The volatility of political activity in the Middle East region is dizzying.
The Syrian civil war is almost at an end. President Basher Assad remains in power and Iran and its surrogate Hezbollah have emerged as the clear victors.
Disconcertingly, both the Americans and the Russians have apparently reached an agreement over Syria that would enable Hezbollah and Iranian ground forces to remain – effectively threatening Israel’s northern borders. In providing legitimacy for the Iranians to remain in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave assurances that Israel’s security would not be threatened. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly stated that this is unacceptable and that, if necessary, Israel would take military steps to keep the Iranians at bay. This will require a balancing act because Netanyahu does not wish to jeopardize his good relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who hitherto ignored Israel’s security concerns to forestall Hezbollah in southern Syria.
The tension is further compounded by Iran’s repeated threats to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. This was exacerbated by the upheavals in Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon with Prime Minister Saad Hariri announcing his resignation while in Saudi Arabia, alleging that he was fearful of being assassinated – and a week later retracting it on his return to Lebanon. At the same time, President Michel Aoun alerted the Lebanese army to an imminent attack by Israel.
Alongside this, Israel is developing a common front with the Saudis where newly entrenched Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman describes Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the new Hitler. IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot stated in an interview with a Saudi newspaper that Israel is willing to share intelligence about Iran with Saudi Arabia. In turn, two Saudi former senior ministers visited a Paris synagogue – an unprecedented occurrence and an important signal.
Yet without detracting from the benefits, this essentially covert alliance between the moderate Sunnis and Israel is based on expediency and cannot necessarily be regarded as a long-term situation.
The Saudis remain on record insisting that they have no relationship with the Israelis. While downplaying the Israeli issue, they are still exerting a major influence on U.S. President Donald Trump in relation to Jerusalem and the settlements and urging him to revisit their original plan which would not meet Israel’s security requirements. But it is impossible to distinguish between fact and fantasy in conflicting media reports.
Relations with Egypt based on collaborating against ISIS forces in the Sinai Peninsula and the personal relationship with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi are excellent but the media and the mosques continue their traditional anti-Semitic incitement.
As to the Palestinian Authority, the Fatah-Hamas unity government has not lessened Hamas’ obsession with obliterating Israel and their determination to retain military control of Gaza.
The duplicitous ailing President Mahmoud Abbas continues his anti-Israel incitement but maintains military coordination with Israel, which effectively protects him from a Hamas takeover. He has shown no sign of willingness to make any concessions and brazenly continues paying huge stipends to terrorist prisoners – now including Hamas members – and their families, despite being warned by the Americans to desist from this barbarous practice of encouraging murder.
On the international scene, the European Union is now in the process of orchestrating a boycott of Israeli goods produced over the Green Line – an unprecedented step reflecting the bias and double standards continuously applied to Israel.
However, the determining factor in relation to international diplomacy undoubtedly rests with the Americans. Public opinion and Congress are pro-Israel and, paradoxically, Christian evangelicals are more supportive of Israel than most Jews.
But there are so many contradictory signals concerning Trump’s intentions and given his penchant for unpredictability, one can only very tentatively guess what they are.
He failed to fulfill his promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and has taken no real punitive action in response to the defiance of Abbas to his demands that he cease paying lucrative state pensions to terrorists and their kin. In a sense, Trump has extended President Barack Obama’s policy of talking to both parties and ignoring Palestinian intransigency. The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem continues to act as though its role was to represent the interests of the Palestinians over the Green Line.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that he would close the PLO office in Washington if Abbas initiated war crimes proceedings against Israel at the International Criminal Court and refused to enter serious negotiations with the Israelis. The Palestinians rejected these proposals and threatened to break off relations with the Americans if this was implemented. In response, the U.S. almost immediately backtracked.
There are unsubstantiated and conflicting reports that early next year the administration will announce a peace plan drafted by presidential adviser Jared Kushner, special representative Jason Greenblatt, Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. According to some reports, this could incorporate the option of a two-state policy but not one based on the 1949 armistice lines. It is also said to stipulate that no Israelis or Arabs would be displaced and could include limiting settlement growth to the current major blocs. It did not deal with the future of Jerusalem.
Despite lip service to the contrary designed for the Western media, the PLO has always opposed a two-state solution, as evidenced by its fanatical refusal to compromise over the claimed “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants – a prescription for the elimination of the Jewish state.
These proposals would be accompanied by confidence-building proposals and the Palestinians would receive large amounts of economic aid from the Sunni Arab states. They would be required to cease further international campaigns for recognition and halt the payment of financial rewards to terrorists. Most of Israel’s security needs such as the ongoing presence of Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley would be assured.
Netanyahu and American spokesmen have denied the accuracy of these reports and declined to comment beyond Israel stating that the criteria of acceptance would depend on the provision of its security requirements.
In this highly uncertain, volatile environment with opposing factors at play and contradictory rumors being disseminated, two aspects remain clear.
Israel must maintain its military deterrence and be guided exclusively by short- and long-term security requirements.
The policy that the Trump administration proposes will have a significant political impact. Netanyahu is determined to keep Trump on his side and, if given these required security safeguards, is willing to do his utmost to pursue peace. But he rightly believes that that there is no chance of achieving peace with a PLO leadership that was always and remains today fanatically committed to Israel’s destruction. He seeks to persuade Trump to hold them accountable while displaying a willingness to intensify confidence-building initiatives on economic and social issues designed to enhance the quality of life for the average Palestinian.
There is a need for a powerful campaign to deliver this message to the administration and override State Department elements seeking to maintain Obama’s meaningless dialogue. For this to be achieved, Israel must display a united front.
Netanyahu’s personal and political detractors and adversaries must realize that no other Israeli can handle this as effectively as the prime minister, and should suspend their vendettas until this crisis is over.
The recent histrionic media campaign against Netanyahu reached an all-time low as exemplified by screaming headlines baying for Netanyahu’s scalp for having accepting gifts of cigars and champagne from a friend and reciprocating “the bribe” by recommending that that the donor’s visa to the U.S. be expedited. This is bribery?
The haredi parliamentary factions threatened to bring down the government with their demands on stricter Shabbat enforcement – a catastrophe at this time.
Our Diaspora allies remain timid and the American Reform and Conservative movements have exploited the issue of mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall as the basis for a casus belli against Israel. Their leaders are justifiably angered at the despicable haredi behavior relating to this issue and they are whipping up their followers against Israel, even though 99% of them would not give the matter a second thought.
The situation was further aggravated by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who after being denied the right to address a Princeton University Hillel group, lambasted American Jews for turning against Israel. In the context of her remarks suggesting that American Jews have no appreciation for what it means for repeated generations of Israeli youth to face life-and-death situations when they serve in the army or live under rocket fire, she observed that American Jews don’t serve in the volunteer U.S. military. It was an unfortunate blunder for which Netanyahu scolded her. She also issued a clarification but rightly reiterated that American Jews could never appreciate the situation of their Israeli kinsmen surrounded by barbarians seeking their annihilation. But the disproportionate hysteria generated by the liberal Jews and their media further aggravated the relationship.
Now is surely the time for Israeli and Diaspora Jews to set aside their differences. Those who appreciate the importance of Israel to their future must display unity in the face of the dark storm clouds gathering around us that threaten our existence.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom