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Israel set to swear in government, end Netanyahu’s long rule | International

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel is set to swear in a new government on Sunday that will send Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the opposition after a record 12 years in office and a political crisis that sparked four elections in two years.

Naftali Bennett, the head of a small ultranationalist party, will take over as prime minister. But if he wants to keep the job, he will have to maintain an unwieldy coalition of parties from the political right, left and center.

The eight parties, including a small Arab faction that is making history by sitting in the ruling coalition, are united in their opposition to Netanyahu and new elections but agree on little else. They are likely to pursue a modest agenda that seeks to reduce tensions with the Palestinians and maintain good relations with the U.S. without launching any major initiatives.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, remains the head of the largest party in parliament and is expected to vigorously oppose the new government. If just one faction bolts, it could lose its majority and would be at risk of collapse, giving him an opening to return to power.

The country’s deep divisions were on vivid display as Bennett addressed parliament ahead of the vote. He was repeatedly interrupted and loudly heckled by supporters of Netanyahu, several of whom were escorted out of the chamber.

Bennett’s speech mostly dwelled on domestic issues, but he expressed opposition to U.S. efforts to revive Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

“Israel will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” Bennett said, vowing to maintain Netanyahu’s confrontational policy. “Israel will not be a party to the agreement and will continue to preserve full freedom of action.”

Bennett nevertheless thanked President Joe Biden and the U.S. for its decades of support for Israel.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said the new government will likely be more stable than it appears.

“Even though it has a very narrow majority, it will be very difficult to topple and replace because the opposition is not cohesive,” he said. Each party in the coalition will want to prove that it can deliver, and for that they need “time and achievements.”

Still, Netanyahu “will continue to cast a shadow,” Plesner said. He expects the incoming opposition leader to exploit events and propose legislation that right-wing coalition members would like to support but can’t — all in order to embarrass and undermine them.

The new government is meanwhile promising a return to normalcy after a tumultuous two years that saw four elections, an 11-day Gaza war last month and a coronavirus outbreak that devastated the economy before it was largely brought under control by a successful vaccination campaign.

The driving force behind the coalition is Yair Lapid, a political centrist who will become prime minister in two years, if the government lasts that long.

Israel’s parliament, known as the Knesset, will convene to vote on the new government at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT). It is expected to win a narrow majority in the 120-member assembly, after which it will be sworn in. The government plans to hold its first official meeting later this evening.

It’s unclear if Netanyahu will attend the ceremony or when he will move out of the official residence. He has lashed out at the new government in apocalyptic terms and accused Bennett of defrauding voters by running as a right-wing stalwart and then partnering with the left.

Netanyahu’s supporters have held angry protests outside the homes of rival lawmakers, who say they have received death threats naming their family members. Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service issued a rare public warning about the incitement earlier this month, saying it could lead to violence.

Netanyahu has condemned the incitement while noting that he has also been a target.

His place in Israeli history is secure, having served as prime minister for a total of 15 years — more than any other, including the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.

Netanyahu began his long rule by defying the Obama administration, refusing to freeze settlement construction as it tried unsuccessfully to revive the peace process. Relations with Israel’s closest ally grew even rockier when Netanyahu vigorously campaigned against President Barack Obama’s emerging nuclear deal with Iran, even denouncing it in an address to the U.S. Congress.

But he suffered few if any consequences from those clashes and was richly rewarded by the Trump administration, which recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, helped broker normalization agreements with four Arab states and withdrew the U.S. from the Iran deal.

Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a world-class statesman, boasting of his close ties with Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has also cultivated ties with Arab and African countries that long shunned Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians.

But he has gotten a far chillier reception from the Biden administration and is widely seen as having undermined the long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.

His reputation as a political magician has also faded at home, where he has become a deeply polarizing figure. Critics say he has long pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy that aggravated rifts in Israeli society between Jews and Arabs and between his close ultra-Orthodox allies and secular Jews.

In November 2019, he was indicted for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He refused calls to step down, instead lashing out at the media, judiciary and law enforcement, going so far as to accuse his political opponents of orchestrating an attempted coup. Last year, protesters began holding weekly rallies across the country calling on him to resign.

