MIDEAST MIRROR 02.11.18, SECTION A (ISRAEL)
The view of military intelligence
Gaza protest leaders are calling for calmer border demonstrations Friday to give a chance to efforts to reach a long-term truce with Israel after months of deadly unrest, a source in the organizing committee said. Previous such hopes for a deal have been dashed since protests and clashes along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip began on March 30 and tensions in the region remain high. It was not clear if demonstrators would heed calls for calm. "Friday's events will be quiet," an official from the committee in charge of organizing the marches told AFP Thursday. Egypt and UN officials have been engaged in indirect talks between Hamas and Israel. An Egyptian delegation was in Gaza on Thursday for further discussions, meeting with leaders of different factions.
The protest organizing committee is technically independent from Hamas, but includes other groups, as well as Islamic Jihad. The official said the agreement to calm the border Friday "will give an opportunity for the success of Egyptian efforts to achieve calm and lift the siege." Protests would still go ahead, but demonstrators would be encouraged not to approach the fence too closely, burn tires or send balloons equipped with incendiary devices across the border. In a statement after a meeting of their leaders on Thursday, Hamas and Islamic Jihad said the marches would continue, albeit without violence. Both groups praised Egyptian and UN efforts to broker a deal. A separate statement by Islamic Jihad threatened that it would use a "new tactic," along the border, without providing details. After the meeting, a member of the organizing committee said the Egyptian delegation would attend Friday's protests. "The Egyptian security delegation will visit one of the return march sites tomorrow," journalists were told. A leader of Islamic Jihad told Haaretz that the Egyptians had agreed to work to curb any Israeli response to the protests over the next three weeks. He said the protests could be called off after that period if Israel keeps to its commitment to ease a blockade on the Strip.
Elsewhere, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been seeking to renew political ties with the Palestinian Authority in recent months, and for the purpose dispatched the head of the Shin Bet security agency to offer PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas an economic incentive package, Hadashot news reported Thursday. During their meeting in Ramallah, Nadav Argaman told 'Abbas that Israel was prepared to set up a joint industrial area and open up gas production off the Gaza coast, according to the network, which said 'Abbas rebuffed both offers. The report did not specify when the meeting took place, but said it came amid a series of meetings Argaman held with senior PA officials in recent months in which he stressed the Palestinian economy would benefit from renewed contact with Israeli leaders. Netanyahu's efforts to reestablish ties with the PA came following warnings of growing instability in the West Bank and Gaza from IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.
Meanwhile, Egyptian negotiators have proposed a three-year agreement to reconcile Hamas and Fatah, Army Radio reported on Thursday. The proposed agreement would be enacted in stages. The PA would first take responsibility for civil services and the government ministries in the Gaza Strip that are now under Hamas control. In its second phase the PA would be in control of the police and the border crossings. If all went well for three years, Hamas' military wing Ezz-el-Din al-Qassam would be placed under PA control as well. Separately, elections would be held for a new Palestinian parliament and a new constitution would be drawn up, according to Army Radio. The plan was designed by Egyptian General Ahmad Abd al-Khaliq, who has made four trips to Gaza and the West Bank in the past two weeks to secure agreements for the plan. He has also met with senior Israelis in the Defense Ministry. The Egyptian plan includes detailed timetables and formulas for each stage. Hamas is prepared to consider the plan but is waiting for a response from PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas who in the past has rejected any plan that did not immediately place the security services under his control. The Palestinian News and Information Agency, WAFA, said that 'Abbas is expected to meet Egyptian President 'Abdelfattah as-Sissi in Sharm el-Sheikh on Friday. It's 'Abbas' first meeting with Sissi in Egypt in ten months.
On the Northern front, Israel has reportedly sent a message to the Lebanese government via Paris demanding that it act against Hezbollah's rocket factories in the country, saying if Lebanon refused to do so, Israel could take military action. The message was delivered by Israel's deputy national security adviser Eitan Ben-David to Orléan la-Chevalier, an adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron, during his visit to Jerusalem on Monday, according to Channel 10 news. "The Lebanese government must be careful when it comes to Hezbollah's rocket factories. If the issue is not dealt with through diplomatic means by the Lebanese government, Israel will act on its own," the message that cited unnamed "Western diplomatic sources" read. Ben-David asked that la-Chevalier deliver the message to Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri. France has close longstanding ties with Lebanon, and is close to Hariri. Ben-David said Israel would be patient, and was willing to wait to see if Lebanon took steps against the factories, but said it would not allow their construction to continue undisturbed.
