Netanyahu describes mutual interests in defending ties with Russia


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that outreach between Israel and Russia made sense because of shared concerns about militant Islam, a desire to avoid clashes in Syria and Russia’s interest in Israeli technology.

Netanyahu appeared in New York on Sept. 22 to receive the Herman Kahn Award from the conservative Hudson Institute, named for one of the think tank’s founders.

He was pressed by his interviewer, Roger Hertog, a philanthropist who is one of Hudson’s benefactors, to explain why Russian President Vladimir Putin has been seeking closer relations with Israel, given Russia’s military backing for the Assad regime in Syria and its sale of an anti-missile system to Iran.

The “first interest is to make sure that militant Islam doesn’t penetrate and destabilize Russia,” Netanyahu replied. “There are many, many millions of Muslims in Russia, including in greater Moscow; I think it’s up to 2 million. And the concern that Russia has, which many other countries have, is that these populations would be radicalized.”

Another reason is to avoid a clash in airspace bridging Israel and Syria, where Russian combat aircraft are bombing enemies of the regime of Bashar Assad.

“We can coordinate in order not to crash and clash with each other,” Netanyahu said.

Given Russia’s influence in Syria, Netanyahu said, Russia was also a useful conduit to keep Israel’s enemies from being empowered. Notably, another Assad ally is Hezbollah, the Iran-allied Shiite Lebanese militia that has warred frequently with Israel.

“We don’t want to see in the aftermath in Syria, whether with an agreement or without an agreement, we don’t want to see an Iranian military presence, we don’t want to see Shiite militias which Iran is organizing from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, and we certainly don’t want to see Iranian game-changing weapons being transferred through Syrian territory to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” the prime minister said.

Another factor was Russian interest in Israeli technology.

Putin is “interested in technology and Israel is a global source of technology in many areas that are of interest to Russia — agriculture, dairy production, you name it, the standard fare,” Netanyahu said.

Finally, Netanyahu said, Israel has a substantial Russian-speaking minority.

“There’s a cultural, a human bridge,” he said. “We have a million Russian speakers in Israel. These and other reasons, I think, inform Russia’s policies. And I think it’s very important that we have this relationship.”

To applause, Netanyahu reasserted that Israel’s main alliance is with the United States.

“With the United States, we certainly have shared interests, but it’s the one alliance we have, and there may be one or two others, but nothing like this, that is based on shared values,” he said.

Israeli air strikes target Syria after Syrian fire hit its territory


Israeli aircraft attacked a target in Syria on Monday after errant fire from fighting among factions in Syria struck inside Israel, Israel's military said.

The Syrian fire had hit an open area near the border in the Golan Heights, causing no injuries, and in retaliation the air force targeted a “Syrian army launcher,” the military said.

Russia to return Israeli tank captured by Syria in 1982


Russia said it will return to Israel a tank that Syrian forces captured in 1982 during a battle that ended with 20 Israeli soldiers dead and three missing in action.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order to return the tank from the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in the First Lebanon War, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday. The Syrians delivered the tank to the Russian army and it is currently at the armored corps museum in Moscow, the report said.

Netanyahu reported the news to the families of MIAs Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz and Zechariah Baumel, whose fate remains unknown.

An Israeli army delegation is in Moscow preparing the transfer along with the Russian army.

“There has been nothing to remember the boys by and no grave to visit for 34 years now,” Netanyahu said. “The tank is the only evidence of the battle, and now it is coming back to Israel thanks to President Putin’s response to my request.”

The battle took place in Lebanon’s Valley of Tears as an Israeli tank formation found itself surrounded by a larger Syrian force. The force was extracted with heavy artillery. Along with the Israeli soldiers killed, 30 were wounded.

After top Hezbollah commander killed in Syria, group announces probe


A senior Hezbollah commander was killed in an explosion in Damascus, triggering a probe by the group amid speculation about Israel’s alleged involvement.

Mustafa Amine Badreddine died in a large explosion on Thursday night near Damascus airport, the Lebanon-based militant group said in a statement on its al-Manar website. According to the statement, which did not mention Israel, Hezbollah was working to determine who and what caused the blast, BBC reported.

The Lebanese TV station al-Mayadeen was among the Lebanese and international media that claimed the blast was carried out by Israel, which is widely believed to have assassinated several Hezbollah figures in recent years, including Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh in 2008 and his son, Jihad Mughniyeh, last year.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in these killings and other attacks on the Shiite terrorist group.

Ron Ben Yishai, an expert on Lebanon and senior military correspondent of the Israeli daily Yediot Acharonot, wrote in an analysis that Badreddine’s death may be unconnected to Israel and part of Hezbollah’s bloody war against Sunni militias working to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally of Hezbollah.

According to Yediot, Israel believed that Badreddine, who is among three top commanders who replaced Imad Mughniyeh, is implicated in the deadly bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Argentina in 1994 and an attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in 2012.

But Badreddine had other enemies, including militias seeking revenge for his suspected involvement in the assassination in 2005 of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Al Hariri, Ben Yishai wrote.

Hezbollah began sending thousands of troops to Syria in 2013 to help Assad fight Sunni rebels. According to Guy Bechor, an Israeli Middle East expert monitoring the group, Hezbollah has lost close to 2,000 fighters — an estimated 10 percent of its fighting force — in the war. In parallel, dozens have died in a series of bombings in Shi’ite neighborhoods of Beirut understood to be payback by Sunnis against Hezbollah.

Badreddine, 55, studied for a bachelor’s degree in international relations in the American University in Beirut between the year 2002-2004, using the alias Sami Isha, according to Ynet.

 

U.N. council voices alarm at Israeli statements on Golan Heights


The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday voiced alarm over Israeli statements about the Golan Heights on Syria's border with Israel, adding that its status remains unchanged.

Earlier this month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel would never relinquish the Golan Heights, in a signal to Russia and the United States that the strategic plateau should be excluded from any deal on Syria's future.

“Council members expressed their deep concern over recent Israeli statements about the Golan, and stressed that the status of the Golan remains unchanged,” China's U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi, president of the 15-nation Security Council this month, told reporters after a closed-door meeting.

He added that council resolution 497 of 1981 made clear that Israel's decision at the time to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the Golan was “null and void and without international legal effect.”

Netanyahu's April 17 declaration came on the occasion of the first Israeli cabinet session on the Golan since the area was captured from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed in 1981.

Israel's annexation of the Golan has not won international recognition.

Past U.S.-backed Israeli-Syrian peace efforts were predicated on a return of the Golan, where some 23,000 Israelis now live alongside roughly the same number of Druse Arabs loyal to Damascus.

Liu said the council supported a negotiated arrangement to settle the issue of the Golan.

There is a U.N. peacekeeping force deployed in the Golan called UNDOF. Established in 1974, UNDOF monitors a ceasefire line that has separated Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war.

The force has had to pull back from a number of positions on the Golan due to fighting between militants and Syrian government forces in the five-year-old Syrian civil war. Its peacekeepers have been fired upon and captured by militants on several occasions.

Netanyahu, Putin meet to ‘avoid’ military mishaps over Syria


Amid tension between Israeli and Russian troops around Syria, Benjamin Netanyahu met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss ways to avoid friction.

Israel’s prime minister and Russia’s president met Thursday in Moscow to “tighten security coordination between Israel and Russia to avoid errors,” Netanyahu said in a statement. The commander of the Israel Air Force, Major General Amir Eshel and the prime minister’s military secretary, Eliezer Toledano, will have follow-up meetings with Russian top brass, the statement also said.

