- People power — the Israeli version
- The dangers of legitimizing the Taliban
- The Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant deal is worse than the S-400
- Pakistan looks for assurances and pledges of continued support from China
- Israel and Jordan handle their differences with care, but bilateral ties remain in jeopardy
People power — the Israeli version
Israel has never before seen the kind of popular pro-democracy revolt that has been taking place since January of this year: An estimated 1.5 million citizens have already taken part in what is the largest, most intense, and most consequential protest in the nation’s history.
Despite the overwhelming public outcry, it is highly doubtful that Netanyahu will agree to drop his initiative altogether, or even to alter it significantly, since his personal freedom and entire political future depend on it.
Israel was never as robust a democracy as many wanted or were led to believe. It was born under duress and lived throughout its 75 years of existence under a formal “state of emergency” — one that was just yesterday extended by the government as a mere formality and allows the executive branch to essentially take extreme measures under a very wide legislative umbrella. Its civil society, though vibrant, was only in a handful of cases effective enough to overturn major government initiatives. The most resounding case was the 1997 “Four Mothers” movement, which brought about a belated Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon three years after its creation, ending a lengthy and costly debacle. In 2011, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the abnormally high cost of living in Israel, in an impressive spontaneous uprising. But it died out shortly thereafter, due to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s skillful political maneuvering.
Israel has never before seen the kind of popular pro-democracy revolt that has been taking place since January of this year, however. It is estimated that 1.5 million citizens have already taken part in what is the largest, most intense, and most consequential protest in the nation’s history, taking place all over the country, demonstrating unprecedented resolve for 17 weeks in a row, and counting. Every Saturday night, 300,000-400,000 concerned citizens take to the streets, about half in Tel Aviv and the other half spread across the country. The protesters are connected via WhatsApp groups that alert them to the whereabouts of every minister or major coalition member; they are following them daily, interrupting their routine, and reminding them that “Israel will not become a dictatorship.” Every such event is instantly shared across social networks and is often picked up by the mainstream media, creating a first of its kind national sense of civic emergency. Crucially, the protesters include many Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reservists, including some of the highest-ranking officers, and a significant number of combat pilots and elite commandos. They were the first to announce, in a series of open letters to Netanyahu and his coalition, that they will cease and desist their volunteer military service, a move that would severely hamper the IDF’s combat readiness. Other important groups include virtually every leading economist, judicial expert, and other academic groups. Women’s rights activists have also come to the fore, staging eye-caching marches of “Handmaids” in red gowns and white caps, mimicking characters from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the more recent TV series.
The overwhelming public outcry is a reaction to Netanyahu’s attempted regime change, aimed at eliminating his ongoing trial — in which he is accused of three counts of fraud and breach of public trust, and one count of corruption — and to perpetuate his rule as an illiberal autocrat. It is supported by the most extreme ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist elements in the Knesset, representing a slim majority of 64 out of 120 seats. The discrepancy between the parliament’s composition and the popular civic majority has never been so sharp. In every public opinion poll, there is a consistent majority against the attempted coup. The Biden administration, European leaders, Moody’s credit rating agency, major economic institutions around the world, and high-profile media outlets like The Economist and The New York Times have all come out forcefully against it. But ultimately, it is civil society’s tour de force that has compelled Netanyahu to temporarily pause the legislative blitz and pursue the pretense of “dialogue” with the two major opposition parties. These parties’ leaders, however, are not leading or controlling the popular movement in the streets. It is highly doubtful that Netanyahu will agree to drop his initiative altogether, or even to alter it significantly. Quite simply, his personal freedom and entire political future depend on it. So, in a typical maneuver, he has ordered a mass demonstration of his own.
Last week, after a month of intense preparation, and considerable investment of public funds, the ultra-religious-nationalist camp held its own mass protest. Some 130,000 people came to Jerusalem and listened to a fiery speech by the minister of justice, Yariv Levin of the Likud Party, blaming Israel’s Supreme Court judges of siding with the enemy instead of protecting the people. Indeed, in today’s Israel, the internal enmity has never been so evident, so palpable, and so dangerous.
Follow on Twitter: @eranetzion
The dangers of legitimizing the Taliban
Shanthie Mariet D'Souza
Consensus eludes the West and regional countries on how to reform the Taliban’s regressive policies, which have subjected millions of Afghan people to poverty and hunger since August 2021.
