Morning Brief

Israeli Lawmakers Set to Vote on Dissolving Knesset

Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partner has signaled he is ready for fresh elections amid an impasse over a 2021 budget.

Benny Gantz takes off a mask as he gives a statement outside the city hall of Bnei Barak regarding a lockdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, on September 6, 2020.
Benny Gantz takes off a mask as he gives a statement outside the city hall of Bnei Barak regarding a lockdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, on September 6, 2020. Jack Guez / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Israeli lawmakers set to vote on dissolving parliament, the United Nations demands access to Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, and China-Australia tensions simmer. 

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Gantz Backs Vote to Dissolve Knesset

Israel’s unlikely coalition government is on even shakier foundations today as Israeli lawmakers vote to dissolve the Knesset. Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partner, has said he would support the measure, setting up a showdown that could lead to another election—the country’s fourth in two years.

Gantz’s decision comes out of frustration over the government’s failure to pass a budget for 2021, which, if passed, would essentially lock in Gantz’s ability to assume the office of prime minister next November as per the terms of the coalition deal struck between Likud and Blue and White in April. “Netanyahu has decided to dissolve the government and drag Israel into an election,” Gantz said in a statement to the media.

Hitting Bibi while he’s down? It also could be viewed as an attempt by Gantz to strike at Netanyahu while he is relatively weak. Although the Likud leader proved resilient in the eyes of Israeli voters in March elections, public discontent over the coronavirus pandemic, months of protests over his rule, and an impending corruption trial could add up to an opportune time for Gantz to prevail in a new election.

Today’s vote is only one step toward that future. Further readings of the legislation are required before the dissolution can be confirmed. Gantz has also held out the possibility that harmony can be restored, as long as Netanyahu agrees on a budget by Dec. 23.

A leader snubbed. Although budget issues are the proximate cause of the Knesset vote, recent developments have likely made Gantz wary that Netanyahu will hand over the premiership in November. Gantz was reportedly left in the dark about Netanyahu’s secret (and almost immediately leaked) visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

New leader, new policy? U.S. President-elect Joe Biden should not expect an easier ride on Iran policy if Gantz does take power, an Israeli government source told Foreign Policy. There is “no daylight” between Netanyahu and Gantz on the question of the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. Neri Zilber looks at why Israel will remain a thorn in the side of any U.S.-Iran rapprochement.

What We’re Following Today

Fakhrizadeh fallout. The shockwaves from the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh by suspected Israeli agents continue to be felt across the Middle East. In response to the killing, a bill to suspend international nuclear inspections in the country until sanctions are lifted was passed by Iran’s hardliner-dominated parliament on Tuesday, although its unlikely to have an effect as the country’s nuclear policy is set by the Supreme National Security Council.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir has rubbished claims made by his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif of the kingdom’s involvement in the killing following a secret meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif is desperate to blame the Kingdom for anything negative that happens in Iran. Will he blame us for the next earthquake or flood?” Jubeir wrote on Twitter.

Antonov speaks. Russia’s ambassador to the United States will give rare public remarks today in an event hosted by the Brookings Institution. Ambassador Anatoly Antonov’s job is made more difficult due to the fact that his boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has yet to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden on his electoral victory. Speaking last week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the lack of a call should not be interpreted as a non-recognition of Biden’s win but that Putin would congratulate Biden “in due course” and had merely waited until “election results are summed up.”

Refugee crisis in Ethiopia. Nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees camped in Northern Ethiopia “have now run out of food supplies—making hunger and malnutrition a real danger,” according to UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch. The refugees, who have lived in camps near the Eritrean border for more than ten years, were cut off from United Nations aid as a result of the Etiopian government’s assault on the Tigray region, which began last month. The U.N. has called for immediate access to the refugees, on top of the estimated 2 million people in Tigray that now need assistance.

Keep an Eye On

Russia’s island build-up. Russia announced on Tuesday it had deployed the S-300 missile system on the disputed island of Iturup, north of the Japanese Hokkaido prefecture. Both Russia and Japan claim the chain of islands that includes Iturup, known as the Kuril Islands, although there is no international consensus on ownership. The combat deployment marks a reversal of a  previous Russian statement made in October claiming that the S-300 would only be used for military drills, not in a combat posture.

China-Australia tensions. The U.S. State Department called a tweet by Chinese government spokesman Zhao Lijian a “new low” as tensions between China and Australia escalated after Zhao posted an image mock-up of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. China’s foreign ministry has shrugged off the international outcry over the use of the image—a reference to a damning report outlining war crimes perpetrated by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan—as overblown. The twitter spat is the latest sign of rising tensions between the two countries after China began blocking Australian imports of barley, coal, corn, cotton, and wine over an Australian demand to investigate China’s role in the initial spread of the coronavirus.

Rules for thee, not me. The reasoning behind a surprise resignation on Sunday of a Hungarian member of European parliament came to light on Tuesday, when Belgian media reported that Jozsef Szajer, an MEP with Viktor Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party had been arrested fleeing a mostly-male sex party in the center of Brussels. Police had broken up the party as it had violated coronavirus restrictions and said at least two of the participants claimed diplomatic immunity. Szajer’s presence at the party will come as a shock to some, as he is considered one of the architects of Hungary’s increasingly anti-LGBT policies, beginning with his co-authorship of an amendment to the constitution calling for a marriage definition as between one man and one woman.

EU discord. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has called on Hungary and Poland to take their dispute over the bloc’s rule of law punishment mechanism to the European Court of Justice rather than continue to uphold their veto over the EU’s coronavirus recovery package. Von der Leyen criticized the countries for digging in “at the expense of millions of Europeans who are desperately waiting for our help, because we are in the middle of a deep, deep crisis.” A spokesperson for the Polish government warned on Monday that “arbitrary criteria for judging the rule of law in certain countries can in the future lead to the collapse of the EU.”

Odds and Ends 

Boyband rule. South Korea’s parliament has passed a bill that would allow its K-pop stars to defer their mandatory military service. Under South Korean law, all able-bodied men between 18 and 28 must serve in the country’s armed forces for roughly two years, creating a problem for bands like global phenomenon BTS, whose oldest member is 27. An amendment to the country’s Military Service Act means that the culture minister can now recommend entertainers’ deferment until the age of 30. Sportsmen and classical musicians have received deferments before, but never K-pop acts.

Intangible soup. If yesterday’s kimchi news wasn’t enough to whet your appetite, prepare for the borscht course. A Ukrainian chef has convinced his government to apply to cultural body UNESCO to enshrine the beetroot and cabbage soup as an intangible part of the country’s heritage, alongside French champagne and Neapolitan pizza. The Ukrainian government decision has irked Russia, whose government Twitter accounts were quick to point out that many Eastern European countries have their own versions of borscht and is “one of Russia’s most famous and beloved dishes.” Ukrainian historians dispute the popular image of the soup’s Russian origins, insisting it was brought to Russia by Ukrainian migrants.

That’s it for today. 

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

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