Netanyahu remains popular among the hard-line nationalists who dominate Israeli politics, but he could soon face a leadership challenge from within his own party. A less polarizing Likud leader would stand a good chance of assembling a coalition that is both farther to the right and more stable than the government that is set to be sworn in.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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International Relations

Britain will be America’s pet. But it’s Europe’s future that’s at stake | Simon Tisdall

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Beneath the strained bonhomie of the G7 summit lurks a visceral fear: that Joe Biden’s bid to build a democratic alliance to stem the authoritarian tide led by China and Russia will split the world in two, leaving Europe, betrayed by Boris Johnson’s turncoat Britain, to play piggy-in-the-middle.

Despite public applause for Biden’s key message – that the US is “back” after the xenophobic hyper-nationalism of Donald Trump – European leaders seem far from convinced. They worry the EU may be sucked into a second, limitless cold war, and that Biden, who will be 82 in 2024, could be unseated by a hawkish Trump or Trump clone.

The message to Europe in Johnson’s fawning weekend embrace of Biden and America, symbolised by a reworked Atlantic Charter and much Cornish corniness, was clear. Like a whipped bulldog craving favour, Brexit Britain will be Washington’s obedient, needy pet. Johnson is no Winston Churchill. But like Churchill in 1941, he’s desperate for US backing.

Biden will strive to hold the transatlantic alliance together, which for him means all the European democracies, including the UK. But the Johnson government’s anti-EU trajectory, seen in the latest row with Brussels over Northern Ireland, threatens his vision.

Last week’s forceful pre-emptive intervention by senior US officials suggests that London will eventually be forced to compromise, if only because Johnson dare not jeopardise the wider US relationship. Yet UK-EU antagonism looks set to deepen. Biden will have to tighten the leash again in future.

Europe’s concerns about strategic isolation as a newly divisive, bipolar world order takes shape are well founded. To its east lies China, Russia and like-minded regimes in India, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia – autocratic, aggressive and contemptuous of western-defined international norms.

To its west lies the US, a damaged power, divided against itself, whose political stability and consistency can no longer be depended upon. Biden’s efforts to restore normalcy to international relations are assured of European support for as long as he lasts, as this week’s EU-US and Nato “reunion” summits will demonstrate.

But if Trump or his followers regain power, a permanent US rupture with Europe and its liberal, multilateralist principles may become unavoidable. This in turn could wreck the EU if, say, copycat populists in Poland or Hungary were to definitively break with Brussels. For his part, Johnson would be happy to see Trump return and the EU split asunder.

Fears about Europe’s future in a hostile world are reflected in a comprehensive new survey of EU states by the European Council on Foreign Relations. It reveals what its authors call “a widespread lack of confidence in the US ability to come back as leader of the west”. Most Europeans believe America’s political system is broken.

This disillusionment is not wholly due to Trump. “More than a year after the start of the pandemic, the feeling has taken root among Europeans that they cannot rely on the US, Russia or China, and that they must move towards greater self-reliance,” the survey concludes.

In short, they don’t trust anyone any more. Instead, majorities believe Europe should develop unified responses to global threats. They prefer pragmatic partnerships to permanent alliances. Many want the EU to be a “beacon of democracy and human rights” and a great power capable of defending itself.

At a time when the EU faces an extraordinary 21st-century agenda – the climate crisis, the pandemic, economic recovery, migration, digitisation, cyber-threats and rightwing populism – such ambition should, in theory, be welcome.

And yet Europe’s politicians and bureaucrats seem unprepared. While the public wants the EU to do more, confidence is low that it will – not least due to its Covid-19 missteps. “Disappointment with EU institutions has now come out of the periphery and gone mainstream,” the ECFR says.

This reflects a broader problem: a dearth of effective national leaders. Few are committed to building the independent, self-sufficient Europe voters want. Solidarity is lacking when it comes to standing up to China over Xinjiang and Hong Kong, to Russia over Ukraine, Belarus and Alexei Navalny, or to the US over Israel-Palestine and trade.

In Germany, to which many Europeans look for leadership that never quite arrives, Angela Merkel’s imminent departure as chancellor has created a sort of funk. Despite talk of a Green revolution, voters seem likely to opt (as usual) for the safe, inward-looking, centre-right choice – namely Armin Laschet, Merkel’s CDU successor.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, who has no illusions about Johnson or US altruism, regularly calls for a fiscally, economically and militarily integrated Europe. Yet the president’s eloquence has not helped him at home, where he was quite literally slapped down last week. In any event, he is increasingly distracted by a tough 2022 re-election battle.

