Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Turmoil in the Middle East : Netanyahu, Kerry, the Palestinians, Israel, Iran
THE REAL NEWS TODAY IS COMING FROM THE MIDDLE EAST. Israel. Palestine. Iran. • • • NETANYAHU ACCUSED OF CORRUPTION. Fox News reported on Tuesday that Israeli police have recommended an indictment of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for allegedly accepting gifts from wealthy businessmen in exchange for favors and giving preferential treatment to a newspaper in exchange for positive coverage. • That may seem like pretty small potatoes compared to what's going on in the US, but here are the reported "facts" -- a year-long investigation led police to suspect Netanyahu of wrongdoing in two separate cases : “Case 1000” alleges that Netanyahu and his wife received lavish gifts that included cigars, champagne and jewelry estimated at around $185,000 from Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in return for favors // “Case 2000” alleges that Netanyahu engaged in an illicit quid-pro-quo deal with Israeli newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes by agreeing to weaken a rival paper in return for more favorable coverage from Mozes’ paper, “Yedioth Ahronoth.” • In a statement read on an Israeli media broadcast earlier that day, Israeli Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich said that police have recommended to the Attorney General’s office that Netanyahu be charged with two counts of bribery and breach of trust. Netanyahu fought back against the accusations of corruption on Tuesday. In a TV speech, Netanyahu vehemently denied any wrongdoing and said that the multiple investigations into his office “will end with nothing.” Netanyahu said : “I will keep working for the good of the country, not for cigars from a friend and not for better media coverage,” he said in reference to the accusations. After his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu and his wife faced similar accusations when police recommended that they face criminal charges for keeping gifts that should have been handed over to the state, BBC reported. Those charges were later dropped. They were again accused in 2015 of using government money to fund a private contractor but again, the charges were dropped. • The recommendations now go to Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit, who will review the material before deciding whether to file charges. Netanyahu can remain in office during that process, which could drag on for months. Netanyahu said he will not resign and will continue to work for the good of his country, adding the he knows he has the public support. Netanyahu also suggested that the police were acting with prejudice, saying that there have been 15 previous attempts to investigate him, all failed. Adding to the suggestion of political prejudice is the fact that police reportedly said that Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, was a central witness in the Case 1000 Milchan investigation. • The prime minister said he is sure he will be re-elected in the next national elections, which are scheduled for November 2019. Netanyahu has maintained his innocence over the course of the investigations, saying on more than one occasion, “There will be nothing because there is nothing.” • • • KERRY, THE FORGOTTEN OBAMA PARTISAN, TELLS THE PALESTINIANS TO 'HOLD ON.' American Thinker' Thomas Lifson in late January published a report titled "Kerry urged Palestinians to 'not give in to Trump' and eyes 2020 presidential run." Lifson reported that : "Maariv, a major newspaper in Israel and no friend to Benjamin Netanyahu, has reported that former Secretary of State John Kerry met with a top aide to the Palestinian Authority and made some remarkable comments." Lifson quoted the English language Jerusalem Post : "While the White House has confirmed that since the Jerusalem Declaration there has been a complete disconnect between the Palestinian Authority and the Trump administration, it turns out that the previous administration has maintained contact with PA officials. Maariv reported that former US Secretary of State John Kerry met in London with a close associate of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Hussein Agha, for a long and open conversation about a variety of topics. Agha apparently reported details of the conversation to senior PA officials in Ramallah. A senior PA official confirmed to Maariv that the meeting took place....During the conversation, according to the report, Kerry asked Agha to convey a message to Abbas and ask him to 'hold on and be strong.' Tell him, he told Agha, 'that he should stay strong in his spirit and play for time, that he will not break and will not yield to President [Donald] Trump’s demands.' According to Kerry, Trump will not remain in office for a long time. It was reported that Kerry said that within a year there was a good chance that Trump would not be in the White House. Kerry offered his help to the Palestinians in an effort to advance the peace process and recommended that Abbas present his own peace plan. 