Morning Brief

Israel Accuses Hezbollah Of ‘Playing With Fire’ in Alleged Incursion

The flare-up comes after an Israeli air strike killed a Hezbollah fighter in Syria last week.

Smoke billows above the edges of southern Lebanon's Kfarchouba village after reported Israeli bombardment of the Shebaa Farms sector following reports of clashes in the Lebanese-Israeli border area, on July 27, 2020.
Smoke billows above the edges of southern Lebanon's Kfarchouba village after reported Israeli bombardment of the Shebaa Farms sector following reports of clashes in the Lebanese-Israeli border area, on July 27, 2020. Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Israel and Hezbollah exchange statements over an alleged incursion in the Golan Heights, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is found guilty in the 1MDB case, and Vietnam’s third-largest city goes into lockdown.

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Israel and Hezbollah Trade Barbs Over Alleged Incursion

Israel has accused Hezbollah of “playing with fire” after an alleged incursion by up to four of the group’s fighters into the Golan Heights on Sunday.

Hezbollah has denied that any such incursion took place. “Everything claimed by the Israeli media and the IDF about a Hezbollah infiltration … is an attempt to invent false Israeli victories,” the group said.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said that the incursion was halted after an exchange of gunfire, causing the militants to return across the border into Syria. The risk of open conflict between Israel and the Lebanese group has increased following the killing of a Hezbollah fighter in an Israeli airstrike in Syria last week.

In a Monday statement, Hezbollah said retaliation for the strike “will definitely come,” although Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, Naim Qassim, suggested that it is not imminent. “The deterrence equation with Israel is holding and we are not willing to amend this equation. There is also no change in the rules of engagement,” he told the news channel Al-Mayadeen on Sunday.

A good crisis. The flare-up comes at an opportune time for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing loud street protests calling for his resignation. On Saturday, Haaretz reported a gathering of 10,000 demonstrators in front of the prime minister’s official residence—a crowd that has been increasing over the past two weeks.

Budget troubles. It also comes as the coalition between Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party comes under strain. The latest flashpoint is an impasse over the national budget. Gantz is insisting on passing a two-year budget, while Netanyahu wants the budget to cover one year. Critics say such a maneuver would give Netanyahu room to force another election before Gantz assumes the role of prime minister in 2021.

And the pandemic, too. All the while, as Joshua Mitnick reports for Foreign Policy from Tel Aviv, Israel is facing a second wave of coronavirus infections. As Mitnick observes, Israel’s response has been “a cautionary tale about governance that responds well to emergencies but fails to organize for a sustained fight and about the distractions of politics and populism.”

What We’re Following Today

Najib Razak found guilty. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been found guilty of all seven charges in his first corruption trial related to the looting of the 1MDB state investment fund. Najib had been charged with abuse of power, three charges of criminal breach of trust, and three money laundering charges. This trial is just one of five brought against the former prime minister, who could face years in prison. Najib plans to appeal the ruling and has denounced the trials as politically motivated.

Trump’s national security advisor has coronavirus. U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien has been diagnosed with COVID-19. He is the highest-ranking Trump administration official to contract the virus so far. It’s not yet known how recently O’Brien was in contact with U.S. President Donald Trump, but White House officials played down the risk of the infection spreading. “There is no risk of exposure to the President or the Vice President,” and the “work of the National Security Council continues uninterrupted,” a White House Statement said.

Danang on lockdown. Danang, Vietnam’s third-largest city, has been placed on lockdown after a the discovery of a coronavirus outbreak linked to a local hospital. Vietnam is still closed to foreign tourists, but all flights, buses, and train services in and out of the city have been suspended. Vietnam is the most populous country that has not yet registered a single coronavirus-related death. It has reported only 431 cases in total.

New Zealand suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong. New Zealand has joined Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom as the latest country to suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong following the passage of a Beijing-imposed national security law. “New Zealand can no longer trust that Hong Kong’s criminal justice system is sufficiently independent from China,” Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said on Tuesday, adding that if China was to revisit its “one country, two systems” policy then New Zealand would reconsider its decision.

Keep an Eye On

ECOWAS threatens sanctions over Mali proposal. The 15 West African nations of ECOWAS have called on opposition leaders to embrace a government of national unity and abandon hopes of ousting sitting President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita or risk facing sanctions. As well as establishing a unity government, the ECOWAS plan would involve by-elections for 31 parliamentary seats won in March and April’s disputed legislative elections.

Mali’s opposition has been unmoved by the ECOWAS proposal. “We take note, but we really believe that this is not the will of the people, it is not what we expect,” said opposition coalition spokesman Nouhoum Togo. 

Zimbabwe targets U.S. ambassador. Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party labeled U.S. ambassador Brian Nichols a “thug” and accused him of funding anti-government protests planned for this week. Zimbabwe summoned Nichols after U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien accused the southern African country of stoking unrest online after the police killing of George Floyd in late May. Opposition groups plan to protest on July 31 against government corruption and an ongoing economic crisis.

Odds and Ends

As the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic threatens to erode U.S. soft power, Harry Harris, the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, has gone the extra mile and removed his signature mustache in a move that could smooth relations between the two countries. Harris, whose mother was born in Japan, drew criticism from some sectors of South Korean society when he took up his post sporting his newly-grown facial fashion. Critics said it was reminiscent of the mustaches worn by Japanese governor-generals during Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula from 1910-1945. Harris has given a more innocent explanation for the removal, saying a clean-shaven look helps him both handle the muggy summer and follow face mask guidelines. 

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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