In other news, Brazil's president-elect Jair Bolsonaro confirmed on Twitter Thursday that he intends to move his country's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. "As previously stated during our campaign, we intend to transfer the Brazilian Embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem," Bolsonaro wrote. "Israel is a sovereign state and we shall duly respect that." Bolsonaro's public statement confirmed his comments to Israel Hayom on Thursday. "When I was asked during the campaign if I would do it when I became president, I said, 'Yes, the one who decides where the capital of Israel is, is you, not other nations,'" he told the paper.
In regional news, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked senior officials in the Trump White House to continue supporting Saudi Crown-Prince Mohammad bin Salman following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post reported on Thursday. Citing U.S. officials, the report stated that Netanyahu described the Crown Prince as a "strategic ally". The report said that a similar message was conveyed to the White House by Egyptian President 'Abdelfattah as-Sissi. There have been reports in recent months of an increase in Israeli-Saudi intelligence cooperation. In a new sign of growing ties, the kingdom's Crown Prince hosted a delegation of Evangelical Christians on Thursday in Riyadh led by a prominent pro-Israel advocate, Joel C. Rosenberg, an author and Evangelical activist who lives in Israel. Other participants included Mike Evans, founder of the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem.
Finally, business ties between Israel and China took another step forward as several high-level bilateral collaboration agreements were signed at the fourth annual China Yunnan-Israel Innovation Cooperation Forum on Thursday.
One week after the business-oriented visit of Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, a high-level business delegation from China's Southwestern Yunnan province including Vice Governor Zong Guoying arrived in the country to deepen relations with Israel's innovation scene. Zong said that in order to implement collaboration plans signed by Wang and Prime Minister Netanyahu last week, Yunnan would focus on deepening cooperation in the fields of technology, trade and agriculture. Among the agreements concluded at the forum, Yunnan Investment Holdings Group (YIG), which has assets worth approximately $40 billion, inked deals with Israel Chemicals and leading IT company, Aman Group.
MONEY TIME FOR ISRAEL ON ALL FRONTS: Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth interviews Brigadier Dror Shalom, head of the research division in IDF military intelligence, about the day after Abu Mazin, Gaza, Iran and Syria.
"Q: Are we witnessing Abu Mazin's swan song? What awaits us after him?
A: I will say a few things that are uncomfortable for some people. There are two big issues before us – Iran and the Palestinians. Now is the money time. The main arena is Iran and its affiliates. There is a tremendous opportunity to put pressure on Iran in a full-court press, an opportunity that is beginning to materialize. Regarding the Palestinians, I am very cautious. What I will say will not be a recommendation, will not be a political opinion. I will make a strategic assessment. We voice our assessments out of complete freedom, within and outside Military Intelligence, even when our opinions are not popular.
Gaza First. Operation Protective Edge created relative quiet for a while. Gaza is a real swamp – a serious humanitarian problem, a desperate public. We calculated in real time that the humanitarian problem would pose a challenge to Hamas, and that they would lay their public on our shoulders. They tried to bring into Gaza tools that improve their rocket's performance. The attempt failed. What did they do? Went to the fence. We are on the brink of escalation. Our challenge is to raise the heads of the residents above the sewage water. The collapse of Hamas is not a solution. If Hamas collapses, who will rule Gaza, Polli Mordechai?
The second challenge is Judea and Samaria. There is relative calm there. We have maintained the fabric of life. We have succeeded in stopping the lone-wolf terror – inter alia because we have prevented collective punishment, despite the calls to use collective punishment. But there is also despair and frustration there, a society in depression. Two ideas have accompanied them since 1967 - the armed struggle and the accords. As far as they are concerned, they both failed.
After Abu Mazin there will be changes. The security forces may reduce their cooperation with the IDF. That is a serious problem. Abu Mazin sees a dead end everywhere, in every way. In his desperation he is becoming more and more oppositional. He is surrounded by people who do not want to commit suicide - the Palestinian Authority is the basis of their existence. The PA will not disappear, but I do not believe that whoever replaces Abu Mazin will be more pragmatic than him, and will stick to the coordination with Israel like him. The challenge is great.