The meeting took place following several incidents involving Russian troops in Syria and Israeli military personnel, the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth reported. In one incident, a Russian fighter jet scrambled to meet and escorted an Israel Air Force plane carrying out intelligence missions over Syrian airspace, according to the report. A Kremlin spokesperson on Friday denied the reports, saying they were “far from the truth.”

Russia stepped up its military presence in Syria and made it public last year in a bid to bail out the Syrian government under Bashar Assad, who has lost control of large parts of the country in the course of a bloody civil war that erupted in 2011.

Israeli aircraft regularly fly over Syrian airspace, according to non-Israeli media, and have carried out dozens of strikes in that country and Lebanon to prevent certain weapons from reaching Hezbollah, an ally of Assad, and other militant groups.

During the meeting with Putin, Netanyahu reiterated statements he made earlier this week about the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and effectively annexed in 1981, remaining under Israeli control.

“We will not return to the days when our towns and children were fired upon from up in the Golan,” he was quoted by Ynet as saying in reference to frequent shelling from the Golan before 1967. “So, with an agreement or without it, the Golan will remain under Israeli sovereignty.”

Netanyahu vows to keep Golan Heights forever


Israel will never give up the Golan Heights, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, a day after the Israeli leader said he delivered the same message to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The meeting was held for the first time on the land captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.

“I chose to hold this festive Cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights in order to deliver a clear message: The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel’s hands. Israel will never come down from the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said.

Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. The international community has never recognized the annexation.

Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly has said that one principle upon which peace talks to end his country’s years-long civil war must be based is that the entire Golan Heights be considered Syrian and the part annexed by Israel be considered occupied territory.

Netanyahu told the government ministers at the Cabinet meeting that in speaking with Kerry the previous evening, he told the secretary of state that Israel “will not oppose a diplomatic settlement in Syria on condition that it not come at the expense of the security of the State of Israel,” specifically that Iran, Hezbollah and the Islamic State will be removed from Syrian soil.

He added that he also told Kerry that Israel will not relinquish the Golan Heights.

Netanyahu called the Golan “an integral part of the State of Israel in the new era.”

He later said: “The time has come for the international community to recognize reality, especially two basic facts. One, whatever is beyond the border, the boundary itself will not change. Two, after 50 years, the time has come for the international community to finally recognize that the Golan Heights will remain under Israel’s sovereignty permanently.”

US, Germany: Golan Heights not part of Israel


The United States and Germany both criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that the Golan Heights “will forever remain part of Israeli sovereignty.”

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the Obama administration does not consider the Golan Heights to be part of Israel, despite Netanyahu’s assertion at a Cabinet meeting there Sunday, Haaretz reported.

“The U.S. position on the issue is unchanged,” Kirby said at a daily media briefing at the State Department in Washington. “This position was maintained by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Those territories are not part of Israel and the status of those territories should be determined through negotiations.”

Earlier in the day, a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry said, “It’s a basic principle of international law and the UN charter that no state can claim the right to annex another state’s territory just like that,” according to Haaretz.

The Arab League and Hezbollah also criticized Netanyahu’s statement about the Golan Heights.

Israel wrested control of the Golan from Syria during the Six-Day War of 1967 and officially annexed it in 1981, a move never recognized by the international community.

Netanyahu’s declaration came following reports that a draft of a peace deal aimed at ending Syria’s 5-year-old civil war involves Israel relinquishing control of the area, where 21,000 Israeli citizens and 22,000 Druze Arabs live. The Druze there opted to retain Syrian citizenship rather than taking Israeli citizenship.

While giving up the Golan as part of a land-for-peace deal with Syria was widely discussed in the 1990s, few Israelis support the idea today.

Netanyahu: Israel has carried out dozens of strikes in Syria


Israel has launched dozens of strikes in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, acknowledging for the first time such attacks against suspected arms transfers to Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas.

Though formally neutral on Syria's civil war, Israel has frequently pledged to prevent shipments of advanced weaponry to the Iranian-backed group, while stopping short of confirming reports of specific air operations.

Visiting Israeli troops in the occupied Golan Heights near the frontier with Syria, Netanyahu said: “We act when we need to act, including here across the border, with dozens of strikes meant to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining game-changing weaponry.”

Netanyahu did not specify what kind of strikes Israel had conducted in Syria. He also gave no timeframe or other details regarding the strikes.

Israel welcomed the cessation of hostilities in Syria in February but has indicated it could still launch attacks there if it sees a threat from Hezbollah, which holds sway over southern Lebanon and whose fighters have been allied with President Bashar al-Assad.

Israeli leaders have sought assurances from Russia, which sent forces to Syria last year to help Assad, that it would not allow Iran and Hezbollah to be bolstered by the partial military withdrawal that Moscow announced last month.

Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to prevent any accidental clash between their aircraft over Syrian territory.

Hezbollah and Israel last fought a war in 2006 that included rocket strikes inside Israel and an Israeli air and ground offensive in Lebanon.

Israeli leaders have said that since that conflict, Hezbollah has built up and improved the range of a rocket arsenal that can now strike deep inside Israel.

In wake of Russia’s planned Syria withdrawal, Putin and Netanyahu to hold security meeting


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet soon in Moscow to discuss regional security and trade.

At a joint news conference Wednesday with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin before their meeting in Moscow, Putin announced his plans for the Netanyahu meeting, the Times of Israel reported.

Israeli officials confirmed that a sit-down between the two leaders will happen soon, but did not offer specific dates.

Citing Russian media, the Times of Israel reported Putin saying the two countries “have a large number of questions to discuss linked with the development of bilateral trade and economic relations and questions of the region’s security.”

On Monday, Putin made the surprise announcement that he plans to pull most of his forces out of Syria, which has been entangled in a civil war for five years. The next day, en route to Russia for a two-day trip, Rivlin told the Israeli media that “there is a need for coordination” with Russia on the Syria situation to ensure that Russia’s withdrawal does not result in strengthening Hezbollah and its backer Iran, both sworn enemies of Israel.

“Everyone understands that Islamic State is a danger to the entire world, but the Shiite fundamentalist Islam of Iran is for us no less a threat,” Rivlin said before the trip, according to The Jerusalem Post.

An unidentified senior Israeli official told the Post on Tuesday, “This is not a zero-sum game. Russia has interests similar to ours. They also do not want to see a strong Iran that will spread terror on Russia’s southern border. The Russians also understand that it will not be good if Hezbollah remains and becomes established in Syria.”

In his joint news conference with Rivlin, Putin said, “The ties between our countries are based on friendship and mutual understanding,” noting that Israel has a significant population of Russian emigres and tourism between the two countries is on the rise.

Rivlin said the Jews would always remember Russia’s key role in World War II, noting that “many Holocaust survivors all over the world remember being liberated by the Red Army.”

Rivlin to tell Putin: Syria pullout must not strengthen Iran, Hezbollah


Any future peace agreement in Syria must not end up strengthening Iran and Hezbollah, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will tell Russian President Vladimir Putin when they meet in Moscow.

With Wednesday’s meeting, Rivlin will be the first international leader to meet with Putin since his surprise announcement on Monday that Russia will withdraw most of its troops from the civil war in Syria.

“We want Iran and Hezbollah not to emerge strengthened from this entire process,” Rivlin told reporters on a flight Tuesday to Moscow. “Everybody agrees that the Islamic State organization is a danger to the entire world, but Shiite Iranian fundamentalist Islam is for us just as dangerous.”

“Given the situation we’re in, we have to coordinate with Russia,” Rivlin said on the plane.

Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, told a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that Israel was caught off guard by the Kremlin announcement.

“We had no prior information about the Russian announcement of a reduction in its involvement, just as others didn’t,” Eisenkot said.

Haaretz reported that Russia will retain control of two military bases in Syria and gradually retract its troops from the region.

Israel says Syrian government used chemical weapons during truce


Israel said on Tuesday that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons against civilians since the start of a ceasefire aimed at preparing the way for an end to the five-year civil war.

The truce, sponsored by Russia and the United States, began on Saturday and has been dogged by opposition charges of non-compliance by Damascus – something President Bashar al-Assad has denied. It does not apply to missions against jihadist rebels.

“The Syrians used military grade chemical weapons and lately have been using materials, chlorine, against civilians, including in these very days, after the supposed ceasefire, dropping barrels of chlorine on civilians,” Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a speech to a conference organized by the New Tech military and aviation group in Airport City, near Tel Aviv. He did not provide further details. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the Syria truce efforts on Sunday but said his country might still carry out attacks in the neighboring Arab state to thwart any threats to its security. 

A fact-finding mission of the global chemical weapons watchdog (OPCW) concluded in 2014 that the use of chlorine gas has been “systematic” in the Syrian civil war, even after the country surrendered its stockpile of toxic weapons.

Both sides have denied using chlorine “barrel” bombs, which the OPCW said are dropped out of helicopters. The Syrian air force is the only party in the conflict known to have helicopters.

A joint mission by the United Nations and the OPCW is currently investigating who is responsible for the chemical attacks.

Israel welcomes Syria truce but hints could attack if threatened


Israel welcomed the cessation of hostilities in neighboring Syria but hinted on Sunday it could still launch attacks there if it saw a threat.

Guns mostly fell silent in Syria and Russian air raids in support of President Bashar al-Assad stopped on Saturday, the first day of a U.S.-Russian accord that the United Nations has described as the best hope for ending five years of civil war.

Israeli officials had earlier been skeptical about the prospects of a truce, given Syria's sectarian rifts and the exclusion of jihadi rebels. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded cautiously upbeat in pubic remarks on Sunday. 

“We welcome the efforts to achieve a stable, long-term and real ceasefire in Syria. Anything that stops the terrible slaughter there is important, first and foremost from a humanitarian standpoint,” he told his cabinet. 

“But at the same time it is important that it be clear: Any arrangement in Syria has to include a cessation of Iranian belligerence toward Israel from Syrian territory,” he added.

While formally neutral on the civil war, Israel has launched a number of air strikes in Syria to foil suspected arms transfers to Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah guerrillas, who are helping Assad.

Israel has also said it has returned fire when shot at across the Golan Heights frontier, where it worries Hezbollah is active.

“We will not agree to the supply of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, from Syria to Lebanon. We will not agree to the creation of a second terrorist front on the Golan,” Netanyahu said. “These are the red lines that we set out and they remain the red lines of the State of Israel.”

Israel not optimistic about Syria cease-fire


Israel’s defense minister said he does not expect the newly negotiated Syria cease-fire to succeed.

Moshe Yaalon said Monday in a statement he is skeptical about the cease-fire, which the United States and Russia announced earlier in the day, because the Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front, two of the numerous factions involved in the Syrian civil war of nearly five years, were not involved in the process, Agence France Press reported.

The cease-fire is scheduled to begin Feb. 27.

Yaalon also said both Russia and the U.S. recognize Israeli freedom of action in Syria.

“Israeli action is based on a single principle: self-defense,” the statement said, according to AFP.

Pro-Syrian military source denies reports of Israeli strikes inside Syria


A pro-Syrian government military source denied reports that Israel carried out air strikes inside Syria on Wednesday.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, had said threeIsraeli rockets had hit Syrian army outposts south of Damascus.

How Syria and natural gas are pushing Israel and Turkey back together


After years of false starts, Israeli negotiators went to Geneva last week for talks aimed at ending a long-running conflict with a regional adversary.

It’s not the Palestinians. It’s Turkey.

Once a key partner of Israel, Turkey in recent years has been a thorn in its side. It supports Israel’s foes, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan often uses international forums as opportunities to slam the Jewish state – particularly its treatment of Palestinians.

But in December, Israel and Turkey began negotiating a full restoration of ties after nearly six years of downgraded relations. Here’s what happened between the former allies, why things are improving now – and why some Israeli analysts are still skeptical the Turkey-Israel impasse will be resolved.

Turkey used to be Israel’s closest ally in the Middle East.

Turkey recognized Israel shortly after its founding in 1948, and over the course of the 1990s the countries built strong defense ties. Both relatively secular, pro-Western democracies and minorities in an Arab-dominated Middle East, the two countries established regular dialogue between their defense ministries, conducted joint military training exercises and signed weapons deals. Israel sent assistance to Turkey after a massive earthquake in 1999.

Things deteriorated after Erdogan’s election and a crisis followed Israel’s killing of nine Turks trying to break the Gaza blockade.

Relations started souring in 2002, when Erdogan’s Islamic AKP party won national elections and aligned the foreign policy of Turkey in favor of the Palestinians while cooling ties with Israel. Diplomatic relations broke down completely after the May 2010 flotilla incident, when the Mavi Marmara ship manned by Turkish activists tried to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Israeli forces landed on the ship and killed nine activists in the ensuing melee.

Turkey demanded Israel apologize for the incident, but Israel declined. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, withdrew its envoy to Israel, suspended military cooperation with Israel and excluded Israel from NATO exercises.

Now Turkey needs a friend in a disintegrating region.

Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan in a 2013 phone call brokered by President Barack Obama, who was wrapping up a visit to Israel at the time. In December 2015, the sides entered talks aimed at restoring full diplomatic relations, and last week a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations met with Erdogan.

The negotiations followed a bad year for Turkey. Syria’s civil war has thrown the country into crisis, exacerbating its conflict with Kurds at home and leading some to accuse Turkey of supporting the ISIS terror organization, which is fighting Kurdish forces in Iraq. Turkey also has taken in some 2 million Syrian refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

Turkey is also facing tensions with Egypt over Turkish support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed in Egypt, and tensions with Russia following Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane in November. Restoring ties with Israel could give Erdogan a rare regional win.

“The regional challenges Turkey has with Russia, from Egypt, with the Kurds,” said Alon Liel, Israel’s charge d’affaires in Turkey in the 1980s, is giving Turkey “second thoughts about the Israel issue.”

Israel wants someone to buy its natural gas.

Israel wouldn’t mind strengthening ties with one of its few Middle Eastern trading partners. Patching the Turkey relationship also would reopen the door to military exercises with NATO.

But Israel’s main motivation isn’t about war and peace, experts say; it’s economic. For months, Netanyahu has been pushing to enact a controversial program that would allow drilling in Israel’s giant offshore gas fields, which the prime minister says is essential for the national security of Israel. A deal with Turkey could both restore it as an ally and make it a large buyer of Israeli natural gas. That would be a boon for Netanyahu – and a potential bonanza for the gas companies.

But Gaza could be the obstacle to a renewed alliance – again.

Relations between Turkey and Israel collapsed over Gaza, and Gaza could keep them apart – natural gas or not. Turkey hosts part of the leadership of Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza, and has harshly criticized Israel for its blockade of the coastal strip.

As part of the deal, Turkey has demanded that Israel lift or ease the blockade. Israel, in turn, has demanded that Turkey expel Hamas’ leaders. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who has voiced pessimism about the deal, also demanded that Turkey convince Hamas to return the remains of two Israeli soldiers.

