Israel is working on supplying Ukraine with defensive equipment such as helmets and flak jackets for the nation’s emergency services. In early March more than 100 tonnes of humanitarian aid were delivered to Ukraine from Israel, including 17 tonnes of medical equipment and medicines, Israeli water purification systems and emergency water supply kits, as well as thousands of tents, blankets, sleeping bags and outerwear. An additional 15 tonnes of humanitarian aid, including medicines, food, hygiene, and clothing, was later sent to refugees on Ukraine’s border with Moldova by the Israeli volunteer organisation United Hatzalah.

Israel is the only Western country to have established a field hospital in Ukraine, with the first patients arriving just minutes after it opened on 22 March. Housed on the grounds of an elementary school in Mostyska, outside Lviv, the £5m facility fills 10 outdoor tents and has also converted multiple classrooms into hospitalisation wards and has over 100 staff members – 80 of whom are doctors and nurses. In the first three weeks of operating, the hospital treated 3,000 patients. The hospital remained active until April 30.

Israel has joined the UK, US and other allies in condemning the Russian aggression in the UN. Numerous Israeli government officials have spoken out, including Foreign Minister  Lapid who said during an official visit to Romania: “The invasion has no justification, and we call on Russia to stop the shooting and the attacks and solve the problems around the negotiating table.” Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz has said: “We are not sitting on the fence; we are clearly on the side of the West …  that is an incorrect description. We declared that we are unequivocally with Ukraine and against the Russian invasion.”  

However, Israel has a complicated relationship with Russia, which is de-facto their northern neighbour in Syria.  Russia has deployed advanced anti-aircraft systems in Syria and controls the country’s airspace. So far, these systems have not been activated against Israeli Airforce planes, nor have they been handed over to Syrians, but this requires delicate handling. Furthermore, their activation could have dramatic consequences for all civilian flights in and out of Israel, due to Israel’s small size and the range of the Russian radars. Therefore, Israel is forced to maintain a direct line of communication with Russia.     

Russia and Israel have been able to establish a common understanding regarding their role in the Syrian civil war. Israel’s first concern is to protect their citizens and sees the Iranian efforts to supply Hezbollah with advanced weapons and the Iranian military entrenchment inside Syria itself as threats of the highest order.  In recent months Russia has voiced growing concern over Israeli airstrikes in Syria and the government believes it cannot risk jeopardising its deconfliction mechanism with Russia. The success in combatting the Iranian entrenchment in Syria requires an amicable relationship with Russia.  

Israel has already absorbed over 15,000 Jewish immigrants and is constantly reviewing its refugee and immigration policy. According to the Aliyah and Immigration ministry on 25 April, Israel has received 15,000 Jewish immigrants: 8,800 from Ukraine, about 5,800 from Russia and about 400 from Belarus. Of those 15,000 new immigrants, 12,000 already live in permanent housing. The war in Ukraine has created an unprecedented situation for Israel, receiving refugees from a country that has a visa exemption. Israel is planning to deal with up to 100,000 Jewish citizens affected by the war and who can come to Israel under the Law of Return, along with non-Jewish citizens who might have family relatives in Israel, and others who are except from visa requirements to enter. Nevertheless, Israel, 11 times smaller than the size of the UK, cannot allow unrestricted movement over its borders.  

The government has announced that 25,000 Ukrainian war refugees will be permitted into Israel, with no conditions imposed on them (as supported by the majority of the public), and that those with a relative in Israel will not be counted as part of the quota. So far, 15,000 have entered Israel, of which 5,000 were eligible under the Law of Return. Among non-border countries, Israel is taking in the most Ukrainians per capita – as a comparison as of 21 March the UK had issued 12,400 visas. Moreover, the 20,000 Ukrainian citizens who the government believes were in Israel illegally before the war can also remain temporarily and will not be deported.  

Israel’s initial mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine were coordinated fully with the US and the West and was the initiative of Ukraine. One of the reasons Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky believes that Bennett was an appropriate mediator and Jerusalem is a good place for talks with Russia is because Israel has had good relations with both countries in recent years. As such, Bennett has refrained from talking specifically about the war, but has spoken about “solidarity with the people of Ukraine”.  

Whilst Israel has not officially joined the sanctions regime against Putin’s allies, Foreign Minister Lapid has said that the government would not allow Russian oligarchs under US and EU sanctions to conceal their wealth in Israel. For instance, Roman Abramovich arrived in Israel in mid-March but only spent 24 hours there before returning to Russia. This was because Israel Airports Authority instructed staff at Ben Gurion Airport not to approve long-term parking of private jets belonging to US-sanctioned Russians.

Unlike the US or EU sanctions, Israeli sanctions on Russia would have minimal impact. Russia is not among Israel’s top 10 trading partners, and Russian investment in Israel’s high-tech sector reached $46m in 2021, a very small percentage of the $25bn raised in total by Israeli tech firms on the global market. One of the challenges the government faces in joining international sanctions is that it does not have any law against granting citizenship to a Jew who has had international sanctions imposed on them. Another is that many industries in Israel such as its tech sector look to foreign markets for both investments and growth. The government is advising Israeli companies and warning them to look at any nexus they may have with Russian entities as well as the touchpoints they have with the US, the EU, the UK, and any other country that has imposed sanctions. As such, several Israeli tech companies have suspended or pulled their commercial operations in Russia, even though their business relations with Russian entities are not directly bound by the sanctions imposed by the US, the EU, and the UK.  


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