Saudi Arabia and Iran hold first talks in five years
The BBC and the Guardian report that Syria is set to hold a presidential election next month in a move that will likely maintain President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power. The election for a president who will serve a seven-year-term will take place on 26 May, Parliament Speaker Hamouda Sabbagh said. Prospective candidates for the election would be able to register from Monday while Syrians abroad would be able to vote at embassies on 20 May. It is the second presidential election to take place during the civil war. The previous vote in 2014 – dismissed as undemocratic and illegitimate by opponents within Syria and by the US and EU – saw Assad win 92 per cent of the vote.
The Times reports that Iran and Saudi Arabia have held their first talks since cutting diplomatic ties five years ago, raising hopes for a pause in conflicts fuelled by the two bitter adversaries across the Middle East. Officials met in Iraq on 9 April and reportedly spoke about Yemen, where the two countries are backing opposing sides in the civil war. They also touched on Lebanon, where Iran has a foothold via Hezbollah, its proxy Shia militia.
The Independent and Reuters note that Israel has dropped the requirement to wear face masks outdoors and fully reopened schools over the weekend due to a successful vaccination drive against the coronavirus. Israel has carried out a world-leading vaccination programme, with 53 per cent of its 9.3 million citizens having received both shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
Over the weekend, the Financial Times published an in-depth report over the recent crisis within the Jordanian Royal Family. It tells the story about how Prince Hamzah courted traditional groups angry about the faltering economy and a loss of access to King Abdullah.
Simon Tisdall writes in the Guardian that Israel’s prime minister is creating a climate of fear and crisis as his best hope for holding on to power. He adds: “By allowing officials for the first time to confirm sabotage operations and attacks that were previously denied or covered up, Netanyahu is purposefully pushing Israel’s so-called ‘shadow war’ with Iran into the open, rendering it potentially more volatile and uncontainable.”
In The Spectator, Mary Dejevsky writes about what the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan means for the remaining 750 British troops in the country.
The Israeli media is dominated by speculation in coalition negotiations and the mounting despair within the Likud given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scant prospects for forming a government. Yediot Ahonrot’s Yuval Karni writes: “Netanyahu has been unable to meet any one of the three goals that he set himself after receiving the mandate from the president: to persuade Smotrich to join a government that has the outside support of the United Arab List; to persuade Gideon Saar to join his government by giving him senior positions of influence; and to win over defectors from other parties.” Karni goes on to note that the lack of progress is causing new tensions within the right-wing. A high-ranking figure in UTJ said yesterday that Religious Zionists Party head Bezalel Smotrich he was “acting like a child” in his refusal to agree to a government backed by the United Arab Party, adding: “Smotrich is like a thief. After all, it is thanks to Netanyahu that he got most of his votes, and now he is trading in them. He is bringing down the entire right-wing.”
Channel 12 News reports that the Knesset is scheduled to vote today on the composition of the Arrangements Committee, the committee that will then control the Knesset’s activity until a new coalition government is formed. The Likud has proposed that the right-wing bloc and the pro-change bloc will both have ten members of the committee, along with one representative for Yamina and one representative for the United Arab List. Conversely, the pro-change bloc has demanded that it have 16 representatives on the committee and that Netanyahu’s supporters have only 14 representatives, one representative for the United Arab List and two representatives for Yamina, thus making Bennett the tie-breaker.
All the papers note that Shas leader Aryeh Deri met yesterday with Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, after which reports began to circulate about a proposal that Deri supposedly put forward for ending the political deadlock by passing legislation that would allow for direct elections of the prime minister, but without dissolving the Knesset. Israel Hayom’s Mati Tuchfeld enthusiastically embraces that idea this morning, describing it as “the least that the politicians from all sides can do on behalf of the citizens, who are fed up with endless elections, dysfunctional governments and the political and ideological fire sales that have complemented this surreal and ongoing process.” Ynet’s Attila Somfalvi reports about the fault lines that the proposal has exposed in pro-Netanyahu camp. He says: “We see where this whole story is headed. And it isn’t to a Netanyahu government. It’s heading to a Bennett government. And Deri wants to get on board. He’s laying the groundwork. Bennett is smart. There were constantly rumours about how the Ashkenazi [Haredim] would betray Netanyahu, but we’re not stupid. No one is stupid. We understand perfectly well what Deri is doing.”
In Maariv, Ben Caspit describes the proposal for direct election as “another record low” for Netanyahu and “new levels of cynicism never seen before”. Caspit writes: “In order to guarantee his hold on power last time, they changed a basic law, destabilised the government, invented a regime with two prime ministers and created an unprecedented governmental mutation. And then what happened? The scorpion stung the frog a moment after all that was signed, sealed and delivered. Netanyahu once again defrauded his partner, spat in his ally’s face and betrayed the person who had just extended him his hand. So what now? Now they’ll change another basic law. If Netanyahu can’t get elected and secure a majority using the current system of government (a parliamentary democracy that requires a majority in the Knesset), we’ll change the system! We’ll go back to the system of direct election, a mutation that almost destroyed the Israeli democratic system. We’ll hold a special election just for prime minister! And what will we do if that doesn’t work either? We’ll bring back the British Mandate!”
In other news, Kan Radio reports that two policemen sustained light injuries in Jaffa during clashes with rioters last night. Three protesters were detained in Jaffa after clashes broke out between Jews and Arabs in the wake of an attack earlier Sunday on Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, the head of a yeshiva in the predominantly Arab neighbourhood of Ajami. The Arab protesters shouted slogans including “Settlers go home” and “Jaffa for Jaffans.” In Jerusalem last night, there were riots close to the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City, during which five Arabs were arrested on suspicion of throwing stones and attacking police officers. In response, the police fired stun grenades and deployed water cannons to disperse the crowd. Similar clashes have occurred nightly since the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began last week.
The Israeli papers also report that Brig. Gen. Muhammad Hussein-Zada Hejazi, the deputy commander of Iran’s Quds Force, has died of a “heart condition”, the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced in a statement on Sunday. Hejazi was appointed as the deputy commander of the Quds Force in January 2020 following the killing of its commander, Qassem Soleimani. According to an IDF report published in 2019, he served as the head of the Lebanon detachment, overseeing all Iranian operations there as well as Hezbollah’s precision-guided missile programme.
Oded Granot writes in Israel Hayom: “While the talks in Vienna continue, Iran’s regional subversion has not stopped for a second. The rebels in Yemen have continued with Tehran’s encouragement to ignore the Saudi proposal (under American pressure) for a ceasefire, and have continued to attack it with missiles and drones, while in disintegrating Lebanon, Hezbollah is waiting for its full collapse in order to complete—with Iranian help—its complete takeover of the country. But Israel is not alone. The UAE is demanding that the representatives of the world powers not focus exclusively on the nuclear issue and not ignore Iran’s unceasing efforts to undermine stability in the Middle East. The Arab League secretary general said that the Iranian decision to enrich uranium to a high level raised doubts about the true goals of its nuclear program and the Saudis have since announced that it is obvious to everyone that this is not a nuclear program for peaceful goals.”
Israel Hayom also reports that Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki is expected to travel to Europe later this week to convince European foreign ministers to pressure Israel to allow the participation of Palestinians who reside in east Jerusalem in the vote. There is growing speculation in the West Bank the general and presidential elections in the Palestinian Authority – its first in 15 years – may be postponed if elections are not allowed to happen in Israel. On Saturday, Israeli briefly detained three Jerusalem-based candidates for Palestinian legislative elections, deepening the dispute over the issue.