Speaking in Greece in January, Yaalon also accused Turkey of buying oil from ISIS terrorists and said Ankara “enables jihadists to move backwards and forwards between Europe and Syria and Iraq and to be part of the ISIS terror infrastructure in Europe.”

A Turkey detente also could backfire for Israel. In recent years, Israel has bolstered ties with Egypt led by Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who last week met with a Presidents Conference delegation in Cairo, as well as Greece and Cyprus – all Turkish rivals. Retaining Greek and Cypriot support is especially important, Liel said, because they act as Israeli allies in the European Union.

It may not be worthwhile, he said, to risk those ties for a detente with a Turkish government that has spent the past seven years denouncing Israel.

“Erdogan is an unpredictable player,” Liel said. “There’s a concern that if they sign with him today, and there’s a war in Gaza in four to five months, he’ll make trouble.”

Hezbollah targets Israeli forces with bomb, Israel shells south Lebanon


Hezbollah set off a bomb targeting Israeli forces at the Lebanese border on Monday in an apparent response to the killing in Syria last month of a prominent commander, triggering Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon.

Israel has struck its Iran-backed Shi'ite enemy Hezbollah in Syria several times, killing a number of fighters and destroying weapons it believes were destined for the group, whose support for President Bashar al-Assad has been crucial in the country's civil war.

Israel's army said Monday's blast, targeting military vehicles in the Shebaa farms area, promptedIsraeli forces to respond with artillery fire. It made no mention of casualties.

Hezbollah said in a statement that the explosive device had been detonated in the Shebaa farms area and carried out by a group whom it named after Samir Qantar, a commander killed in December. The group has accused Israel of killing Qantar in an air strike in Syria, and vowed to retaliate. 

The U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, urged both sides to avoid an escalation, saying it had stepped up patrols on the ground after the incident.

In a statement, head of mission Major-General Luciano Portolano urged both sides “to exercise utmost restraint against any provocation.”

Lebanese media said Israeli shelling had hit the nearby town of Al Wazzani and other areas, with reports of material damage but no serious injuries.

Witnesses said at least 10 Israeli shells had hit Al Wazzani shortly after the blast.

A Reuters witness said the shelling had stopped later in the day. Al Manar TV reported that calm had returned to the Shebaa area.

An Israeli air strike killed Qantar on Dec. 20 in Damascus, Hezbollah said. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said a week later that retaliation would be inevitable.

Israel stopped short of confirming responsibility for the strike that killed Qantar, but welcomed the death of the militant leader, who had been jailed in Israel in 1979 and repatriated to Lebanon in a 2008 prisoner swap.

Hezbollah did not say which role Qantar played in the Syrian conflict, but Syrian state media said he was involved in a major offensive earlier this year in Quneitra, near the Golan Heights.

Hezbollah is fighting on the side of Assad in Syria's civil war. The conflict has exacted a heavy toll on Hezbollah, with many hundreds of its fighters killed.

In January last year, an Israeli helicopter attack killed six Hezbollah members including a commander and the son of the group's late military commander Imad Moughniyah. An Iranian general was also killed in that attack. 

Two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper were killed later that month in one of the most violent clashes between the two sides since a 2006 war. 

Israel and Hezbollah have avoided large scale confrontation along their 80-km (50-mile) frontier since the 34-day war in 2006, which killed 120 people in Israel and more than 500 in Lebanon. 

Nasrallah has made repeated threats against Israel since then, part of what is seen as a calibrated policy of deterrence.

Israel cracks down on Islamic State volunteers


Ayoob Kara, a deputy Israeli cabinet minister, used to double as an unofficial intermediary with the few of his fellow Arab citizens who have left to join Islamic State insurgents in Syria or Iraq.

Negotiating discreetly through relatives and go-betweens, he would offer them reduced jail terms if they returned to Israel, cooperated with security services and helped deter other would-be Islamic State recruits by publicly disavowing the group.

A half-dozen volunteers took the deal, Kara says. 

But with the number of Islamic State sympathizers in Israel growing from its initial trickle, and some accused of trying to set up armed cells within the country's 18-percent Muslim minority, the deputy minister no longer sounds so accommodating.

“I used to work hard to dissuade people from joining ISIS, but now I say that there's no point,” he told Reuters in an interview, using an acronym for the insurgents. 

“If, by this point, when the dangers are abundantly clear to everyone, they still want to go, then they are beyond saving and it's a one-way ticket for them. It's literally a dead end.”

Kara, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was expressing a hardening of government policy against Islamic State, which, though preoccupied with battling Syrian and Iraqi regime forces, has recently inveighed against Israel.

“Jews, soon you shall hear from us in Palestine, which will become your grave,” promised a Dec. 26 voice recording on social media attributed to Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

In October, two video clips surfaced in which Islamic State gunmen threatened to strike Israel. They spoke in near-fluent, Arabic-accented Hebrew, suggesting they were among the several dozen Israeli Arabs who the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service estimates have joined the group abroad.

Israel sees a major cross-border attack on it by Islamic State as unlikely. But it is less sanguine about support for the group inside Israel, which is already beset by Palestinian street violence that has surged in the last three months, stoked in part by strife over a contested Jerusalem mosque complex. 

“It (Islamic State influence) is beginning to spread here as well,” Intelligence Ministry director-general Ram Ben-Barak told Israel's Army Radio on Sunday. “The ISIS scenario we worry about is ISIS cells arising in Israel to carry out terrorist attacks.”

Among Israel's Muslim minority, pro-Palestinian sympathies are common but political violence rare.

PARAGLIDER, EX-ARMY DEFECTOR AMONG RECRUITS

Still, a series of spectacular incidents involving Israelis and Islamic State has unsettled the Shin Bet. 

One Arab citizen who had volunteered to serve in Israel's army later defected to the insurgents' ranks in Syria, it emerged this month – a blow for a military that regards itself as a sectarian melting pot in the Jewish-majority country.

Separately, an Israeli Arab used a paraglider to fly into Syria in what the Shin Bet said was a bid to join Islamic State, and three others were arrested on suspicion of trying to set up an armed cell to carry out attacks in Israel on orders from two Israeli Arabs who are already with Islamic State in Iraq.

The paraglider incident prompted Netanyahu to order the revocation of Islamic State volunteers' Israeli citizenship. Such a move, if it passes higher court review, would effectively shut the door on their return, a step that also has been a controversial topic of debate in European nations whose citizens have been fighting for Islamic State.

It marks a policy shift for Israel, which last year repatriated Marhan Khaldi, an Arab citizen wounded while fighting for Islamic State in Iraq and who made his way back to Turkey, where Israeli diplomats replaced the passport he had discarded en route to the war zone.

Israel jailed Khaldi for 42 months, a sentence comparable to previous cases of citizens who joined Islamic State abroad. 

Prosecutors had sought an 8- to 12-year prison term for Khaldi and appealed to the Supreme Court to harshen his punishment, saying in a statement that due the risk posed by Islamic State “the time is ripe to get tough on such offences”. The Supreme Court's ruling on the appeal could take months.

Khaldi's lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, said Israeli judges lacked court precedents on which to base sweeping new sentences due to the fact that the country outlawed Islamic State only in September 2014 – a delay he attributed to the Netanyahu government's reluctance to take sides in Syria's civil war. 

Israeli legislation introduced in December 2014 that would raise the maximum jail sentence for joining foreign groups like Islamic State to five years is still under parliamentary review.