Q: This Sunday, the new sanctions that Trump imposed on Iran will be activated. What do you think will happen after that?
A: The sanctions create a great drama in Iran. They will worsen the economic situation. Iran is currently at a low point. With the exception of Hezbollah, she does not have many successes. The Khomeini revolution has failed. External pressure can lead to a regime change or a change in its policy. Iran can break away - renew the nuclear project. That means, a year before they reach fissile material, two years to the bomb. I believe that the probability for that is low. They are in a waiting position right now, looking for all sorts of solutions that will enable them to bypass the sanctions. But they are unsuccessful. I believe that the Russians will not supply them with a meaningful solution either, nor will Western Europe. The Europeans are dependent on the United States.
Q: What does that mean for intelligence?
A: It means that we need to pay renewed attention to everything that happens in the nuclear project, to see where they are cutting corners, where they are violating the agreement, and what they are aiming for.
Q: What are the other options?
A: They can seek a new nuclear agreement, and they can reach a collapse of the regime. That is the result John Bolton, the American national security adviser, is striving for - to kill them softly. Iranian policy is determined by a game between three forces – Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, who is seeking a confrontation; President Hassan Rowhani, who shares the same vision but believes in a pragmatic approach; and Khamene'i, the Supreme Leader, who vacillates between the two and is procrastinating.
Q: In September the Syrians downed the Russian plane. Since then, the Russians have imposed heavy restrictions on the IDF's activity against Iranian presence in Syria. Are the Iranians taking advantage of the opportunity and moving in?
A: No. The good news is that the Iranian entrenchment in Syria is being stopped. The reason is decisions made in Tehran. The bad news is that the Iranians are bringing into Syria capabilities that are designed for a military confrontation. Suleimani is not giving in. He views Syria as a pouncing-point into Israel. I estimate there will be an intensification in the friction between us and them.
The Russian presence is a dramatic change. We have to deal with them cautiously. Israel is operating in Syria and will act in the future as much as necessary, but it cannot ignore Russian interests. The Russians have an interest that the Iranians will not be in Syria. They want quiet, and they know that when the Iranians are there, facing Israel, there will be no quiet. They fully understand the potential for escalation.
Q: The Russians are far from being our friends. They have no respect for the interests of others. Their reaction to a minor operation of ours in Syria was severe.
A: In the IDF no one is confused about the Russians.
Q: The problem starts with the Americans. The Trump administration gave up on being involved in determining the fate of Syria.
A: I do not want to talk about the Americans. I prefer to say something general about the Western world. The West has come to the conclusion that over-investment in the Middle East does not bear fruit.
Q: What will Syria look like in the future?
A: There is a struggle over the future of Syria. The rebels are still in Idlib. The struggle there is not over. There are ISIS pockets of resistance, and Kurdish activity. Controlling Syria's border crossings is a major challenge. Perhaps in the next war the Syrian space will be more active against us than it was in past wars.
Q: Will the Iranians take Jordan?
A: What happens in Iraq will affect the fate of Jordan. Both America and Iran are satisfied with the situation in Iraq. This worries me. Jordan is dealing with the spread of Iran and leakage from ISIS. She has severe economic problems.
Q: Why did King 'Abdullah decide not to extend the lease that enabled Israel to cultivate thousands of dunams in Naharayim and the Arava River? Was it the street pressure?
A: Mainly because of street pressure.
Q: Israel made a surprised face. No one knew, not even the prime minister. The question is where was military intelligence? Did you not know?
A: Military Intelligence was in the right place. In this case, no special intelligence effort was required - it was in the newspapers in Jordan. We knew and reported.
Q: So why did everyone say they were surprised?
A: Sometimes that is what they decide to say."
CHANGING THE FORMULA: Amos Gilboa in Maariv affirms no war is needed. Israel's strategic goal should be returning to the situation that existed for four years since Operation Protective Edge until March 2018, with some humanitarian relief.
"This is the first time in the history of the State of Israel that its government is faced with a security problem that it has difficulty dealing with. For seven months now, a terrorist organization has been creating a new security situation for Israel on its Southern border, and the state is abandoning tens of thousands of its citizens and thousands of dunams of its land to a deliberate and orchestrated terrorist initiative. What are the main characteristics of Israel's shameful confrontation with Hamas?
