Posts Tagged ‘Lebanon’

Lebanese PM in Moscow to meet Putin

June 13, 2018

Lebanon’s prime minister-designate Saad Hariri will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday, the eve of the FIFA World Cup, Hariri’s office said.

He will then attend the football tournament’s inaugural match on Thursday, pitting Russia against his longtime backer, Saudi Arabia.

© DALATI AND NOHRA/AFP | A handout picture from the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra on May 24, 2018, shows Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaking at a press conference near Beirut

Riyadh has been a key ally of Hariri for years, but the relationship appeared to falter in late 2017 when Hariri announced his surprise resignation during a trip to the kingdom.

He subsequently rescinded the decision and in May was appointed for a new term as prime minister following parliamentary elections.

He is now in talks to form a coalition government.

Hariri, 48, met Putin in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi in September 2017.



Lebanon freezes residency applications for UNHCR staff — Shaking down the UN for more money?

June 8, 2018

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has directed authorities to freeze all residency applications submitted by the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR, his office said in an emailed statement on Friday.

Lebanon hosts more than a million Syrian refugees who constitute more than a quarter of its population and says their presence has strained public services and suppressed economic growth.

© Joseph Eid, AFP | A Syrian refugee girl stands between the tents and shelters at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the town of Zahle in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on January 26, 2018.

As Syrian forces and their allies retake more territory, Lebanon’s president and other top politicians have increasingly called for refugees to return to “secure areas”.

In an emailed statement, Bassil said he would consider taking further measures against the agency.

On Thursday the mayor of Arsal, a Lebanese border town hosting tens of thousands of refugees, said around 3,000 of them were expected to go back to Syria in the coming week.

Bassil said UNHCR had discouraged refugees in Arsal from returning by asking them questions about conditions they might face in Syria, including the possibility of military conscription, security problems and poor accommodation.

UNHCR officials said Lebanon’s government had not yet formally notified it of the step.

Lebanon’s government is operating on a caretaker basis because prime minister designate Saad al-Hariri has not yet formed a government since parliamentary elections on May 6.


Is Trump Following a Grand Mideast Strategy?

June 6, 2018

His approach to Israel, Arab allies and Iran makes it look that way. Syria will pose a major challenge.

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In this Saturday, May 20, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman during a bilateral meeting, in Riyadh.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

What if President Trump’s foreign policy isn’t as impulsive as it may seem? Put aside Korea and trade and consider the Middle East. Mr. Trump’s disregard of orthodoxy could turn out to be exactly what’s needed to sequence a comprehensive strategy for stabilizing the region—and to stanch the flow of Islamist terror to Europe and the U.S.

The first step has been to forge a working consensus among Israel and its Arab neighbors, aligned to contain Iran and frustrate its dreams of a Shiite crescent through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. Mr. Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip, in May 2017, and has cultivated the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, a putative reformer of Wahhabism.

He has collaborated with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, another advocate for reform of Islam, and respected the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, while calling out Qatar for its support of Hamas in Gaza. While none of these nations—except Israel—exemplify American ideals of liberty and the rule of law, they share an interest in fighting Islamist terror and ultimately enlisting U.S. support for better governance and economic opportunities for their young populations.

The new alliance faces three main challenges: containing Iran’s imperial ambitions and support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah; stabilizing Syria to finish off Islamic State and foreclose the next iteration of caliphate-seeking terror, while also ending Bashar Assad’s devastation of Syrian Sunni Arabs; and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last has become a low priority in the Arab world, but its resolution would liberate Israel to assume a deserved mantle of regional leadership.

The president was still right to start with the Palestinian file, while consolidating the alliance and working toward consensus goals and strategies for the other two challenges. His recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital codified a truth that must be accepted before Israel and the Palestinians can move forward together. The December announcement was brilliantly timed to confirm, validate and stress-test the new regional alliances.

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All the partners stayed quiet or offered pro forma objections, thereby passing the test—except the Palestinians. This was an opportunity for them to express disappointment and to resume negotiations for their own state, with its capital also in Jerusalem. Instead, President Mahmoud Abbas cursed President Trump: “Yekhreb Beitak,”:“May your house come to ruin.” Then, as the embassy was moving last month, Hamas incited border riots in Gaza that killed scores of Palestinians.

There’s nobody home right now to engage in peace negotiations on behalf of the Palestinians. On the West Bank they are led by the affable but unreliable Mr. Abbas, who is 82 and in the 14th year of his four-year term, continues to propagate base anti-Semitism. He is routinely bullied by subordinates—I’ve seen it privately in person—and is trying to govern from a hospital bed. He has no apparent viable successor. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a terrorist organization whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

Ordinary Palestinians are desperate for the peace that would integrate them into Israel’s economic miracle, but their illegitimate leadership is worsening their people’s misery to curry sympathy from naive Westerners. Still, Mr. Trump deserves credit for crystallizing the regional alignment that lays a foundation for progress once someone emerges with legitimacy to speak for the Palestinians.

Next, the president delivered on his promise to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a move that repudiated his predecessor’s supposed crowning foreign-policy achievement, defied Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, and frustrated America’s European allies. The JCPOA might have delayed Iran’s nuclear program, but it didn’t even pretend to eliminate it. Withdrawing from the deal could be a very good decision—provided it’s eventually replaced with a real nonproliferation regime and an arrangement that contains Iran and its proxies’ terror and mischief in the region.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s May 21 Iran strategy speech articulated the challenge well, but making it happen will require exceptionally smart diplomacy. North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies need to be brought on board lest Iran drive a wedge between them and the U.S.—which could otherwise yield even more serious mutually destructive retaliatory trade wars than seem likely now with China, Mexico, Canada and Europe.