“It has taken time for the monstrousness of ISIS to dawn, so while Israel is seeking greater penalties for joining it, this had been taking time too,” said Abu Hussein, who also heads the Israeli Arab civil rights group Adalah. 

Abu Hussein said the Shin Bet appeared to be refocusing its anti-Islamic State efforts on social media activity by Arab citizens that might flag up nascent sympathizers for arrest.

According to Kara, the value to Israeli intelligence of Arab citizens who came back from Islamic State's fiefdoms had waned – meaning any returnees had less to bargain with for clemency.

“There was a time when someone would come back and provide useful information on their camps and recruitment, et cetera,” Kara said. “But that's in the past now. The whole world is fighting Islamic State and everything is pretty much known.”

Israel wary of continued conflict in Syria


It’s been seven years since Israel and Syria were in talks mediated by Turkey.

Those negotiations in Ankara were premised on de-coupling Damascus from its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah and dislodging Israel from the Golan.

Neither side could envision paying the price required to seal a deal, and shortly after the talks ended, then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (now president) began to nurture a personal animosity against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad that only grew as Syria’s conflict turned sectarian and Israel went hard after Hamas in Gaza.

As the Syrian uprising got serious in 2011, Moscow presented itself as the mediator between Jerusalem and Damascus. Russia’s enhanced commitment to a presence in Syria may be the penultimate strategic legacy of this bloody chapter in Levantine history.

Details of the Damascus-Jerusalem interchange are outlined in the report by Seymour Hersh published earlier this month in the London Review of Books. The essay focuses largely on the debate inside Washington over the risks and rewards of arming the increasingly sectarian rebels, some of whom had clear al-Qaida antecedents.

Hersh writes that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) served as a conduit for United States intelligence to the Syrian government, since it was in Jerusalem’s interest to have Assad’s army instead of Islamist rebel battalions operating on the northern side of the Golan Heights. Hersh also writes the Kremlin relayed an offer from Assad to Netanyahu to resume talks over the territory.

It’s now known that Israel rebuffed the offer and moved to deepen its cooperation with Jordanian military intelligence, which was simultaneously supporting and monitoring the al Nusra Front in the southern Syrian governorates of Suwyeda, Daraa and Quneitra. It looked as if Assad was losing his grip, and the IDF took a realpolitik stance toward the rebels.

Gains by insurgents led the regime to deploy chemical weapons against the pro-rebel township of Ghouta in August 2013 and in the suburbs of Aleppo in March 2013.

At around this time, former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas made an impolitic comment to The New York Times.

“Let them both [sides] bleed, hemorrhage to death: That’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria,” Pinkas said in an article that found a consensus in Israel for a “limited strike” against regime targets.

But the quote has been cited multiple times to bolster a line uniting supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, pro-Assad “leftists” and basic meat-and-potatoes anti-Semites to charge that a blood-thirsty “Israel wants the civil war in Syria to continue.”

Of course, it’s not just Pinkas’ cynical sound bite that drives the “Israel likes this war” trope. To advance their territorial claims, the Golan annexationists in the highest political echelons promote the notion that Syria will never again be reassembled.

This case was made explicitly by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the Herzliya Conference in June and even floated by the prime minister when he met U.S. President Barack Obama in November.

But the prime minister must know there is no room for the Americans to “think differently” about the Golan, especially now that there’s actually a chance that the powers playing in the Syrian sandbox are ready to push their clients to the negotiating table.

Beyond the bluster, Israel and, more importantly, Israelis, demonstrated consistent unease over the destabilizing consequences of the war in Syria, an anxiety stemming from self-interested security concerns [ranging from DAASH to Hezbollah] and genuine humanitarian revulsion toward the carnage at their doorstep. 

A memo written this week by former Israeli National Security Advisors Yaakov Amidror and Eran Lerman gives a good glimpse into what Israel’s security establishment really thinks about Syria. Here’s what they said:

1) The continuation of the Syrian civil war poses a threat to Jordan and thus to Israel.

2) DAASH feeds off of the sectarian conflict in Syria, and chaos there makes al-Nusra look like moderates compared to what DAASH leader Al-Baghdadi and his followers have on offer.

3) Expanded operational territory for Hezbollah fighters is problematic.

4) Ultimately, Israel’s borders are more secure when state actors are on the other side — instead of terror groups.

Concrete signs of this policy are documented in the consistent Israeli lobbying for increased U.S. allocations to help Jordan deal with the Syrian refugees. Israel is concerned that these refugees neither starve in Jordan during the short term, nor settle there in the long term. It’s clearly not in Israel’s interest that an additional million radicalized Sunnis show up in Jordan.

So, logically, the new Damascus “blood libel” doesn’t match strategic thinking in the real Israel.

The shameful inability of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu to do something for the Palestinians of the besieged Yarmouk Refugee Camp is a moral stain on both. The Syrian war has put the spotlight on the 1948 refugees and their descendants, and neither Jerusalem nor Ramallah can ignore this constituency indefinitely.

But the assistance provided by Israeli field hospitals to rebel fighters in the north and the volunteers of IsraAID on the Greek islands and in the Balkans to Syrian asylum seekers is well-known and appreciated by refugees and the exiled opposition leaders.

It is accepted that Israel shares intelligence on DAASH with the Russians, as well as the Jordanians.

 And of course they keep the Hashemite and Saudi courts briefed on Hezbollah and the Iranians.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin and Netanyahu navigate practical understandings over who can do what in Syria, it’s very clear that this war has aligned Israel to the Sunni Arab states to its east.

This week, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said his government “was striving to maintain Syria as a unified nation inclusive of all sects.”

Petroleum politics and the perceived U.S. detachment from the Middle East have paved the way for an unprecedented Riyadh-Moscow dialogue.

It is Russia that will have to engineer a stage-left exit for Hezbollah and Iran if she wants to keep her assets in a transitional Syria and maintain credibility with the Sunni states.

“Saudi Arabia is ready to pay any price to bring down the Assad regime,” an exiled leader of the Assyrian Christian Community whose family has suffered from the ravages of both the Damascus government and Islamist fighters told the Jewish Journal.

“Israel’s interest is to satisfy the Sunni Arabs, and that means they, too, want to see a negotiated end to this war.”

Putin, Netanyahu agree in call to coordinate efforts to fight terrorism


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed in a phone call on Tuesday to coordinate their two countries' actions to fight terrorism in the Middle East, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The two leaders discussed the Syrian crisis during their conversation.

“Vladimir Putin stressed that there is no alternative to the launch of intra-Syrian negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, as well as to the continued and uncompromising fight against Islamic State and other extremist groups acting in Syria,” the Kremlin was quoted as saying.

Blaming operative’s death on Israel, Hezbollah chief vows revenge


Hassan Nasrallah, the top leader of the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, blamed the killing of operative Samir Kuntar on Israel and said his group would retaliate.

“We reserve the right to respond to this assassination at the time and place of our choosing,” Nasrallah said Monday evening in a televised speech from Beirut, the Times of Israel reported. The newspaper cited an English translation from a journalist with the al-Mayadeen Arabic satellite television channel.

Nasrallah’s statement came hours after a Syrian rebel group claimed responsibility for the airstrike in Damascus that killed Kuntar, who was released in a 2008 prisoner swap after spending nearly three decades in Israeli prison for his role in a deadly terrorist attack.

“We have no doubt that the Israeli enemy was behind the assassination in a blatant military operation,” Nasrallah said, according to the Naharnet news site.

Israel has not confirmed whether or not it was involved in the attack, but several Israeli officials praised Kuntar’s death.

