Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Proposed Gaza Ceasefire Puts Netanyahu at a Crossroads That Could Shape His Legacy 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony for the “Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars and Victims of Terrorism” at Yad LeBanim in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony for the “Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars and Victims of Terrorism” at Yad LeBanim in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP)
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Proposed Gaza Ceasefire Puts Netanyahu at a Crossroads That Could Shape His Legacy 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony for the “Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars and Victims of Terrorism” at Yad LeBanim in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony for the “Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars and Victims of Terrorism” at Yad LeBanim in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP)

The ceasefire proposal announced by President Joe Biden has placed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a crossroads, with either path likely to shape the legacy of Israel’s longest-serving and deeply divisive leader.

The proposal offers the possibility of ending Israel's war against Hamas, returning scores of hostages held by the armed group and quieting the northern border with Lebanon.

But it would also likely shatter Netanyahu’s governing coalition, potentially sending him into the opposition and making him more vulnerable to a conviction in his corruption trial. The full withdrawal of Israeli forces called for in the agreement could allow Hamas to claim victory and reconstitute itself.

Netanyahu’s rejection of the deal, on the other hand, could deepen Israel’s international isolation, worsen ties with an American administration eager to wind down the war and expose him to accusations of having abandoned the hostages to save his own skin.

It’s a conundrum, and that may explain the strange choreography of Biden’s Friday night address: An American president, announcing what he says is an Israeli proposal, during the Jewish sabbath, when Israel’s political class goes largely silent.

Netanyahu acknowledged the proposal, which has been shared with Hamas through mediators, but then appeared to contradict Biden’s remarks. He said Israel remains committed to dismantling Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and that any talk of a permanent ceasefire before then was a “nonstarter.”

On Monday, he said the destruction of Hamas is “part of the proposal” and was quoted as telling a closed parliamentary hearing that Israel reserves the right to return to war if its objectives are not met.

But it has never been clear what the destruction of Hamas entails or whether it's even possible. Biden said Israel had degraded Hamas to the point where it could no longer carry out an Oct. 7-style attack, and that that by continuing the war, Israel risked getting bogged down in Gaza.

But Netanyahu appears to be seeking a much bigger victory.

‘NETANYAHU’S ENDGAME IS TO SURVIVE’ Netanyahu’s critics fear he will reject any ceasefire to appease his ultranationalist governing partners, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. They want to continue the war, fully reoccupy Gaza and rebuild Jewish settlements there.

They have already vowed to leave the government if the proposal announced by Biden comes to pass. Netanyahu’s political opponents have offered a safety net if he reaches a deal to release hostages but they are unlikely to help him stay in office long-term.

“Everything that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich demand or threaten to do, you see Netanyahu is very attentive to that,” said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political commentator. “Netanyahu’s endgame is to survive.”

Netanyahu’s current government, formed in late 2022 after five consecutive elections, is the most nationalist and religious in Israel’s history. Months before the war, it pushed policies that entrenched Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, deepened the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community’s reliance on state subsidies and set in motion an overhaul of the judicial system that tore the country apart.

The coalition initially had a slim majority of 64 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament - enough to govern but with a fragility that would keep Netanyahu’s fate tied to the whims of any of the smaller parties that form the government.

A VETERAN OF ‘DIFFICULT' POLITICS Shortly after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack ignited the war in Gaza, Benny Gantz, a former military chief and a top political rival of Netanyahu, joined the government in a show of unity. Netanyahu, Gantz and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant formed a three-man War Cabinet to direct the offensive.

Mazal Mualem, a Netanyahu biographer, said that effort largely succeeded in sidelining the ultranationalists and allowing Netanyahu to govern in a more pragmatic mold that has defined his 17 years in office going back to the 1990s.

She pointed to Israel’s limited response to an aerial attack by Iran in April, which Ben-Gvir criticized as “weak,” and to a ceasefire and hostage release deal reached with Hamas in November that Smotrich had initially opposed but later voted for.

“Over the years, Bibi has taught himself to do what he wants to do in difficult political environments,” she said, referring to Netanyahu by his popular nickname.

But Gantz has threatened to quit the government unless Netanyahu lays out a postwar plan by June 8, which would leave him far more reliant on Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

Netanyahu’s decision to press ahead with Israel’s massive military campaign in Gaza as scores of hostages languish in captivity has opened him up to fierce criticism from many Israelis, including families of the captives. Thousands have joined weekly mass protests.

“The government of Israel has given up on the hostages,” Yehi Yehud, who has an adult child being held hostage in Gaza, told Israeli Army Radio. “Bibi, you don’t have the permission or the moral validity to sacrifice them on the altar of your political survival.”

OPPORTUNITIES AND RISKS Netanyahu’s hard-line stance has also weighed heavily on Israel’s relations with its closest ally, the United States, which has provided crucial military support but expressed exasperation with civilian casualties and the lack of any realistic Israeli postwar plans.

Internationally, it has exposed Israel to charges of genocide, which it denies, and a potential international arrest warrant against Netanyahu himself.