Then comes the ultimate prize, stabilizing Syria by stopping Mr. Assad’s domestic bloodletting, containing the spread of Sunni extremism, and ideally opening the door for Syrian migrants to return home. The Trump administration is still behind the curve here. Besides launching airstrikes to punish Mr. Assad’s grotesque and illegal chemical drops on his own people, the president has talked about pulling out of Syria “soon,” which would widen the vacuum Vladimir Putin’s Russia is aggressively filling—and for good reason: Syria is the door that must be closed to block Islamist radicalism from reaching Russia from the Middle East.

A serious approach to stopping the spread of Islamist terror, which should be the highest priority in the region for U.S. homeland security, necessitates that the U.S. stay engaged and develop a real Syria strategy. This could be a huge accomplishment, with the not-incidental bonus of getting the failed “reset” with Russia back on track. Cold War talk is the rage in Washington these days, and Mr. Putin’s thuggish behavior doesn’t help. But Russia, the U.S. and Israel have critical common interests in redressing the spread of Islamism much closer to Russia than America. So far, Israel is alone in cultivating the Russians, with the U.S. out of the picture as Mr. Putin earns credit for constructively rolling back Iranian influence on Israel’s northern border.

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton smiles with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after she gave him a device with red knob during a meeting on March 6, 2009 in Geneva.  FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has little affinity for the Iranian ayatollahs, especially with their competing nuclear and energy ambitions—imagine an oil-rich Cuba with nukes. Mr. Putin is in bed with Mr. Assad and Iran for lack of a better alternative. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Turkey can’t be trusted to help insulate Russia, and the U.S. and Europe are understandably hostile to Mr. Putin’s moves in Ukraine and Syria.

Yet Russia needs American partnership, and it’s clearly in everyone’s interest to collaborate toward an alternative to Mr. Assad and Iran for shoring up Syria. The U.S. will certainly have a better chance of restraining Mr. Putin’s misbehavior at home and abroad if it seizes the initiative to stabilize the Middle East with Russia and Israel. This should be high on the agenda for the next Trump-Putin meeting.

Successfully dealing with Russia and Middle Eastern and European allies could produce a long-overdue realignment of international alliances set in the 20th century’s bipolar rivalry of economic systems, to address rogue nations like Iran and the decentralized, multipolar threats of nonstate terrorists afflicting East and West. Given the initial chaos around the administration’s other international negotiations, this may be a lot to expect. After decades of Middle East failure, though, bold disruption seems exactly what is necessary. Last century’s “experts” have had their turn.

Mr. Arbess is CEO of Xerion Investments and co-founder of No Labels.


Obama and Putin at a June G8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland. (EPA/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/RIA NOVOSTI/KREM)

Obama and Putin at a June G-8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland. (EPA/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/RIA NOVOSTI/KREM)

Saudi Crown Prince’s support pivotal to Lebanon stability

June 6, 2018

“Everybody knows the level of support I receive personally from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.” —  The Crown Prince ‘plays a pivotal role in supporting peace and stability in Lebanon on the political, economic, social and security levels’

Photo showing Lebanon’s Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri receives a delegation from the Lebanese-Saudi Business Council, Beirut, Lebanon, June 5, 2018. (NNA)

BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri received a delegation from the Lebanese-Saudi Business Council on Tuesday.

After the meeting, Hariri said that he hoped the council would intensify its work to increase investment between the two countries in a bid to strengthen trade and “economic exchange between Riyadh and Beirut.

“The depth of the relations between our two countries, and the support that King Salman bestowed on Lebanon obliges us all to double our efforts to improve relations between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.”

Hariri added: “Everybody knows the level of support I receive personally from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

“In fact, the Crown Prince is playing a pivotal role in supporting peace and stability in Lebanon on the political, economic, social and security levels.”

Harri reminded members of the Saudi-Lebanese Business Council of the efforts led by Prince Mohammed to ensure the success of the “CEDRE” donors conference in Paris, as well as the ‘Rome Conference’ to support the Lebanese Army and its internal security forces.

The council is due to hold its business forum in Beirut on July 13, where Saudi and Lebanese businessmen and women will come together to improve business relations between the two countries.

The meeting is due to take place in Beirut a day after the Arab Economic Forum to be held in Beirut, July 12, where more than 600 participants will be in attendance representing more than 30 Arab and foreign countries.

Arab News

Nasrallah: Hezbollah doesn’t want war with Israel, but will ‘assuredly win’ one

May 26, 2018

Terror leader says Israel behind Thursday night airstrikes in Syria, which reportedly hit targets belonging to Lebanese group

Times of Israel
May 25, 2018

File: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a broadcast speech through a giant screen during an election campaign in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, April 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

File: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a broadcast speech through a giant screen during an election campaign in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, April 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Hezbollah does not seek war with Israel, but would “assuredly win” if such a war were to break out, leader Hassan Nasrallah said Friday, a day after reports claimed the Jewish state bombed Hezbollah military targets in Syria.

Nasrallah was speaking to mark 18 years since Israel pulled its forces out of southern Lebanon.