'Maybe it is time for the Palestinians to define their peace principles and present a positive plan,' Kerry suggested. He promised to use all his contacts and all his abilities to get support for such a plan. He asked Abbas, through Agha, not to attack the US or the Trump administration, but to concentrate on personal attacks on Trump himself, whom Kerry says is solely and directly responsible for the situation." • Is this a Logan Act contact? The 1799 Logan act, codified 18 USC § 953 (2004), states : "Private correspondence with foreign governments. Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both. This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply himself, or his agent, to any foreign government, or the agents thereof, for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects." There was a lot of talk about General Michale Flynn having violated the Logan Act by talking with the Russian a,bassador to the US during the Trump transition. Here, we have John Kerry advising the Palestinians to ignore the US government and attack President Trump personally while waiting for ProgDem help to arrive in the form of Kerry and because, as Kerry reportedly said : "Trump will not remain in office for a long time....within a year there was a good chance that Trump would not be in the White House." • Was Kerry suggesting in his alleged remarks that President Trump will be impeached, or something more sinister?? Lifson wrote : "The Logan Act is never enforced for good reason, and ought to be repealed, but since the Get Trump forces reportedly were willing to mention it in their quest to get something -- anything -- on members of the Trump team, it would be fair play to raise it in regard to Kerry, assuming this report is true. But such a use would be purely rhetorical. Much worse is the notion that Kerry -- a faded ProgDem putting himself in the presidential nomination game -- is seeking to undermine the foreign policy of President Trump. Kerry is reverting to form in subverting the foreign policy of the US Government. He first gained prominence and elective office by opposing the Vietnam War and pretending to throw his medals over the White House fence (it was later revealed he kept his medals and threw someone else’s medal)." • • • THE PALESTINIANS NEVER QUIT COMPLAINING. In early January, President Trump threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, saying that organization was "no longer willing to talk peace." In two tweets, Trump complained : "We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don't even want to negotiate a long overdue...peace treaty with Israel." Israel Today commented after the Trump tweets : "Just days later, it was revealed that Trump had significantly slashed US contributions to UNRWA, the special UN body set up to cater solely to so-called Palestinian 'refugees.' Until now, the US covered a full one-fourth of UNRWA's operating costs. Three Western diplomats confirmed to Israel's Channel 10 News over the weekend that Trump had frozen $125 million in annual aid to UNRWA, about one-third of the annual US contribution. The sources added that Trump could increase the cut to $180 million if the Palestinian Authority fails to get the message and rejoin the peace process. UNRWA has long been criticized for allowing itself to be exploited by radical elements within the Palestinian power structure." • Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi responded: "We will not be blackmailed. President Trump has sabotaged our search for peace, freedom and justice. Now he dares to blame the Palestinians for the consequences of his own irresponsible actions!" When President Trump recognized Israel's claim to Jerusalem, he was seen by the Palestinians as siding with Israel on the most sensitive issue in the conflict. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas said the announcement destroyed Trump's credibility as a Mideast peace broker, calling the decision "a declaration of withdrawal from the role it has played in the peace process." • US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley led off on Trump's warning earlier at the UN Security Council, saying the President doesn't want to give any more funds "until the Palestinians are willing to come back to the negotiation table. We still very much want to have a peace process. Nothing changes with that. The Palestinians now have to show they want to come to the table. As of now, they're not coming to the table, but they ask for aid. We're not giving the aid. We're going to make sure that they come to the table." • The Jerusalem Post noted a statement made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, saying : "Abu Dis is a Palestinian town on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where Al-Quds University, one of the largest Palestinian universities, is located....Abbas did not identify who specifically