America is reportedly stepping up its commitment to the Syrian rebels with new injections of money, upgraded weapons and intelligence coordination, according to several respected Arab news sources, the Abu Dhabi-based The National and the Jordanian-based Ammon News.
The moves are said to include supply of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which Saudi Arabia has been eager to supply but Washington has opposed. Ammon News reported Tuesday that the shoulder missiles will come from Jordan and Turkey and that Washington continues to oppose the supply.
According to The National, a secret operations command center has been set up at Jordanian intelligence headquarters in Amman to work with the rebels, staffed by military officials—military intelligence officers, according to Maariv—from 14 countries including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and various European states. Jordan denied that the center exists. But Washington Post foreign affairs pundit David Ignatius reported this week that intelligence officials from most of the countries named by The National met in Washington a week ago to discuss Syria strategy.
Israel is watching the shifts nervously, Maariv reported, partly because of a decision by the moderate Free Syrian Army to shift its main forces from northern Syria, where they face stiff competition from jihadi militias, to the south, close to Israel. The shift southward, it’s feared, could tempt jihadi forces to move southward following the fighting, putting Israel in danger from Al Qaeda-linked terrorism.
Hamas fighters testing a Gaza-made M-75 long-range missile, November 2013 / Getty Images
Maariv’s Eli Bardenstein offered a stunningly clear and disturbing report (in Hebrew, my translation below) on Friday that illustrates the vexing complications introduced into the triangular Jerusalem-Cairo-Gaza relationship by political turmoil in all three places. It makes a very useful companion piece to today’s front-page New York Times report by Jodi Rudoren on Israeli jitters over instability on its eastern front.
In both cases, as Bardenstein notes and Rudoren sort of hints, the Netanyahu government is ignoring the intelligence supplied by its own security establishment, which shows jihadi organizations making life difficult for both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. The jihadis are creating turmoil, launching pinprick attacks on Israel that violate cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Hamas and Hezbollah are both besieged — Hamas by the new, anti-Islamist Egyptian military government, Hezbollah by jihadi spillover from the Syrian civil war (as well as political blowback from the Rafiq Hariri murder trial now underway in The Hague) — and are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce their respective cease-fires with Israel. Israel — meaning principally defense minister Moshe Yaalon — chooses to ignore the intelligence, blame Hamas and Hezbollah and launch military responses that only further weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and strengthen the jihadis.
I’ve translated Bardenstein’s piece below, but here’s the gist: Israel is alarmed at the unraveling of the November 2012 Pillar of Defense cease-fire “understandings” and the increasing rocket fire from Gaza — 17 rockets fired in January alone as of Friday (and more since then). It wants Egypt, which acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas, to pressure Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But Egypt has lost influence over Hamas since the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last July. The military government’s approach is not to work with Hamas as Morsi did but to crack down on it.
Hamas, in turn, complains that the Egyptian crackdown — particularly the mass destruction of smuggling tunnels, which squeezes the Gaza economy — weakens Hamas rule and reduces its ability to control the jihadi organizations that are doing the firing. And both Cairo and Hamas complain that Israel has been making the situation worse by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s insistence on responding to every single rocket launching, no matter how ineffectual, with aerial bombardment.
Benjamin Netanyahu with Likud ministers at weekly cabinet meeting, Sunday, January 12, 2014. From left: Gilad Erdan (communications); Yuval Steinitz (intelligence); Netanyahu; cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit; Gideon Saar (interior) / Getty Images
When should the legislature intrude on the executive branch’s authority to conduct foreign policy by seeking to dictate the terms of sensitive negotiations? Good question, but don’t ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His answer seems to depend on who’s doing the negotiating and who’s doing the micromanaging. And he’s not even embarrassed by the .
Netanyahu was said to be angered by a bill that would require prior Knesset approval before his government can enter any negotiations over the future status of Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees. So Maariv’s Zeev Kam reported on Thursday.
Netanyahu reportedly lit into the bill, proposed by Likud hard-liner Miri Regev, at last Sunday’s weekly meeting of Likud-Beiteinu ministers, shortly before the weekly full cabinet meeting. “He appeared particularly angry when the topic came up,” several participants told Kam:
“Nobody should preach to us about Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said when discussing the proposed legislation and Knesset member Regev. Netanyahu went on to emphasize to the ministers that conducting negotiations is the government’s responsibility.
