The Economist USA - 21.09.2019

(Barré) #1

16 Leaders The EconomistSeptember 21st 2019


more tankers in the Strait of Hormuz; later it took down an Amer-
ican drone. Mr Trump was prepared to retaliate only after that
last aggression—and even then he pulled back at the last minute.
The attack on September 14th was vastly more consequential.
The president has said that America is “locked and loaded”. In
Tehran they are watching to see whether he is all talk, as they are
in Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang, and in countries whose security
depends on the idea that America will turn up.
If any nuclear negotiations are to succeed, Iran must pay a
price for Abqaiq. America wants a more sweeping agreement
than the original one, but only the pragmatic faction in Tehran,
weakened by America’s approach, will make such a deal. While
Iran can hit out again, the hardliners will have a veto over any
talks. If America is seen as a paper tiger, they will be able to argue
that Iran need not give much ground. On the contrary, they will
say that their country should pile pressure on America by accel-
erating its nuclear programme. America and its allies therefore
need to convince Iran that it cannot use violence to get its way.
The first stage of a response is to establish precisely where
Saturday’s attack originated and who planned it. America must
share this publicly, partly because Mr Trump’s word alone does
not carry weight, but also to build a coalition and help stifle the

objections of Iran’s apologists. Evidence against Iran could pave
the way for new sanctions. Mr Trump has promised more—
though America is already doing pretty much all it can. He
should be backed by the Europeans, who need to understand that
peace depends on deterring Iran, and China, which imports over
9m b/d of oil, much of it from the Middle East.
That is not all. If the Abqaiq attack is the work of Iran’s revolu-
tionary guards, they should face direct consequences. That in-
volves covert operations, by cyber-units that can disrupt their
communications and finances; and air strikes on guard units
outside Iran in Syria. Ideally, these would be carried out by a co-
alition, but if need be, America and Saudi Arabia should act
alone. The risk of escalation should not be ignored, but Iran does
not want all-out war any more than Saudi Arabia and America do.
Israel frequently launches air strikes against Iranian targets in
Syria and Iraq without provoking an Iranian escalation.
A show of force is part of the way back to nuclear talks—and to
repairing those two terrible mistakes. Saudi Arabia’s allies must
press it to sue for peace in Yemen. And America needs to signal to
Iran that it will be reasonable in re-establishing the bargain em-
bodied in the nuclear deal. If it demands that Iran surrenders
everything, the Middle East will get nothing but more misery. 7


is devotees call him King Bibi, but the crown is slipping.
Twice this year Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minis-
ter, has gone to the country to ask voters for a clear majority.
Twice they have denied him one. With almost all the votes count-
ed from the ballot on September 17th, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud
party was two seats behind Blue and White, a centrist alliance led
by Benny Gantz, a former military chief. Mr Netanyahu’s co-
alition of right-wing and religious parties fell six short of a ma-
jority, a larger shortfall than at the previous election in April.
Mr Netanyahu (pictured, left) still hopes to cling to power as
Mr Gantz (right), too, has no clear path to a governing coalition.
Yet the era of King Bibi is surely coming to a
close. Having lost his majority, Mr Netanyahu
has lost almost all hope of obtaining immunity
from prosecution on three counts of alleged cor-
ruption. And he has lost the aura of invincibility
given by four terms and 13 years in power.
Liberals in Israel and around the world may
dare to believe that, at last, Mr Netanyahu’s
brand of ethno-nationalist politics can be de-
feated. Israel now has a chance to return to a more sane demo-
cratic politics. But only a chance.
Much will depend on how the coalition horse-trading plays
out. By nosing ahead, Mr Gantz has the better claim to try to form
a cabinet. But Mr Netanyahu remains caretaker prime minister
until another government is formed. Even if he somehow stays
in office, he will be much diminished. He will have to share pow-
er with his enemies—whether Mr Gantz or, worse, Avigdor Lie-
berman, an ex-aide who split with him and thwarted him. The
best Mr Netanyahu can hope for is a government of national un-
ity in which he and Mr Gantz take turns as leader. Even so, he will

be vulnerable to prosecution and abandonment by allies.
In March this newspaper described Mr Netanyahu’s tenure as
a parable of modern populism. He embraced muscular national-
ism and elite-bashing long before these became a global force
(though he adopted more sensible economic policies). During
the campaign he reverted to type: although after 13 years in power
he can hardly claim to be the underdog, he cast himself as the
champion of the people against the elite. He claimed that police-
men and prosecutors dogging him were leftists, even though he
appointed many of them. The journalists who questioned him
were denounced for purveying false news, though Israel Hayom,
the biggest freesheet, is so loyal that Israelis call
itbibiton(itonis Hebrew for newspaper).
Mr Netanyahu sowed distrust of Arab citi-
zens. He accused Arab parties of fraud; a chatbot
message on his Facebook page, since with-
drawn, accused them of trying “to destroy us
all”. As ever, he highlighted the threat of Iran and
his friendship with President Donald Trump,
who recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Above all, Mr Netanyahu sought to mobilise his right-wing base,
promising to annex part of the occupied West Bank if re-elected.
None of these tactics worked, and some backfired. The threat
to place cameras in polling stations, supposedly to deter Arab
voter fraud, instead provoked a large Arab turnout. What were
once acts of bravura from the man known as “the magician” now
look like tired old stunts.
His potential replacement, Mr Gantz, presents himself as a
warrior who wants peace, but has been worryingly vague about
his policies. Do not expect him to rush into a deal with the Pales-
tinians. A two-state peace deal, with a Palestinian state alongside

King Bibi’s reign is ending

Israel’s prime minister has lost his majority, hope of immunity and aura of invincibility

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