On Chanukah, four questions on Iran, Syria, the EU and peace

As the beginning of Chanukah and end of the year approach, where does lsrael stand?

The nuclear threat by lran, the continuing unrest and tragedy in Syria and the troublesome ongoing peace talks between lsrael and the Palestinians, as well as new pressures from the European Union (EU), which was a great shock to lsrael, are the center of the political debate in lsrael. These are all complex challenges that may, in fact, come to a head in the coming year. But in the spirit of the Passover Four Questions, I offer four questions we might all ask now in attempting to understand and address these issues.

lran: ls Tehran Gaining Time by Talking?

The replacement of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by Hassan Rouhani seems to have been a step toward moderation. However, Rouhani considers lsrael, in his words, a “miserable country, a wound in the body of lslam.” That leaves Israel rightly concerned about the interim deal Iran signed on Nov. 23 with the P5+1 nations.

Israel’s leadership knows that when it comes to lran’s nuclear armament, the opinion of Rouhani is in no way different from those of the official lranian policy.

“You should measure lran on its exploits,” said lsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “not on its smile. lran should be judged based on whether it adheres to the terms and conditions, which were provided by the international community, with a final stop of all uranium enrichment and the closing of the illegal nuclear facility in Quam. There are no signs of a freeze of the nuclear program in lran.”

Netanyahu is convinced that the only thing that an interim agreement between lran and the Western powers will achieve is to give Tehran more time. Economic sanctions have hit lran’s economy, but are not sufficient by far. Hopes that Rouhani will actually carry through on a deal tough enough to thwart lran’s nuclear ambitions are unrealistic — it’s not his decision to make. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the strategic decision maker with regards to the lranian nuclear program anyway.

Syria: How Can We Thwart lran’s Aims in Syria?

ln addition to the resurgence of Al-Qaeda and the massive aid to the rebels by Saudi Arabia, there are new players with the Hezbollah militia supported by lran and the reemergence of the jihadist organization Al-Nusra Front in Syria in the already two years of carnage. Their “regional war strategy for the land of the Levant” states that Syria is the “key for the turnaround in the Levant” and “the Levant is the key for the turnaround in the Arab and the lslamic world.”

lran has invested billions of dollars and thousands of elite Hezbollah fighters, lranian supported militias in lraq and its own revolutionary guards to support the Assad regime, because it considers its survival strategically essential. America would have the military power to threaten lran, but Syria is the much simpler target.

It would be a disaster if the Assad regime emerged victoriously from the battle. Money and weapons from lran and the Hezbollah forces have become key factors of the fighting. A triumph of Assad would consolidate power and prestige of Shiite lran and the Hezbollah and thus pose a direct threat to lsrael. However, a victory for the rebels would be, as Edward N. Luttwak noted in The New York Times, dangerous as well.” lf the jihadists would win there,” he wrote, “ lsrael would not have any peace on its northern border.” ln other words, a fall of Assad would put an end to the lran/Assad/Hezbollah axis but it would bring radical lslamists to power, which could initiate a very tense situation for lsrael. The best solution: a very weakened Assad.

Unfortunately, the United States has already missed the best time frame to intervene, emphasized John J. Hamre, director of the Center for Strategic and lnternational Studies. The United States did not intervene when the Assad regime was most vulnerable and when the limited support for the then-moderate rebel groups very well could have driven Assad away from power. Meanwhile Assad is much stronger militarily.

The United States will only have sustained success with a military mission in Syria if it can provide a reasonable chance of a stability that specifically restricts the influence of lran and Hezbollah and helps to confront the enormous humanitarian crisis effectively.

The EU Guidelines: Will Germany Step Up?

According to its new guidelines, EU programs shall only apply to lsraelis who are not residents of the “occupied” territories of the borders before 1967, i.e. outside of the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

Being asked for an analysis, Netanyahu declared: “We have been attacked within the borders declared by the EU and were in mortal danger in 1967. The situation has changed dramatically in the past 40 years. There are hundreds of thousands of lsraelis in the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and it is out of the question to divide the city into two parts.” 

The EU’s decision could, for example, cause the prestigious Hebrew University of Jerusalem to be boycotted because it is located just beyond the green line. Jewish residents of the Old City of Jerusalem might be discriminated against, although the 1949 Armistice Agreement stated that the demarcation lines can never be regarded as territorial boundaries because they otherwise would be subject to exactly that prejudicing with regard to a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian problem, which the EU specifically targets with its plan.’

The lsraeli business community, which summarizes the anti-lsrael policy of the EU with the words “hypocrisy, hostility and crude prejudice,” points out that the unemployment rate in the West Bank and Gaza is already over 20 percent and that a fifth of its working population is employed in lsrael and the settlements. Anything that affects the lsraeli economy would negatively affect the Palestinian economy in an extreme way.

It needs to be pointed out that the amazing decision of the EU is based on no legally binding decision by the United Nations. There is no doubt that the scandalous new EU guidelines were substantially supported by its Minister for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, who is extremely negative toward lsrael, and finally rubber-stamped by a majority. The new EU directives clearly clash with lsraeli law: lt is legally impossible to separate, for example, the area of East Jerusalem, and to abolish lsraeli rights there, without two-thirds of the Knesset and the result of a referendum approving this.

The prospect of a change of the EU decision is based on Germany’s friendship with the State of lsrael. The foreign policy spokesman of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) parliamentary group Philipp Missfelder has announced that the federal government will distance itself from the guidelines. Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westenruelle has asked for direct talks between lsrael and the EU to find pragmatic solutions that are acceptable to lsrael.

The loyalty of the German chancellor toward lsrael should contribute substantially. Angela Merkel was and is, of all the world’s leaders, most closely connected to the only democracy in the Middle East and shows exemplary understanding of its isolated situation.

The Peace Process: ls Progress Possible Now?

Poll after poll shows that lsraelis are tired of a process that consists only of a stream of lsraeli concessions, while the Palestinians refuse to give anything in exchange for it. Unfortunately the Arab side shows no willingness to live in peace with lsrael, the Jewish state. lnstead, it honors prematurely freed murderers and declares that no Jews should be allowed to live in a Palestinian state.

A so-called peace process, in which one side only gives and the other only takes is a priori hopeless.

Arthur Cohn is an international film producer whose films include “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” “Central Station” and “One Day in September.