In Italy, the rise and rise of far-right parties such as the Brothers of Italy, feeding off immigration fears, inspires ultra-nationalists, xenophobes and bigots everywhere. Brothers leader Giorgia Meloni’s ideas about identity and globalist conspiracies make her a natural ally of Trump, not of Biden or Brussels.

Those who look, meanwhile, for strong EU leadership look in vain. If the union were a true democracy, Ursula von der Leyen, commission president, would have been voted out over her vaccine fiasco. But the EU does not work that way, which is part of the problem.

For EU leaders, the G7 perpetuated a fantasy of power and purpose. Unless they urgently take ownership of its destiny, Europe will be squeezed like an unripe lemon between rival global forces that share neither its values nor its interests.

Europe’s choice: be a standup player on the world stage – or risk becoming a quirky cultural museum for Chinese tourists and the butt of Trump’s and Johnson’s jokes.

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International Relations

Foreign diplomats face expulsion | Citypress

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 International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pando addressing the media at Luthuli house. Photo: Christopher Moagi


International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pando addressing the media at Luthuli house. Photo: Christopher Moagi

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The department of international relations and cooperation on Thursday confirmed that Lesotho diplomats and their family members had been given 72 hours to leave the country after they were found to have been involved in the illicit peddling of duty-free alcohol.


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International Relations

The reset of the US-EU relations and the Baltic states

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In the context of the new transatlantic rapprochement initiated by the new US administration, this policy paper offers an overview of possibilities to reinforce and deepen the long-term strategic partnership between the US and the Baltic states.

After four years of troubled transatlantic relations during the Trump presidency, the US and the Baltic states should strengthen the US-European ties, both inside and outside the NATO framework. While former US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the conditionality of US support was worrying for the Baltic countries, there were no substantial changes in the US-Baltic relations during the Trump administration. However, overall US-European relations degraded dramatically and were put under a serious strain, as the 45th US president referred to the Europeans as foes on tradeand allegedly considered US withdrawal from NATO. During the first months of his presidency, Joe Biden has reaffirmed his strong commitment to the North Atlantic Alliance and his wish to reinforce the US-European ties. In the coming days he will attend a G7 summit in London, a NATO summit and the highest level EU-US summit with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. In the wake of these meetings, Baltic prime ministers Kaija Kallas (Estonia), Krišjānis Kariņš (Latvia) and Ingrida Šimonytė (Lithuania) have issued a statementemphasizing the importance of the transatlantic bond and the NATO EU strategic partnership. For the Baltic states, overall European relations with Washington, not just their own ties with the US, are of utmost importance.

First and foremost, US commitment to the Baltic security is a part of the US commitment to European security, and the former would not and cannot exist without the latter. Second, as Linas Kojala has correctly pointed out, divergences or even clashes of interests between their European partners and their American partners is a nightmare scenario for Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. The Baltic states still have vivid memories of the 2002/2003 crisis in transatlantic relations caused by the US clash with France and Germany over the invasion of Iraq. EU and NATO candidates at that time, the Baltic states tried to navigate between the alliance with the US, and their commitment to European unity. Today, the Baltic states are using forums available to them in the European and NATO frameworks to reinforce their transatlantic ties. At the same time, the apparent power asymmetry between Washington and Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius or between Baltic countries and their more influential European partners such as Germany or France limits Baltic agency in shaping these dynamics. With scholars and policymakers repeatedly arguing that Europe has declining importance in US foreign policy, one might ask if the Baltic aspiration for transatlantic cooperation is empty hopes of a bygone era. The simple answer is no. Since the foundation of NATO in 1949, transatlantic relations have been shattered by numerous crises, for example, the row over the European Defence Community in the early ’50s (at the time the US supported the idea), de Gaulle’s withdrawal from the integrated military command in 1966, Nixon’s move to end dollar convertibility into gold in 1971, or the clash over sanctions against the USSR after the imposition of the martial law in Poland in 1981, among others.

