Morning Brief

Israel’s Election Threatens More Deadlock

Small margins will decide whether Israel needs another election after this one.

An Israeli voter casts his vote in Jerusalem.
An Israeli voter casts his vote at a drive-through polling station specifically set up for quarantined voters in Jerusalem on March 23. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Israel goes to the polls, Western nations impose sanctions on Xinjiang officials, and White House envoy Roberta Jacobson heads to Mexico.

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Israel Hopes For a Decisive Result

Israelis go to the polls today for an unprecedented fourth election in two years as Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to extend his record as the country’s longest serving prime minister.

Standing in his way is a deeply divided electorate. Polls show a near tie between a pro-Netanyahu bloc of religious and right-wing parties and a less ideologically coherent anti-Netanyahu bloc that also includes his right-wing rivals.

Neither grouping seems poised to reach the 61-seat threshold necessary to gain a governing majority, meaning today’s results will likely come down to even tighter margins: whether the smaller parties crucial to either coalition will cross the 3.25 percent vote share threshold needed to take seats in the Knesset.

Israel’s status as the fastest vaccine distributor in the world and the gradual economic reopening it has created has won Netanyahu few new admirers. On Saturday, some 20,000 people gathered near the prime minister’s official residence to protest his rule, one of the largest demonstrations in the past year. 

What’s changed since last time. Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance is a pale shadow of its former self, with its disintegration meaning it’s likely to only win four seats. Gantz’s loss is likely to be Likud defector Gideon Saar’s gain, as the former minister’s New Hope party stands to earn around 10 seats in its first election.

Israeli Arab parties, previously unified under the Joint List, have also splintered, with the United Arab List running alone. Its leader, Mansour Abbas, has been coy on which bloc he will support, although his party will have to reach the 3.25 percent threshold first.

Democratic fatigue. With deadlock likely, the Israeli public could be forgiven for thinking that something isn’t working. A poll from the Israel Democracy Institute found that only 37 percent of Israelis were optimistic about the future of democratic governance, a drop of 17 points since Israel first began its election merry-go-round in April 2019. The Israel Democracy Institute’s president, Yohanan Plesner, wrote for Foreign Policy between the elections held in April and September 2019 and proposed two simple electoral reforms to end the impasse.

What We’re Following Today

Saudi minister floats Yemen cease-fire. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, on Monday offered to lift a blockade on Houthi-held ports and airports in Yemen and restart political negotiations if the group agrees to a cease-fire. Yemen’s internationally recognized government has welcomed the Saudi proposal, although the Houthis appeared skeptical. “The ideas put forward have been discussed for more than a year, and there’s nothing new in it,” Mohammad Abdulsalam, a Houthi spokesperson, said on a Houthi-affiliated television channel in Yemen.

Massacre in Niger. Niger’s government on Monday issued a revised death toll from Sunday’s deadly raids on three villages in the country’s southwest. At least 137 people were killed in the raids, the government said, whereas previous accounts from local officials put the death toll around at least 60 people.

The attacks are the latest challenge to newly elected President Mohamed Bazoum’s pledge to tackle insecurity in the country after he ordered military reinforcements to the Tillabéri region following a massacre on March 15. The Sahel region as a whole has suffered greatly from the ongoing violence, leading to the displacement of 2 million people across Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

Xinjiang sanctions. The United States, European Union, United Kingdom, and Canada imposed coordinated sanctions on Chinese officials on Monday over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The moves targeted senior Xinjiang officials, including Chen Mingguo, director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, and Wang Junzheng, the former deputy party secretary in Xinjiang.

Beijing responded with sanctions of its own, targeting a group of European lawmakers that included Reinhard Butikofer, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to China. Beijing also imposed sanctions on Adrian Zenz, a German researcher who wrote about sterilization plans in Xinjiang in Foreign Policy last July.

White House envoy to Mexico. Roberta Jacobson, the White House coordinator for the U.S.-Mexico border, is set to meet with Mexican representatives today as the Biden administration seeks its neighbor’s support in addressing the increasing number of migrants attempting to cross into the United States.

Jacobson will also travel to Guatemala to meet with local officials to “address root causes of migration in the region and build a more hopeful future in the region,” a White House spokesperson said. A recent Pew Research Center analysis found that Mexican migrants made up 42 percent of those detained by U.S. customs agents in February, while those from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras accounted for 46 percent.

Keep an Eye On

WHO chief criticizes vaccine rollout. World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus decried the state of global vaccine distribution as “grotesque” on Monday, criticizing rich countries for carving out bilateral deals with vaccine manufacturers rather than participating in the global COVAX initiative.

Tedros praised South Korea for waiting “its turn” for vaccines through COVAX even though it had the resources to go directly to manufacturers. Tedros also praised the embattled AstraZeneca as the “only company that has committed to not profiting from its COVID-19 vaccine during the pandemic” and noted it was the only vaccine developer to license its technology to other companies.

Rohingya settlement fires. At least 20,000 Rohingya refugees at a camp in Bangladesh were forced to flee after a fire spread through makeshift homes, the third blaze the camps have seen in four days. At least five people, including three children, are believed to have died in the blaze. The causes of the fires are not yet known. Saad Hammadi, a South Asia campaigner with Amnesty International, said the frequency of the fires was “too coincidental, especially when outcomes of previous investigations into the incidents are not known and they keep repeating.”

Odds and Ends

The Netherlands is still under a strict coronavirus lockdown, but that didn’t stop 1,500 people from gathering in the town of Biddinghuizen on Saturday for a music festival—all without social distancing protocols or masks in sight.

The Back to Live festival is the brainchild of the Dutch government and the country’s events sector as authorities search for answers on what the country’s post-coronavirus future may look like. As part of precautions taken by organizers, festivalgoers had to present a negative coronavirus test 48 hours beforehand and submit to another test five days later.

Saturday’s gathering was the seventh trial event, and so far, results have been positive. “Out of more than 6,000 people who attended these events so far, we only found five who might have been infected during or around the time of the events,” Andreas Voss, a member of the Dutch research team, told Deutsche Welle. 

That’s it for today.

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

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