The terror organization’s leader said it did not fear war with the Jewish state. “Threats and scare tactics have no effect on us,” he said.

He spoke of the group’s advances since the 2000 withdrawal. “The weapons Hezbollah had before the Israeli pullout were minor and incomparable to those it possesses today.”

Nasrallah blamed Israel for the Thursday night strike on a military airport in western Syria. He did not confirm reports that the targets of the attack were munitions depots belonging to Hezbollah.

“The enemy is always in our skies,” he said. “Yesterday, from Lebanese airspace, it attacked in Syria.”

Nasrallah also spoke of recent US efforts to impose harsher sanctions targeting the group’s funds.

“The goal is to dry up funding for the resistance,” he said. “Some of our funding may be hurt as a result, but I tell America, the Israeli enemy and their agents: You misunderstand the resistance and its people…they think we’re Iran’s mercenaries, that they’ll stop our funds and we’ll stop operating.”

The US has been imposing sanctions on the group for decades. However, a new wave last week appears to be more serious about targeting the group’s top leadership as well as businessmen and companies that Washington says are funding the organization that is heavily involved in Syria’s seven-year war, providing strong military backing for President Bashar Assad’s forces.

On Thursday night the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the strikes at the Daba’a military airport were most likely carried out by Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces refused to comment on the attack.

The Daba’a air base, also known as al-Qusair air base, and the surrounding area are known to be a stronghold for Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias. It was also reportedly struck by Israel in skirmishes against Syrian and Iranian forces on May 10.

A Syrian military source told state media that the incoming missile attack was intercepted. This is a common claim by SANA, including in cases where the outlet later acknowledged that strikes hit their target.

Earlier on Thursday night, Lebanese media outlets reported that Israeli jets were flying through the country’s airspace. Syrian media outlets reported that S-200 anti-aircraft missiles were fired during the attack on the air base.

On Wednesday, a senior Israeli Air Force official issued a stern warning to Syria, telling the country that if its air defense systems fired on Israeli jets, they would be targeted in return.

“All batteries that fire on Israeli aircraft will be destroyed. All batteries that do not fire on us will not be destroyed,” the senior officer told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Thursday night’s reported airstrike came two weeks after a major skirmish between Israel, Iran and Syria. On May 10, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s al-Quds Force launched 32 rockets at Israel’s forward defensive line on the Golan Heights border, Israel said. Four of them were shot down; the rest fell short of Israeli territory. In response, over the next two hours, Israeli jets fired dozens of missiles at Iranian targets in Syria and destroyed a number of Syrian air defense systems.

For years, Israel has been waging a quiet campaign against Iranian interests in the country. That campaign came to light and stepped up considerably in February, when an Iranian drone carrying explosives briefly entered Israeli airspace before it was shot down and Israel launched a counterattack on the T-4 air base in central Syria from which the drone had been piloted.

During the aerial bombardment, an Israeli F-16 was shot down by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile, prompting the air force to launch a second round of strikes, this time against Syria’s air defenses.

Last month, Israel conducted another strike on the T-4 air base to destroy a recently delivered Iranian advanced anti-aircraft system, killing at least seven members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including a senior officer.

Iran immediately vowed revenge, and the Israeli military has set out to thwart those attempts at reprisal by targeting Iranian weapons systems in Syria, in an effort dubbed “Operation Chess.”

Israel has repeatedly stated that it will not allow Iran to set up a permanent military entrenchment in Syria and is prepared to take military action to prevent such a presence. Recent weeks have also seen the IAF stepping up its efforts to keep Iran from carrying out reprisals against Israel for an airstrike on April 9, according to Israeli officials.

“We’re not doing this because we’re aggressive, but because we constantly have to be actively defending the State of Israel,” the officer said. “This is the only thing preventing offensive measures by Iran.”

A moment before an Israeli missile destroys a Syrian SA-22 air defense system on May 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

In addition to conducting military operations to thwart Iranian efforts, the army this week also appeared to be turning to public threats, both overt and somewhat more subtle, against Iran and its allies.

On Tuesday, IAF chief Amikam Norkin revealed that Israel had used its F-35 fighter jets to conduct airstrikes in Syria, making it the first country in the world to use the fifth-generation aircraft operationally, a hint to Iran of Israel’s operational capability.

Norkin also made the announcement while standing in front of a picture of the stealth aircraft flying in the skies over Beirut — which Iran’s main proxy, Hezbollah, calls home.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel “will not let Iran establish military bases in Syria, and we will not let Iran develop nuclear weapons,” during a visit to a conference of foreign air force officials at the Tel Nof air base in central Israel.

“The Israeli Air Force plays a crucial role in implementing this policy and it has done so consistently and effectively now for the past several years,” Netanyahu said.

Judah Ari Gross and agencies contributed to this report


U.S. ambassador to Israel says Trump’s Middle East peace plan is months away

May 24, 2018

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Friedman speaks at the embassy ceremony. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP

U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman told me today that it will be another few months before the White House launches its long awaited Middle East peace plan.

interviewed Friedman today for Channel 10 News in his new office at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. Here are the key points from the interview (full transcript below):

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  • On the Jerusalem embassy move: Friedman said Trump made the decision to move the embassy at a November Oval Office meeting in which he said, “lets do the right thing.” Friedman denied that Trump’s decision was the result of political pressure.
  • On the U.S. peace plan: Friedman said Trump remains optimistic about the chances of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, but will not force it on the parties. He said the peace plan will be presented “within months,” and the White House is still “listening” to comments from different parties and thinking about the timing and the presentation.
“We have confidence that if we are able to propose something that is in the best interest of the Palestinian people, the leadership will ultimately rise to the occasion or they will be forced to rise to the occasion. I think anything that we propose will be something that it’s obvious that the Palestinians will be better off with it than without it.”
  • On the Iranian presence in Syria: Friedman said he doesn’t feel the Israeli government is concerned about U.S. policies in Syria — including the possible removal of U.S. forces. He stressed that while Israel discusses Syria with the Russians, Netanyahu speaks more with Trump than with Vladimir Putin. He said, “the Israelis have been doing a very significant job trying to contain Iranian behavior in Syria.”
  • On Israel becoming a wedge issue in U.S. politics: Friedman said he was very concerned that no Democrats attended the embassy opening, and stressed that there had been an open invitation. Friedman told me: “From my perspective, American support for Israel needs to be bipartisan and I am going to do everything I can to support visits from legislators — blue or red.”

Full transcript

Q: Ambassador David Friedman, thank you for having us here in your new office at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. When people get married people ask them the day after, ‘how does it feel?’ So, does it feel any different?

A: It feels great and I am happy to welcome you as the first reporter from Israel to visit, and you should visit many more times.

Q: You were one of the leading Trump administration officials who pushed for moving the embassy to Jerusalem. The President considered doing it on day one, then he decided to wait, then he signed the waiver in June. What happened in November-December that got him to change course?

A: I don’t think anybody pushed the president. I think it was the president’s decision and we were coming to this six-month cycle, and I think the president is fundamentally uncomfortable not keeping promises. He is not a traditional politician. As this cycle reemerged I think he very much wanted to keep his promise. He thought it was the right thing to do and that it was in the interest of the U.S. As you know, it has been in the law of the U.S. since 1995. Even then when the law was passed people were lamenting why did it take us so long in 1995 to get to this point. So he saw this as something he is committed to do and should do and that’s how it came about.

Q: Did this also have to do with political pressure – from people in the evangelical community who supported the President or pro-Israel figures like Sheldon Adelson?

A: Not that I am aware of. I was with him in November in the Oval Office. I am not aware of any discussions where political considerations came into it at all. In fact I remember specifically the president saying lets do the right thing and I don’t think he cared about the politics.

Q: So tell us about this meeting in November, because there were members of the administration who were against this move.

A: I don’t want to speak for others. It was a very robust debate. All the issues were raised. The conversation was at a high level and respectful. People made their points and the President decided. It was clear from the discussions that he asked all the right questions and analyzed it correctly. Ultimately he has decided it was in the best interest of the U.S. and something had to be done at that point.

Q: Moving the embassy was one of the president’s campaign promises. He fulfilled that promise. Another campaign promise was to get the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians. Don’t you think that at the end of the day, when you look at what happened in the last few months, by fulfilling one campaign promise he made the other campaign promise impossible to fulfill?

A: First of all, give him time. He hasn’t failed on the ultimate deal. He is working on the ultimate deal and it is certainly too soon to write the postmortem on that. We believe this will in the long run facilitate a peace deal because it is a policy which is based on truth and reality. Those are the pillars upon which a deal will have to be made. Jared Kushner said something very intelligent at the ceremony. He said peace will come and when it comes people will look upon this day, May 14, the opening of the embassy as the day the peace process really began. A process in which the U..S. was committed to strength and to the truth.

Q: But how will that take place? Since the president’s announcement on December 6th the Palestinians are boycotting the White House.

A: There have been bumps in the road.

Q: That’s the understatement of the century Mr. Ambassador.

A: I was going to finish my sentence. There have been bumps in the road over the last 50 years. There have been ups and downs. We are still optimistic. At the end of the day, the peace deal will rise and fall on its merits, not on the basis of people’s emotions. There is too much at stake and we have confidence that if we are able to propose something that is in the best interest of the Palestinian people, the leadership will ultimately rise to the occasion or they will be forced to rise to the occasion.

Q: What do you mean they will be forced to?

A: I believe in democracy. I believe in the will of the people. I think if you propose something that gains popular support I think the leadership ultimately has no choice but to move in that direction.

Q: So you think the Palestinian people look at your peace plan, say it’s not bad, and push the leadership to say yes?

A: I think anything that we propose will be something that its obvious that the Palestinians will be better off with it than without it. That’s certainly in the core of our thinking. Why bother if it doesn’t create a better life and a better opportunity to both parties?

Q: Prime Minister Netanyahu gave an interview to Vice News and said the embassy is in West Jerusalem. Do you think that part of the peace plan does lead to two capitals in Jerusalem – for Israel in West Jerusalem and for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem?

A: I am very reluctant to get into specific terms of what we are talking about. I think on specifics people will have to wait. The President made it clear the U.S. isn’t reaching any determinations regarding sovereignty, but beyond that you will have to wait with everybody else for the terms of the proposal.

Q: So in any future negotiations, Jerusalem’s borders will have to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians?

A: It’s a final status issue and all final status issues are subject to ongoing negotiations.

Q: The peace plan is practically already drafted — do you see it being launched in the near future?

A: I think within months. I can’t give you a specific date. It is not finalized. There is a lot of listening going on. Mostly in Washington but here as well. We are continuing to think about it and it is not just the substance but also the timing and the presentation. So all those things are being factored into the calculus. But I would measure it in months.