is offering Abu Dis as the capital of a future Palestinian state. However, a number of reports over the past several weeks, anonymously quoting Palestinian and Lebanese officials, have said that a forthcoming US peace plan includes Abu Dis as the capital of a future Palestinian state." Concerning the US peace plan that is reportedly going to be nanounced soon, Abbas said he has already said “no” to US President Donald Trump : “We can say no to anyone... And we have now said ‘no’ to Trump and others. No, we will not accept his plan. We told him that the deal of the era is the slap of the era...We will repel it.” • The UK Daily Mail reported on February 6 that after US Ambassador the United Nations Nikki Haley commented about PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations -- "Ultimately, peace will not be achieved without leaders with courage," she said of Abbas' decision not to work with the Americans -- PLO secretary general Saed Erekat told Ambassador Haley, but not to her face, rather to the Al-Watan website : "Nikki Haley needs to shut up and realize that the Palestinian leadership is not the problem." Erekat, who serves as a member of parliament for the Palestinian government, is often a liason to the western media for the Palestine Liberation Organization. • As a "diplomat,' Mr. Erekat ought to understand that telling anyone to "shut up" is not polite in any circumstance, and certainly never to the Ambassador of the country that can make or break the Palestinian hopes for a a nation of their own after a peace settlement with Israel -- but that isn't really the PLO goal, is it? They want to "hold on" as John Kerry told them to do, hoping that the Progressives wi llreturn to power in washington and finish their job of destroying Israel. • • • THE PALESTINIANS HAVE FEW ALTERNATIVES. In mid-Janaury, the Washington Institute's David Makovsky wrote that : "Despite the inflammatory rhetoric in his latest speech, the Palestinian leader is unlikely to foreclose the two-state process and opt for armed struggle, Islamist domination, or other risky options." Makovsky was referring to the January 14 speech of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas at the PLO Central Council "that included highly objectionable references to the United States and Israel, signaling a temporary halt in direct Palestinian involvement with Washington toward a peace deal....while he may or may not be able to walk some of them back in media interviews, the larger questions about the PA's outlook on diplomacy will persist. In particular, one might wonder if his comments mark the end of Palestinian interest in a two state-solution and a turn to radical options. Yet given Abbas's track record -- and the author's personal observations during a visit to Ramallah shortly after the speech -- this does not seem to be the case so far." • Makovsky pointed out some of Abbas' earlier errors in dealing with the US and Israel while seeking a two-state solution -- failing to agree to key compromises during the Olmert peace initiative of 2008 and failing to answer Washington's entreaties in March 2014. But, says Makovsky : "He clearly knows that the alternatives to the two-state model -- Islamism, armed struggle, or a one-state 'solution' -- are dead ends....He has always believed that Palestinians cannot defeat Israel by force given its superior security capabilities, and he knows that violence shattered the Israeli peace camp during the second intifada. Although many criticize him for referring to individuals killed in the midst of attacks on Israel as 'martyrs,' not a single Israeli security official believes that he operationally encourages violence." Therefore, according to Makovsky : "Abbas is likely to do as he said in his speech: reiterate his commitment to two states. Tellingly, the PLO Central Council gave him and the executive committee he chairs full discretion on how to proceed with the operational aspects of Palestinian policy, enabling him to keep the cards in his hands. Arab governments conveyed that this was their preference in advance of the PLO meeting. In any case, Abbas has ignored the council's recommendations with impunity in the past, so any PLO rhetoric rejecting the two-state model is not necessarily a reliable indicator of how he will proceed....the Europeans will...underscore their commitment to a two-state solution. Whether they call on the United States to do the same will be interesting; so far, Trump administration officials have taken the more limited approach of saying they will accept two states if both Israel and the Palestinians do the same. Another question is whether officials in Brussels will request additional funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)." NOTE : After this article was written, the EU on January 31 gave €107 million to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. On January 16, the Ued States announced that it will release only half of its normal aid to the agency, but