Posts Tagged ‘Netanyahu’

Why the choice between Netanyahu and the rule of law is no choice at all for Israel

February 21, 2018

Is Israel going to drum out a skilled PM for a few piffling infractions? Well, it might, but they may not be piffling, and the framers of our laws ensured it won’t be done lightly

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the Muni World conference in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the Muni World conference in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

Toward the end of a panel discussion in which I participated on Tuesday evening, organized by American Jewish leaders on a mission to Jerusalem, a member of the audience asked us whether we realized how lacking in self-awareness Israel currently seems to many of its supporters overseas, as it apparently moves to hound out of office a highly effective prime minister for alleged bribery offenses involving piffling sums.

The $300,000 or so in total that Netanyahu and wife Sara is alleged to have received in cigars, champagne and other goodies from billionaire friends Arnon Milchan and James Packer, the questioner scoffed at our session of the annual gathering in Jerusalem of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is so insignificant it could be regarded as a rounding-off number.

Over such a sum, he asked in outraged bafflement, Israel was going to lose a leader uniquely capable of keeping the country safe and thriving?

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich attends an Interior Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There was plainly a degree of support for this view in the room; the questioner received a smattering of applause. One of my fellow panelists, in similar vein, had earlier suggested that police chief Roni Alsheich ought not to be pursuing the various corruption investigations into Netanyahu, because the prime minister needed to focus his full attention on the security challenges facing Israel; any criminal probes should wait until his time in office was completed.

With Iran now encamped directly on our northern border, and upping the ante just days ago by sending one of its own drones into the country in an unprecedented direct challenge; with Hezbollah strengthening, the Mahmoud Abbas era nearing its end, Putin ascendant in the neighborhood and an unpredictable if supportive US president, there are indeed threats and instabilities in most every direction.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an inauguration ceremony for a new emergency room at the Barzilai Hospital in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon on February 20, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

Looking back over recent years in which Netanyahu-led Israel has maintained relative stability and strong economic growth while much of the Middle East collapsed around it, and watching the dexterity with which Netanyahu puts Israel’s case to key world leaders, it is easy to understand why many people watching from overseas who care for this country would be horrified at the notion of an Israel helmed by anybody else. Indeed, polls taken in the last few days — even as police recommended that Netanyahu be prosecuted for fraud, breach of trust and bribery in two cases, and with new criminal allegations continuing to surface — underline how widely supported Netanyahu remains among Israelis too. As of this writing, I have yet to see a survey indicating anyone but Netanyahu as our preferred choice of prime minister.

Communications Ministry Director-General Shlomo Filber at a Knesset committee meeting on July 24, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Even today, with Israel’s opposition leader Avi Gabbay having proclaimed that “the era of Netanyahu is over,” and one of the prime minister’s closest aides, Communications Ministry director Shlomo Filber, turning state witness against him, there is no definitive saying when or even whether Netanyahu will fall. It might be credibly asserted that Filber could turn out to be Netanyahu’s Shula Zaken — the longtime aide turned state witness, privy to all the boss’s darkest secrets, whose testimony was central to the conviction and eventual incarceration of prime minister Ehud Olmert. But Netanyahu, it should be stressed, retains the presumption of innocence, has not been charged with any offense, and is unlikely to be charged for many, many months at the earliest.

Ehud Olmert and Shula Zaken in September 2011 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Ehud Olmert (left) and Shula Zaken, September 2011 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Nonetheless, the notion that this or any other prime minister, this or any other Israeli, however effective and ostensibly uniquely masterful, should be given special legal dispensation — should be, that is, above the law — does not bear close scrutiny.

An argument can be made that a national leader constrained by term limits should be protected from investigation and prosecution in most circumstances. France, for instance, provides that immunity for its presidents, who may serve no more than two five-year terms. But in an Israel without term limits, a prime minister could utilize such protection to not just discredit but actively work to dismantle the democratic framework, including the law enforcement authorities. Fighting for his political life, Netanyahu has taken not only to castigating his political opposition, but also the media, and most unconscionably of late, the police, which he has accused of bias and a lack of objectivity. Freed from the imperative to answer to any alleged crimes until out of office, a prime minister might be tempted to do everything to ensure that day never came.

Israel’s second longest-serving prime minister (he has to hang on until July 2019 to overtake David Ben-Gurion), Netanyahu has long since persuaded himself that his presence in the Prime Minister’s Office is crucial to Israel’s very survival. Many Israelis, and many of Israel’s supporters around the world, share that assessment. But more than Israel needs Netanyahu or any other prime minister, it should not require saying, we need our democracy. And the shapers of that democracy, with a wisdom for which they are not often credited, provided a framework to ensure that even situations such as that facing Netanyahu and his investigators would be handled with the appropriate sensitivity, the appropriate balance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with then-cabinet secretary and current Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, May 26, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

When answering our questioner on Tuesday night, I remembered the interview I conducted recently with the retired deputy Supreme Court president Elyakim Rubinstein. We had talked a little about the challenges facing Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in weighing the evidence and determining whether to prosecute Netanyahu. Rubinstein, himself a former attorney general, was sensibly circumspect in what he wanted to say. But after we had moved on to discuss other issues, he chose to bring the conversation back to that vexed subject again, because he wanted to point out that investigating a serving prime minister is not a step that is taken lightly in Israel, and that extraordinary procedures apply.

