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Benjamin Netanyahu Out, Ebrahim Raisi In

Benjamin Netanyahu Out, Ebrahim Raisi In

Wednesday, 16 June, 2021 - 10:15

The current moment in the Arab Levant can be summed up in two men and movements: Benjamin Netanyahu, who is leaving the ring, and Ebrahim Raisi, who is entering it.


The comfort at the former’s departure is dispelled by the latter’s entry.


This is not to say that Netanyahu is an exception among Israeli politicians or that he is very different from those who replaced him. It also doesn’t mean that Raisi- who will be appointed President of the Islamic Republic of Iran in an election without competitors- is an exceptional figure who will propel qualitative changes within the Iranian regime and to its orientations.


With that, there are a few significant considerations that it would be difficult to brush off.


In Israel, the 12-year term of a populist prime minister came to an end. He often tried to overstretch his constitutional authorization, often individually tried to tame and disrupt the democratic process and many times succeeded. It is true that many of the political positions of his successor, Naftali Bennett, are similar to his, and the former also shares his racism against the Palestinians. Nonetheless, two fundamental differences distinguish the new Bennett-Lapid government from that of Netanyahu:


First, it is a coalition government with many sides influencing and pressuring it, and it is founded on a rotation between its two heads. Thus, there is no single figure whose behavior can degenerate into a single mood. The fact that the coalition behind the government is extremely broad might make it slow or ineffective, but the little it does accomplish will garner broader popular support.


As for the most significant challenge it will face if it manages to launch, it is shifting from defining itself with a negation (“We are merely the opposite of Netanyahu”) to a positive definition (“This is our program”). In this regard, greater attention to the social issues, including the Arab minority’s demands, may play some role. The left’s weak presence (Labor and Meretz) in the government and the fact that the government is supported by Mansour Abbas and the “United Arab List” give this prospect some chances.


Second, it will be more responsive to US policy in the Middle East. The Biden administration did not hide its glee at the governmental change in Israel, a development the administration needed badly, especially given what has come to be described, after the Group of Seven Summit in Britain, as “the United States returning to the world stage.” The recent war in Gaza is likely to leave the Middle East weighing more heavily on the administration’s accounting of its interests and concerns. The prospect of a decline in the degree of Israeli adventurism is also likely.


In other words, Netanyahu’s exit can be seen as a shift toward accommodating “the other,” be they inside Israel (Arabs, the left…), the outside world (the United States and Western Europe), or between the two (the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah). Of course, this remains less than what is necessary and demanded, but what is certain is that it will be far more than what Netanyahu and the Likud might give.


Ebrahim Raisi’s entry, on the other hand, is a case of total un-accommodation. It has raised un-accommodation to the seat of power.


Let us assume for a moment that the negotiators in Vienna overcame their major divergences and succeeded at bringing the nuclear deal back to life; will Raisi be the president to live up to such an agreement?


While it could be said that Bennett and Lapid will have to be less extreme than Netanyahu, Raisi will undoubtedly take a harder line than Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif. His absolute identification with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (his teacher who also hails from Mashhad) reinforces this. Moreover, Raisi, in addition to his well-known political stances, is known for his cultural views that support and explain his policies: from unequivocal hostility to Western culture in all its forms and all its products, to strongly opposing mixed education and boys and girls coming together under the same roof. As for the “other,” Raisi does not accommodate them within Iran itself, and his history of not doing so dates back to 1988, when he was among the prominent figures responsible for the execution of political prisoners.


His record in the judiciary, which he headed in 2019, begins in 2004, when he was named Chief Justice Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi’s first deputy, subsequently maintaining his position under Sadeq Larijani. Between that date and the suppression of the 2009 “Green Revolution,” a mountain of human rights violations was accumulated. The victims were political opponents, students, and those demanding equality between women and men. This, in turn, reduces the likelihood of an agreement being reached with the Biden administration, which says that human rights occupy an advanced position in its list of concerns.


In other words, we are facing a minor opening in Israel and a major setback in Iran. This, of course, does not point to conflicts being overcome or the materialization of the stability that many aspire to.


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