In most cases, these tensions have been caused by concerns over burden sharing, relations with Moscow or trade-related issues. At the time of the détente in the ’70s, Europeans were concerned (just like today) that the US focus has shifted toward Asia in general and China in particular. Historian Jussi M. Hanhimäki argues in his recent book Pax Transatlantica: America and Europe in the Post–Cold War Era that while disputes and clashes are inevitable even among the closest of allies, structural ties that link Europe and the US continue to generate wealth and provide security for the involved parties, and thus, all the upheavals in transatlantic relations are followed “by a return to normal.” From this perspective, the Baltic countries’ successful quest to join NATO can be seen as a tangible proof of the alliances relevance and its capacity to reinvent itself in the post-Cold War world.

 

With regard to the current state of US-European relations, a distinction has to be made between Europe being the number one priority on the US foreign policy agenda and Europe being the US number one ally. While the former has not been true since the end of the Cold War, the latter still holds, despite setbacks in recent years. The argument that the US focus on China will inevitably lead to the weakening of the euro-Atlantic alliance can, of course, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, in practice, US competition with China requires more robust engagement — not disengagement — with its European partners. The Biden administration’s efforts to build a global alliance to counter China-US relations with the EU as the world’s second-largest economy is as important as ever. As Biden himself claimed in his June 6 Washington Post op-ed, the aim of his trip to Europe is to rally “the world’s democracies.” While the Europeans appear to be careful in taking sides in the US-China competition, Brussels has become more interested in defining a common transatlantic vision of China as a “partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival.” One of the three Baltics countries, Lithuania, has been proactive in forging a common transatlantic approach to China. In May 2021, Vilnius left the Chinese-Eastern European cooperation 17+1 framework (which the US has long seen as a device for weakening transatlantic unity) and called for a joint policy of EU 27 member states toward China.

            The main Baltic concern has always been, and in the foreseeable future will be, European and American relations with Russia. In their June 7 statement, the three prime ministers urged the North Atlantic Alliance to give a solid and clear assessment of the Russian threat and highlight the “critical importance of continued Allied military presence in the Baltic states.” The unprecedented acceleration of US Baltic military cooperation during the second term of the Obama presidency and the deployment of the NATO multinational Enhanced Forward Presence battalions led by the UK, Canada and Germany was a direct response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. The situation in the region remains tense, both because of the ongoing Russian presence in Eastern Ukraine and more recent large-scale political repressions in Belarus. Thus, continuous US support for Baltic defense through the European Deterrence Initiative, Baltic Security Initiative and other programs remain crucial.

During his European trip, Biden is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting has been rightly described as a low expectations summit, as none of the sides genuinely expects the other to change the trajectory of their foreign policy. Washington is aware that Russia does not plan to change its policy toward Ukraine or alter its support for Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka or its objectives in Syria. And while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made public statements urging the US to take into account Russia’s interests, Moscow knows that the US will not compromise on these issues and will not seek a reset of US-Russian relations. Both the US and Europe should brace for long years of a tense relationship with Russia, as it is doubtful that the Russian foreign policy outlook will change during Putin’s extended tenure. While the Western capacity to alter Putin’s political course is limited, a meeting like this should be used to point to the critical issues in Russian-US relations, for example Russian support for the Lukashenka regime. While free and democratic Belarus is an essential goal in itself, the recent kidnapping of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich from a European plane shows that the Lukashenka regime is attempting to challenge international norms on a much larger scale. The European response to forced landing of the Athens-Vilnius flight has been swift and severe, and the US has pledged to work with its European partners toward targeted sanctions against Lukashenka’s entourage. The Baltic states have an essential role to play in the Euro-Atlantic attempts to deal with the Belarusian situation. While all three countries have voiced their strong support for the Belarusian opposition, Vilnius has become the safe haven for Sviatlana Tsihanouskaya and other Belarusian activists, and the most active supporter of the Belarusian cause in Europe. The US should use Lithuanian connections and expertise to provide humanitarian assistance to the Belarusian opposition and refugees. Meanwhile, the Baltic states should use their links in Washington, especially in Congress, to advocate support for Belarusian civil society.