Kuntar was responsible for the deaths of four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl and her father, in a 1979 attack in Nahariya. He is suspected of planning multiple attacks against Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights.

Syrian rebel group claims responsibility for Hezbollah leader’s death


A Syrian rebel group has claimed responsibility for the airstrike in Damascus that killed a Lebanese Hezbollah leader who spent nearly three decades in an Israeli prison.

In a video released Monday on YouTube, the Free Syrian Army denied Hezbollah’s claim that Israeli warplanes violated Syrian airspace and assassinated Samir Kuntar, saying the group struck the residential building in which Kuntar and his colleagues were located. The Free Syrian Army claimed Hezbollah was attempting to demoralize the rebel group by claiming Israel undertook the killing.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the Sunday morning strike on a building in the Syrian capital, though several Israeli officials praised Kuntar’s death.

Kuntar was released in a 2008 swap for the corpses of Israelis killed in the 2006 Lebanon War, and reportedly had been targeted previously by Israel. In July, an Israeli surveillance plane reportedly bombed a car in Syria, killing five men, in an attack believed to be targeting Kuntar. In September, the U.S. State Department designated Kuntar as a terrorist.

Kuntar, who served 29 years in Israeli prison, was responsible for the deaths of four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl and her father, in a 1979 attack in Nahariya. He is suspected of planning multiple attacks against Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights.

Reuters reported that he is believed to have become a commander in Hezbollah since his release from prison, and that Hezbollah has sent many of its members to fight in Syria with troops loyal to President Bashar Assad.

Senior Hezbollah officials vowed to retaliate against Israel.

“(I)f the Israelis think by killing Samir Kuntar they have closed an account, then they are very mistaken because they know and will come to know that they have instead opened several more,” senior Hezbollah official Hashem Safeieddine reportedly said.

Thousands attended Kuntar’s burial in Beirut on Monday.

Israel says Arrow 3 missile shield aces test, hitting target in space


Israel's upgraded Arrow ballistic missile shield passed a full interception test on Thursday, hitting a target in space meant to simulate the trajectory of the long-range weapons held by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, the Defense Ministry said.

The success was a boost for “Arrow 3,” among Israeli missile defense systems that get extensive U.S. funding. Its first attempt at a full trial, held a year ago, was aborted due to what designers said was a faulty deployment of the target.

“The success of the Arrow 3 system today … is an important step towards one of the most important projects for Israel and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) becoming operational,” said Joseph Weiss, IAI's chief executive officer.

Arrow 3 interceptors are designed to fly beyond the earth's atmosphere, where their warheads detach to become 'kamikaze' satellites, or “kill vehicles”, that track and slam into the targets. Such high-altitude shoot-downs are meant to safely destroy incoming nuclear, biological or chemical missiles.

The Arrow system is jointly developed by state-owned IAI and U.S. firm Boeing Co. <BA.N> and U.S. officials were present for the test. The earlier Arrow 2 was deployed more than a decade ago and officials put its success rate in trials at around 90 percent.

The United States has its own system for intercepting ballistic missiles in space, Aegis, but a senior Israeli official played down any comparison with Arrow 3.

While it “might be true” that the allies were alone in having such proven capabilities, “Israel is not on the level of the U.S.,” Yair Ramati, head of anti-missile systems at the Defense Ministry, told reporters.

Arrow serves as the top tier of an integrated Israeli shield built up to withstand various potential missile or rocket salvoes. The bottom tier is the already deployed short-range Iron Dome interceptor, while a system called David's Sling, due to be fielded next year, will shoot down mid-range missiles. 

Israel's strategic outlook has shifted in recent months, given the international deal in July curbing Iran's nuclear program, the depletion of the Syrian army's arsenal in that country's civil war and Hezbollah's reinforcement of Damascus against the rebels. Israel and Hamas fought a Gaza war in 2014 but the Palestinian enclave has been relatively quiet since.

Nonethless, a senior Israeli official said there was no sign of waning government support or weakening U.S. backing for the various missile defense programs.

“Everyone knows that you have to prepare with an eye well beyond the horizon, especially as the enemy's capabilities improve all the time,” the senior official told Reuters.

In the coming months the Defense Ministry and Israeli military will discuss a possible schedule for deployment of Arrow 3, Ramati said, adding that further tests of the system were expected.

Kerry, at contentious U.S.-Israel confab, asks Israel to consider perils of single state


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at an annual U.S.-Israel confab, said Israel’s government must consider the consequences of evolving toward a single state incorporating the Palestinian areas.

“How does Israel possibly maintain its character as a Jewish democratic state?” Kerry said Saturday at the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C.

Would Palestinians “be relegated to a permanent underclass? Would they be segregated?” he asked.

Kerry’s forceful questioning of Israeli policy as well Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s outright derision of U.S. Middle East policy the previous evening underscored the divisions that continue to dog the governments of President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Kerry told the forum, which is sponsored by the Israeli-American entertainment mogul Haim Saban and convened by the Brookings Institution to bring together U.S. and Israeli leaders, that he believed Netanyahu was committed to a two-state outcome, but it was clear that “many” ministers in his Cabinet were not.

Should Israel abandon plans for two states, Kerry said, the Palestinian Authority would likely collapse, and Israel would have to assume many of the functions it now carries out, including policing the Palestinians. More comprehensively, Israel would have to consider how it governs an entity with a Jewish minority.

“The level of mistrust” between Israelis and Palestinians “has never been more profound,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s bluntness matched Yaalon’s in his claim the previous evening that the Obama administration had forfeited leadership in the region to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Much of the Saban event is off the record, allowing for frank exchanges between top U.S. and Israeli officials. It is rare for such corrosive exchanges to make it into the portions open to the media and streamed online. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner in the race to become the Democratic nominee for president and Kerry’s predecessor as secretary of state, is due to speak on Sunday.

Netanyahu, in a last-minute addition, delivered a 10-minute video address Sunday rebutting Kerry’s warning. He said the core issue hindering Israeli-Palestinian peace was the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

“The Palestinians have not yet been willing to cross that conceptual bridge, the emotional bridge of giving up the dream of not a state next to Israel, but of a state instead of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

The unfiltered bickering showed that last month’s friendly Netanyahu-Obama summit did not entirely patch up tensions and hurt feelings stoked by Kerry’s failed attempt in 2014 to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and by this year’s Iran nuclear deal, which was backed by Obama and opposed by Netanyahu.

Kerry, at Saban, asked how Israelis imagined the international community would react to a scenario in which Palestinians were permanently denied rights. He studiously avoided the term “apartheid”; his previous use of the term to describe the likely outcome of a collapse of the peace process drew sharp criticism from Jewish-American groups.

Kerry said Israel and the Palestinians were sowing despair — Israel through continued settlement expansion and the demolition of Palestinian homes, and the Palestinians through countenancing incitement and their failure to condemn attacks on Israelis.

“Abu Mazen needs to change the rhetoric,” Kerry said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry singled out as “incendiary” Abbas’ charges recently that Israel planned to alter the status quo at the Temple Mount-Haram al Sharif, a Jerusalem site holy to Jews and Muslims.

Much of the recent spate of deadly violence in the West Bank and Israel has been stoked by tensions surrounding the Temple Mount.

Kerry chided leaders on both sides for sniping at one another.

“If all you’re doing is hurling invective at each other on a daily basis,” there is little prospect for peace, he said.

Kerry said Israel was effectively allowing Israeli expansion into Area C, the largest part of the West Bank where Israel maintains control and which the Palestinians say they need for a viable state.

