New strategies for handling ‘The New Norm’
The new national executive director of the SA Zionist Federation, Nicci Raz, officially takes the helm in January of an organisation that plays one of the most pivotal support roles for Israel. Raz replaces Isla Feldman, who has headed the Fed for over two decades. Over the past three months, the two have co-led the organisation. Now it’s time for Nicci to go solo. In a revealing and exclusive interview, JR Online find out who Nicci Raz is, and where is she is planning to take the Fed in her new capacity.
When Raz took office of head of the SA Zionist Federation (SAZF or Fed) three months ago to undergo mentorship with Isla, she refused an interview. “Give me a few months to find my feet,” she told Jewish Report, “and then you can ask me anything.” So we did, and she did, and the following is bound to be as enlightening to our readers as it was to ourselves.
Raz is a no-nonsense, clear-headed and confident woman who has earned her stripes in both corporate and communal service. She was elected a vice-chair of the national Fed at their quadrennial elective conference in February this year. Nicci works “because she loves” it and she is pleased that her husband and three daughters are proud of her achievements.
Nicci Raz: the past…
Nicci grew up in Johannesburg where she matriculated at Yeshiva College.
Her meteoric rise to where she is today, taking over from the doyenne of SA communal Jewry, wasn’t because she was a slow starter.
While still at varsity studying for her B.Com (Law and Economics) degree, Nicci married her childhood sweetheart David. She had her first daughter, Edden, now 15, when she was just 20, and graduated pregnant with her second, Noa, now 12. Two years later, Nicci had her third daughter, Ora, now 10.
Nicci has always worked, juggling family and a career, mainly in the fields of marketing, public relations and project management. “I choose to work not only because I enjoy it but because I want my daughters to understand the true value of their potential as women, I believe all people are entitled to feel the pride of independence; to enjoy the fulfillment that comes with success; and that they can do anything they choose to.”
And yet, she says, her daughters know that she doesn’t expect them to do what she does. “They don’t have to choose my path,” she says adamantly, just that they know that it is among their basket of choices.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” adds 35-year-old Raz, “I have a great deal of respect for women who choose to be full-time mothers and I have seen the tremendous contribution ‘full-time-moms’ have had doing communal work,” she says. Globally women are putting in the hours, getting involved in their congregations, non-profit organisations and moms are always happy to become involved in school PTAs,” says Nicci.
After working in various areas in the private sector, Raz spent six years working for ORT SA, where she started as a part-time fundraiser for ORT JET and ended on the executive management team.
“My dream was, (and still is), to do an MBA one day, when my kids are older and I have the time,” says Nicci. She considers herself lucky to have been accepted to do a Social Entrepreneurship Programme at GIBS (The Gordon Institute of Business Science) which she completed over 18 months. “It was an incredible experience to spend a year in an academic environment with such a diverse and interesting group of people. I learnt so much but it was really gruelling to complete the course work while juggling a full-time job and family,” she says. But, finish she did. With her ever-faithful brood standing by her side every inch of the way. “We all had to compromise a lot of family time, and I often felt guilty, longing for normal life,” she says.
While studying, Nicci felt a yearning to acquire more knowledge in the area of digital marketing than her position at ORT JET allowed her to. And so she moved from being a big fish in a small, communal pond – to being a small fish in a big, corporate pond.
Why the Fed is so important….
Isla has been thinking and talking about retiring for several years. But her chairmen, first Avrom Krengel, and more recently Ben Swartz, has asked her to stay on ‘for a while’ to assist– and to allow them time to find the right replacement.
And so ‘Aunty’ – just ‘Aunty’, not ‘Aunty Isla’ – as she is affectionately and respectfully known at the Beyachad Centre in Raedene, from where most SA communal life operates, agreed to stay on temporarily… several times!
LEFT: Isla Feldman, fondly known as “Aunty”
First, it was to see to the arrangements for youth camps at the end of 2013 and the combined Fed events of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers) in 2014.
All of these were very important events that Isla had managed for the Fed all the years and the thought of having to do them without her was just too scary to contemplate – both for the Fed’s executive, the staff and for Isla herself. (In fact, the never-say-die Isla was flung down a staircase at the Yom Ha’atzmaut concert after single-handedly standing in the way of anti-Israel lobbyists who had invaded the Lyric Theatre.)
