Bibi & Barack part amiably as US-Israel relations thaw
When President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for what was likely to be the last time as leaders of their countries, the most important thing they said was “see you soon”.
When President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for what was likely to be the last time as leaders of their countries, the most important thing they said was “see you soon”.
Netanyahu’s invitation to Obama to visit Israel post-presidency augured a thaw in US-Israel relations, which was also seen in remarks by Israel’s diplomatic corps and signals from the pro-Israel lobby.
Their friendly, relaxed interaction was in marked contrast to meetings like the one in 2011, when after Obama called for talks based on 1967 lines, Netanyahu lectured the American president in the Oval Office about Middle Eastern realities and Obama clutched the arm of his elegant chair seemingly to keep himself from decking the Israeli leader.
Much of their chatter this time, at least in the open part of the meeting Wednesday in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, was about Netanyahu’s invitation to Obama and Obama’s ostensible eagerness to accept it.
More saliently, Netanyahu made it clear he understood the transformational impact that the country’s first black president would have on the American left and on Democrats, and how important it was to Israel to restore and burnish ties with that political sector.
“Your voice, your influential voice will be heard for many decades, and I know you’ll continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself and its right to thrive as a Jewish state. So I want you to know, Barack, that you’ll always be a welcome guest in Israel,” Netanyahu said, and teased Obama about a favourite pastime. “And by the way, I don’t play golf, but right next to my home in Caesarea in Israel there’s a terrific golf course.”
Obama said he “very much appreciated” the invitation.
“I will visit Israel often because it is a beautiful country with beautiful people,” he said. “And Michelle and the girls, I think, resent that fact that I have not taken them on most of these trips. So they’re insisting that I do take them. Of course, they will appreciate the fact that the next time I visit Israel, I won’t have to sit in [bilateral meetings] but instead can enjoy the sights and sounds of a remarkable country.”
Which is not to say the meeting was a Seinfeldian one, about nothing. Reports said the closed meeting saw more sparring between the two men on Israeli settlement building – although in his public remarks, Obama also acknowledged that the issue was one that would soon be out of his control and that Netanyahu had the upper hand.
“Obviously, I’m only going be to be president for another few months,” he said. “The prime minister will be there quite a bit longer and our hope will be that in these conversations we get a sense of how Israel sees the next few years, what the opportunities are and what the challenges are in order to assure that we keep alive the possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbours, and a Palestinian homeland that meets the aspirations of their people.”
In his speech the day before at the United Nations, Obama mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian impasse in passing, and notably blamed Palestinian incitement as much as he did Israel’s settlement policy.
It was anticlimactic after months of fevered speculation in Israel and the pro-Israel community that Obama would in his last months launch a new major initiative on the issue, possibly through a UN Security Council resolution outlining the parameters of a final status two-state agreement.
That’s an approach Netanyahu abhors, warning the General Assembly in his own speech there on Thursday: “We will not accept any attempt by the UN to dictate terms to Israel. The road to peace runs through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not through New York.”
On the eve of Obama’s speech, 88 U.S. senators urged the president to veto any “one-sided” Security Council resolutions and to generally avoid pressing for peace talks absent an initiative by the Israelis. The letter was shaped by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby.
The back and forth on Wednesday between Obama and Netanyahu was extraordinary in and of itself after eight years of a relationship that more often than not was fraught.
Think back to past tense relations between US and Israeli leaders: It’s hard to imagine Menachem Begin asking Jimmy Carter as he packed up the White House to come walk in Jesus’ steps in the Galilee, or Yitzhak Shamir telling George H W Bush how relaxing the Dead Sea mud can be.
Making nice with Obama is a key element of Netanyahu’s bid to keep Democrats pro-Israel.
Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington and one of Netanyahu’s most trusted advisers, said as much last week just before Israel and the United States signed a defence assistance agreement that guarantees Israel $38 billion over the next 10 years.
Dermer welcomed the agreement by referring to tensions between Israel and Obama – and more broadly, Democrats – over last year’s Iran nuclear deal, which Israel opposed.