Rubinstein walked over to one of the bookshelves in his office at the Supreme Court, took down a volume, leafed through its pages until he had found what he was looking for, pointed to the passage in question, and said: “We spoke earlier about the investigation. Look, it is written here in the Basic Law, ‘A criminal investigation will not be opened against the prime minister unless it is with the agreement of the attorney general. An indictment will be served by the attorney general to the district court.’ You see, this special process…”

Looking at some of the assorted egotists, extremists and relative incompetents who presume to think they could take on that most arduous of tasks, serving as prime minister of Israel, it is no surprise that many at home and abroad are fearful for an Israel without Netanyahu. But if our prime minister allegedly subverted the rule of law — if he cut illicit deals with business and media barons to boost their wealth, in return for benefits in the shape of gifts and favorable press coverage (as claimed in Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000) — then the suspicions must be probed. The investigations were not ordered casually; as Rubinstein was at pains to point out, a “special process” was required, overseen by the country’s most senior legal officer.

That’s how our democracy works. And a stable, properly functioning democracy is more central to Israel’s existence, to its capacity to thrive economically and meet its security challenges, than the maintenance in power of any prime minister, however gifted. Our stable, properly functioning democracy, ensuring the rule of law, is at the core of our national resilience. The choice between preserving that, and preserving Netanyahu, is no choice at all.


Netanyahu Peril Grows, as Trusted Aide Agrees to Testify

February 21, 2018

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Munich this month. The Israeli police have arrested several of his friends and confidants, as well as top executives of the telecommunications company Bezeq, in a widening inquiry into whether he traded favors for favorable news coverage. Credit Thomas Kienzle/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to provide testimony on behalf of the state about alleged corrupt dealings between the government and the country’s biggest telecoms group, Israeli media reported on Wednesday.

Image result for Shlomo Filber, photos

Shlomo Filber 

Shlomo Filber, who was arrested this week along with top executives at Bezeq Telecom (BEZQ.TA), had been a personal appointment of Netanyahu’s to head the Communications Ministry.

Police now suspect Bezeq received regulatory benefits, and in return, Netanyahu received favorable media coverage on a popular news website that is also controlled by Bezeq’s former chairman.

The Bezeq executives have denied the allegations.

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during an inauguration ceremony for a fortified emergency room at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, southern Israel, February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during an inauguration ceremony for a fortified emergency room at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, southern Israel, February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israel’s Ynet news website reported that Filber has now agreed to testify for the state in the case, a development that could further complicate things for Netanyahu as he battles mounting corruption allegations.

Israeli authorities were not immediately available to confirm that a deal with Filber had been reached.


On Tuesday, police alleged that Netanyahu’s former spokesman tried to bribe a judge to drop a fraud case against Netanyahu’s wife. Netanyahu himself is suspect in two other investigations.

The right-wing leader, in office for 12 years since 1996, has denied wrongdoing in any of the cases, calling them a political “witch hunt”.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Robert Birsel


See also:

Netanyahu Peril Grows, as Trusted Aide Agrees to Testify


Iran threatens to ‘level Tel Aviv,’ kill Netanyahu if Israel attacks

February 20, 2018

Senior Iranian official dismisses PM’s ‘unwise’ speech, in which he brandished an Iranian drone and threatened military action

Former chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Rezaei (photo credit: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Former chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Rezaei (photo credit: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Tel Aviv will be “leveled to the ground” if Israel attacks Iran, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not escape with his life, a senior official in the Islamic republic’s regime threatened.

His comments came in response to Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday at the Munich Security Conference, in which the prime minister brandished a piece of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace and threatened direct military action against Iran.

“About Netanyahu’s unwise words, I should say that if they carry out the slightest unwise move against Iran, we will level Tel Aviv to the ground,” Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council and former chief of the country’s Revolutionary Guards, told the Hezbollah-affiliated Arabic-language al-Manar TV channel Monday.

Adding a personal threat to the Israeli leader’s life, Rezaei added that Tehran “will not give Netanyahu any opportunity to flee,” Fars News reported.

Netanyahu singled out Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in his speech at the security conference, as he lifted up a piece of the drone’s wreckage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves part of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace, during a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (Screen capture)

“Mr. Zarif, do you recognize this? You should, it’s yours. You can take back with you a message to the tyrants of Tehran — do not test Israel’s resolve!” proclaimed Netanyahu to the audience, which included Zarif.

The drone, which entered northern Israel from Syria near the Jordan border on February 10, was shot down by an Israeli attack helicopter. In response to the incursion, Israeli jets attacked the mobile command center from which it was operated, the army said.

During the reprisal raid, one of the eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets that took part in the operation was apparently hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and crashed. The Israeli Air Force then conducted a second round of airstrikes, destroying between a third and half of Syria’s air defenses, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.

The flareup on the northern border marked the first direct confrontation between the Israeli air force and the Iranian regime on Israeli territory. Israel has warned of growing Iranian entrenchment in neighboring Syria and has said it will not abide an Iranian military presence on its borders.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gives a speech during the Munich Security Conference on February 18, 2018, in Munich, southern Germany. (AFP Photo/Thomas Kienzle)

“Israel will not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” Netanyahu said during his speech. “We will act without hesitation to defend ourselves. And we will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.”

Dismissing Netanyahu’s address as a “theatrical move and a childish game,” Rezaei claimed that “US and Israeli leaders don’t know Iran and don’t understand the power of resistance, and therefore they continuously face defeat.

“Today, the situation of the US and Israel indicates their fear of the Zionist regime’s collapse and of the US’s decline,” he added.

The comment echoed Zarif’s response to Netanyahu in Munich, downplaying the drone stunt as a “cartoonish circus” and saying it “doesn’t deserve the dignity of a response.”

Israel has been warning for years that Iran is seeking to entrench itself militarily in Syria. According to Israeli political and military assessments, Tehran, which has shored up dictator Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, has been working to create air and naval bases in Syria, from which it can arm the Lebanon-based terror organization Hezbollah and other Shiite groups, as well as carry out attacks of its own against the Jewish state.

On Monday, a senior IDF general warned that the chances of war were higher than ever for 2018 in light of the battlefield victories in the Syrian civil war by Assad and his allies Iran and Hezbollah.

“The year 2018 has the potential for escalation [of military conflict], not necessarily because either side wants to initiate it, but because of a gradual deterioration. This has led us to raise the level of preparedness,” Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, head of IDF Operations, told Army Radio in a rare interview.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Pursued by the Law, Netanyahu Sparks Revival of Right-wing Lunacy

February 20, 2018


A Likud MK’s demented analogy with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin nonetheless hits a raw nerve

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during an inauguration ceremony for a fortified emergency room at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, southern Israel, February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during an inauguration ceremony for a fortified emergency room at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Feb 20, 2018\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The immediate reaction to the analogy drawn by Likud Member of Knesset Miki Zohar between the troubles of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin is ridicule and scorn. Why stop with Rabin? What about Bar-Kochba? Jeanne D’Arc? Jesus Christ? The six million, perhaps? Then comes consternation. How low must we have sunk, if an elected official can’t differentiate between a prime minister who was murdered for his positions and another who is being investigated for his transgressions?

Nonetheless, Zohar put his finger on the right spot. His own words prove it. He is not a deviation from the norm or an exception that proves the rule. His sicko comparison between Netanyahu and Rabin – as well as the new reports about the efforts made by Netanyahu’s aide to appoint an attorney general who would exonerate the prime minister’s wife – are but symptoms of a general mental breakdown on the right. It’s a global phenomenon, of course, with deep-seated historical and sociological roots, which has accelerated with the presidency of Donald Trump, who disseminates inanities throughout the globe. In the local Israeli edition, however, the willingness of so many on the right to break the rules, buck the system, defy the state and blindly follow Netanyahu, one of Israel’s most charismatic politicians, cannot but evoke ominous associations from the past.

MK Miki Zohar (Likud)

MK Miki Zohar (Likud)Olivier Fitoussi

The situation was insane from the outset, even before the police began to investigate.  The well-documented compulsion of Netanyahu and his wife to live the good life at the expense of billionaires is a sickness in itself. Their obsession with what the media says about them has long gone beyond the rational. In any normal country, Netanyahu’s decision in late 2014 to topple his own government in order to protect Sheldon’s Adelson’s Yisrael Hayom newspaper, to which he has now fessed up, would be considered totally unhinged. Netanyahu’s amok to pervert Israeli media and to control it – along with his coalition’s astounding silence of the chickens that has greeted it – are all indications of a government that is going off the rails.

Netanyahu’s implication in criminal investigations is the trigger that has caused serious deterioration. Like Trump – his great friend, partner in probes and sometimes role model – Netanyahu has launched an irresponsible assault on the Israeli police. He depicts himself, outrageously, as the innocent victim of a dark conspiracy, whose agents are out to destroy him. Whether his paranoia is as genuinely acute as it seems or just a cynical manipulation, ever-growing parts of the Israeli right, from top to bottom, are getting sucked into the whirlwind of Netanyahu’s lurid fantasies. They are increasingly convinced that the state itself is his enemy, and thus, by extension, their own.