Both the economic engagement extended by the regional countries and the proposed CT cooperation with the U.S. may legitimize the Islamic Emirate without actually changing the Taliban’s ruthless and damaging policies imposed on the population.
Last week, officials from the United States confirmed the death of the mastermind of the Aug. 26, 2021, suicide attack at the Abbey Gate entrance of Kabul International Airport that killed 170 civilians and 13 U.S. soldiers. The unnamed terrorist, belonging to the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) group, was apparently killed in southern Afghanistan in early April by the Taliban. However, it is not known whether he was specifically targeted or whether he died in the periodic clashes between the ISKP and the Taliban. At the same time, media sources are reporting that the Taliban is supposedly open to cooperation with the U.S. on counter-terrorism (CT) against the ISKP.
If true, these developments represent some degree of willingness on the part of the Taliban to address American concerns regarding the ISKP’s growing threat. It is also a de facto reversal of the Taliban’s earlier claims that they are capable of dealing with the ISKP on their own, without any external assistance. As for the U.S., clearly it remains interested in the region, although its focus has narrowed mostly to countering the threat posed by ISKP and al-Qaeda. But notably, the beleaguered Taliban may be increasingly receptive to outside assistance in this space as a means to consolidate their rule and gain international legitimacy for the unrecognized Islamic Emirate.
U.S. interests regarding more robust CT in Afghanistan differ little from those of Kabul’s regional neighbors. Notably, in the second week of April, China, Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Iran met in the Uzbekistani city of Samarkand and issued a declaration calling for boosting the Taliban’s CT capabilities to deal with a host of Central and South Asian as well as more global terrorist outfits.
However, consensus eludes both the West and the regional countries on how to simultaneously reform the Taliban’s regressive policies, which have subjected millions of Afghan people to poverty and hunger since August 2021. China and Russia, in particular, are busy blaming the West for the poor economic condition of Afghanistan and, at the same time, unveiling a slew of economic and infrastructure projects in the country. In contrast, the U.S. appears to harbor hope that the continued denial to the Islamic Emirate of Afghan Central Bank assets worth $3.5 billion will compel the Taliban to change tack.
Both the economic engagement extended by the regional countries and the proposed CT cooperation with the U.S. will, for all practical purposes, potentially legitimize the Islamic Emirate, which of late is willing to risk losing the United Nations’ humanitarian assistance work in the country to protect its diktats on banning women from the workplace. In the last 21 months since recapturing power, the Taliban’s stubbornness has indeed begun to yield dividends, and the international community is yet to devise a long-term strategy that would pressure the Taliban to change their ruthless and damaging policies imposed on the population. The dangers of recognizing the Taliban without any time-bound deliverables on the ground — such as regarding improved governance, political inclusiveness, and the protection of women’s and minority rights — could lead to a blowback in the near future.
Follow on Twitter: @shanmariet
The Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant deal is worse than the S-400
The Akkuyu NPP is being presented to voters as Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, but it is 100% owned by Moscow-based Rosatom and enjoys tax and financial terms highly favorable to Russia for the next 90 years.
Rosatom head Aleksei Likhachev clarified that, since the life cycle of a modern NPP is at least a hundred years, Akkuyu has every chance to see not only the centenary of the Republic of Turkey, which will be celebrated later this year, but also the bicentenary.
Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system several years ago garnered a lot of negative attention, but it is arguably not the worst deal Ankara signed with Moscow. That dubious distinction goes to the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant (NPP).
On April 27, Turkey held a ceremony to mark the inaugural loading of nuclear fuel at the Akkuyu NPP. The high-profile event was attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish head of state, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose recent illness had forced him to temporarily pause his presidential campaign. Both men appeared via live video feed.
For Putin, the indicted war criminal, the ceremony highlighted Russia’s continued importance as an atomic energy exporter, despite the extensive sanctions imposed on the country by the West after its unlawful reinvasion of Ukraine. Moscow is keen to demonstrate that it is not isolated and can export not only resources but also technologies to leading regional powers.
