Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Hard Right Is Set to Surge in This Week’s European Union Elections 

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, left, speaks with Italy's Premier Giorgia Meloni during a round table meeting at an EU Summit in Brussels, on March 21, 2024. (AP)
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, left, speaks with Italy's Premier Giorgia Meloni during a round table meeting at an EU Summit in Brussels, on March 21, 2024. (AP)
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Hard Right Is Set to Surge in This Week’s European Union Elections 

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, left, speaks with Italy's Premier Giorgia Meloni during a round table meeting at an EU Summit in Brussels, on March 21, 2024. (AP)
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, left, speaks with Italy's Premier Giorgia Meloni during a round table meeting at an EU Summit in Brussels, on March 21, 2024. (AP)

It seemed like a throwaway line by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, yet it encapsulated what is at stake for many in this week's European Union parliamentary elections — What to do with the hard right? And should it be trusted?

The top EU leader basically had said that far-right Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni, whose party is steeped in post-fascism, could be ready for prime time as a potential coalition partner once the four-day elections across the 27-nation EU end Sunday.

During an election debate, von der Leyen declared that Meloni checked all the necessary boxes, the last of which was "pro-rule of law." She immediately added, however, "if this holds."

That provisional question of whether to extend basic trust to extremist and populist parties is on many minds as the EU appears poised to veer rightward unlike it has ever done in its history, which has its seeds in the World War II defeat of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

Since the last European elections five years ago, populist, far-right and extremist parties are already leading three governments, are part of governing coalitions in several others and are surging in polls across the bloc like never before.

As a result, the whole political pendulum of the giant bloc is likely to swing toward the right after the elections, a plethora of surveys indicate and political observers agree.

"There will be a shift to the right. So the question is, how big?" said Maria Demertzis of the Brussels-based independent Bruegel think tank. "The numbers will matter because it could very well be that one of the possible outcomes is that the extreme right actually becomes the second (largest) party. If that is the case, then it’s interesting to see how and who will govern."

In the second-biggest exercise in democracy behind India's recent elections, almost 400 million voters will elect 720 members of the European Parliament from beyond the Arctic circle to the edges of Africa and Asia, impacting anything from global climate policies and defense to migration issues and geopolitical relations with China and the United States.

For the longest time, the European Parliament elections had little importance, as core members France and Germany set much of the policy for the ever-increasing group and the legislature looked like a retirement home for elderly national politicians and an incubator for young talent.

But as the powers of the legislature grew on issues like banking rules, agriculture and the EU budget, so did voting interest and the quality of legislators. While breaking a 50% voter turnout threshold was considered a major step forward in 2019, an EU Parliament survey says 71% could vote in the upcoming elections, another massive step forward.

Von der Leyen's European People's Party, a largely Christian Democrat group, is the legislature's biggest and bound to be the coalition kingmaker after the elections. For anyone to the right of the EPP, breaking up its coalition with the socialists, pro-business liberals and the greens should be the main issue at stake.

While bold, brazen and boisterous at best, the outer bounds on the right can be bellicose, bitter and biting at worst — bashing buddies to boot.

So even if the math adds up for a brilliant victory by the right on Sunday, the total will most likely be less than the sum of its parts.

For all the hard-right's unity in wanting to keep migrants out, ridicule climate measures as woke fiction and uphold conservative family values, there also are fundamental divergences. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, for example, someone like Meloni stands with the West, unlike Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Others remain in a grey zone.

It doesn't help that populist and hard-right parties are now split up in two groups in Parliament — the Identity and Democracy group to which the French National Rally of Marine Le Pen belongs, and the European Conservatives and Reformists, to which Meloni belongs.

Some are courting the center, others are courting controversy. The I&D group last month expelled its Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party after a growing list of scandals was capped when its lead candidate said that not all members of the Nazis’ elite SS unit, which was involved in major atrocities during World War II, were war criminals.

"The AfD has become the plague that no one wants to touch," said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political analyst at Rome’s LUISS university.

It is still unclear how far-right and populist parties will form new groups after the elections.

Nowadays, some want first and foremost to be "salonfähig," that quality of being accepted in the finest circles despite an extremist background. Le Pen is vying to become French president in 2027, and of course, Meloni has already reached that stage as Italian prime minister.

In almost two years as Italy's leader, she has overcome initial worries and proven reliable at EU summits and willing to work for hard-fought compromises, to the extent of even keeping the combustible Orbán in line during key debates. Leaders, including von der Leyen, have glossed over national complaints about her treatment of groups that do not meet her conservative family values or accusations of placing limits on press freedom.

And with the pro-business liberals and greens set for losses, the EPP's von der Leyen wants to keep her options open for coalition building, including Meloni, over the vociferous objections of her outgoing allies.