The factual similarities to the time of Rabin’s assassination are slim. Then, the future of Israel was at stake, here we’re dealing with expensive champagne and Cuban cigars. There, devout Jewish settlers served as Netanyahu’s storm troopers, now he has to make do, for the time being at least, with opportunists and sycophants who flow with his frenzy, along with die-hard Bibi fans who nonetheless have to be prodded to participate in the support rallies that the Likud organizes from time to time. On the other hand, then as now, the pivotal main actor is a talented orator like Netanyahu, acknowledged expert on incitement and genius grandmaster of demagoguery, who has already shown his lack of inhibitions in the pursuit of power, who continues to ignore warnings about the dangerous influence of his words, who fiddles with the public’s frustrations and preys on its fears and stirs up evil winds with no regard for who or what they could ignite.

The madness might not suffice to save Netanyahu himself, but it could very well erupt and engulf his successor. In the demented Bizarro world of right-wing politicians like Zohar, Netanyahu’s replacement could find himself pilloried as another Yigal Amir, the only person, so far, who truly murdered a prime minister.

To Push Iran Back, Israel Ramps Up Support for Syrian Rebels, ‘Arming 7 Different Groups’

February 20, 2018


With the Assad regime’s advances the civil war and America’s reduced involvement in the region, Israel has been forced to make significant changes in its policies in the Golan Heights

Two men, not specified which group of rebels, ride a motorcycle towards an abandoned UN base at Syria's Quneitra border crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. The Israeli military says it has carried out an air strike in Syria on a building used by Islamic State militants to attack Israeli forces. The overnight air strike Monday targeted an abandoned United Nations building that Israel says was used as a base by the militants. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Two men, not specified which group of rebels, ride a motorcycle towards an abandoned UN base at Syria’s Quneitra border crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Nov. 28, 2016Ariel Schalit / AP

The recent tensions along the Israeli-Syrian border have been mainly aerial. But due to developments in the Syrian civil war, real changes are also taking place on the ground in the Golan Heights.

The Assad regime, which has gained the upper hand in the war, is now focusing on aggressively attacking rebel enclaves east of Damascus and in the northern Idlib province. But it is also gradually bolstering its presence in southern Syria, including in the Syrian Golan Heights. And accordingly, Israel its altering its deployment to prepare for what’s to come.

The de-escalation agreement for southern Syria, which the United States, Russia and Jordan signed last November, included a promise to keep Iran and its affiliated Shi’ite militias away from the Israeli border. Israel wanted the Iranians and their agents to be kept almost 60 kilometers from the frontier, east of the Damascus-Daraa road. But it didn’t get its wish; the agreement committed to keep them only 5 kilometers from the front lines between the regime and the rebels.


Iranian presence in Syria

What this means in practice is that the Iranians are allowed to come to within 20 kilometers of Israel’s border in the central Syrian Golan and within just 5 kilometers in the northern Syrian Golan, which is controlled by Assad’s army. But it’s safe to assume that Hezbollah operatives and even members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards sometimes come right up to the border.

The Assad regime has posts overlooking the Israeli border near Quneitra in the northern Golan, and it’s possible that senior Hezbollah operatives and Iranian representatives visit these posts, which are quite close to Israeli territory.

That isn’t the only important development in recent months. About a month ago, the regime retook the enclave of Beit Jin in the northern Golan from Sunni rebels; it’s located less than 15 kilometers from the Israeli border. Israel Defense Forces officers believe that sooner or later, Assad will make an effort to regain control of the rest of the Syrian Golan, in part because of the symbolic importance of sovereignty over the border with Israel. Members of the security cabinet, who toured the Golan with senior IDF officers almost two weeks ago, think the same.

.FILE PHOTO: Iran's army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking at a map with senior officers from the Iranian military as they visit a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria.

FILE PHOTO: Iran’s army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking at a map with senior officers from the Iranian military as they visit a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Uncredited/AP

Analyst Elizabeth Tsurkov, who has followed events in Syria closely for the last several years and has interviewed many rebel militiamen and residents of the Syrian Golan, published a detailed survey of developments in southern Syria in the War on the Rocks blog last week.

Tsurkov said the scope of Israel’s involvement in southern Syria has changed in recent months in response to the regime’s successes in the civil war and Iran’s consolidation in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns about the latter on every possible occasion and has repeatedly said Israel will work to thwart it.

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According to foreign media reports, over the past few months Israel has begun carrying out airstrikes against Syrian army facilities and targets linked to Iran and its Shi’ite militias, in addition to its longstanding targeting of convoys carrying arms to Hezbollah. Tsurkov also reported on other developments taking place.

Dozens of rebels who spoke with Tsurkov described a significant change in the amount of aid they receive from Israel. Moreover, she said at least seven Sunni rebel organizations in the Syrian Golan are now getting arms and ammunition from Israel, along with money to buy additional armaments.