Q: So it is not going to be in the next few weeks?

A: I don’t think so. We would certainly wait out of respect until Ramadan concludes, and beyond that I would be speculating.

Q: What if the Palestinians say no? For now it seems obvious they will say no because they are saying your peace plan is Netanyahu’s peace plan in U.S. disguise.

A: Lets wait and see how it plays out. People say no for all kinds of reasons. Sometime they say no because they mean no and sometimes they say no because they want to negotiate something better. I have been doing this for a long time in different contexts. If I took no for an answer I wouldn’t have gone very far in my profession.

Q: So you think that even if the Palestinians say no the President is not going to say, ‘I am moving to another issue,’ but he will try to see if a way can be found to promote this thing?

A: I think if they say no, the question will be why they say no — try to understand their positions and see if there is a place to get to the right point.

Q: Most Israelis and Palestinians say we do want a peace deal but on both sides there is very little belief that such a thing is possible. So why does the president believe such a deal can be found?

A: He has always been an optimist. He has better powers of negotiation and persuasion than anybody else I have ever met. I think primarily he is looking for that win-win structure where everybody looks at it and says, ‘we are better off than before.’ It has to be presented as a circumstance where everybody is better off. It is not a punishment for anybody. So if people look at this and say we are being pulled or pushed it won’t work.

Q: So if the parties say no the president is not going to force them to take it.

A: No.

Q: Lets move on to the Iranian issue and the President’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal. Secretary Pompeo made a speech laying out 12 demands from the Iranians. But both President Trump and Secretary Pompeo basically said ‘we are going to do it through pressure and sanctions’ and didn’t mention a military option against the Iranian nuclear program. Is the military option also on the table for the U.S. to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?

A: You are going to have to ask them. This is not something I am given responsibility for so I will be very reluctant to get ahead of the administration on this.

Q: The Obama administration said it prefers diplomacy but that the military option is on the table.

A: All I can tell you is that between the president and Secretary Pompeo you have two of the best and smartest negotiators I have ever met. I have confidence in them but I will leave it to them to discuss the strategy.

Q: So lets talk about the strategy and those 12 demands. It is pretty obvious it will be very hard for the Iranians to accept it, and then the question is whether the U.S. strategy is to change the Iranian behavior or to change the Iranian regime.

A: The strategy is to protect American citizens and to protect the world. Sanctions were working before the JCPOA was in place. The U.S. economy is a juggernaut. It is tremendously important globally. I think most nations will choose to do business with the U.S. rather than do business with the Iranian regime. I think it’s a very sensible strategy that has a good chance to succeed.

Q: So the U.S. doesn’t look for regime change in Iran?

A: I think the U.S. sides with the Iranian people and will support the Iranian people. Our fight is not with the Iranian people but with the regime. I think the goal is to end all the rogue behavior not only on the nuclear issue but also on ballistic missiles, the encroachment through Yemen, Iraq and Syria, the financing of terrorism. That’s the goal of the U.S.

Q: Lets talk about this rogue behavior. The president said he wants U.S. forces out of Syria. The Israeli government was very concerned by that and the prime minister spoke about it with the president. How can you stop the Iranians from establishing themselves militarily in Syria and create a land corridor to the Mediterranean while getting U.S. forces out of Syria?

A: I have spent a fair amount of time with the Israeli government trying to understand whether they have any issues about U.S. policies (In Syria) — they haven’t. The Israelis have been doing a very significant job trying to contain Iranian behavior in Syria. So I am not aware this is a problem. I haven’t witnessed it on the Israeli side and I spend a lot of time with them.

Q: But when Netanyahu wants to discuss Syria he is not going to the White House — he is going to the Kremlin. Does this bother you?

A: I think he is speaking to both leaders. I guarantee you he speaks more with the president of the U.S. than with the leadership of Russia. It’s an important relationship on both sides and things need to be coordinated there [in Syria]. I think the Prime Minister is taking appropriate action.

Q: So you are not concerned by the fact there is a feeling the U.S. is going out of the region and Russia is going in?

A: No. I think that is an oversimplification of what’s happening.

Q: Lets go back to the opening of the embassy – when I came in you were giving out  red and blue baseball caps.

A: I hope you got one.

Q: Of course. I got a red one. But when I got in the ceremony itself was mainly red and felt very Republican. Weren’t you concerned that this ceremony was another proof that Israel is becoming a partisan issue in the U.S.?

A: I was very concerned that no Democrats showed up. This was not our intent. We would have been delighted to host as many Democratic congressmen and senators as would have come. The invitation was open to all, or I should actually say we made it clear that everybody was welcome. We didn’t specifically invite anyone. The Republican congressmen and senators who came did not come on the basis of a specific invitation. They reached out and they came. I would have been more than happy to host Democratic leaders and I hope they come in the future. From my perspective, American support for Israel needs to be bipartisan and I am going to do everything I can to support visits from legislators — blue or red.

Q: Yesterday you went to the city of Bnei Brak to meet the community there and someone shoved into your hand a picture of the Temple Mount with the Jewish temple instead of the Dome of the Rock

A: I went to this event yesterday — it was a completely apolitical event. It was a facility that treats disabled children. You cant get more apolitical than that. I was walking out the door and somebody rushes with a poster. I think it took a second. A picture gets taken and this is on the internet. I was mortified. I thought it was disrespectful and very stupid thing to do and I spent a lot of the last 24 hours to make it clear this does not represent my views and that the U.S. respect for the status quo at the Haram A-Sharif, the Temple Mount is still there, it is intact. Look, people do stupid things. I will have to be more careful the next time someone rushes at me with a picture. I have no idea what was in this person’s head.