First, since the first moment on March 30, Hamas has been the initiator. It is the one being constantly original and surprising with the various effective methods of terrorism it is coming up with. It is the one dictating the rules of the game to the IDF and the population of the Gaza envelope. It is the one setting up special units in order to drive IDF soldiers and our civilian population crazy. More importantly; it is succeeding in harassing us, and liking it. Why not continue?
Second, the IDF has so far successfully prevented the border fence from being breached, sustaining only one casualty, and has destroyed many tunnels. But it is solely defensive and responsive. This is an IDF that does not initiate, does not surprise; only responds, in a lackluster manner, while ensuring that Hamas members are not killed in retaliation attacks. These are reactions that do not detract from Hamas' desire to continue with its various initiatives. In other words, Israel refrains from exacting a painful price from Hamas for its terrorist activities.
Third, in the past week a new factor has come into contention in the Gaza Strip: Iran via Islamic Jihad, which is its ward, and has a new leader based in Lebanon. The Iranian signal to Israel: We can cause you problems from Gaza as well.
What is behind this limp Israeli policy? The almost official explanation is that utmost restraint must be exercised in order to exhaust the political process aimed at reaching an understanding with Hamas on an arrangement that will bring quiet and prevent a humanitarian collapse in the Gaza Strip. Everything must be done to avoid a war at the end of which we will have to remain in the Gaza Strip after its occupation. This is because no political entity will be willing to take Gaza off our hands. In general, the greatest threat is from the North, and we must not devote ourselves to this negligible 'bothersome' business in the South.
This perception is mistaken and I am not referring to the opposition's delusional concept, according to which the IDF must destroy Hamas, hand over the Gaza Strip to Abu Mazin and start a political process. The strategic goal of the State of Israel should be a return to the situation that existed for four years from Protective Edge until March 2018, with additional humanitarian relief. In the present policy, Israel will not achieve this. Diplomacy or defensive and reactionary moves alone will not cause Hamas to agree to such an arrangement.
There is no need for war, no need to conquer the Gaza Strip, no need to destroy Hamas. We must change the formula and exact a painful price from Hamas – from commanders on all levels, fighters, expensive military assets – by means of initiative, not response. The IDF should initiate and surprise; not Hamas. Only in this way perhaps it will be possible to reach a long-term arrangement that will meet our strategic objectives.
My friend Professor Hovev Telpaz has surmised that Netanyahu's extreme restraint stems from the desire not to make trouble for President Trump before the U.S. Midterms on November 6. This is indeed restraint of the highest strategic order. We shall wait until November 7 and see."
TO OMAN WITHOUT CONCESSIONS: Ariel Kahana in Israel Hayom argues that Netanyahu's trip to Oman was made possible through mutual interests – and with no need for a preliminary political agreement that would ease the atmosphere and placate the Palestinians. Now political sources claim they are parleying about conducting similar visits to additional Arab countries.
"On Monday of this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu convened dozens of journalists for a briefing on a subject that as per usual was quite quickly swallowed up in the news whirlwind of our lives - the visit to the Persian Gulf Sultanate of Oman. Whether it is because the visit was conducted on Friday, or because it was not preceded by an impressive withdrawal agreement, the breakthrough visit garnered almost no attention, even though it is certainly worth dwelling upon.
The first and only visit so far to Oman was Yitzhak Rabin's in 1994. But then the background conditions were completely different. Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, and the sweeping concessions included in it ostensibly justified the counter-gesture by Sultan Qaboos of receiving him in the capital Muscat. This time, as Netanyahu himself explained, there is no deal of visits in return for concessions. Oman, and it is not alone, is snuggling up to Israel because of 'interests that stand in their own right', as Netanyahu put it.
What are these interests? The common fear of Iran's aggression and the terror of ISIS and the like, Israeli knowledge and experience regarding desertification and water management, technological innovations in general and in agriculture in particular, and so on. In other words, there will be no more Israeli withdrawals from the territories as a means of rapprochement, only the mutual needs of Jews and Arabs from each other, regardless of the Palestinian issue.
Abu Mazin and his clan are losing their grip on the key that has allowed them for so long to prevent an entente between Israel and the Arab states. The Palestinian refusal to accept any proposal is also causing the Arab states to distance themselves from the Palestinians and move closer, very gradually, to Israel. They do it because it is worth their while, and regardless of whether we withdraw from territories in Judea and Samaria.
