World

Second poll unlikely to save Benjamin Netanyahu. Donald Trump’s mixed approach on Iran. The Solomons switches allegiance to China. New IRA looking to add recruits with bomb plots. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Israel deadlock sees Bibi set for bye-byes

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week.
Credit: DPA

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Saudi Arabia: The world is waiting for Donald Trump’s response to an attack on Saudi oil facilities last Saturday, but his various comments and tweets have been hard to decipher. He said the United States was “locked and loaded” and ready to strike Iran, but also said “we don’t want war”. He initially suggested he wanted to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the United Nations General Assembly session in New York next week, but then ruled it out. Discussing whether Iran would agree to a new nuclear deal, he said: “If they do, that’s great. And if they don’t, that’s great, too.”

These mixed signals are characteristic of Trump’s approach to Iran. He withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal but, as tensions inevitably increased, stuck to a separate campaign promise to avoid committing troops to another long war in the Middle East.

Now, he faces a new demand for action. The attack in Saudi Arabia knocked out more than half of the country’s oil production. On Monday, the price of oil had its sharpest rise since the first Gulf War in 1991. The Iranian-backed Houthis, who are fighting a civil war in Yemen and have previously attacked Saudi facilities, claimed responsibility. But officials in Washington believe the attack was too sophisticated for the Houthis, and reportedly have satellite images showing Iran preparing drones and missiles before the bombing.

As tensions have increased in the past year, Iran has not only been disrupting oil flows but also taking foreign hostages. This week, Iranian authorities confirmed it has detained three Australians. Two travel bloggers from Perth, Mark Firkin and Jolie King, were arrested about 10 weeks ago after allegedly taking photographs in military areas. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an expert on Middle East politics at Melbourne University, was arrested late last year and has reportedly been sentenced to a decade in jail. Iranian authorities have accused her of spying. Dr David Malet, an academic, said on Twitter: “I served on Kylie’s dissertation committee. She’s a wonderful person and a serious scholar, not a spy.”

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Solomon Islands: At midday on Tuesday, the flag was lowered at the Taiwanese embassy in Honiara for the last time. The quiet ceremony followed a decision by the Solomon Islands to switch its diplomatic allegiance to China, after a 36-year relationship with Taiwan.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry accused China of bribing Solomon Islands MPs, but this has long been a tactic used by both sides in their chequebook diplomacy battle to win allies among small countries.

Honiara’s move leaves Taiwan with just 16 remaining diplomatic allies around the world, down from 22 in 2016. Five of these are in the Pacific. But the Solomon Islands, which has a population of about 660,000 people, had been by far the largest of Taiwan’s Pacific allies.

Scott Morrison visited Honiara in June – his first overseas trip after winning the election – as part of his “Pacific step-up”, a policy aimed at curbing China’s growing regional influence. Australia remains the largest Pacific aid donor, but China’s aid, loans and trade are growing, and so is its diplomatic reach.

Australia has not publicly intervened in China’s diplomatic battle with Taiwan. But, in the US, several senior figures attacked the move by Honiara. Senator Marco Rubio said in a tweet: “Now I will begin exploring ways to cut off ties with Solomon Islands, including potentially ending financial assistance and restricting access to US dollars and banking.”

The US and Australia switched their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979 and 1972, respectively.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Northern Ireland: Earlier this month, a resident in the town of Strabane in Northern Ireland spotted a strange object on top of a wall on a small street overlooking a police station. The object, it turned out, was a mortar bomb, marking the latest in a series of recent plots to attack police across Northern Ireland. The attacks have mostly been credited to the New IRA – an Irish nationalist group formed in 2012.

On September 10, days after the mortar was found, another bomb was found near a police station in Creggan, a suburb in Derry that has become known as the epicentre of New IRA violence.

As further searches were conducted in Creggan, people began running up to police vehicles and hurling petrol bombs at the armoured windscreens. A local councillor, John Boyle, told The Sunday Times the violence was more brazen than during the 1980s. During a similar riot in Derry in April this year, 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee was killed by a New IRA gunman who was firing at police.

Authorities believe the New IRA’s increased violence is designed to attract recruits. The group’s cause has been assisted by Brexit, which has raised the possibility of installing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland – a development that could trigger further republican violence. The New IRA is believed to be aligned with Saoradh, a republican political party. In August, the party leader, Brian Kenna, said Brexit had been a “huge help”.

Adding to the instability, Northern Ireland’s 21-year-old Good Friday peace agreement, which aimed to end the sectarian tensions, is fraying. The two main parties that share power, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, split in 2017, leaving Northern Ireland without a government. It is the longest a country has been without a government in modern history.

SPOTLIGHT: Israel votes

The era of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, appears to be coming to an end.

On Tuesday, the country held a repeat election, after Netanyahu failed to assemble a ruling coalition following a ballot in April. He hoped that a supportive right-wing religious bloc would win an outright majority in the 120-member Knesset. This would have allowed him to rule without the support of a secular right-wing party led by Avigdor Lieberman, who insisted that Netanyahu pass a bill to make it harder for ultra-orthodox Jews to avoid military service. A strong majority would also have allowed Netanyahu to seek immunity from prosecution over likely corruption charges.

Instead, Netanyahu’s bloc was on track to win 55 seats, including 31 for his Likud party, down from 36 in April. This is a serious setback for a figure famed for his political judgement and has already raised speculation about his leadership of Likud.

The main opposition party, Blue and White, led by former military chief Benny Gantz, was on track to win 33 seats, down from 35. The Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties, was due to win 13 seats. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was due to win eight.

The Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, will consult with all parties and is then likely to invite Netanyahu, or Gantz, to form a government within six weeks. On Wednesday, Netanyahu appealed to Gantz to form a national unity government. Gantz has insisted he will not unite with Netanyahu due to the prosecution cases. And the two leaders would still need to agree on who heads a coalition. It will be a long six weeks.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "Israel deadlock sees Bibi set for bye-byes". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.