”Private member bills like these damage the government’s functioning,” Netanyahu emphasized.
A day before Secretary of State John Kerry’s expected arrival in Israel to further peace talks, Israeli news media are reporting that Kerry has begun preparing an American peace plan to present to the parties in January as a basis for negotiations, if there isn’t progress by then. It will reportedly be based on the pre-1967 armistice lines with land swaps, and will be linked to the Arab Peace Initiative.
Zahava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Meretz party, made the claim in a public statement Monday morning, saying she heard it during meetings with American, Palestinian and Arab officials in recent days. Several news organizations confirmed it with unnamed sources later in the day.
The daily tabloid Maariv reported, quoting a source “close to the negotiations,” that Kerry formulated his plan after his seven-hour meeting in Rome with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu October 23 “sobered him up” to the realization (מעין התפכחות) that Netanyahu “had his own considerations” and that a permanent peace agreement “wasn’t attainable as he had thought.”
According to The Hill newspaper in Washington, Kerry told reporters in Saudi Arabia he “categorically” denied the “rumors” and that there was no plan other than face-to-face negotiations “at this point in time.” A State Department spokeswoman later called it “wild speculation.”
Netanyahu responded to the reports in remarks to the Likud Knesset caucus later in the day, saying Israel would look at any proposal raised in negotiations but “but we won’t accept any external dictates and no pressure will help.”
The daily Israel Hayom, considered a strong supporter of Netanyahu, reported that Kerry and Netanyahu drew maps for each other in Rome, and that Netanyahu’s map:
Our old friend Ofer Shelah, former Maariv military and sports reporter, former Forward Israel correspondent and currently Yesh Atid Knesset caucus whip, has come out against the phenomenon of “nationality laws” that seek to define the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and democratic qualities or assign preferential standing in law to one over the other (usually favoring the Jewish side).
As Shelah wrote on his Facebook page on Friday, the law is superfluous (מיותר), and laws that are superfluous are laws that shouldn’t be enacted.
… I prefer the fascinating duality (שניות) inherent in the term “Jewish and democratic state” over any attempt to define the components in the dry language of law.
The wonderful thing about this concept is that it’s clear to all of us, to anyone who reads those three charged words with open eyes, that there is a certain contradiction (סתירה) implicit in it. But it’s no less clear what it says. In this matter, it seems to me that the brightest light is to be found in the gray area.
To a certain degree it can be said that Israel’s 65 years have been a walk along this narrow line, with the wonderful democratic strength that’s possible precisely because we never stopped to define it precisely. Our legal system, freedom of speech and political vitality, all these are alive and kicking and impressive to anyone who watches us from outside precisely because we live this dialectic every day, without a law that presumes to define exactly what the great mix of identities living here is made of.
Or, as the Jerusalem Post summed it up, in a Saturday news article by Knesset correspondent Lahav Harkov, “Shelah: ‘Jewish and democratic state’ an oxymoron.” Harkov writes:
The European Union’s decision to slap the terrorist label on Hezbollah’s military wing, but not on its political wing, has been getting decidedly mixed reviews from Israel and the Jewish community. The American Jewish Committee said it “welcomes” the move as a “significant step forward in recognizing the true nature of Hezbollah,” even though AJC shares the U.S.-Canadian-Dutch view that Hezbollah is actually “a single organization.”
On the other hand, the Anti-Defamation League called it “a positive political statement, but a flawed counter-terrorism strategy,” since it “missed” the “high-value counter-terrorism target” of Hezbollah financing. B’nai Brith Canada went even further, saying the EU move gives “false legitimacy to Hezbollah’s supposedly non-violent wings,” which will “weaken international efforts to combat terror,” strengthen Iran and “cost more innocent lives.”
Yori Yanover wrote in the Jewish Press, citing a Reuters report, that the double-identity idea, “like most of the fun things coming out of the EU, is the brainchild of its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.”