European officials may conclude that this is a classic American ploy -- that is, appearing to make a cut when in fact it is merely delaying the release of the remaining funds for a few months. However, at a parliamentary debate last week about UNRWA, an EU commissioner Johannes Hahn warned that “the EU will not be able to compensate for substantial US cuts, given the pressure on available funds.” Hahn is the commissioner of the European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiation. Finally, Makovsky says more UN General Assembly sessions on the Palestinian issue are a possibility as well, especially since Abbas knows that any new resolutions will have no operational impact given the US veto power in the Security Council, making them a relatively safe way of burnishing his defiant credentials. • Makovsky concluded that : "Even before Abbas's speech, Israeli and Palestinian officials had very low expectations about a Trump-led peace breakthrough, despite White House advisor Jason Greenblatt's assiduous efforts toward that end. The contents of the Trump peace plan have not been seen, but both sides generally assumed it would not come near the parameters issued by the Obama administration, and would therefore be rejected out of hand by the Palestinians. The parties have seemingly been preparing to play the blame game for some time, and Abbas's speech made clear his view that the US plan would fall short. For example, he complained that US officials were offering Abu Dis -- a Palestinian village outside the Jerusalem municipality -- as the capital of a Palestinian state. (The irony of this complaint is rich, since a 1995-1996 plan associated with Abbas called for the same thing, though he has since distanced himself from that initiative.) In other words, Washington is bound to interpret his speech as a preemptive strike, with Abbas setting the contours of near-term discourse by depicting the United States as a dishonest broker. Yet this posture may suit the PA and the Trump administration just fine for now. US officials will be satisfied as long as the PA exists and Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation continues. The question is whether the PA leadership intends to simply hang on until the next Israeli election (i.e., no later than fall 2019) and find a means of maintaining their institutions in the interim. In that sense, Abbas's post-speech approach may provide a sense of motion but little actual movement. For now, his posture is strong enough to block other unattractive options -- which, to his credit, he opposes. Ultimately, however, it seems unlikely to get him to the political promised land." • • • THE ISRAEL SYRIA AIR STRIKES LAST WEEKEND. Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute published an article on Monday that warns the United States to "get blunt with Putin and ask EU officials to warn Tehran about renewed sanctions" before the next shoe drops in Syria. Ross believzes that in launching a direct attack on Israel on Saturday morning : "Iran crossed a threshold in trying to carry out a direct attack against Israel from Syria. Using its T-4 airbase in Homs province -- a base used by the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its head Qassem Soleimani-- the Iranians launched a stealth, armed drone into Israel. Perhaps hoping to surprise the Israelis, the Quds Force was itself surprised when the Israelis not only intercepted the drone but also attacked the base and destroyed its command center and mobile launch vehicle. Advanced surface-to-air missile batteries supplied by the Russians to the Syrians then opened fire against the Israeli aircraft, and an Israeli F-16 was shot down in Israeli airspace. In response, Israel destroyed SA-5 and SA-17 missile batteries in Syria, with Israeli planes hitting 15 targets in all. • Ross notes that : "While all is quiet now, the episode should set off a loud, flashing siren about the escalatory potential that the expanding Iranian military and shia militia presence creates in Syria. As someone who has long watched the Iranians sponsor proxy terror attacks against the Israelis at the height of our peace efforts in the mid-1990s and against American forces in Iraq, the surprise is not that the Iranians would try to hit Israel but that they would do it directly. That is potentially a game-changer and helps to explain the Israeli response, which was designed to leave no doubt with the Iranians that they are playing with fire." • Ross says what happened on Saturday should be "a wake-up call for the international community and the Trump administration. Acquiescing in the continuing expansion of the Iranian military presence and infrastructure in Syria will sooner or later produce a much wider conflict involving the Israelis and Iranians and the shia militias -- several of whose leaders have provocatively visited the Israeli border recently." • Ross suggests several actions. First, "the Russians have to change their posture. They called for