The contacts with the Middle Eastern sultanate began about a year and a half ago. Oman's foreign minister, Yusuf bin Allawi bin 'Abdullah, was the main axis in the process. He spoke on the phone and held several meetings with the prime minister. Most of the meetings took place during Netanyahu's travels abroad, but not only there. Netanyahu also spoke on the phone with Sultan Qaboos during the period. Last February, as part of what was then defined as a 'visit by Foreign Minister Ben Allawi to the Palestinian Authority,' he went up to Temple Mount with Israeli approval. If the man arrived in Jerusalem, he did not refrain from meetings with Israelis in the western part of the city.
At first, a multi-participant meeting was held with senior officials from both countries in attendance, followed by a private meeting between Netanyahu and Sultan Qaboos. Later, the prime minister also met with the foreign minister of Oman. Members of the entourage, who have already seen a palace or two in their lifetime, testified that Qaboos' was extraordinary and also in especially good taste.
After the political talks, an authentic musical event was held for Netanyahu. A political source who was present at the event said that the prime minister 'met a very rich musical world with African, Indian, and Persian influences. This is a less familiar style of music, which penetrates the heart and touches the soul'. Later on, the delegations dined at a meal that began at 3 AM, and included plenty of dishes of all kinds, including fish for kosher eaters. The banquet went on until 6:30 in the morning, with classical music playing in the background, according to the personal choice of the 78-year-old sultan. Qaboos is not just another Arab dictator, but a man who was educated at Oxford, and in his youth embarked on a four-year journey to learn about different cultures around the world. Netanyahu, for his part, admired the elderly and sick ruler's soul of an artist as well as his political wisdom. According to sources close to him, the prime minister even changed his mind on some issues following the talks with Qaboos.
Oman is not the only one seeking rapprochement with Israel. One might say that Netanyahu himself has made visits to other Arab countries, that have not been revealed - and that he is not the only Israeli to do so. To get an idea of what is going on under the table, we must look at what is happening above it. Saudi Arabia speaks positively of Israel and has made historical precedent by allowing commercial flights destined for Israel to fly over its land. The clues and reports regarding coordination of interests and intelligence relations are increasing. Israel is conducting secret contacts similar to those that existed with Oman prior to the visit, with the overwhelming majority of Arab states. The process is taking place quietly, carefully, step by step, and without pressure from Israel."
THE DEAL WITH JORDAN: Arnon Segal in Makor Rishon claims that in order to salvage the lands leased from Jordan in Tzofar and Naharayim and the cooling relations with King 'Abdullah, the Israeli government may grant the Jordanians what they really crave – increased control on Temple Mount.
"In the coming year, following frenzied contacts at the palace in Amman by some emissary appointed by the prime minister, a laconic announcement to the press will be issued, concerning the continuation of the Israeli lease in the Naharayim region and the Tzofar enclave in the Arava. A general sigh of relief will be heard. By the same token, the benefit to King 'Abdullah for permitting in his grace the preservation of the peace agreement - even on the lowest possible flame - will not be mentioned in this future announcement. Israelis will be forced to discover what it is on their own.
Will it be another cut in the quota of skullcap wearing Jews authorized to ascend to Temple Mount? A dramatic increase in the scope of the Waqf? The construction of another mosque on the Mount or the depletion of the presence of Zionist police on it? Maybe all these together, and more? Only Netanyahu knows.
Netanyahu does not need crises such as the present one to grant the neighboring poor Kingdom generous sovereign rights over the mountain. In the fall of 2015, in order to preserve relations with 'Abdullah, he did what no Israeli prime minister had done before, when he publicly declared that Jews may only visit Temple Mount, while the right to pray there is reserved solely for Muslims. In order to maintain proper relations with the Jordanian King, a year and quarter ago the prime minister removed the metal detector on Temple Mount. Before that, he authorized the Jordanians to monitor events on the Mount by means of cameras, a move that was not implemented only because of the Palestinians, who were not enthusiastic about granting such means of control to 'Abdullah. For 'Abdullah's sake, Netanyahu has repeatedly allowed to increase up to many hundreds – record numbers hitherto never seen - the number of Waqf members who harass Jewish groups on the Mount. Four years ago, Netanyahu traveled to Amman only to grant the king his wish (which was only revealed later of course, and not in an official announcement) - restricting ascent of observant Jews to the Mount to groups of five, and forbidding members of the Knesset to ascend the mountain.