This change has taken place at a time when America has greatly reduced its involvement in southern Syria. In January, the Trump administration closed the operations center the CIA ran in Amman, the Jordanian capital, which coordinated aid to rebel organizations in southern Syria. As a result, tens of thousands of rebels who received regular economic support from the U.S. have been bereft of this support.

At the same time, Israel has also increased its civilian aid to villages controlled by the rebels, including supplying medicine, food and clothing. Last summer, Israel admitted for the first time that it provides civilian aid to villages in the Syrian Golan, but declined to confirm claims that it also provides military aid.

Tsurkov said these Israeli moves are intended to help block the Assad regime’s advance in the Golan and its conquest of rebel-held villages near the Israeli border. Nevertheless, she wrote, there’s an expectations gap between the two sides. The rebels expect unlimited Israeli support, and some are even hoping for help in their efforts to topple the regime. Israel’s plans are much more modest, and are intended as a holding action.

Relatively moderate Sunni rebels, whom the Israeli defense establishment terms “the locals,” control most of the Syrian-Israeli border, aside from two areas – a regime-controlled area in the northern Golan and a section of the southern Golan controlled by a branch of the Islamic State, Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid. According to Tsurkov, Israel is also helping the rebels in their war against the Islamic State.

There have been skirmishes between ISIS and other rebel organizations over the last several years, but these battles have produced no significant change in the forces’ deployment. However, rebels told Tsurkov that Israel has recently begun helping them by launching drone strikes and antitank missiles at Islamic State positions during these battles.

Putin’s Syrian Dilemma: Stay with Israel or Iran?

February 19, 2018


All of the Russian president’s achievements in Syria could come crashing down unless he answers this one fundamental question

.Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, February 16, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, February 16, 2018.Alexei Druzhinin/AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin thought he could succeed where the U.S.’s then-President Barack Obama failed. Pacify Syria, rescue the regime of his client, President Bashar Assad, and balance the conflicting interests of Iran and Israel in the war-torn country. All this he did with a relatively small investment: the deployment of a couple of dozen aircraft and 2,000 men. As foreign campaigns go, it was power projection on the cheap. The United States on a similar mission would have used a force 10 times the size – aircraft carrier groups and hundreds of fighter jets, aerial tankers and electronic warfare planes. Not to mention boots on the ground.

But Russia could pull it off thanks to the cannon fodder supplied by Iran. Tens of thousands of Shi’ite mercenaries, mainly refugees from Afghanistan, propped up Assad’s failing battalions. Hezbollah fighters came from Lebanon to carry out the more difficult operations. Russia made do with small teams of special-force troops and, where more muscle was needed, its own mercenaries.

It was a relatively small investment with few casualties and not, as some predicted two years ago, a rerun of the Soviet Union’s disastrous occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.


President Vladimir Putin addressing Russian troops at Hemeimeem air base during a surprise visit to Damascus, December 12, 2017.

President Vladimir Putin addressing Russian troops at Hemeimeem air base during a surprise visit to Damascus, December 12, 2017.Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

>> Iran and the Assad regime are drawing a line in Syria’s skies | Analysis <<

With perfect timing, and taking advantage of the vacuum left by Obama’s decision not to get involved in Syria, Putin had put Russia back on the geopolitical map. He made a surprise visit to Damascus in December to declare: Mission accomplished. He should have learned from former U.S. President George W. Bush never to say that – because now everything is starting to fall apart for the Russians.


A serviceman holds a portrait of Russian air force pilot Roman Fillipov, who was killed after his aircraft was shot down over rebel-held territory in Syria, February 8, 2018.

A serviceman holds a portrait of Russian air force pilot Roman Fillipov, who was killed after his aircraft was shot down over rebel-held territory in Syria, February 8, 2018.\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

There was last month’s Sochi conference, where attempts to agree a political process for Syria’s future under Assad, with the usual farce of elections, failed even before the delegates arrived. Turkey has launched a large-scale incursion into northwestern Syria, in an attempt to prevent Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) forces from establishing a military presence on its border. Meanwhile, the Turks are clashing with the Iranians as well, and as of Monday with regime forces too.

Much more worrying for Russia is that in the east of the country, another Kurdish force – the Syrian Democratic Forces, which also includes Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian forces – is widening its control of areas once held by the Islamic State. The SDF is now the only player in Syria with U.S. military support: During a clash 10 days ago between the SDF and regime forces working together with Russian mercenaries, the United States launched a devastating airstrike. The Kremlin still won’t acknowledge any casualties, but unofficial reports from Russia claim that as many as 200 Russian mercenaries died.

And then last week there was the first direct confrontation between Israel and Iran.

The Turkish front is less concerning for Putin, since it doesn’t directly threaten Russia’s main interests. The clashes in the northeast are a much larger problem as they are sending coffins back home to Russia – the last thing Putin needs before the presidential election in mid-March.