For Erdoğan, this was an opportunity to demonstrate that his health is not at risk and that he can continue his electioneering. Key moments of the campaign in April saw the government showcase numerous Turkish achievements, from new electric vehicles to an amphibious assault ship equipped with drones, without revealing that the designs were purchased from foreign companies. Similarly, the Akkuyu facility is being presented to voters as Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, a crowning achievement for a country that imports 99% of its energy. But that is not the real story.
The Akkuyu NPP is located in Turkey, but it is 100% owned by Moscow-based Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear energy corporation. The plant is Rosatom’s first project under the “build-own-operate” principle. The terms of the deal are highly favorable to Moscow, including a purchase guarantee at a price well above the market cost for electricity. The Turkish Electricity Trade and Contract Corporation signed a 15-year agreement, guaranteeing the purchase of 70% of the power generated from the first two units and 30% from the third and fourth units, at a price of 12.35 cents per kilowatt-hour. Turkey is also giving Rosatom breaks on income tax, value-added tax (VAT), and customs fees until 2113, during the 90-year operational period of the Akkuyu NPP. More controversially, the deal grants the Russian state-owned nuclear energy giant the right to operate a commercial port next to the power plant, which is just 130 nautical miles from Russia’s Tartus naval base in Syria.
Pro-Kremlin newspapers’ coverage of the ceremonial video conference between Putin and Erdoğan at Akkuyu highlighted Russia’s gains, while also hinting that not everything is rosy between Ankara and Moscow. For example, Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote, “Erdoğan froze in front of the screen with an expressionless face and practically did not move. It looked like he was struggling to concentrate on what was happening… Erdoğan practically does not move.”
Back in 2018, speaking with Kommersant, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov detailed the tax breaks Turkey was offering Rosatom until 2113. But last week, Rosatom head Aleksei Likhachev clarified that, since the life cycle of a modern NPP is at least a hundred years, Akkuyu has every chance to see not only the centenary of the Republic of Turkey, which will be celebrated later this year, but also the bicentenary.
Regardless of what happens in the Turkish elections in two weeks, Rosatom is planning to stay in southern Turkey for the rest of the century.
Follow on Twitter: @yorukisik
Pakistan looks for assurances and pledges of continued support from China
Senior Fellow and Book Review Editor, MEJ
Though the declared aim of the Pakistani Army chief’s visit to Beijing was to “deepen and expand” military cooperation, Pakistan’s domestic travails and regional security issues, including Indian-Chinese military tensions and turmoil coming out of Afghanistan, undoubtedly figured prominently on the agenda.
Yet extensive Chinese financial assistance, even if it were forthcoming, should not be realistically expected to rescue Pakistan, except perhaps at the cost of a steep and intolerable degree of dependency.
Pakistan’s Army chief, Gen. Asim Munir, returned to Islamabad over the weekend after having concluded a four-day series of official meetings in Beijing. But Munir’s first trip to China since becoming head of the Army last November was no ordinary visit, as these are not ordinary times.
While in Beijing, Munir met with senior Chinese officials, including his counterpart, Gen. Li Qiaoming, the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Gen. Zhang Youxia, and China’s top diplomat, Minister Wang Yi. Though the declared aim of the visit was to “deepen and expand” military cooperation, Pakistan’s domestic travails and regional security issues undoubtedly figured prominently on the agenda, as they probably did during Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Nadeem Anjum’s visit to China earlier in April.
China’s “all-weather ally” Pakistan is experiencing deep political turmoil, severe damage and losses from a series of recent environmental shocks, acute economic distress, and a worsening security situation. Meanwhile, the regional security situation is clouded by China’s festering military standoff with India in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh and prevailing uncertainty in Afghanistan. Against this backdrop, it seems likely that Munir’s visit focused more on providing and obtaining assurances and pledges of continued support than the forging of new military and defense agreements.
The stakes are high for China, which has invested $60 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — Beijing’s showcase Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project — and is owed nearly $30 billion by Pakistan. There is also heightened concern in Beijing about the security threat to Chinese nationals and facilities posed by armed groups in Pakistan. In July 2021, a bomb attack by the Pakistani Taliban claimed the lives of at least a dozen Chinese workers traveling in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. An April 2022 suicide attack by a member of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) killed three Chinese teachers and their Pakistani driver. Security-related incidents also have contributed to delays in CPEC project execution, a sore point for both sides.
