An Interview with Yohanan Plesner

Octavian Report: What are your thoughts on the recent accord between Israel and the UAE?

Yohanan Plesner: There is a very wide consensus here that this announcement is good news for Israel and the region. While some argue that normalization of relations "only" made public a clandestine relationship that has existed for the past twenty years, it has immense strategic value for both Israel and the UAE,  who both seek to diminish Iran's growing influence while bolstering the American presence in the region. There is also hope that this agreement will open the door for closer relations with other countries in the region in the near future.

In addition, as opposed to the high "cost" of progress with the Palestinians (territorial concessions and the dangers of terrorism) or even the existing "cold peace" with Egypt and Jordan, this relationship includes the possibility for mutually beneficial trade and commerce between the two countries and hopefully a genuine exchange of ideas and even tourism between the two peoples. Nevertheless, we should also wait and see whether the normalization aspects of the expected agreement are actually implemented. We still remember similar high hopes for a genuine bilateral relationship here in Israel when the agreements with Egypt and Jordan were signed — and the disappointment when the "fruits of peace'"never really materialized.

OR: You’ve described the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition government as an opportunity. How do you see that working, and what issues are driving retail politics in Israel?

Plesner: Let me start by saying that it is still far from certain that elections in the fall will be avoided. We will only know for certain on Monday when the Knesset will vote on a bill to delay the state budget. If this bill does not pass, the Knesset will disperse and we will automatically head to an election in November. It is important to note that even if this bill does pass, it is merely a reprieve and we are likely to find ourselves back in the same place when the additional one hundred days to pass a budget expire.

Nevertheless, the agreement with the UAE, and some signs of the Likud weakening in recent polls as Netanyahu's rival on the right Naftali Bennett has seen his numbers rise, could signal a possible de-escalation. Only the more extreme elements of the right wing are disappointed with the possibility of annexation fading but the question now is: would Netanyahu risk heading to an election after alienating this right-wing base — something he has avoided at nearly all costs since returning to office in 2009? This is especially relevant as we head towards the more intense portion of his corruption trial in December, when he'll have to start appearing in court three times a week and he is likely to rely on this support from his base more than ever.

This political crisis is likely to continue as long as we have a Prime Minister who is lacking a solid majority of allies in the Knesset while at the same time taking his personal legal problems into account when making national decisions. In the end, it is Netanyahu who will ultimately have to make the decision of whether to head back to the polls or not and he will do so mainly based on his assessment of the possible effects on his personal legal prospects.

So there is a potential opportunity in this government, but there's also potential downside. It can either end up with paralysis which will be a continuation of the deadlock via other means, i.e. a continuation of the political crisis. Because there are certainly mechanisms within that coalition agreement that regulate the relationship between the two main partners that can bring about a complete paralysis. Both sides have ample, mutual veto tools. And if they decide to use them, if they don't agree on an agenda, this could end up being the worst government. But it also has the potential of being a government that will actually make significant decisions — I would say mainly in the economic area — if it can avoid the above outcome, because it has a broad parliamentary base, it represents the two main blocs of Israeli politics, and because there's a deep economic crisis which provides a good backdrop for instigating reforms. So this can be an opportunity. It's not necessarily an opportunity in the area of reforms and decision-making.

The same applies to the domestic and internal rifts and conflict that characterized our politics over the past, say, five years, and in a more pronounced manner in the past two years during the political crisis. This is something that wouldn't be foreign to an American. The level of divisiveness between the blocs has risen to new highs (or lows, if you will).

This government, since it represents both sides, has the potential to lower the internal flames, and that's why I chose to label it a democratic ceasefire. Yes, some of the initiatives that characterized the former Netanyahu government — dozens of populist anti-constitutional legislative initiatives — are off the table. The ability to subvert law enforcement institutions from within the government by the very ministers that are in charge of those institutions, for example the justice minister — this is very much off the table, so it leads to a kind of ceasefire. An agreement on the main constitutional matters that divide our country and society would be the difference between just a ceasefire and a proactive, positive historic change.

So the political opportunity, despite everything, is out there. Whether there will be the leadership and willpower to exploit it or make use of it, I don't know.

What do Israelis care about politically? Number one, Israelis wanted and hoped for an end to the political crisis. After three consecutive election campaigns, there was very little appetite for a fourth election campaign that might have produced another indecisive outcome. In addition, Israelis very much expect the government to deal with the immediate economic crisis presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other countries in the developed world, Israel's economy experienced its deepest recession in decades: negative growth, negative per-capita growth, unemployment levels that are completely unprecedented with about 26 percent unemployment post-COVID versus three percent in the beginning of March.