For now at least, the Israeli-Iranian front may not directly put Russian personnel in the line of fire. But it is a much greater threat to the Assad regime itself. Damascus is close to the Israeli border and Assad, with Iranian encouragement, is trying to assert himself by firing anti-aircraft missiles at Israel Air Force planes.

For the past two and a half years, the deal between Jerusalem and Moscow was simple: Israel allowed Russia to resupply Assad’s army and help the regime – through aerial bombardments of rebel-held areas, indiscriminately killing thousands of civilians – to retake large swaths of territory. Russia, meanwhile, turned a blind eye as Israel continued its periodic attacks on convoys and depots of Iranian-supplied weapons destined for Hezbollah. Russia collaborated with Iran in reviving the regime, while not intervening when Israel struck at Iran’s proxies.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that Russia prevent Iran’s forces from building permanent bases on Syrian soil, Putin tried to strike a compromise. Iran continued entrenching its Shi’ite militias, but at the same time didn’t come too close to the Israeli border or begin building large bases.

Israeli soldiers in the northern Golan Heights after an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace and was shot done, February 10, 2018.

Israeli soldiers in the northern Golan Heights after an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace and was shot done, February 10, 2018.Gil Eliahu

That balance can no longer hold. The decision by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to send a drone into Israeli airspace in the early hours of Saturday February 10, followed by Israel’s retaliation against the Iranian command unit that launched the drone and the ensuing air battle between Israeli fighter jets and Syrian air defense batteries, was proof that Russia can no longer contain the interests of all the different sides within Syria.

Putin has utilized “hybrid warfare” – a combination of military power, deniable proxies and cyberattacks – to destabilize neighboring countries like Georgia and Ukraine, which tried to get too close to the West. Relatively small investments for major gain.

But just like Russian interference with the U.S. presidential election, where the Kremlin wanted only to undermine America’s democratic process but never actually believed it could help get Donald Trump elected, he may have gone too deep. What was supposed to be an exercise in troublemaking is, despite Trump’s reluctance, now a full-blown confrontation with the U.S. intelligence services.

Managing a multitrack Middle East policy and engaging simultaneously with all of the regional players takes time, resources and, especially, experience. Until recently, the United States had the combination of seasoned diplomats, military and intelligence officers – with extensive contacts and time spent in the region – to maintain such a complex operation.

Under President Trump, many of these professionals have left the administration, and there is no clear sense of direction from the White House for those remaining. But the lack of any real U.S. presence or policy doesn’t mean someone else can just come along and take over its traditional role.

It’s not just that the Kremlin doesn’t have anything resembling this kind of network. Putin’s centralized way of doing business means that every decision goes through him in Moscow. This isn’t helping Russia keep a handle on evolving events on the ground, but it is an advantage for Netanyahu – who is currently the regional player with the best personal relationship with Putin.

There are currently two schools of thought within the Israeli intelligence community. The skeptics believe Putin will not give up on his Shi’ite boots on the ground and will ultimately limit Israel’s freedom to operate in the skies above Syria – pushing Israel to make a difficult choice between sitting on the sidelines while Iran and Hezbollah build up their outposts or confronting Russia as well. The optimists believe Putin knows Israel has the power to jeopardize its achievements and threaten the Assad regime, and will therefore rein in the Iranians.

Netanyahu’s team has been working closely with the Russian president for years, and the two leaders speak regularly on the phone and meet every few months. When they’re on their own, with just fellow Likud lawmaker Zeev Elkin to interpret, does Netanyahu openly threaten to destabilize the Assad regime? Probably not. The implied threat is enough.

Putin will have to make the call on Israel or Iran soon – or risk losing all he has invested in Syria.

Trump May Have To Grow Up, Do More Than Tweets: Send a Clear Meassage To Iran, Hezbollah and Assad

February 19, 2018
 FEBRUARY 18, 2018 21:50


Breaking this dangerous cycle will require diplomatic intervention from the US and, more importantly, Russia with its direct line to the Assad regime in Damascus.

A Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter in Afrin, Syria

A Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter in Afrin, Syria. (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)


A week ago we saw the inherent danger of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Iran launched its first direct military operation against Israel, dispatching a drone from the Tiyas Airbase in Syria’s central Homs region. The Israelis used an Apache helicopter to intercept and destroy the drone, then sent eight fighter jets to destroy the Iranian command center. One of the Israeli F-16s was abandoned by its pilots over Israel and Syrian anti-aircraft fire reached Israeli territory, triggering extended emergency activities in Israel’s northern communities.

In a dangerous escalation, Iran tested Israel’s red lines in preparation for a new war on Israel’s northern front – a question of “when,” not “if” – a development which the Israeli government has repeatedly warned it will not tolerate. The government in Jerusalem has demanded time and again that any agreement mediated by world powers to end the civil war in Syria must include a specific stipulation preventing Iranian-backed forces from establishing a permanent military presence along the border.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent an explicit message ahead of the February 11 cabinet meeting. “We inflicted on Saturday [February 10] a heavy blow to Iranian and Syrian forces,” he said. “We made clear to everyone that our rules of engagement will not change in any way. We will continue to harm anyone who tries to harm us. This was our policy and this will remain our policy.”