The stakes are even higher for Pakistan, which has become more dependent on China as a financial lifeline given the deterioration of its economic situation. Indeed, China may be Pakistan’s only option. Assuaging China’s security concerns is, therefore, critical to obtaining the economic support from Beijing that Islamabad needs. But not all Pakistanis are comfortable with the country’s growing reliance on China. Pakistan’s already strapped industrial sector has hardly benefited from the flood of cheap Chinese manufactured goods. CPEC’s “early harvest” projects arguably contributed to Pakistan’s unsustainable debt burden. And an ongoing series of local rallies and protests in Gwadar is evidence of simmering anti-Chinese sentiment, which Pakistani authorities are struggling to contain.
Yet despite these problems, a recently issued Chinese government-commissioned feasibility study recommended that Beijing proceed with plans to build the China-Pakistan railway — China’s largest BRI transport project, at an estimated cost of 400 billion yuan ($57.7 billion). To embark on such a massive project under the current circumstances would seem a risky undertaking, not to mention a heavy lift, given Pakistan’s own financial and material limitations.
For China to achieve its regional economic and geopolitical ambitions will require a capable partner — one that is politically stable, financially solvent, and secure. Alas, Pakistan currently lacks those attributes. Although the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus is widely regarded as the country’s strongest institution, it is not necessarily equipped to address the tangle of challenges the country faces. Nor can extensive Chinese financial assistance, if it were forthcoming, be realistically expected to rescue Pakistan from them, except perhaps at the cost of a steep and intolerable degree of dependency.
Israel and Jordan handle their differences with care, but bilateral ties remain in jeopardy
Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs
Since the current Israeli government came to power, tensions have been mounting between Israel and Jordan, after they were significantly mended under the previous Bennett-Lapid government.
Israel and Jordan are managing to contain sensitive bilateral situations and are continuing their previous practical cooperation, but a potential Israeli-Palestinian escalation could derail relations with Amman.
It has been more than a week since Israel arrested a Jordanian member of parliament (MP), Imad al-Adwan, for trying to smuggle ammunition into the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge Crossing. Such an incident could have easily led to a public spat and a diplomatic crisis, especially given the already mounting bilateral tensions under Israel’s current government. But instead, the situation is being handled via seemingly effective back-channel engagement and statesmanship, which may result in the transfer of the Jordanian parliamentarian to Jordan’s custody.
Israel and Jordan managed to successfully contain another sensitive situation back in January 2023, when the latter country’s ambassador to Israel was held up by Israeli police near the al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount. The two neighboring states have also participated together — alongside Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and the United States — in a pair of regional summits, in Aqaba, Jordan, and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt (in February and March 2023, respectively), to prevent an Israeli-Palestinian flare-up during Ramadan. Moreover, both have remained committed to advancing previous cooperative endeavors in the fields of natural gas, electricity, and water.
In recent years, King Abdullah refused to have direct contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and emphasized his lack of trust in the Israeli leader. However, when Netanyahu took office again in December of last year, Jordan indicated its willingness to engage. In January, the Israeli prime minister was invited to Amman, and he made the Jordanian capital his first foreign visit since returning to office.
These various modalities of engagement help contain regional differences and prevent escalation, and they should continue. However, they should not overshadow the deep tensions between Jordan and Israel’s current government.
Jordan has voiced numerous warnings and condemnations of the Israeli government’s statements and actions during these last four months. In turn, Israel accused Jordan of not doing enough to reduce tensions during Ramadan. Ministerial meetings between the two countries are not taking place, and no new joint initiatives seem to be brewing. The Jordanian public is pressuring its leadership to downgrade ties with Israel, and statements by extremist Israeli Ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir are fueling tensions, fears, and negative perceptions.
Relations with Jordan are of strategic importance for Israel. The previous Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government understood that and invested considerable time and energy in fixing the damage Netanyahu had done in his previous terms as prime minister. President Isaac Herzog also pitched in and contributed to the rebuilding of Israeli-Jordanian trust, which is now in jeopardy, despite the two countries’ proven ability to handle their difference with care. Israel should prioritize improving its relations with Jordan, but it should also acknowledge that this requires sensitive conduct not only with Amman but also with Ramallah.
Follow on Twitter: @GorenNimrod
Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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