Can Lebanon’s next government rise to the economic challenge? 

May 23, 2018

After Lebanon’s first parliamentary election in nine years, the dire economic situation and unsustainable public debt levels are top priorities for the next government.

Before the May 6 vote, leaders from across the deeply divided political establishment sounded the alarm about the state’s finances and economy.

They agree a new government, which is expected to contain the main parties, must be formed quickly, although wrangling over cabinet portfolios could take time, even months.

“The risk is if they really don’t form a government and don’t make any headway with policy in the remainder of this year,” Toby Iles of ratings agency Fitch said.


Lebanon is the world’s third-most indebted nation with a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 150 percent. It climbed from around 130 percent in 2011, before war in neighbouring Syria, and the arrival of more than a million refugees, depressed growth and paralysed government decision-making.

Can Lebanon’s next government rise to the economic challenge?

The International Monetary Fund has said Lebanon’s debt trajectory is unsustainable and needs immediate action, otherwise debt-to-GDP could hit 180 percent by 2023.

Annual growth rates have fallen to between 1 and 2 percent, from between 8 and 10 percent in the four years before the Syrian war. Two former pillars of the economy, Gulf Arab tourism and high-end real estate, have suffered.

Outgoing Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has said the unemployment rate exceeds 30 percent and UNDP says the number of people in poverty has risen by nearly two-thirds since 2011.

“I believe everyone has realised now that the ship might sink with everyone aboard,” leading Christian politician Samir Geagea said in a recent interview, describing the economic risks.


Absent an effective government, the central bank has for years maintained stability using stimulus packages and unorthodox financial operations, made possible by the billions of dollars deposited into Lebanese banks by the large diaspora.

Attracted by high interest rates and confidence in the country’s resilience and banks, diaspora deposits have helped Lebanon’s finances survive shocks including the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri – Saad’s father – and conflicts between Hezbollah and Israel.

But the risk of an increasing dependence on remittances became clear in November when Saad al-Hariri resigned unexpectedly. Some Lebanese moved their money out of local currency or overseas.

Central bank foreign assets fell by $1.6 billion that month as it defended the Lebanese pound’s peg to the dollar, according to released data. The crisis was short-lived, but the increasingly poor state of national finances has increased the risk that Lebanon might not weather a larger shock so well.

The quicker the government is formed and gets to work, the more support this gives to vital financial inflows.

Despite losing more than a third of his MPs, Hariri is expected to lead the next government.

Central bank policies have kept growth ticking over and foreign reserves high, but they have increased risk in the financial system. The central bank and IMF say such policies should not continue long-term and government policymaking needs to step in.

The finance ministry has met its foreign currency financing needs for 2018 through a $5.5 billion debt swap with the central bank. The transaction will reduce debt-servicing costs and boost central bank reserves, the government said.

* Lebanon’s debt “unsustainable”, immediate reform needed – IMF

* Pressure to form gov’t quickly to maintain confidence in economy

* Donors demand reform in return for investment

* New government formation might be drawn out


Sectarian politics and corruption have for years stalled reforms needed to boost growth and bring down debt. International donors want to see reforms to release more than $11 billion of investment pledged in April to boost the economy.

“It will be extremely challenging for the next Lebanese government to live up to these reforms. We know how hard it is to change the way things work here, and addressing the vested interests is hard. But there is no alternative way forward,” a western diplomat said.

Beirut hailed the money pledged in Paris as a sign of confidence in the government.

Donors want to preserve stability as war drags on in Syria, but say assistance depends on Beirut working to a credible economic plan and under international oversight to ensure reforms happen.

“We are going to be tough on this and I don’t see anyone else being less tough,” another western diplomat said.

In Paris, Hariri promised to reduce the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP by 5 percent over five years.

Reforming the subsidised power sector, widely seen as deeply corrupt, would be a big help.

Last year the government spent $1.3 billion subsiding the state power provider – 13 percent of primary expenditures. Meanwhile, most homes depend on expensive private generators because state provision is so patchy.

Hariri has led calls for reform since a years-long political deadlock was broken at the end of 2016 and parliament began to take decisions such as launching an offshore oil and gas exploration and passing the first government budget since 2005. (Reporting by Lisa Barrington Editing by Tom Perry)



Iran, Get Ready for the Battle Rial

May 22, 2018

The Trump administration has declared financial war on the regime. It’s a good bet America will win.

Iran, Get Ready for the Battle Rial

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday presented the Islamic Republic of Iran with a stark choice: Either change or face “unprecedented financial pressure” in the form of “the strongest sanctions in history when we are complete.” The Trump administration has declared financial war on the Iranian regime. Given the seriousness of its currency emergency, it’s a good bet America will win.

Iran’s economy is in crisis. Inflation is skyrocketing, banks are in turmoil, and Iranians protest daily against the regime’s ineptitude, corruption and foreign adventurism. The currency is collapsing. In 1979, just before the Islamic revolution, Iran’s official exchange rate was 70 rial to the dollar. Today’s official rate, 42,000 to 1, is only available to those with regime connections. Most Iranians have to accept less favorable terms on the black market.