The sad truth is that as far as the Israeli prime minister is concerned, Temple Mount is mainly an available means of payment. It is not only to the Jordanians that Netanyahu generously hands out the assets of the Jewish people in the holiest place in the world. In his first term as prime minister, he allowed the Waqf, without any restrictions, to build two mosques on the Mount - in Solomon's Stables and in the double Hulda Gate ('Al-Aqsa Al-Kadima'). He did this after 1,300 years in which no new mosques were built on the Mount. Recently, the media has come up with ideas, whose source can be surmised, to bring the Saudis as well into this no-man's land, the Temple Mount. Who knows? Maybe that notion will be scrapped after the murder of Khashoggi.
In recent years, the Jordanians have watched with disdain the growing number of Jews ascending the Mount, the stubborn struggle of observant Jews for the right to pray there, the occasional waving of the State's flags there by Jewish citizens, and they are seething with anger. Naharayim and Tzofar, the gas deal and even the vital water that Israel, in its grace, pumps to Jordan, thus saving it from dying of thirst, are not as important to the Hashemite King as the status of his royal house on the Mount. In practice, those who control the compound with an iron hand are the people of Raed Salah, but even the appearance of control is more important to 'Abdullah than all the precious gifts that the State of Israel gives him. It sounds almost mystical, but what leaves the Hashemite kingdom above water, in the opinion of its own leaders, is the possession of this holy place.
Had it not been for the traditional title of 'Guardian of the Holy Places', the Hashemites would have been decapitated long ago. It is very likely that in coming years this will happen regardless, despite Israeli resuscitation efforts. Anyway, one cannot escape the question – what is in it for us? Why does Netanyahu really do this? Because he adheres to the belief – which should be put to the test once and for all – according to which rescuing the Hashemite rule and keeping it alive artificially is in Israel's interest. Our Prime Minister is an advocate of maintaining the existing order, of status quo in all matters. The cost of maintaining regular relations with this weak entity has been swelling over the years, yet Netanyahu pays it, and apparently not with a broken heart."
ISRAEL WILL END UP FACING IRAN ALONE: Chuck Freilich in Haaretz writes the Trump administration's well-intentioned efforts to challenge the Iranian regime, its expansionism and nuclear ambitions are partial, unrealistic and incoherent. Israel cannot rely on them – or on a mercurial U.S. president.
"Eureka! Saudi Arabia, as the 'enlightened' international community has recently learned, is not a cuddly country. Its regime is probably the most heinous on earth, but it took the gruesome murder of one journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, to offend international sensibilities. Not the beheadings of 146 people in 2017 alone. Not the thousands of lashes meted out for such horrific transgressions as the belief in atheism. Not the women, who can now drive, but still cannot leave their hometown, or receive medical care, without the approval of their male guardian.
Nearly all other news, including the Trump administration's recent efforts to contain Iran, were drowned out by the self-righteous indignation that consumed the international community. Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh's sexual activities had a similar effect on the recent speeches by U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Iran in the UN. The very same Iran that is no more cuddly than Saudi Arabia, that is guilty of extreme human rights violations, and continues to pursue both regional expansionism and an unacceptable nuclear capability.
Whereas past U.S. administrations have customarily completed major policy reviews during their first half year in office, the overall contours of Donald Trump's strategy towards Iran are only now emerging. Heated rhetoric aside, Trump is actually no more avid to confront Iran militarily than his hated predecessor and has thus adopted the same policy instruments that Obama wielded until the 2015 nuclear deal – sanctions, sanctions and more sanctions. To his credit, this now includes the Basij militia, the primary instrument of brutal domestic suppression.
There are, however, two critical differences between Trump's policy and Obama's. First, the European Union and Russia are doing everything they can, this time, to undermine U.S. sanctions, admittedly with limited success so far, by establishing special trading mechanisms designed to circumvent them. Second, Trump has refrained thus far from the ultimate measure adopted by Obama, in the form of sanctions on Iranian use of the international financial clearinghouse, known as SWIFT. The international sanctions regime led by Obama proved sufficient to bring Iran to the negotiating table and to make significant compromises, but not to forgo its nuclear infrastructure or long-term nuclear aspirations. The Trump administration has yet to explain why a less comprehensive regime would now yield greater concessions.