The Fed’s primary functions are to provide Zionist education for SA Jewish youth and to lobby for the State of Israel in SA. In the latter role, their biggest adversary is the South African arm of the US-based non-governmental organisation Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (against Israel), BDS-SA. They lead the anti-Israel activities in the country and are at the coalface of feeding the global “Israel is Apartheid” parable.
By the end of 2013, BDS had grown into a strong lobbying group and Isla had presided over the planning of a myriad counter-lobbying strategies.
And so it was that Isla was persuaded (or she persuaded herself) that she should stay on for the following year to attend to the tactical implementation of the planned strategies and to organise the 2015 quadrennial elections.
RIGHT: Two-term past chairman of the SA Zionist Federation’s national council, Avrom Krengel, remained on in the capacity of treasurer after the February 2015 elective conference
When that was done in February, she was again asked, this time by the Fed’s newly-
elected national chairman Ben Swartz, to please stay on a while and assist in identifying a replacement and handing over her crucial role in an unhurried manner.
2015 in a nutshell….
At the end February 2015, Nicci Raz was elected as a vice-chair of the national committee of the Fed. Previous deputy chairman and now national chair Ben had asked her to consider taking over Isla’s crucial office at that time.
But, Nicci told JR Online, she was happy working (sort-of) normal hours and enjoying her family – as well as her job where she was both learning and using digital marketing.
Meantime, the anti-Israel lobby was growing its support base and resources, and after the summer Operation Protective Edge disaster, BDS-SA was able to reinforce the “Israeli Apartheid” slogan with new vigour.
As the year progressed and Nicci sat at SAZF meetings and grew to understand the global importance and urgency of Israel advocacy in SA – and the critical role that Isla played in it – she says she started to see things differently. “I saw the SAZF and the role they play in a new light, respecting the pivotal role Isla played in running the operation…and I think Isla grew to respect me.”
RIGHT: Current Fed chairman Ben Swartz
And so, says Nicci, when Isla again approached her “one evening after a Board meeting,” they had coffee and discussed the idea of her filling the role more seriously. “I think that Isla’s endorsement and genuine encouragement made me think about it as something I could do,” explains Nicci. Indeed, these would be big shoes to fill. But not with more of the same, she says. The playing field has changed. The ‘new normal’ is very different and lobbyists have to move in line with the times, she believes.
That evening, Nicci went home and discussed the matter with David and the girls. She half-expected them to try and discourage her from taking the position. How wrong she was…
“My family is extremely supportive and proud of what I am doing. They understand how important it is. David said: ‘Of course you should,’ and they all encouraged me to go for it,” she says.
She began by hot-desking…
Nicci has always been passionate about her work. But, she says, this time it intertwined with personal passion. She understands the difference between anti-Zionism (the purview of the Fed) and anti-Semitism (the purview of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies). Yet, she says, there is always a high risk of the former leading to the latter.
Nicci joined the Fed as presumptive head three months ago, with Isla remaining until the end of December. This allowed for a period of mentorship, says Nicci but turned out to be more a case of Isla handling what she was better skilled to do (with Nicci looking and learning on from the side) while Nicci took charge of areas where her strengths were greater.
On 4 January, Nicci will be going back to office, solo.
Isla has left the office (but not the building). Isla told Jewish Report that she will continue to work for the JNF part-time (she also headed the Jewish National Fund in SA for many years) and will travel part-time. She has three trips booked for 2016 already, she says.
Neither Nicci nor the staff at the Fed knew what to expect on 1 October. Some, she says, expected her to move into Isla’s chair from day-one. “People were surprised to see me hot-desk anywhere that was available,” she says.
“Isla showed me a lot of respect and I have a great deal of respect for her,” says Nicci.
“Her absolute passion and brilliance lies in her ability to organise events and in fundraising.”
Nicci says that “people in the community respect Isla.” She admits to having been a little intimidated on the first day that she walked in, given the huge shoes she was in line to fill.
“I found Isla to be very nurturing and we got on really well,” she says.
People thought she was crazy going back into community work and many were concerned whether she realised how much she would have to navigate Jewish communal politics in this position, she says. But, with the belief that she has a mission to achieve and with the support of Isla, SAZF chair Ben and, most importantly, her family – she was up to the job.
“I will tackle the landmines as they come, I am not afraid!”
But Nicci is looking forward to introducing a new order. And from January, she will be doing things her way. She is confident that as long as she doesn’t lose sight of the fact that “any strong leader has to keep their focus on the task and their allegiance to their executive,” she will enjoy the support of her executive and her staff.