restraint in the wake of the skirmish, and yet it is the Russians who have abetted the spread of the Iranian military presence in Syria. President Vladimir Putin could immediately signal the Iranians that they crossed a line with him, potentially putting Russian forces in danger with their attempted attack against Israel. Now is the time for him to say that there will be no more Russian air cover for any Shia militia expansion from existing positions; without the Russian air support, the Quds Force advisors with the shia militias, including Hezbollah, would be very vulnerable." Ross says the Russians could be made to do just this if the US makes it clear to Putin that it is "in Russia's interest to step up by conveying a long overdue message : If Russia will not act to contain the Iranian presence, the US will no longer sit on the sidelines as the Iranians continue their expansion." Ross notes that the US has sat by while "the Quds Forces built positions and forward outposts, including one less than four miles from the Israeli border in the Golan Heights." The Trump administration, says Ross : "has left the Israelis largely on their own. And, on their own, they have little choice but to use force to send blunt messages like they did Saturday. It may not be President Trump's inclination to be blunt with Putin, but unless Putin sees that his current posture is likely to trigger American -- and not only Israeli -- responses to the Iranians and their proxies, he may not act. To be sure, Trump could tell him that the last thing either of us wants is an escalation in Syria that could draw the two of us into an unwanted conflict." This is critical, according ot Ross, because "if the Iranians are left unchecked, that is a risk we are both running. (That this past week, US forces in eastern Syria decimated a Syrian regime militia -- after failing to get the Russians to stop them from assaulting the Kurdish-led SDF -- could lend credence to our being willing to act to contain the Iranian presence in Syria.) To underline the message, the Trump administration should be reaching out diplomatically to the Europeans as well. They can go directly to the Iranians and say if their expansion continues in Syria, the EU will have little choice but to impose new sanctions on the Iranians for their de-stabilizing actions there." • Ross suggests that : "It is possible that the aborted attack and the expanding military presence is not President Hassan Rouhani's doing but that of Soleimani and the IRGC. All the more reason to highlight the price of such adventurist behavior, particularly at a time when the demonstrations in Iran showed the Iranian public resents what Syria and Lebanon are costing them. Policy makers don't often get crystallizing moments that tell them action is required to avert bigger dangers. But Iran's attempted attack and Israel's response is such a moment and the administration would be wise to mobilize a wide diplomatic response before the next shoe falls." • David Makovsky wrote another Washington Institute policy paper on Monday that also calls for the Trump administration to "consider a more active posture that reduces the risks of escalation" in Syria and the Middle East folowing last Saturday's Iran-Israel confrontation. Makovsky sees the Israeli strike on Iranian assets deep in Syria as its way of "forcing key players to recognize its deep interest in limiting Teheran's military presence in Syria. If Iranian leaders ignore this interest, they risk triggering a rapid military escalation. In Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and various military leaders have repeatedly stated that their main concern is avoiding Iranian military 'entrenchment' on their northeastern doorstep. During his speech to the UN General Assembly last September, Netanyahu warned that Israel will not accept Teheran's development of advanced missile production capabilities in Syria and Lebanon, and that it 'will act to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria for its air, sea, and ground forces.' At a time when the Islamic Republic's main proxy, Hezbollah, is pointing more than 100,000 rockets at Israel, fears of a joint Lebanon-Syria front are growing." • Makovsky says that : "Bashar al-Assad is deeply indebted to the Iranians for helping to salvage his rule, so he cannot simply dictate orders to them. Yet if Israel continues exacting a serious cost because of Iranian involvement, Assad may feel compelled to request -- whether directly or via Russia -- that they dial back their presence. The regime has already shown signs of trying to persuade Teheran in this regard; according to Israeli officials, the Iranian chief of staff had to cool his heels during a recent visit to Damascus while Assad delayed signing any long-term military commitments." According to Makovsky, senior Israeli military officials "have sent messages to Assad via third parties indicating that they do not oppose him extending his sovereignty in Syria on his own, but