Awkwardly enough, it now appears that differentiating the military and political wings for separate treatment was actually proposed to the EU by Israel’s negotiators. So reports Eli Bardenstein, the usually well-informed diplomatic correspondent of the right-leaning Israeli daily Maariv, in a detailed backgrounder (in Hebrew) on the Israeli campaign to secure the European ban. Launched by then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, the year-long campaign was the work of a task force that was led by the Foreign Ministry and included Israel’s National Security Council and main intelligence agencies. The split-identity proposal, Bardenstein writes, was devised as a way to ease France’s fears of losing influence in Lebanon’s byzantine politics, which it feared would strengthen Hezbollah and reinforce Syria’s Assad regime.
The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace published an English-language summary (PDF) of Bardenstein’s analysis. Here are the main points:
Speaking of intelligence leaks, Israel had one last week that speaks volumes about the prospects for Secretary of State Kerry’s Middle East peace mission. Consider how a June 4 classified briefing to the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee was described the next day in Maariv’s lead headline: “Shin Bet chief: Abu Mazen Doesn’t Believe in an Agreement with Us.” The subheading added some intriguing detail: “Knesset members who were present yesterday at the foreign affairs and defense committee claim: Yoram Cohen said that the Palestinians are not enthusiastic to resume negotiations with Netanyahu. Shin Bet: Not true.”
The leak so infuriated committee chair Avigdor Lieberman that he distributed a letter to committee members on Thursday vowing to end the practice of classified briefings, starting with an appearance tomorrow (Monday) by the prime minister. Lieberman said he had instituted the closed meetings this year after hearing from “some members” that meetings had come to resemble “headline reviews” with no real insight into the security services’ operations.
As Maariv explained in its next-day follow-up, Lieberman’s strictly classified meetings replaced a 20-year practice in which classified briefings by top security officials would be followed by a declassified press briefing by a committee spokesman. Leaks have been commonplace both before and after the rule change.
So what came out this week that so angered Lieberman? That Abu Mazen (a.k.a. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president) isn’t interested in peace? Lieberman has been saying that for years. No, the problem was just the opposite: What Cohen actually said was that the Palestinians didn’t think talks with Bibi would go anywhere, given his backtracking from understandings reached in previous negotiating rounds. Maariv’s headline didn’t match reporter Ze’ev Kam’s story. According to Kam,
the Shin Bet chief told the committee members that there is a continuous decline on the Palestinian side in faith that any positive diplomatic process in the region will occur between the sides. …
In his words, the opening negotiating position of the present government is not even close to what was discussed in earlier rounds with [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert, and therefore from Abu Mazen’s point of view he can’t gain anything from entering negotiations with Israel. … in his view, he can only lose, given the fact that in the past he was in a much better negotiating position.
A funny thing happened to Israeli figurehead president Shimon Peres on his way to the World Economic Forum. Scheduled to address a gathering of Middle Eastern political and business leaders at a Jordanian Dead Sea conference center on Sunday evening, the 89-year-old elder statesman came under furious attack from Likud cabinet ministers Sunday afternoon for reportedly intending to endorse Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.
The funny thing is, he didn’t say it. What he did say was that the Palestinians should return to the negotiating table to settle their disputes with Israel. Even funnier, the attacks kept coming afterwards, undeterred.
Peres was the closing speaker at the three-day conference, preceded by Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Before his departure for Jordan, Maariv reported that Peres would declare (I’m translating from the Hebrew, as no English version has been published): “Israel wants peace. There is a clear majority among us that favors a diplomatic solution under the framework of two states for two peoples, along the 1967 lines, with agreed and equal border adjustments. Israel longs for peace.”
The Maariv report, by the respected, conservative-leaning journalist Shalom Yerushalmi, also said that Peres had discussed his speech earlier with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in accord with his plans. Yerushalmi noted that Peres’s audience at the King Hussein Convention Center would include the president of Libya, the prime minister of Iraq and senior ministers from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, the Gulf states and others. The report said Peres would endorse the Arab Peace Initiative and say to Abbas, “I am your partner and you are my partner. Let’s bring peace.”
Responding to the Maariv account, international relations minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters on his way into a Sunday afternoon cabinet meeting: “I didn’t know that Peres wants to be the government spokesman. Government decisions are decided by the cabinet.”