Netanyahu believed that Obama was too quick to reach an agreement with Iran, and presumably hopes that Trump will now stick to the hardline approach longer, prior to reaching his stated goal of an improved agreement. Experience with Trump to date is not necessarily encouraging. Be that as it may, the specter of lost access to the U.S. market has proven so daunting, that the multinational corporations have already significantly cut trade ties with Iran, even before U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil, due in early November, come into effect. Iran's economy has already entered a tailspin.
A further difference between Obama and Trump, is that the former sought to engage Iran, whereas Trump appears bent on regime change, primarily through sanctions. The administration has yet to adopt regime change as its official policy, but senior officials have resorted to every possible rhetorical flourish just short of this. It has also begun an intensive campaign to delegitimize the regime, including a special report entitled 'Outlaw Regime: A Chronicle of Iran's Destructive Activities,' which sets forth all of its misdeeds in the nuclear, missile, cyber, human rights and other realms.
There is just one small, pesky, problem. 39 years after the Iranian revolution, no one has any idea how to bring about regime change, despite the intensive efforts that have been devoted to this. The administration has presumably tasked its best and brightest with a review of the issue, much as its predecessors have done, but readers would be well advised not to wait in breathless anticipation. The regime, for its part, has responded by announcing a 'resistance economy.'
The administration has also begun trying to establish a Sunni axis to contain Iran, an essential move, which was tried by its predecessors with notably little success. The differences between the Arab states that prevented effective cooperation in the past, as well as the limitations of their true capabilities, have only grown worse. Qatar is under Arab boycott, Oman maintains good relations with Iran, Egypt is preoccupied with its own domestic travails and the Saudis have now gone from being the poster child of reform, to a rogue state. One would be hard-pressed to overstate the vehemence of current anti-Saudi sentiment both in the American media and Congress.
Israel was never intended to be a part of the putative Sunni axis, but both its and the administration's hopes of containing Iran were predicated on broad, if quiet, strategic cooperation between it and Israel. The primary Saudi contribution was to have been an increase in oil output, once the U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil went into effect, designed to prevent a rise in prices that might have both hurt the international economy and undermined domestic support for the administration' policy. The international outcry following the Khashoggi affair may prove to be an unfortunate strategic turning point in the attempt to contain Iran.
The administration is also reportedly completing, belatedly, a review of its policies toward Syria, and Iran's involvement there. Under the new policy, the administration will supposedly call for political change in Syria, without making this contingent on Assad's removal, for an end to Iranian involvement in Syria, without calling for a complete severance of ties, and for as yet unspecified measures to deter Syria from using chemical weapons and hasten ISIS' destruction. The small American military contingent deployed in Syria will remain in place, to prevent Iranian territorial contiguity, and sanctions will be imposed on Iranian and Russian firms that invest in Syria's reconstruction. The U.S., for its part, will stay out of Syrian reconstruction, until the administration's conditions are met. The new policy reads like a playbill borrowed directly from Obama.
The administration continues to present Iran with a list of 12 demands, all of which are eminently desirable, but entirely unrealistic, and the lacunae in its approach remain such that it is very difficult to speak of a coherent policy. The deployment of S-300 missiles in Syria, along with President Vladimir Putin's repeated rejections of Netanyahu's requests to meet, demonstrate the limitations of Israel's Russian option.
The good news is that the importance that Iran attaches to its ties with Europe and Russia have forced it to continue adhering to the nuclear agreement, despite the U.S. withdrawal, although it is unclear for how much longer. Israel should be grateful that the nuclear agreement has enabled it to attack Iran's growing military presence in Syria repeatedly, before it has succeeded in going nuclear.
It is incumbent upon those of us who believed - and still believe - that the nuclear agreement was the best of the bad options available, to now support the administration's efforts. Only the outcome matters. Nevertheless, and as welcome as Trump's hardline approach towards Iran may be, Israel cannot rely on such a mercurial president. Indeed, the bottom line may very well prove to be that Israel will essentially stand alone against Iran, but with greater limitations on its freedom of action over Syria. Israel must, therefore, define its priorities carefully, first and foremost, preventing Iran from going nuclear at almost all costs, and only secondarily, dealing with its missile presence in Syria and with Hezbollah. To this end, it must continue building its own independent capabilities."