Even if coalitions in Parliament are brittle since legislators are sometimes beholden to national, not EU, agendas, von der Leyen is still eager to find a coalition that will give her the necessary 361 out of 720 votes to win a second five-year term as EU commission president, perhaps the most powerful position in the EU.

And this is where Meloni also comes in as a pivotal player who might have in her hands both the fate of von der Leyen and of a massive geopolitical bloc on the point of tilting ever further to the right.

"She’s one of these people — not quite the extreme right, but on the right of the right, as it were," said Demertzis of the Bruegel think tank. "She’s been talking to EPP, but she’s also talking to more extreme right groups, Mrs. Le Pen and others. And, of course, depending on how the votes turn out, she might have a big card up her sleeve."



Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Israel-Hezbollah War... More Severe than ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’

An Israeli firefighter aircraft drops flame retardant on fires smoke after rockets fired from southern Lebanon hit an area in the Upper Galilee region in northern Israel on July 4, 2024. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)
An Israeli firefighter aircraft drops flame retardant on fires smoke after rockets fired from southern Lebanon hit an area in the Upper Galilee region in northern Israel on July 4, 2024. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)
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Israel-Hezbollah War... More Severe than ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’

An Israeli firefighter aircraft drops flame retardant on fires smoke after rockets fired from southern Lebanon hit an area in the Upper Galilee region in northern Israel on July 4, 2024. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)
An Israeli firefighter aircraft drops flame retardant on fires smoke after rockets fired from southern Lebanon hit an area in the Upper Galilee region in northern Israel on July 4, 2024. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

In conflicts, both sides often set traps for each other. Yet today, in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, it appears both sides are falling into their own traps.

In the current Israel-Hezbollah conflict, despite denying interest in widening the war, both are moving towards escalation.

Israel continues military drills for expansion, supported by polls showing public backing, though decreasing recently. This support concerns Tel Aviv’s military leaders, who fear the public underestimates the war’s consequences.

Former Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata warns such a war could devastate parts of Lebanon and cause significant harm in Israel, potentially resulting in around 15,000 deaths.

The Terrorism Research Institute at Reichman University conducted a study with 100 military and academic experts on potential war scenarios with Hezbollah.

Their findings were alarming: they warned that such a conflict could quickly escalate across multiple fronts, involving Iranian militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, alongside Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank.

The study predicted that Hezbollah could launch a daily barrage of 2,500 to 3,000 rockets for 21 days, targeting military bases, cities like Tel Aviv, and critical infrastructure such as power plants, gas fields, desalination plants, airports, and weapon depots.

This onslaught would likely cause widespread chaos among Israelis.

Furthermore, Hezbollah might employ its strategy of sending “Radwan” units to infiltrate Israeli borders and occupy towns, similar to Hamas’ actions during operation Al-Aqsa Flood on Oct. 7.

The “Gaza-style destruction” scenario was initially floated to dampen calls for the army to invade Lebanese territory.

The Israeli military, wary of right-wing political pressures and their own hesitations about war, countered by publicizing plans indicating serious readiness.

Leaked drills suggest they are preparing for a large-scale ground invasion, aiming to occupy southern Lebanon up to the Litani River, possibly further to the Zahrani River.

They state that if Hezbollah rejects a political deal to stay away from borders, the military will enforce this with force.

They detail that the war could start with intense airstrikes, similar to Gaza, followed by a ground invasion.

Military sources reveal Israel has received delayed US weapons, including smart bombs, set to be used in airstrikes on southern Beirut suburbs and the Bekaa region at least.

The Litani River lies four kilometers from the border at its closest and extends 29 kilometers at its furthest, covering 1,020 square kilometers. It includes three major cities: Tyre (175,000 residents), Bint Jbeil, and Marjayoun, housing half a million people, with over 100,000 displaced.

Occupying this entire area won’t be easy. Hezbollah is stronger than Hamas, with a more extensive tunnel network and advanced weaponry. They’ve long been prepared for this war.

If Israel plans a short 21-day war, nothing guarantees that timeline, risking entanglement in Lebanon’s challenges once again.

The Israeli military is gearing up for a long war, preparing emergency reserves in hospitals, factories, government offices, and shelters.

They fear Hezbollah could launch thousands of rockets and drones, targeting key infrastructure like power plants, water desalination facilities, and gas wells.

Recent drills also factor in possible direct Iranian involvement, which could disrupt Red Sea shipping and possibly lead to strikes on Cyprus. This means all of Israel could face serious threats.

The Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies reports that Hezbollah has already fired over 5,000 projectiles from Lebanon, causing 33 deaths and extensive damage to both civilian and military targets in Israel.

There’s growing concern about the future of northern Israel, including 28 evacuated settlements and the city of Kiryat Shmona, whose residents are uncertain when they can safely return home.