In his address on Friday, Biden appeared to be offering Netanyahu a way out: Claim victory by saying a battered Hamas can no longer mount an Oct. 7-style attack, bring all the hostages home and then work with the US and Arab nations to build a new regional security architecture.

But the fear of losing power could prevail.

Netanyahu has spent years nurturing an image that only he can lead Israel through its myriad diplomatic and security challenges. That legacy suffered a major blow on Oct. 7, with many Israelis directly blaming him for the most devastating security failure in the country’s history. Public opinion polls indicate that Netanyahu is trailing behind Gantz and would struggle to form a government if elections were held today.

For all their threats, his far-right allies are in a similar predicament. They would likely join him in the opposition if early elections are held, losing the power he has granted them over the Israeli police and settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

If Netanyahu can hold his coalition together until the next scheduled elections in 2026, he might be able to rehabilitate his image. His poll numbers have already started to climb from the depths they hit after Oct. 7 as he has presented himself as withstanding international pressure to end the war.

Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu adviser, said Netanyahu’s wartime decision-making has less to do with immediate political survival and more with securing a legacy that would not be entirely overshadowed by Oct. 7. That requires some kind of victory over Hamas.

“From a historical perspective, Netanyahu’s only option is to go all the way,” he said. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich “are helping him reach that destination, to keep his head above water.”



Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Climate Change Imperils Drought-Stricken Morocco’s Cereal Farmers and Its Food Supply

 A farmer works in a wheat field on the outskirts of Kenitra, Morocco, Friday, June 21, 2024. (AP)
A farmer works in a wheat field on the outskirts of Kenitra, Morocco, Friday, June 21, 2024. (AP)
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Climate Change Imperils Drought-Stricken Morocco’s Cereal Farmers and Its Food Supply

 A farmer works in a wheat field on the outskirts of Kenitra, Morocco, Friday, June 21, 2024. (AP)
A farmer works in a wheat field on the outskirts of Kenitra, Morocco, Friday, June 21, 2024. (AP)

Golden fields of wheat no longer produce the bounty they once did in Morocco. A six-year drought has imperiled the country's entire agriculture sector, including farmers who grow cereals and grains used to feed humans and livestock.

The North African nation projects this year's harvest will be smaller than last year in both volume and acreage, putting farmers out of work and requiring more imports and government subsidies to prevent the price of staples like flour from rising for everyday consumers.

"In the past, we used to have a bounty — a lot of wheat. But during the last seven or eight years, the harvest has been very low because of the drought," said Al Housni Belhoussni, a small-scale farmer who has long tilled fields outside of the city of Kenitra.

Belhoussni's plight is familiar to grain farmers throughout the world confronting a hotter and drier future. Climate change is imperiling the food supply and shrinking the annual yields of cereals that dominate diets around the world — wheat, rice, maize and barley.

In North Africa, among the regions thought of as most vulnerable to climate change, delays to annual rains and inconsistent weather patterns have pushed the growing season later in the year and made planning difficult for farmers.

In Morocco, where cereals account for most of the farmed land and agriculture employs the majority of workers in rural regions, the drought is wreaking havoc and touching off major changes that will transform the makeup of the economy. It has forced some to leave their fields fallow. It has also made the areas they do elect to cultivate less productive, producing far fewer sacks of wheat to sell than they once did.

In response, the government has announced restrictions on water use in urban areas — including on public baths and car washes — and in rural ones, where water going to farms has been rationed.

"The late rains during the autumn season affected the agriculture campaign. This year, only the spring rains, especially during the month of March, managed to rescue the crops," said Abdelkrim Naaman, the chairman of Nalsya. The organization has advised farmers on seeding, irrigation and drought mitigation as less rain falls and less water flows through Morocco's rivers.

The Agriculture Ministry estimates that this year's wheat harvest will yield roughly 3.4 million tons (3.1 billion kilograms), far less than last year's 6.1 million tons (5.5 billion kilograms) — a yield that was still considered low. The amount of land seeded has dramatically shrunk as well, from 14,170 square miles (36,700 square kilometers) to 9,540 square miles (24,700 square kilometers).

Such a drop constitutes a crisis, said Driss Aissaoui, an analyst and former member of the Moroccan Ministry for Agriculture.

"When we say crisis, this means that you have to import more," he said. "We are in a country where drought has become a structural issue."

Leaning more on imports means the government will have to continue subsidizing prices to ensure households and livestock farmers can afford dietary staples for their families and flocks, said Rachid Benali, the chairman of the farming lobby COMADER.

The country imported nearly 2.5 million tons of common wheat between January and June. However, such a solution may have an expiration date, particularly because Morocco's primary source of wheat, France, is facing shrinking harvests as well.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization ranked Morocco as the world's sixth-largest wheat importer this year, between Türkiye and Bangladesh, which both have much bigger populations.

"Morocco has known droughts like this and in some cases known droughts that las longer than 10 years. But the problem, this time especially, is climate change," Benali said.