But the mullahs’ regime was not the only audience for this message. Hezbollah is already threatening Israel from Lebanon, where the terrorist group has stockpiled more than 150,000 rockets and missiles and transformed hundreds of civilian villages into “military strongholds” to guarantee mass casualties during their next war with Israel.

In a similar vein to its support for Hamas, Iran has also bankrolled Gaza-based terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) with hundreds of millions. It is believed that Iran’s funding package to PIJ is in the order of $70 million per annum out of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) budget.

Iran’s leadership owes a great debt of gratitude to Western powers for bolstering the Islamic Republic’s dream of linking Tehran, Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut in a Shi’ite arc of influence.

The 2015 nuclear accord between six world powers and Iran revived Iran’s ailing economy, and the lifting of international sanctions triggered a stampede of European companies beating a path to Iran to secure lucrative business contracts. And all the while Iran remains a nuclear-threshold state that threatens regional and international security.

After the signing of the nuclear deal, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made no secret of his country’s true intentions. Israel “will not see [the end] of these 25 years” he vowed in July 2015, adding that “Iran will support anyone who strikes at Israel.” Two-and-a-half years down the line, we know that Khamenei wasn’t just paying lip service to popular demands. The territorial expansion of Iran and its allies in the Middle East has brought the Islamic Republic closer to Israel’s border than ever before.

Again, the short-sighted policy of Western powers aided the mullah regime’s grand plan of ascendancy. The obsessive focus on the war against the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria left the door wide open for Iranian-controlled Shi’ite militia. In Iraq, the Obama administration even provided air cover to the same groups that during the 2003 US-led intervention murdered American troops.

Khamenei could not have hoped for a better outcome.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the terrorist group in complete political and military control of Lebanon, has over 10,000 troops stationed in Syria. Together with the Quds Force, the extraterritorial wing of the IRGC, and local Shi’ite militia, Hezbollah played a central role in the survival of the regime.

Now that Assad’s position seems to have stabilized after the regime recaptured large swaths of territory, Iran appears to be aiming for more than just regime survival. In October 2016, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Muhammad Bagheri, floated the idea of establishing an array of military installations on Syrian soil, as well as a naval, air and intelligence base. And in November, aerial images emerged of a permanent Iranian base south of Damascus, only 50 kilometers from the Israeli Golan Heights.

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Muhammad Bagheri

Given the growing military capabilities and territorial expansion of these hostile elements, Israel and the United States, along with Europe and allied Arab states in the region, must together send a clear message to Iran, Hezbollah and Assad: any attack on Israel’s sovereignty comes with a very heavy price.

Breaking this dangerous cycle will require diplomatic intervention from the US and, more importantly, Russia with its direct line to the Assad regime in Damascus. The most effective way to prevent a future escalation with potentially catastrophic consequences for the region is to dismantle any Iranian presence along Israel’s border altogether.

The author is CEO and president of The Israel Project. This article originally appeared in The Hill.


Russia Condemns Iran’s Calls to Destroy Israel, but Also Tells Jerusalem That Tehran Is Not the Problem

February 19, 2018

Russian FM Lavrov admonishes Iranian desire ‘to wipe Israel off the map,’ but insists: Iranian meddling isn’t the only way to understand Middle East

FILE PHOTO: Iran's President Hassan Rohani together with his counterpart Russia's Vladimir Putin Russia on November 22, 2017.
FILE PHOTO: Iran’s President Hassan Rohani together with his counterpart Russia’s Vladimir Putin Russia on November 22, 2017. \ SPUTNIK/ REUTERS

Russia condemned Monday Iranian sentiments that Israel should be destroyed, but also sent a clear message to Israel that solving the Mideast’s regional conflicts should not be viewed solely through the prism of conflict with Iran, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

In comments reported by the TASS news agency, Lavrov said “We have stated many times that we won’t accept the statements that Israel, as a Zionist state, should be destroyed and wiped off the map. I believe this is an absolutely wrong way to advance one’s own interests,” Lavrov stressed.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018Sven Hoppe/AP

Lavrov said that tensions between Israel and Iran are escalating and that “by the same token, we oppose attempts to view any regional problem through the prism of fighting Iran.

“This is happening in Syria, Yemen and even the latest developments around the Palestinian issue, including Washington’s announcement of its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, are largely motivated by this anti-Iranian stance,” Lavrov emphasized.

These comments follow the speeches made by Prime Minister Benjamina Netanyahu and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Sunday at the annual Security Conference in Munich.