The post-Crimea annexation chill in the East-West relations, to a certain extent, reassures the Baltic countries as their Russia related security risks are finally being taken seriously. Having had complicated relations with their Eastern neighbor since the restoration of independence in 1991, the Baltic states have often felt that their concerns have been met with indifference. While this has changed with the Russian aggression in Ukraine, these past dynamics still linger. One of the most blatant examples of Western European countries overriding Baltic concerns is the infamous German-Russian Nord Stream gas pipeline project. For years, the Baltic states as well as several Central and Eastern European countries have objected to the project in vain, arguing that it will enable Russia to use gas as a geopolitical weapon. The gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea can circumvent the existing pipelines running through Ukraine, Belarus and Poland, making it possible for Russia to cut the gas supply to these countries without altering its supply to Western Europe. Now, with the project barely finished, Putin has publically envisaged the possibility of cutting gas supplies to Ukraine for political reasons. Biden’s recent decision to stop US efforts to block the pipeline is an attempt to remedy the damage caused to US-German relations by the Trump presidency. Still, it upsets not only Kyiv, but also the Baltic capitals.

At the same time, even if relations with Russia are — and for the foreseeable future remain — deeply problematic, during a recent FPRI brainstorming session with its Lithuanian partners the Eastern Europe Studies Center in Vilnius, it has justly been argued that the Baltic states should avoid building their whole foreign policy discourse around the Russian threat narrative. While the image of being the West Berlin of our times might be catchy, it also projects a false impression of fragility and permanent danger. Since the beginning of Putin’s rule in Russia 20 years ago, Russia has lost much of the leverage that it previously enjoyed in the Baltics. Since 1991, the Baltic states have developed into solid and flourishing democracies and have become members of both the EU and NATO. Thus, while the military cooperation and the Russian factor remain crucial elements of Baltic-US relations, the Baltic-American association has other essential venues. As the COVID-19pandemic has highlighted, military security is just one aspect of national security. Climate is one of the major topics on the US European agenda — increased cooperation on human security issues such as climate change would be a very timely addition to the US involvement in the Baltic states. The Baltic countries, whose military budgets have now reached the 2% of their GDP, should actively invest in such human security assets as healthcare and environmental protection. With the US also facing an ongoing debate on healthcare and climate change, new possibilities for dialogue and cooperation emerge. For example, Lithuania’s experience linking energy security with the transition to clean energy is a valuable lesson for its neighbors and international community. While reducing its energy dependency from Russia and Belarus, Lithuania has set a target of producing 70% of its electricity domestically by 2030. As a recent report by the International Energy Agency emphasizes, the carbon intensity of electricity and heat generation in Lithuania has significantly diminished, moving towards increased use of biomass and onshore wind. Lithuania and the other Baltic countries — just like the US and the big European powers — still have a long way to go to reach the transatlantic goal of zero greenhouse carbon emissions by 2050. While the US return to the Paris Climate Agreement and the recent meetings between Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry and European officials in March 2021  give hope for a boost of transatlantic cooperation on these issues, divergences between Brussels and Washington still exist regarding taxonomy for sustainable investments and carbon border adjustment mechanism.

Last but not the least, American as well as Baltic leaders often refer to the shared values in which their cooperation is rooted. This is more than political rhetoric. The US has played a crucial role in the Baltic democratic transition, using its leverage as the main Baltic security provider to encourage political and economic reforms. The Baltic democratic transition is a unique success story in the post-Soviet space and an essential contribution to the collective security of the Baltic Sea region. The US should continue to support positive transformations in the Baltic states, such as strengthening Latvia’s justice system, which Biden specifically mentioned during his 2016 visit to Riga. The European branch of International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association has ranked Latvia as the second worst country in the EU in terms of LGBT inclusive legislation, while Lithuania and Estonia rank 22 and 17 out 27, respectively. The Baltic states — especially Latvia and Lithuania, which currently do not have a gender-neutral civil partnership law — should embrace the existing norms in the transatlantic space and provide a safe and inclusive environment for their LGBTQ communities, demonstrating their ability to fully walk their talk of Westernness and Europeanness. The US should continue to encourage these developments, using the full potential of its structural power in Europe in general and in the Baltic states in particular. US active support for the empowerment of Baltic democracy is vital, taking into account the illiberal tendencies in Hungary and Poland. All in all, it must be kept in mind that democracy and peace in Europe and in the Baltic states, cannot and should not be considered as fait accompli, but as an ongoing process that requires active transatlantic cooperation and dialogue.

 

This article is part of FPRI’s collaboration with EESC, Vilnius and can also be viewed at www.eesc.lt

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

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