The rial experienced several waves of devaluation, including during the last ramp-up in U.S. sanctions. The black-market rate per dollar went from around 11,000 in early 2011 to close to 37,000 in 2013, immediately before the June election of President Hassan Rouhani. The latest deterioration signals a worse crisis. It was triggered by Mr. Trump’s decision in October to decertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, indicating his intention to reimpose sanctions. The black-market rate has settled at 63,500, a nearly 40% loss of value since October. It dipped to 70,000 in the 24 hours after Mr. Trump announced on May 8 America’s official withdrawal from the nuclear deal. The regime is so desperate to avoid further collapse, it is taking extreme measures like criminalizing private currency trading and severely restricting the amount of currency Iranian travelers can take out of the country.

With the impending reimposition of sanctions, the pressure on Tehran is growing every day. Any bank that lets Iran draw on its foreign-held reserves will face total cutoff from the U.S. financial system. Trade and investment in major Iranian economic sectors will grind to a halt. Insurers will walk away from Iran-related projects. Importers of Iranian oil will reduce their purchases. Providing Iran with precious metals, which the regime might use in place of cash, will be off-limits, too. Already major European energy, insurance and shipping companies have signaled their intention to cut ties with the Islamic Republic unless their governments can negotiate sanctions waivers.

Mr. Pompeo made clear Monday that’s unlikely—and also that the administration will tighten the screws further, targeting every aspect of the regime’s finances.

What are the options? The Treasury Department has the authority to target companies owned or controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran’s defense industry. These represent around 20% of total market capitalization of the Tehran Stock Exchange. The Treasury could impose sanctions on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s $200 billion corporate conglomerate, including the charitable trusts, or bonyads, where regime officials stash their money. Mr. Trump could use his executive powers to target companies of which the IRGC owns a minority share, vastly expanding Treasury’s list. He could broaden sanctions to cover Iran’s mining, construction and engineering industries, and any other sector of strategic importance.

Another top target will be Hezbollah, Iran’s largest terrorist proxy. The administration should cut off Hezbollah’s companies and bankers, especially in Lebanon, from the international financial system, while cracking down on the group’s fundraising, recruitment, narcotics trafficking and other transnational criminal activities.

America’s new strategy also presents European leaders with a choice: Either help curb all of Iran’s malign activities in exchange for major American economic and diplomatic concessions, or cast their lots with the repressive theocracy responsible for a 2012 terror attack in Bulgaria, and for the bloodshed in Syria that created a refugee crisis in Europe.

The Europeans have several important roles to play in a maximum-pressure strategy. The Swift financial-messaging service, based in Brussels, would disconnect the Central Bank of Iran, as well as other designated Iranian banks. The European Central Bank would stop clearing euro-based Iranian transactions through its Target2 settlement system, whose bylaws explicitly forbid activity with banks engaged in illicit financing schemes. Central banks in European countries would stop trying to evade U.S. oil sanctions by making direct payments to Iran’s central bank. Europe would designate the IRGC and Hezbollah in their entirety as terror groups.

The Europeans could refuse to do these things if they want to play hardball and undermine the U.S. strategy. But Mr. Trump would have options to respond. American law authorizes him to impose sanctions on Swift and its directors if they refuse to disconnect Iranian banks. The president could use his executive powers to put on the sanctions list board members and senior officials at the ECB, European Investment Bank and national central banks.

That sort of showdown may seem appealing to some Europeans. But the democratic ties that bind America with Europe are far stronger than any commercial relationship between Europe and the Islamic Republic.

Just last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron ruled out any trade war with the U.S. over Iran. Other European leaders should follow their lead. Mr. Pompeo has opened the door for renewed trans-Atlantic dialogue. Brussels may be slow to warm up to America’s new, no-holds-barred financial war on the Iranian regime. But European banks and businesses ought to keep one thing in mind: In a Battle rial, anything goes.

Mr. Dubowitz is chief executive and Mr. Goldberg a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Israel says first to use F-35 stealth fighter jets in combat

May 22, 2018

The Israeli military has used its newly acquired F-35 stealth fighters in combat, making it the world’s first to do so, the air force commander said Tuesday.

“The Adir aircraft are already operational and flying combat missions,” Major General Amikam Norkin said at a conference in central Israel, using the plane’s Hebrew name.

“In fact, we have performed the first operational F-35 strike in the world.”

“We attacked twice in the Middle East using the F-35 -? we are the first in the world to do so,” he said in remarks quoted by the air force’s website, without providing further details.

Israel has carried out a number of strikes in Syria against what it describes as Iranian targets as well as on what it says are advanced arms deliveries to Hezbollah.

The country has agreed to buy 50 of the American high-tech stealth bombers, which will help it maintain military superiority in the turbulent Middle East, particularly regarding anti-aircraft missile systems in Syria.

© AFP | Israel has carried out a number of strikes in Syria against what it describes as Iranian targets as well as on what it says are advanced arms deliveries to Hezbollah

In December, the air force announced that the nine F-35 jets in its possession at the time were operational.

Norkin was speaking at an event marking the air force’s 70th anniversary in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, attended by senior air force officials from over 20 countries, the military said.

Israel has pledged to prevent its main enemy Iran from entrenching itself militarily in neighbouring Syria, where Tehran is backing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Earlier this month, Israel launched a large-scale attack on what it said were Iranian targets in Syria, raising fears of a major confrontation.

