News Digest — 6/27/22

In Parting Remarks Bennett Hails ‘Excellent Government’

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett convened what was likely his last Cabinet meeting as premier on Sunday (26th), with parliament expected to dissolve itself this week, triggering new elections in the fall.

Bennett’s decision to head to elections puts an end to an ambitious political project that united eight ideologically disparate parties that chose to put aside their differences to oust former leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the current opposition leader, who now has an opening to return to lead the country.  The elections, the fifth the country has held in three years, deepen an unprecedented political crisis in Israel.

At the meeting, Bennett listed a series of accomplishments under his year-old government and thanked his coalition partners, which included dovish parties that support Palestinian statehood, nationalist ones who don’t, and for the first time in Israel’s history, an Arab political faction.

“It was an excellent government that relied, yes, on a complicated coalition.  And here in this room, there was a group of people that knew how to put aside ideological disagreements, to rise above, and to work for the state of Israel,” he said. 

As part of the power-sharing agreement that brought Bennett to power, he is set to hand over the premiership to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid once parliament is dissolved.  Elections are expected around the end of October and polls show Netanyahu’s Likud party is expected to garner the most seats.

But as in most rounds of voting during the current political turmoil, Netanyahu has been unable to muster a majority to form a coalition government.

While Bennett’s government helped steady the economy and navigated the last year of the coronavirus pandemic, it was beset by disagreements over the very issues it sought to avoid.  Bennett said he decided to put an end to his political experiment because the government was unable to renew regulations that enshrine separate legal systems for settlers in Judea and Samaria.

Bennett’s own nationalist faction, Yamina, was dogged by defectors, legislators who said the prime minister had veered too much toward the center in his bid to keep the coalition intact.

Bennett, who entered politics a decade ago, hasn’t said whether he’ll run in the upcoming elections.



Israel Takes Part In “Secret” U.S. Talks On Iran With Saudi Arabia, Qatar And Others, WSJ Reports

The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday (26th) that the U.S. held a secret meeting last March in Sharm El Sheik with IDF senior officers, and Saudi, Qatar and other Arab military chiefs on threats from Iran.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, his Saudi Arabian counterpart Fayyad bin Hamed Al-Ruwaili, and military officials from Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain were said to have attended the first of its kind meeting.

The talks, which were described as the first steps towards regional cooperation, came following other secret meetings of lower level officials, discussing aerial threats posed by Iran and how to defend against them. 

Sources close to the meetings said that participants agreed in principle on a mechanism to communicate immediate threats over phone lines and computer communications, as a precursor to government level participation.

The WSJ  noted that such cooperation between Israel, the Saudis and Qatar was unthinkable over the past decades but after the signing of the Abraham Accords and in light of concerns over Iranian aggression, was now possible.

This report comes ahead of President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit in the Middle East in July.  Biden is expected in Israel on July 13th, and an American delegation is set to arrive early in July, to finalize the details of his trip.

Meanwhile, attempts to reach a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia are continuing, with hopes that they will be concluded before Biden’s visit.

Israeli and Arab officials, with the exception of the UAE, refused to comment on the reports and the U.S. commander of CENTCOM would not confirm a meeting had taken place but said the United States was continuing to work towards increased regional cooperation.  “Iran is the major threat to stability in the area,” he said.

According to the WSJ report, while the Biden administration is concentrating on Russia and China, Arab nations are seeking access to Israeli technology.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz last week said that a regional air defense agreement was underway and that Iranian attempts to target Israel have recently been foiled.



PA Concerned New Middle East Alliance Will ‘Marginalize’ Palestinians

Palestinian Authority officials have expressed concern that potential agreements toward a new Israeli-Arab alliance to be signed during US President Joe Biden’s upcoming Middle East trip will marginalize the Palestinian issue.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal the US in March held talks with Israeli, Saudi, Qatari, Bahraini, Egyptian, Jordanian and Emirati military heads that were described as the first steps toward regional cooperation and covered aerial threats posed by Iran, including drones, and how to defend against them.

PA leader Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Amman on Sunday (26th) for talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, following a series of meetings among Fatah party officials in Ramallah over the future relations between Palestinians and Israel, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The Palestinians are also concerned that Saudi Arabia is on its way to normalization with Israel, a move that Ramallah fears would increase the Palestinians’ isolation in the Arab world.