2016, a year of managed change…
“The Fed faces challenges of many fronts,” says its new executive director. “The ‘new normal’ is that we can’t continue to live in a bubble. The days of thinking we are okay are over!” she says emphatically. “We need to be more honest with our kids. We need to prepare them for the real world which is more often not so kind to Jews.” She says Jewish youth should be prepared for what they will find on Campus – and the Fed has played a bigger role in ensuring that our teenagers can “feel a level of confidence and safety” on campuses and in the workplace.
“No-one has been unaffected by the events of the past year,” says Raz about the shocks South African Zionists have had to endure. “The Hamas visit was a massive one,” she says, and proceeds to rattle off a laundry-list of events that have caused the Fed to be on the back foot for much of the time. 2016, she promises, will be a year fraught with challenges too – but with a new way of dealing with them. It will be a year of getting much more information out. But not just information – positive information, proactive policies, planned strategies and tactics put into place by a dedicated operational team.
Most of all, she believes, the new strategy of the Zionist Federation needs to be a proactive one – building and expanding on the activities of the past decade. Here are a few highlights:
- Speaking to the ‘missing’ generation – Nicci sees that there is Zionist strength and action among youth, young adults and the older members of the community. She wants to get the middle group, call them the 25 to 45-year-olds, active in Zionism
- There is a need to expand the role of the Fed in the Jewish and Zionist community. “It has become increasingly clear that we need to become involved in education,” she says
- “The Fed is a Federation of other very strong bodies,” says Nicci. She plans to utilise the resources of these groups, like the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, Israel United Appeal and Cape Town’s United Communal Fund, SA Association of Jewish Students, Jewish Agency for Israel/Israel Centre, WIZO and so many other constituent organisations to the common Zionist good
- She wants to get further ahead of BDS-SA. “The growing anti-Zionism with SA at the front lines of the Israel is Apartheid analogy” is unacceptable and much of the Fed’s future activities will be aimed at combatting BDS-SA. She says BDS are being substantially funded, reportedly from outside of SA, and if the Fed is going to have the resources to act against them effectively, they need the support and critical mass of the South African Jewish and broader community.
- The Fed has made huge inroads into “reaching out to people who already have an affinity towards Israel,” says Nicci, through the Fed’s flagship project, SAFI (SA Friends of Israel). She plans to grow the links with SA and African non-Jewish Zionists.
Raz says SA Jewry “can’t always be on the defensive, we have to be positive and give our new generation of Zionists new tools to work with.” These, she says, have to be better than simply prepared answers to difficult questions they may face. We have to educate them so they have thinking tools.”
There has to be a balance of being on the defensive versus being out there, being proud of Israel, proud to be a Zionist, she says. At present many Zionists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are often fed propaganda and told to spread it. “We have to be honest in future,” says Nicci, “and more positive. We have to encourage people to ask honest questions – we have to create a safe space where people can speak openly.”
It all starts on 4 January…
The new Fed boss plans to hit the deck running from 4 January. “For me it’s going to all be about teamwork,” she told JR Online. She plans to upskill and multi-skill the “amazing team of people who work at the Fed…I am hoping to help members of the team find themselves more fulfilled by playing bigger and broader roles.”
“We all need to grow and learn together.”
Nicci will also be taking guidance from the regional directors of the SAZF. “Our regional offices play a major role in delivering on our mandate and I look forward to working closely and visiting as often as I am able to”
She believes that: “People who know what their jobs are, have clear goals and deliverables, will feel more passionate and motivated to do and achieve more” and that this is what it’s going to take to build a bigger, better, more effective Fed that meets its goal of lobbying for Israel in a world that is fighting to do just the opposite.
“Our community has a lot to learn. I have a lot to learn.” Nicci says she knows what has to be done, and she knows she can do it. “I feel privileged to be able to have the experience of people like Ben, Avrom and the long-serving staffers – and also all the affiliated organisations in SA and the world of Zionism to rely on for guidance,” she says,
It is daunting, but not scary for Nicci. “Not being endearing is going to be the biggest change for me, I am naturally a person that tries to get on with everybody” she says. As a person who has always tried to be endearing to others, she says this job doesn’t allow her the luxury of either time or resources to go around “massaging peoples’ egos.”
So, while she will try and get on with everyone, she will follow the mandate of her SAZF executive, and get the job done!
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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