“Despite not seeing eye to eye on Iran, this speaks to the strength and power” of the relationship, Dermer said of Obama’s backing of the assistance agreement. “The fact he’s signing it means we’ll have the backing of the entire American people – the broadest possible support.”
Dermer, meanwhile, has plunged himself into cultivating black Democrats, who saw Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress lambasting Obama’s Iran policy as a deep signal of disrespect to the president.
More broadly, Israel and the mainstream pro-Israel community are nowhere near as eager to assist Republicans in isolating and embarrassing Obama as they were a year ago, when Netanyahu and AIPAC led opposition to the Iran deal.
Republican senators, however, are still itching for a fight: They introduced legislation in the wake of the defence assistance agreement that would upend the agreement’s clause that requires Israel to return any extra money Congress allocates for the next two years. That clause shrinks the role Congress plays in supporting Israel and shaping US-Israel relations.
One the sponsors, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican South Carolina, talked up the bill at the Orthodox Union’s annual leadership meeting on Wednesday. Another senator, Tom Cotton, Republican Arkesas, went so far as to say he would “rescind” the defence assistance memorandum of understanding.
Israel and AIPAC do not want any part of it. Jacob Nagel, the Israeli national security adviser who signed the defence assistance agreement, last week said he was aware of Graham’s plans – and that Israeli officials had made clear to the senator that they opposed them.
“Senator Graham is one of the greatest supporters of Israel in Congress,” Nagel said, “but everyone who spoke with him said it was not a good idea. Israel is a country that honours its agreements.”
AIPAC, notably, had not taken a position on Graham’s legislation, which was also backed by six other Republican senators: Mark Kirk of Illinois; Ted Cruz of Texas; Marco Rubio of Florida; Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire; John McCain of Arizona, and Roy Blunt of Missouri.
Asked about the bill, AIPAC’s spokesman, Marshall Wittmann, said advancing bipartisan legislation was key.
“While we have not taken a position on this specific bill, we strongly support security assistance and missile defence funding for Israel and reauthorisation of the Iran Sanctions Act,” he said. “We urge Congress to work on a bipartisan basis to achieve these crucial objectives.”
The letter from the 88 senators, as much as its aim was to urge Obama not to allow the Palestinians to get ahead of themselves, also included language that Democrats favoured, including a reference to a future “Palestine” and a two-state solution.
An AIPAC insider said the language was deliberate and part of the effort to bring Democrats on board. It was also enough to drive away key pro-Israel Republicans who refused to sign, among them Cruz, Rubio, Cotton and Senator Ben Sasse, Republican Nebraska.
Senator Ben Cardin, Democrat Maryland, speaking to foreign policy reporters, said that AIPAC and others in the pro-Israel community were moving on from the tensions stoked by disagreement over Iran.
“They understand the backlash is when you make support for Israel a wedge partisan issue,” said Cardin, one of just four Democratic senators who opposed the deal. (JTA)
True relevance of the anniversary of the Islamic revolution
This week, 40 years ago, Iran’s military stood down, guaranteeing the Islamic Revolution’s success.
After months of unrest and protests in cities across the country, a secular monarchy headed by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, colloquially known as the Shah, was overthrown.
This dramatic turn-of-events would reshape the Middle East for decades to come, introducing a string of events, the implications of which are still being felt today.
Before the 1979 revolution, the Shah used much of the country’s oil and gas money to modernise the capital, Tehran. He largely ignored those living in the countryside, and came under increasing criticism for being out of touch with citizens, and serving as a puppet of Western governments.
It was a recipe bound for failure. The devout and the clergy became increasingly frustrated with his changes, and the expectations of the burgeoning middle class, especially students, could never be completely fulfilled.
In spite of the many reforms the Shah introduced, he could not stem the nationwide protests. In response, government forces killed thousands of demonstrators.
Although the unrest was initiated by radical student groups, religious fundamentalists gradually gained the upper hand. They rallied around the Shah’s primary critic, Islamic cleric Ruhollah Khomeini, who stood for everything the Shah did not. Khomeini envisaged an Iranian government founded on the principles of Islam, which was deeply opposed to the West. When he returned to Tehran from exile on 1 February 1979, he received a rapturous welcome.