Those strikes followed a barrage of rockets that Israel said was fired toward its forces in the occupied Golan Heights by Iran from Syria.

In his comments on Tuesday, Norkin also made reference to an Israeli strike on missiles Iran had allegedly transported to Syria, without providing a timeframe.

“Over the past weeks, we understood that Iran was transporting long-range missiles and rockets to Syria, among which are ‘Uragan’ missile launchers which we attacked, just north of Damascus,” Norkin said.

He then went on to describe the series of events on May 9 and 10.

“The Iranians fired 32 rockets. We intercepted 4 of them and the rest fell outside Israeli territory,” Norkin said.

“Afterwards, we attacked dozens of Iranian targets in Syria.”

He noted that over 100 ground-to-air missiles were fired at Israeli planes during the attack.

The strikes left at least 27 pro-regime fighters dead, including 11 Iranians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Israel has been blamed for a series of other recent strikes inside Syria that have killed Iranians, though it has not acknowledged them.

As a result, Israel had been preparing itself for weeks for possible Iranian retaliation.


An Arab Plan B for Containing Iran

May 21, 2018


Image may contain: 5 people, people standing and suit

Plan A was the nuclear deal. That’s over. Now key Gulf states want the U.S. to flex more muscle.


Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal didn’t draw much international applause, but three U.S. allies in the Middle East — Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — warmly welcomed the move.

Israel had long said that the deal didn’t do enough to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and Gulf Arab countries believed it gave Iran cover for an intensified campaign of destabilizing the Arab world. And they have plenty of ideas when it comes to drawing up a Plan B for a U.S.-led containment campaign against Iran.

Image may contain: outdoor
Houthi rebels launch an Iranian made ballistic missile into Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and the UAE never shared President Barack Obama’s conviction that engagement and sanctions relief could moderate Iran’s revolutionary brashness, regional meddling and support for sectarian extremists.

So they’re pleased by Trump’s rhetorical attacks and reimposed sanctions against the Iranian regime, and they want the U.S. to foreclose any efforts by European countries that remain signatories to the nuclear deal to find a way to let their companies keep doing business with Iranian institutions.

However, Iran’s expansion as a regional power largely took place before the nuclear deal was signed, and the comprehensive international sanctions that existed in the years leading up to the agreement did not deter Tehran’s support for extremist groups in Arab countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.

So the Gulf states don’t expect sanctions alone to do the trick. They hope that with Islamic State crushed in Iraq and Syria, Washington will now lead a coordinated regional strategy to cut Iran’s power down to size.

Among other things, they want limited and focused military action to reverse some of the gains Iran has made since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Indeed, they’ve already taken on the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as the local al-Qaeda affiliate. They may also hope to play a role in confronting Iran’s lawless behavior in the waters of the Gulf itself.

They are looking for Washington to take the lead in confronting Iran in Iraq, but there, too, Saudi Arabia has shown it is willing to play a diplomatic, political and financial role.

Perhaps the most strategically vital theater in any such campaign would be Syria, which is far from the Gulf countries. There, they hope that Israel will enforce its own red lines on Iranian conduct and make life difficult for the Hezbollah militants in Syria and possibly even in their home base of Lebanon.

They would urge the U.S. to prevent Iran from taking advantage of the collapse of Islamic State in western Iraq and eastern Syria in order to create a secured military corridor running from Iran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. Such a strategic upheaval, if secured and consolidated, would ensure that Iran emerges as a regional superpower.

Gulf Arab countries also want to work with the U.S. to persuade Turkey and Russia that their interests in Syria are not served by an empowered and aggressive Iran. Otherwise, Russia could prove a major obstacle to reducing Iran’s influence in Syria and getting Hezbollah to go back to Lebanon.

Finally, while the Gulf countries don’t want an all-out war with Iran, there are signs of Arab and American encouragement of uprisings by Iranian ethnic minorities such as Baluchis, Arabs and Kurds.

The goal isn’t regime change, partly because that’s not considered a serious possibility at the moment. What they want, instead, is a sustained containment campaign to pressure Iran to change its behavior and ambitions and constrain its ability to destabilize neighbors and spread influence.

It’s a big ask, and probably bigger than many Gulf Arab leaders realize. After decades of U.S. leadership in the region, these countries grew used to, and benefited from, a U.S.-enforced regional order. But now, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans across the political spectrum have an advanced case of Middle East war fatigue. Trump’s “America First” campaign didn’t signal much enthusiasm for the kind of interventionist foreign policy that these Gulf allies are hoping for.

But if the U.S. wants to combat terrorism and confront Iran, as the administration insists it does, Trump’s idea of withdrawing the more than 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria is a nonstarter.

The Gulf countries aren’t asking for a repetition of the 2003 adventure in Iraq, which they didn’t support or encourage. What they want is a multi-front effort to roll back Iran’s influence by defanging its proxies, supporting its enemies and insurgents and choking off its economy. Only Washington, they believe, can do that. The idea is especially to weaken Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its clients around the region.

Containing Iran will take time, effort and troops and will not be painless. But it needn’t and shouldn’t be a madcap adventure like the campaign that began in 2003 to remake Iraq in an American image. Instead, as Russia has demonstrated in Syria, even in the Middle East it’s possible to secure limited goals with limited means, especially if allies work together. That’s what Saudi Arabia and the UAE are hoping is in the works for a Plan B regarding Iran.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Hussein Ibish at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at