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What We’re Watching: Bibi’s defiance, US strikes in Syria, Lula’s China visit, Putin’s Hungary refuge, India vs. free speech

Demonstrators drape the national flag of Israel on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.

Demonstrators drape the national flag of Israel on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.


Bibi’s not backing down

Israelis waited with bated breath on Thursday evening as news broke that PM Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was preparing to brief the nation after another “day of disruption” saw protesters block roads and strike over the government’s proposed judicial reforms.

The trigger for the impromptu public address was a meeting between Bibi and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, also from the ruling Likud Party, who has voiced increasing concern that the looming judicial reform would threaten Israel’s national security, particularly as more and more army reservists are refusing to show up for training.

That never happened. While he talked about healing divisions, a defiant Netanyahu came out and said he will proceed to push through the reform, which, among other things, would give the government an automatic majority on appointing Supreme Court judges. This came just a day after the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a bill blocking the attorney general from declaring Netanyahu unfit for office due to a conflict of interest over his ongoing legal woes and his bid to dilute the power of the judiciary. In response, the attorney general released a letter Friday saying Netanyahu's involvement in judicial reform is "illegal," suggesting a much-dreaded constitutional crisis may have begun.

Two things to look out for in the days ahead: First, what does Defense Minister Gallant do next? If he threatens to – or does – resign, it could set off subsequent defections and be a game changer. Second, how do the markets respond? Indeed, markets rallied Thursday before Bibi’s address in hopes that the government was set to backtrack on the reforms that are spooking investors, but the shekel value slumped after the speech.

US strikes Iranian-backed group in Syria

The US confirmed Thursday that it had struck an Iranian-backed group in northeastern Syria after a Tehran-aligned militia launched a drone attack against a US base near the province of Hasakah, killing at least one US contractor and injuring another contractor as well as five US troops.

While strikes on US bases in northeastern Syria are not necessarily uncommon, the scale of casualties seen Thursday is quite rare. Indeed, a high-ranking US official recently said that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, which takes orders directly from the supreme leader, has launched 78 attacks on US positions in Syria since Jan. 2021.

The US Department of Defense, meanwhile, said that the drone used in this attack was of Iranian origin, and that President Joe Biden had given the go ahead for a precision-guided retaliatory strike on an Iranian-backed group that reportedly killed 11 fighters.

Video footage suggests the strike was on Deir Ez-Zor, a province that borders Iraq and contains oil fields. The US still maintains around 900 troops in the country’s northeast after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of roughly 2,000 troops in 2018. It is at least the fourth known attack on Iranian assets in northwestern Syria under the Biden administration.

Iran, for its part, has not commented on the strikes, but the likelihood of increased tensions with the US is only rising.

Lula takes his beef directly to Xi Jinping

“Tell me who you walk with,” the saying goes, “and I’ll tell you who you are.” Well, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva is rolling deep to his upcoming summit with Xi Jinping, taking nearly 250 businesspeople along for the ride. More than a quarter of them are from Brazil’s powerful meat export industry alone.

That tells you everything about the trip’s main focus: trade, trade, and more trade. And why not? It was during Lula’s last stint as president that China displaced the US as Brazil’s largest commercial partner, fueling a historic economic boom as it gobbled up huge quantities of Brazilian meat, soybeans, and iron ore. Nowadays, facing a much tougher economic and political environment, Lula is keen to recapture some of that commercial magic.

But the geopolitical context also matters. Important as China is commercially, the US is Lula’s most important regional security and investment partner, and Washington was Lula’s first trip beyond Latin America as president. As the US-China rivalry deepens, Lula and his dealmaking entourage will need to tread carefully in a world that is splitting apart under their feet.

Hungary is a safe space for Putin

The Hungarian government said Thursday it wouldn’t jail Vladimir Putin if he came to Hungary, despite the International Criminal Court’s recent issuance of an arrest warrant for the Russian president for war crimes.

Budapest’s reasoning was a doozy: While they have signed and ratified the Rome Statute, which created the ICC, they say they haven’t gotten around to incorporating it into Hungarian law yet, so no-can-do on arresting Putin.

It’s all purely hypothetical, as there’s no chance of Putin going to Hungary any time soon. But that’s the point. Hungary’s avowedly “illiberal” PM Viktor Orban has long made clear that he won’t just toe the EU party line on Russia. He’s reluctantly gone along with EU sanctions on Russia, but he’s also said the EU is needlessly expanding and prolonging the war by arming Ukraine – something his government won’t do.

Moscow, for its part, says arresting Putin abroad would be “an act of war.”

India's opposition leader sentenced to prison for defamation

The world’s largest democracy seems to be getting less comfortable with a key tenet of it: free speech.

Rahul Gandhi, a member of the Indian National Congress, the main opposition party, was sentenced on Thursday to two years in prison for “defaming” Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He was also disqualified as a lawmaker by the lower house of parliament. In April 2019, Gandhi referred to the PM — along with two corrupt officials also named Modi and charged with embezzling millions of dollars — as “thieves.”

This is a big deal because Gandhi is Indian political royalty. After all, he's the son, grandson, and great-grandson of prime ministers (his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first PM), and was surely planning to run against Modi for the top job in 2024. What's more, he recently completed a five-month-long march in hopes of reviving the Congress party, which for decades dominated Indian politics but took a beating from the BJP in the last election.

Although his party is appealing the conviction, the stakes are very high for Gandhi due to a provision in India’s election law that disqualifies MPs sentenced to, coincidentally, at least two years in prison for any offense, including defamation. Gandhi turned to Twitter in defiance, tweeting up a storm on Thursday with messages like "Long live the revolution" and quoting Mahatma Gandhi with "truth is my God."

Meanwhile, opposition groups accuse the PM of using the courts to go after his political rivals. Indeed, Gandhi’s sentence comes on the heels of the recent arrest on corruption charges of Manish Sisodia, the head of the AAP, another opposition party that runs the capital, New Delhi. Democratic backsliding indeed.


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