that they will view the situation very differently if he does so with Iran, Hezbollah, and shia militias in tow." • Another Israeli message on Saturday was sent to Iran. Makovsky notes that : "The strikes were also intended as a warning that the IDF will not accept Iranian military activities or installations that threaten Israel. Contrary to some reports, such strikes are not a response to recent Iranian phosphate contracts or other economic moves in Syria. Rather, Israeli officials aim to hinder the development of major military infrastructure -- seaports, airports, bases for Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units, or precision-guided missile production facilities for Hezbollah." Makovsky says other recent Israeli air strikes indicate this. • Israel was also signaling the US on Saturday. after the Saturday strikes, the Trump administration issued statements supporting Israel's right to self-defense, but, Makovsky says "it has not provided any military assistance (at least publicly) for operations against Iranian forces in Syria. Washington has announced that it will retain some 2,000 troops east of the Euphrates River in northern and eastern Syria, but their mission remains unclear beyond defeating the Islamic State. The administration has also focused on managing Turkish-Kurdish tensions, with both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster visiting Ankara recently. In contrast, there are few tangible indications on the ground that Washington is actively trying to limit Iranian activity in Syria, apart from Tillerson's general statements that the continued US military presence is partly designed to curb Teheran's local influence....it is unclear whether the risks posed by the weekend strikes will spur Washington to shift its policy in any way. For instance, will the threat of wider conflict between Israel and Iran make the administration more wary of escalation, more active in pursuing the Geneva peace talks toward a new political arrangement in Syria, and more willing to coordinate US actions there with Turkey and Israel?" • Finally, as Dennnis Ross, Makovsky sees Russia as the key to taming Iran. Makovsky recently met with "political and security officials in Israel" who suggest that Jerusalem sees Russia as "its best hope for constraining Iran's activities next door, at least in the short term. It is no coincidence that Netanyahu has visited President Vladimir Putin seven times in the two-and-a-half years since Moscow launched its intervention in Syria. Given Russia's own competition with Iran over Syria and its concerns about widening the war, Israeli officials hope that Moscow views IDF strikes as a welcome check on Iran's influence. They also believe that Damascus needs Russia more than it needs Iran, especially now that the objective of maintaining Assad's rule has been achieved....Senior IDF officials are also very pleased that Moscow has not allowed Iran to build new military infrastructure near Russian facilities at Syria's Tartus port or Hmeimim Air Base -- something Teheran has seemingly longed to do in order to deter attacks by Israel or other actors. In addition, Russia has refrained from using its advanced S-400 antiaircraft systems to prevent Israeli strikes." • Makovsky concludes that : "Although Israel does not seek military escalation in Syria, it is determined not to let Iran develop the military capacity to change the equation on its northern borders. And Israeli officials will no doubt maintain this posture even if they have to keep acting alone, albeit with indirect assists from Moscow and Washington. This means that continued Iranian efforts to establish a military presence in Syria will likely be met with increased Israeli strikes. At a certain point, persistent Iranian efforts may convince Israel that deterrence has failed. Predicting that point is difficult, but if it is reached, the prospects of escalation in Syria and perhaps even direct Israeli-Iranian conflict will become far more likely." • • • DEAR READERS, from John Kerry's alleged quasi-treasonous "hold on" message to the Palestinians to the undiplomatic Palestinian "shut up" delivered to US Ambassador Haley to Israel's air strikes against Iranian targets deep in Syria, there is little doubt that the Middle East is in turmoil. While President Trump is fighting against the ProgDem mutiny at home, his diplomats and military teams are immersed in Middle East events and in finding the right response. What we all know is that doing nothing is not an option. Without a strong US presence, the Middle East simply explodes in sectarian and religious conflict. Obama proved that -- which makes Kerry's advice to Abbas rather comic. But, President Trump must continue to step up the US presence in the Middle East. Evenhandedness is not the card to play. Taking on Iran, with Russian and Turkish help if possible, is the right card. And, it is the best thing President Trump can do for Israel, and for the Arabs who are watching intently.