“Settlements are absolutely no excuse for violence,” he said. “But continued settlement growth raises questions” about Israel’s intentions.

Kerry said that in Area C, Israel had granted only a single permit for Palestinian building over the previous year, while enshrining as legal many illegal Israeli settlement outposts in the area.

“You get that?” he said, appearing to challenge the Israelis present.

Yaalon, the previous evening, said Israel preferred a “slowly, slowly” approach to the Palestinians, preferring to focus on Israel’s security needs and unspecified progress on the political and economic tracks for the Palestinians.

Kerry also sharply pushed back against Yaalon’s claims that the United States had failed to show leadership in confronting the Islamic State terrorist group making gains in Iraq and Syria.

“We have led a coalition of 65 countries to fight, degrade and defeat Daesh,” Kerry said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “We are not naive.”

The “naive” comment appeared to be a direct rebuke to Yaalon, who was present, and who in the past has used the term — not to mention “messianic” — to describe Kerry.

Yaalon had said that Russia was showing more resolve in the fight than the United States.

“Unfortunately, in the current situation, Russia is playing a more significant role than the United States,” eliciting some gasps at the stately Willard Hotel in downtown Washington.

“We don’t like the fact that King Abdullah of Jordan is going to Moscow, the Egyptians are going to Moscow, the Saudis are going to Moscow,” Yaalon said. “It should have been very different. And we believe the United States can’t sit on the fence. If you sit on the fence, the vacuum is filled, and Syria is an example, whether by Iran or the Shia axis supported now by Russia or by Daesh, by ISIS.”

Yaalon appeared especially concerned by the involvement of Iran in talks Kerry has convened in Vienna on confronting the Islamic State, depicting it as part of a process since the Iran nuclear agreement this summer of legitimating Iranian influence in the region.

“We worry about it as this process might bring about two bad options, as I mentioned: Daesh in one hand and Iran on our border,” Yaalon said, suggesting he had evidence that Iran was orchestrating attacks on the Israeli presence on the Golan Heights against the wishes of Bashar Assad, the Syrian president that Iran and its proxies are nominally protecting.

“Unfortunately, as part of the deal, the Iranian deal, one of the implications of the Iranian deal is a more confident Iran perceived as a part of the solution in their readiness to fight Daesh and gaining hegemony everywhere, in Iraq and now in Syria,” he said. “The Vienna process, which I’m not sure will be successful, provides Iran the opportunity to gain power, to gain hegemony. Very dangerous.”

Kerry, speaking the next day, said that Iran and Russia, by joining the Vienna talks, had joined a process that would lead to a unified Syria removed of the leadership of Assad and the influence of outsiders.

“Russia and Iran are at the table for the first time … in which they agree there has to be a transition,” he said.

Yaalon in his talk Friday evening said Israel preferred a fractured Syria as an outcome, with separate enclaves for the Shiites, the Druze, the anti-Islamic State Sunnis and the Kurds.

“This is the only good option that might come out of this chaotic situation,” he said.

Kerry and Yaalon agreed on one thing: They each said that whatever the political differences between the United States and Israel, the defense relationship remained “superb.”

Russian military jet violated Israeli airspace


A Russian military jet violated Israeli airspace but was not shot down, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

The jet breached Israeli airspace by a mile and turned back when Russia was informed of its mistake, Yaalon said Sunday during an interview on Israel Public Radio. The breach came recently while Russia was carrying out airstrikes against rebels in the Syrian civil war.

“Russian planes do not intend to attack us, which is why we must not automatically react and shoot them down when an error occurs,” Yaalon said a week after Turkey downed a Russian jet that it said repeatedly violated Turkish airspace.

Israel is coordinating with Russia to prevent the accidental downing of its planes while operating in and around Syria, Yaalon said. The defense chief noted a hotline to share immediate information.

Israeli and Russian officials met in September to coordinate after Russia announced it would operate in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

One year ago, Israeli forces shot down a Syrian warplane that penetrated Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights.

Israel says citizen, likely Arab, used paraglider to enter Syria


Israel said on Sunday that one of its citizens, probably a member of the country's Muslim Arab minority, had illegally flown to rebellion-wracked Syria by using a paraglider to cross the Golan Heights frontier.

Israeli media gave the man's age as 23 and quoted investigators as speculating that he sought to join Islamic State or other insurgents trying to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The penetration, which took place on Saturday evening, prompted intensive searches. Witnesses on the fortified Golan reported that Israeli aircraft were circling and dropping illumination flares. 

The military issued a brief statement on Sunday saying that its investigation “indicates that the civilian that entered (Syria) is a resident of Jaljulia,” a largely Muslim Arab town in central Israel. 

A Syrian rebel whose group operates in the area said the paraglider had come down either in Quneitra province or western Deraa. Local rebel groups include the Southern Front alliance affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and a group called the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which other rebels believe is affiliated with Islamic State.

Israel's Army Radio said the man flew eastward against the prevailing wind, an indication he went deliberately and was not blown into Syria by accident. 

Arabs, most of them Muslim, make up 20 percent of Israel's population. Though often sympathetic to the Palestinians, they seldom take up arms against the Jewish-majority state.

Israel is publicly neutral on the Syria's four-year-old civil war but bans travel there by its citizens. In recent years it has stepped up scrutiny of those suspected of trying to reach the country through intermediary states like Turkey. 

Israel's Shin Bet security service, which is investigating the paraglider penetration, says that more than 40 Arab citizens and Palestinians from Israeli-held East Jerusalem have tried to join Islamic State in its Syrian or Iraqi fiefdoms.

Arab citizens of Israel feel tensions


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

This weekend, Israel’s security services went on high alert as rumors spread that an Israeli soldier had been kidnapped near Israel’s border with Syria. When the gag order was lifted, it turned out that a 23-year-old Arab citizen of Israel had used a paraglider to cross the border into Syria, apparently to join Islamic State.

He is not the first to do so. A spokesman for Israel’s Shin Bet security service told The Media Line that about 40 Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians from East Jerusalem have joined Islamic State over the past few years. In most cases, Israel has taken away their citizenship.

The paraglider added to the tensions swirling around Arab citizens of Israel who make up just over 20 percent of Israel’s population. The current wave of violence has sharpened these tensions as three of the attackers have been Arab citizens, and many of the others have been teenagers from east Jerusalem, which Israel acquired in 1967 and annexed.

“In every clash between Israel and the Palestinians, the Arab citizens of Israel will side with their brethren – you have to take it for granted,” Sami Smooha, a professor of sociology at Haifa University and himself an Arab citizen of Israel told The Media Line. “That said, they don’t really take any action. We see that even the demonstrations have died down and I don’t expect to see any more.”

Arab citizens of Israel say that the last month of dozens of Arab attacks on Jews has increased suspicion on all sides. Arab employees in Jewish schools have been told not to come to work, or to work only after the children go home. A poll by the New Wave Economic Institute found that 60 percent of Jewish Israelis say they have avoided buying from Arab-owned shops since the beginning of the month. Many Israeli Arabs say they have taken to speaking in Hebrew in public, fearful they could be a target for angry Jewish attacks. In several instances, Arab citizens of Israel have been beaten by Jewish mobs. Arab citizens also held a commercial strike to protest the violence.

Smooha believes that the overall framework of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel remains intact, despite suspicion on all sides.

“There is a lot of interdependence between the communities and there is a commitment by Jews, Arabs and the state to continue this system of peaceful relations,” Smooha said. “I don’t see what is happening now as a real threat to Arab-Jewish relations.”