Holding up wreckage of the Iranian drone shot down by Israel recently, Netanyahu said Israel “will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself,” and warning Zarif not to “test Israel resolve.”

On the Iranian side, Zarif accused Israel of using aggression as a policy. When asked about what would Iran do if the United States abandoned the nuclear deal, Zarif said Iran will respond “seriously” if its interests were not secure, adding that the world will be “sorry for taking this erroneous course of action.”

Zarif however said that the deal was struck the accord “in spite” of Netanyahu, adding that the world “will maintain” the agreement, “despite his [Netanyahu’s] delusional attempts” to dismantle it.”

Iran’s Zarif says Israel’s ‘myth of invincibility’ has crumbled

February 18, 2018

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui Reuters


MUNICH (Reuters) – Iran’s Foreign Minister said on Sunday the shooting down of an Israeli jet after it bombed an Iranian site in Syria had shattered Israel’s “so-called invincibility”, reacting to a critical speech delivered earlier by Israel’s premier.

“Israel uses aggression as a policy against its neighbours,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Munich Security Conference, accusing Israel of “mass reprisals against its neighbours and daily incursions into Syria, Lebanon.”

“Once the Syrians have the guts to down one of its planes it’s as if a disaster has happened,” Zarif said.

He was responding to Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the conference hours before, in which the Israeli prime minister, holding a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone, accused Iran of trying to impose an “empire” across the Middle East.

“What has happened in the past several days is the so-called invincibility (of Israel) has crumbled,” Zarif said of Netanyahu’s remarks, which followed the Feb. 10 downing of an Israeli F-16 jet.

David Ivry, a former Israeli Air Force chief, told Reuters earlier this month he believed it was the first time an Israeli F-16 was brought down since Israel began using the jets in the 1980s.

Anti-aircraft fire downed the jet as it was returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

It was one of at least eight Israeli planes despatched in response to what Israel said was an Iranian drone’s incursion into its airspace earlier on that day.

The jet was hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and crashed in northern Israel, according to an Israeli official.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt)


Netanyahu says Israel could act against Iran’s ’empire’

February 18, 2018


MUNICH (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel would act against Iran, not just its allies in the Middle East, if needed, reiterating his country’s position that Tehran was the world’s greatest threat.

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, delivers a speech during the International Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. (Sven Hoppe-dpa via AP)

As tensions increase in the Middle East over Iran’s role in Syria and Yemen and as U.S. President Donald Trump presses for a tougher approach on Tehran, Israel is seeking wider support to contain its regional nemesis.

Holding a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone after its incursion into Israeli airspace earlier this month, Netanyahu told the Munich Security Conference: ”Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck.

“We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself,” he said.

In his first address to the annual Munich event, which draws security and defense officials and diplomats from across Europe and the United States, Netanyahu urged his audience to counter Iran immediately, displaying a map showing what he said was Iran’s growing presence in the Middle East.

For its part, Iran pushed back. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who also addressed the conference, called Netanyahu’s presentation “a cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response”.

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Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Munich, meeting with UK Labour MP Catherine Ashton

Zarif accused the United States of using the conference to “revive hysteria” against Iran, and denied that Tehran was seeking “hegemony” in the Middle East.

But Netanyahu said Iran was increasing its power as a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was regaining territory from militants.

“The unfortunate thing is that as ISIS compresses and Iran moves in, it is trying to establish this continuous empire surrounding the Middle East from the south in Yemen but also trying to create a land bridge from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza,” Netanyahu said.

“This is a very dangerous development for our region.”

Among Israel’s main concerns is Lebanon, where the heavily armed Iran-backed Shi‘ite militia Hezbollah is part of a coalition government. Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006. Tension between Israel and Lebanon has increased, including over a maritime border dispute.

Lebanon’s Defense Minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf, who spoke after Netanyahu, said: “Watch out, we will defend ourselves … we also have friends.”

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Lebanon’s Defense Minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf

Tensions in the region surged on Feb. 10 when anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.


Netanyahu also reiterated his view, shared by Trump, that world powers needed to scrap or rewrite the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran that curbs Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions in return for economic sanctions’ relief.

“It’s time to stop them now,” Netanyahu said, without specifying any military action. “They’re aggressive, they are developing ballistic missiles, they’re not inspecting, they have a free highway to massive (uranium) enrichment,” he said of the fuel needed for nuclear weapons.

France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, which signed the nuclear deal along with Iran and the United States, say the accord cannot be reopened, that it is working and that Iran is allowing inspections.

Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov said that scrapping the agreement was akin to choosing between war and peace, while John Kerry, the former U.S. secretary of state who helped clinch the agreement, said it was wrong to assume that Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as the 15-year scope of the deal ends.

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John Kerry, former U.S. secretary of state

“If your house is on fire, are you going to refuse to put it out because you are concerned it will light on fire again in 15 years? Or are you going to put it out and use the intervening time to prevent to ever catching fire again?” Kerry said.