Understanding what led to the revolution and the changes the country has undergone since is important in trying to map out future relations between Iran and Israel.
In a recent interview, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “We think of Iran as a state with an ideology, but actually Iran really is an ideology with a state.”
The cornerstone of the Iranian revolution, and one of its most important goals was the exportation of Shia Islam outside the country’s borders. Becoming a regional powerhouse remains one of the Islamic Republic’s overriding priorities. Even today, in spite of the country’s massive economic problems, in an effort to gain regional hegemony, it continues to prop up its proxies in Lebanon via Hezbollah (which it created), and in Gaza via Hamas.
This is also the most opportune way to attack Israel, a country Khomeini described in 1971 as having “penetrated all the economic, military, and political affairs” of Iran and turning it into “a military base for Israel”. The Iranian regime is relentlessly devoted to the destruction of the Jewish state.
It’s a far cry from pre-revolution days. Like the United States, Israel was closely allied to the Shah and before February 1979, the countries shared diplomatic and even some national security relations. Khomeini used this relationship to his advantage, arguing that Israel was a Western intrusion, and he was freeing the region from “imperialist” Israeli oppression. One of the first things he did after assuming power was abruptly to sever diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.
This past Monday, hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the country’s streets to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the revolution. They chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, while burning US and Israeli flags. A commander from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps threatened to “raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground” in the event of an American attack on the country.
Quick to respond, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that this would be Iran’s last anniversary of the revolution if it attacked any Israeli cities.
This trading of barbs is nothing new. The question, of course, is whether either side is willing to make true on its threats.
Some experts say Iran is willing to risk its own destruction to fight Israel. Others believe Tehran would never go that far and would rather continue to pour money into its proxy armies.
These experts back up their arguments by pointing out that in spite of the recent humiliations Tehran has suffered in Syria from Israeli airstrikes, it has avoided any major confrontation with the Jewish state.
In its heyday, the relationship with Iran formed part of Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion’s, vision of cultivating relations with the non-Arab, mostly Muslim, enemies of its enemies.
Known as the “periphery doctrine”, chief among these Israeli partners were Turkey and pre-revolution Iran.
Nowadays Israel has a “reverse periphery doctrine”, forging alliances with major Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. The logic is the same – but in reverse. These countries share a common enemy in Iran.
But, it doesn’t alleviate the very real threat Tehran continues to pose. The country is developing longer range and more sophisticated missiles that can reach American and Israeli targets. It is building weapons factories in Syria in the hope of establishing a permanent military presence near Israel’s northern border. Like the revolution that heralded the current leadership four decades ago, Iran’s rulers are intent on sponsoring their proxies, and destroying Israel.
How kite flying turned into all-out warfare
It was less than three years ago that a wave of stabbings engulfed the streets of Israel – particularly Jerusalem and the West Bank – prompting many to refer to the flare-up in violence as a “knife intifada”. Now, it looks like a “kite intifada” is on the cards.
It is ironic that Israel has some of the world’s most sophisticated air defence systems, but it hasn’t been able to stop these kites – a relatively simple phenomenon of kites dangling burning cloth or embers – from being flown into Israel.
It’s reminiscent of when Palestinian militants first started using Qassam rockets in the early 2000s. The “homemade bottle rocket” took the Israeli army by surprise, especially as it was something that could be made in a kitchen.
The great Israel Defence Forces (IDF) struggled to contain the threat of what is effectively sugar, smuggled or scavenged TNT, along with potassium and urea nitrate – both widely available fertilizers.
It was only much later that it deployed the “Red Alert” early warning system, made up of advanced radar, which detected rockets as they were being launched. Since March 2011, the Iron Dome has entered the fray, intercepting rockets before they can hit their targets.
Now again, like in the early years of the Qassam rocket, Israeli military figures are scratching their heads over how to stop kite and balloon warfare. While the IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is against firing at the teenage flyers, many in the political echelon support it.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the IDF to stop the firebombs – reportedly giving Friday as the deadline. This raises concerns that if it doesn’t happen, another Gaza war could be on the cards.