WHY IS THE EU STILL FANTASIZING ABOUT THE IRAN DEAL?: Daniel Roth in The Jerusalem Post asks why EU politicians continue to peddle these fantasies of a revived JCPOA, and surmises the official EU response to the U.S. decision provides a strong clue.
"The European Union's bizarre insistence on seeking to resuscitate the corpse of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) reveals more about the EU mindset than about the merits of the agreement itself. With foreign policy Chief Federica Mogherini manning the defibrillator, the EU Commission, Council and Parliament continue to pledge an imaginative array of mechanisms to thwart U.S. sanctions, keep the money flowing to Tehran, and shock the JCPOA back to life. According to Iranian media, the EU's latest gambit is to consider opening a Tehran office.
Six months ago, when President Trump landed the fatal blow in announcing the American withdrawal from the JCPOA, extravagant EU promises to fortify the JCPOA by shielding companies from looming U.S. sanctions made a little more sense. At that time, many big European firms contemplating Iran operations or agreements were still wavering. But today, following more than 150 confirmed European pullouts since May – including some of the biggest names in EU business like Volvo, Renault, Maersk and Siemens – there are no longer buyers for what the EU is selling. Even the French and German governments, traditionally 'the engine of European integration,' are scornful of the Brussels-based efforts.
So why do EU politicians continue to peddle these fantasies of a revivified JCPOA? The official EU response to the U.S. decision provides a strong clue. Soon after President Trump's announcement, Mogherini insisted that the JCPOA was 'a significant achievement of multilateral diplomacy.' That is accurate. Whatever one's assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the deal, the act of reaching agreement among eight separate and unique players after 20 months of negotiations was unarguably a monumental diplomatic triumph.
For the EU, in particular, it was a moment of exaltation. It demonstrated, even without its own armed forces, the EU's strength and value on the global stage – 'one of the few instances where the bloc could deploy its collective diplomatic weight.' It showed that the EU, distinct from its constituent country members, could walk tall among the big beasts and carve out its own world-shaping – perhaps indispensable – mediating role. In iconic photographs, the EU's '12 stars' flag was seen flying high alongside the flags of the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, France, Germany and the UK. And standing beneath the EU flag was the EU high representative – first Lady Catherine Ashton, then Mogherini – repeatedly lauded between 2013 and 2015 as the 'unlikely peacemaker between America and Iran,' playing 'arguably the most important role in world diplomacy,' who 'was front and center as European and American political leaders congratulated themselves over a historic nuclear agreement with Iran.' The Iran deal ensured that the EU went 'from zero to hero'.
But the JCPOA turned into the last significant achievement for the EU. Since that heady moment it has been zero rather than hero. No sooner had the ink dried in Vienna in July 2015, than the EU began struggling with the combined fallout from the Syrian civil war migrant crisis, explicitly anti-EU governments sweeping to power in Hungary, Poland, and Italy, and most importantly, the Brexit referendum.
Within a short 12 months, the EU had gone from JCPOA hero to Brexit zero – easily the lowest point in the EU's 67-year history, and a possible harbinger of 'Italexit,' 'Irexit,' 'Grexit,' and any number of other 'exits.' Even George Soros, one of the most prominent supporters of the EU project, acknowledged earlier in 2018 that the 'EU is mired in an existential crisis' in which 'everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.'
The EU's ongoing attempts to double down on the JCPOA make far more sense when viewed within the broader context of its own existential challenges brought upon during these last three traumatic years. Obviously, Brussels must not truly believe it can revive the deal when its companies and member-states have explicitly chosen U.S. business over the small Iranian market (which has a national GDP smaller than Washington State). But nonetheless, it simply cannot let go of a symbolically important achievement that has brought great prestige to the organization. It is therefore not surprising that the EU seeks to preserve what may be one of its final major legacies – even at the high costs of threatening the integrity of the global financial system by excluding U.S. anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism expertise and damaging the trans-Atlantic alliance (just two of the potential fallouts from the current shortsighted schemes emanating from Brussels).
Rightly, the White House has blasted Brussels for genuflecting to Iran, the world's premier state sponsor of terrorism, which continues to finance five of the world's top-10 richest terrorist groups. But maybe the president, secretaries Pompeo and Mnuchin, and National Defense Adviser Bolton should view the EU's behavior more sympathetically and see it is not as much about reanimating the JCPOA cadaver – dead in practice yet alive in symbolism – but about breathing life into the EU project itself."