Abbas’ talks with Abdullah were held in the context of continuing coordination between the Palestinians and the Jordanians, according to the Post.

Abdullah told Abbas that Jordan was “working to place the Palestinian issue at the top of the Biden agenda during his visit to the region.”

Israel Hayom has learned that eight months ago, the Palestinians asked for Abbas to visit Saudi Arabia but a meeting in the kingdom was never held.

Jordan’s king has hosted a number of Arab leaders, including from the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the last week.



Israel To Let More Palestinians Work In Manufacturing To Fill Labor Shortage

On Sunday (26th), Israel’s Cabinet approved issuing 3,500 additional permits for Palestinian workers in Israel’s manufacturing and service sectors, increasing the number to 12,000 to help relieve a shortage of skilled staff, the Economy Ministry said.

Workers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip require permits to cross checkpoints and enter Israel where wages are higher.

Israel employs nearly 100,000 West Bank and Gaza Palestinian workers, according to the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority.  But most work is in construction or agriculture, with only a comparatively small number given permits for jobs in factories or the service sector.

Israel’s jobless rate is around 3% and the economy ministry said the existence of 14,000 vacancies in manufacturing was creating a barrier to economic growth.

Economy Minister Orna Barbivai said in a statement that in addition to the extra work permits for Palestinians, the ministry plans to work to increase manufacturing productivity through automation and digitalization.

The government said that the quota for Palestinian manufacturing workers will automatically be reduced if the annual average unemployment rate in Israel rises above 7.5%.

Ron Tomer, head of Israel’s Manufacturers’ Association, called the decision to boost the numbers of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel a “lifeline” for the industrial sector given its severe shortage of workers.

“There are currently thousands of open jobs that manufacturers find difficult to fill, and we believe that increasing the quota will help reduce the severe shortage at least in the short and medium-term and help the industry continue to operate and grow in Israel,” he said.



Iran Tests Zuljanah Satellite Launcher A Second Time

Iran has carried out a second test of its Zuljanah satellite launcher, Iranian state TV reported on Sunday (26th), in a move likely to irk Washington and expectations of a resumption of indirect talks between the arch foes to revive the 2015 nuclear pact.

This could eventually enable Iran to potentially target with nuclear weapons not only Israel and Saudi Arabia – both of which are already in range of the Islamic Republic’s existing conventional mid-range ballistic missiles – but also could allow it to strike Western Europe and the U.S.  Tehran would still need to master some additional skills, but successful satellite launches can signal leaps forward in mastering a variety of such talents.

It will be critical to learn how successful the launch was, something that was not fully clear from the video, though the satellite was seen traveling for an extended period and then eventually blowing up.

In December 2021 and March of this year, the ayatollahs attempted other space satellite launches.  The March launch involved a three-stage, solid-and -liquid-fueled Qased space-launch vehicle that carried the Noor-2 satellite into lower-Earth orbit.

Iranian state media in March showed footage of the vehicle being launched from a mobile launcher on a concrete pad near Shahroud.

Israel, the U.S. and others are concerned that these could help develop the same skills needed for launching and delivering an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.



2 Officers Stabbed Outside Tunisian Synagogue

Two policemen standing guard at the Grand Synagogue in the center of the Tunisian capital of Tunis were stabbed on Thursday (23rd).

It is not clear if anyone was in the synagogue at the time of the attack, AFP reported.

The suspect, who was imprisoned in 2021 over a terrorism case and has since been released, wounded the officers but was overpowered.

Interior Ministry Spokesman Fakher Bouzghaya told AFP that an investigation was underway.

While the country’s current Jewish population is estimated at around a thousand, Tunisia once had a booming Jewish community of around 100,000.  The population started dwindling after the nation won independence from France in 1956 and state-tolerated violence against Jews proliferated following Israel’s victory over its neighbors in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The African country also hosts an annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba Synagogue in Riadh, a centuries-old synagogue in an island town where thousands of Jews once lived.  Al-Qaeda terrorists set off an explosion outside the El Ghriba Synagogue in 2002, killing 20 people, including 14 German tourists.