Kites have long been a big deal in Gaza. Seven years ago, Palestinian children set the world record for flying the most number of kites at one time. The ones they built had slogans on them calling for a lasting peace with Israel, in which Palestinian children could live in safety and security.
The message today is very different. The kite flyers have admitted to stumbling upon the idea. Wanting to provoke Israeli soldiers, they say they attached a burning rag to a one-dollar kite and were delighted when it fell on the other side of the border and started a fire.
This incendiary kite flying is relatively new to Gaza. However, over the past few months, thousands of kites and balloons – about 20 a day – have landed in Israel. They have been attached to firebombs and Molotov cocktails in order to inflict maximum damage.
According to the Israel’s foreign ministry, more than 400 fires were started on Israeli farmlands and nature reserves, destroying more than an estimated 7 000 acres of land and costing more than $2 million (R26 million) in damages. A huge number of wildlife have been killed and experts say it will take many years, if at all, for the ecosystem of plants, predators and prey to fully recover.
Not all the kites have caused fires and there haven’t been any fatalities on the Israeli side. Nevertheless, they’ve certainly put psychological stress on the communities living in southern Israel. They’ve in turn increasingly put pressure on the Israeli government to do something.
For the first time since the phenomenon started, Netanyahu visited the southern Israeli city of Sderot on Monday.
Until now he’s been more focused on the country’s northern border, where he’s trying to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military foothold in Syria.
Netanyahu is wary of escalating tensions on the Gaza border. However, last weekend more than 200 rockets and mortars were fired by Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Israel responded with its largest airstrike in the coastal strip since 2014. In a rare admission, Hamas said it had sent the rockets and mortars to deter Israel from more attacks.
Also known as Operation Protective Edge, that 2014 war started this month four years ago. Still, Israeli residents on the border find themselves living in as precarious a situation now as then.
At the time of writing, a ceasefire brokered by Egypt between the sides is holding, but tensions are high. The United Nations special envoy says an all-out war was narrowly averted. Jerusalem insists the kite flying must stop for the truce to sustain itself. However, Hamas earlier threatened that if the kite flyers are attacked, they’ll “go back to rockets”.
For this reason, the Israeli military urged the Cabinet “not to cross the line: not to try to kill the organisers, lest it trigger a general escalation on the border”.
And so Israel has drafted civilian drone enthusiasts as army reservists and instructed them to fly their remote-controlled aircraft into the kites. The army has also deployed a number of companies along the Gaza border to monitor the skies and quickly put out the fires.
The good news is that their effect is being felt. In recent weeks, there has been a steady decline in the size of the areas damaged by ensuing fires.
But just like with the Qassam rockets, a long-term effective means to stop the kites has yet to be found. As for the balloons, they are flown from deeper inside Gaza, often at a height of more than a kilometre, and are hard to spot with the naked eye before landing and starting a fire.
Then there’s the added problem of how the international community and media judge any Israeli response.
The recent six-week “Great March of Return”, in which more than 130 Palestinians were killed in protests along the border, is still seen by many in the global community as a “disproportionate” Israeli response to “unarmed” Palestinian protesters. That is despite all Israeli arguments to the contrary.
There will be little to no sympathy if the IDF now kills children flying kites and balloons because of some fires near the Gaza Strip. It will also be seen as immoral.
When Jerusalem finally gets a handle on the “kite intifada”, there will no doubt be something new in the pipeline that will terrorise the Israeli public. The cycle will continue for as long as the two million Gazans feel compelled to search for desperate measures to break the decade-long blockade imposed on them by Israel and Egypt. And, for as long as they search, Israelis will continue seeing their response as another form of Palestinian terrorism.
Israel’s diplomacy with Russia reaps benefits in Syria
Media reports suggest that Iranian forces, assisted by Hezbollah and Shia militias, are to withdraw from the areas they currently occupy near the Golan Heights in southern Syria.
This is a huge victory for Israel, whose position has been consistent: not to allow any kind of Iranian military camps to be set up near Israel’s northern border with Syria.
The Israelis have achieved this by getting Moscow on their side. After all, it is Russia who calls the shots in Syria. It has been doing so ever since September 2015, when it was invited by the Damascus government to intervene in the Syrian conflict.
In the past week, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited the Russian capital, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a telephone discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Reports suggest that both sides agreed that Moscow would allow Jerusalem – albeit tacitly – to attack Iranian sites in Syria, as long as they were not tied to the Damascus government, which Russia supports.
Netanyahu is all smiles. Repeatedly he’s made his position clear: allowing Iran to set up military bases in Syria is a red line from which he won’t budge. And since May, there has certainly been a change in Russia’s behaviour towards Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.
Think back to February, when the Israeli air force shot down an Iranian drone that had entered Israeli territory. Jerusalem responded with two waves of aerial bombardments that destroyed almost half of Syria’s air defence systems.
In a foreign ministry statement, Moscow objected to Israel’s violation of Syrian sovereignty, while ignoring Tehran’s provocation by sending in the drone in the first place.
Moscow would have known when the Iranian drone took off, as it was very close to its air-control centre in the Syrian city of Palmyra. Moscow chose not to give the Israelis any warning.
At the time, there was a lot of discussion and analysis about whether Russia had taken Iran’s side in the conflagration.
Compare this to last month’s 9 May Victory Day celebrations, when Netanyahu had pride of place, walking alongside Putin in Red Square during the ceremonial military parade. The following night, the Israeli air force carried out massive attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, it’s largest action there in decades.
This time, the Russians did not issue a strong statement of criticism against Jerusalem – and in so doing sent a tacit message to both the Israelis and the Iranians. The message: Russia is not in the pocket of Iran, and is prepared to turn the cheek when Israel strikes Iranian sites in Syria.
Jerusalem has repeatedly vowed to prevent Tehran establishing a permanent presence in Syria. In recent months, Jerusalem has carried out dozens of air strikes against Iran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
Should the Russians have chosen to do so, they would have had the ability to protect such targets with their own air force and air defence systems inside Syria. But clearly they’ve chosen not to.
Israel has always respected Russia’s involvement in Syria, presumably because she sees it as a means of stabilising her northern neighbour. In return, Russia understands Israel’s security concerns.
Netanyahu has made it abundantly clear on repeated occasions that he will not shy away from using military force to keep Iran out of Syria.
No doubt, Moscow wants to avoid a military confrontation between Russia and Israel that would risk a direct clash with American President Donald Trump, who sits squarely behind Jerusalem.
Now, as the war in Syria winds down, Moscow is pushing for a peace settlement to be hammered out as soon as possible. Iranian advancement in Syria destabilises the chances of success. What’s more, the Russians are distrustful of Tehran.
The countries share a complicated and uneasy history. Moscow’s standing in the Middle East is the strongest it’s been in decades. It doesn’t want to upset relationships it’s worked hard to cultivate with other major powers in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis.
Politically, Putin doesn’t need the war in Syria to earn him brownie points back home. He campaigned heavily on his foreign policy achievements in the Middle East and North Africa ahead of the Russian presidential elections in March. However, now that he’s secured a fourth term in office, his attentions have turned elsewhere.
Iran, meanwhile, says it won’t withdraw its troops from Syria, arguing that, like Russia, it is in the war-torn country at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But it’s questionable what the Iranians could do should Moscow pressure them to leave. Assad would listen to Moscow; and ultimately the Iranians would follow suit.
This week, Tehran announced that it was working to increase its uranium enrichment capacity in a threat to European powers who are desperately trying to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal after the Trump administration withdrew from it.
The country is trying to save face in what was a huge blow, not only for Iranian reformists, but also for the Iranian economy which is now bracing for crippling sanctions.
For Tehran to have to withdraw from Syria would be another major setback to the country’s prestige. It would also hinder the establishment of an overland stretch of influence from Iran to southern Lebanon.
It’s still too early to say whether Israel’s diplomacy with Russia will result in the complete removal of Iran from Syria. Israel’s success so far seems to have been only to keep Iranian forces away from her border.
The next step will be for Netanyahu to convince Putin that Iranian forces must leave Syria completely. It remains to be seen whether he can succeed.
- Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.
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