Arab citizens of Israel have more political power than ever before. In the last election, four separate Arab parties united to form the Joint List, which won twelve Knesset seats, becoming Israel’s third largest party. Long-time Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, known for firebrand speeches in the Israeli Knesset was elected Deputy Speaker.

Yet there is a sense of deepening separation among the communities. Someone on Facebook recently posted that he was looking for a small Jewish community in Israel to move to outside the main cities. Thrown into his description of a “nice balance of religious groups” and “great community vibe” was two words “Arab-free”. His post sparked a Facebook storm with some calling him a racist and others applauding his sentiment. He eventually modified the post.

With the exception of Haifa, Ramla, and Akko, there are few places were Jews and Arabs really live side-by-side. Even in Haifa, the largest mixed Arab-Jewish city, there are mostly-separated neighborhoods.

Several cities in Israel including Ashkelon and Rehovot, announced that Arab construction workers would no longer be allowed in their cities.

“”We are going through a difficult time. There is a wave of attacks, and no one can guarantee that that wave is over,” Israel’s Economy Minister and head of a hardline party called the Jewish Home Naftali Bennett opened his speech. “We are working every day until late at night, including yesterday, to combat terrorism. But you have to know 99.9% of Arab citizens are loyal to the State of Israel. It is only a very small minority acting out against.” 

“Therefore, the policy of the government of Israel should be a tough hand against terrorists, but extending a hand of embrace to faithful citizens. The hard line I wield against terrorists in the Cabinet will continue with new efforts in light of the security situation. But in my job as Economy Minister, I will not permit harm against any employee on the basis of religion or race. Something like that will not happen in Israel.”

Polls have consistently shown that Arab citizens of Israel want to stay, and not become part of any future Palestinian state. At the same time, they demand full equality, and not to be treated with suspicion by their Jewish neighbors and co-workers.

Beings of no nation, but a world of refugees


So the world is awake.

We thought all we needed was the indelible image of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi and his delicate little body washed up on a beach to rouse us from passivity to passion regarding Syrian refugees.

It wasn’t enough that for four years, we saw images of beheadings, massacres, ancient relics reduced to rubble and heard about a head of state using chemical weapons to smite his own people. We read the headlines as the death toll rose and rose, by now to more than 320,000 souls, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. But until we saw little Alan, it had not hit hard enough.

And now it has hit hard again. This time in Israel, with the indelible, bloodied image of 29-year-old Mila Habtom Zerhom, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, who on Oct. 18 was mistaken for a terrorist, shot and then trampled to death by an angry mob. “People took out their rage on him,” a bystander told Ynet news.

So this week we wake to the challenge of the 50,000 or so Sudanese and Eritrean refugees living in Israel, many of whom face problems even more severe and profound than those of typical asylum seekers. So we’re awake, again, and we must suffer the consequences of conscience.

“Three months ago, I would have said our biggest challenge is to get the word out that Jews should care about refugee issues,” Riva Silverman, vice president of external affairs for HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said during a recent appearance in Los Angeles. “Today, our biggest challenge is: Can we respond quickly enough to all the hundreds and thousands of people that are saying ‘We want to get involved, we want to help, what can we do?’ ”

During the High Holy Days, which occurred about a week after Alan’s image was disseminated all over the world, HIAS raised more than $1 million for its ongoing efforts aiding refugees in places like Syria, Chad, Uganda, Ukraine and Ecuador.  “It was our most successful season of fundraising in decades,” Silverman said, outdoing last year’s sum of nearly $250,000. “The refugee experience is in the Jewish DNA, so I think this issue touched a chord in the Jewish community in a very profound way. It’s been our history for the last 2000 years.”

The Syrian refugee problem is most acute. Silverman estimates that 11 million Syrians have been displaced by the conflict, a number, she adds, which is equal to roughly half the Syrian population. Seven million are internally displaced, after being forced to flee their homes, and nearly 4.2 million, according to the latest figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have fled the country – most of them now living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

“Good hosts,” Silverman said, “but overwhelmed.”

One in every five people in Lebanon right now is a refugee. “Imagine if that was the case on your block,” Silverman told a small crowd gathered at the West Hollywood home of philanthropists and activists Bill Resnick and Michael Stubbs, who regularly host a salon series, Petrichor, exploring major global issues.

Without healthcare, education or enough access to food, many of those refugees preferred to risk the perilous journey to Europe. We know how that ended for Alan and his family.

Unfortunately, the Syrian refugee problem isn’t the half of it. As I write, tens of thousands are fleeing escalating violence in Nigeria, spilling into neighboring regions like Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Nearly two and a half million from South Sudan have been displaced by violent conflict there. “Ten years ago,” Silverman said, during the genocide in Darfur, “everyone was very passionate [about refugee issues], but I guess we got kinda bored because those people are still living in camps.”

The number of refugees worldwide is staggering. It is estimated that nearly 60 million people are displaced around the world, and some 22 million of them are living in exile from their home countries. But here’s what’s worse: the total number of resettlement slots available to 22 million people, from all the countries in the world combined, amounts to a paltry 105,000.

The United States accepts up to 70,000 refugees each year, though Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that the U.S. would increase its quota by 15,000 per year for the next three years in order to accommodate those fleeing Syria. Germany announced it will take in 800,000 Syrians this year. But by and large, Silverman said, “Less than 1 percent of refugees will ever be resettled in another country.” Millions will be born and die in camps.

For a refugee, the state of statelessness can last a lifetime.

But the concept of a refugee is still fairly new: the UNHCR was created in 1950, just after World War II, in order to help European Jews and others who were displaced by the conflict. HIAS has been around even longer: Founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, the organization considers itself “the oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S.” In Israel, its work primarily consists of helping the Israeli government integrate the 50,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers who crossed the border into Israel in the mid-2000s. What happened on Sunday is proof of how badly their services are needed there.

“It was a horrible tragedy and highlights that there are [many] asylum seekers in Israel whose cases have yet to be resolved,” Silverman said.

In fact, it was the Israeli Ministry of the Interior that invited HIAS to help create a processing system for asylum seekers, which Israel lacked. Now, more of these asylum seekers are receiving legal representation, which is the only way to expand their rights and get them out of detention camps. “Anywhere in the world an asylum seeker has a lawyer, their chances for a positive outcome skyrocket,” Silverman said.

It’s comforting to know that when the world turns its back, HIAS is there, doing its holy work, caring for the most vulnerable strangers, orphans and widows on earth, providing them with legal assistance, psychosocial support and helping to resettle 3,500 refugees in the U.S. each year. Israel would do well to follow the example of others in the Jewish world.

“One thing we often say is: We used to protect refugees because they were Jewish,” Silverman said. “Now we do it because we are Jewish.”

What Syria’s refugees think about Israel might surprise you


Israel’s government is in cahoots with Syrian President Bashar Assad. America wants to keep the Syrian civil war going for as long as possible. Russia is outmaneuvering the United States on the global stage.

Those are some of the viewpoints you’re likely to hear if you talk politics with Syrians pouring out of their war-torn country and into Europe.

When I went to Berlin recently to write about the wave of migrants arriving in Germany, one of the questions I was most curious about was something that had nagged at me since the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad began bombing its own people back in 2011: Now that you see the true face of your government, do you look at its longtime adversary, Israel, any differently? Could the enemy of your enemy be your friend?

But when it came to their views on Israel, there seemed to be more conspiracy theory than political theory. And I was surprised (though I probably shouldn’t have been) that for many Syrians, the defining element of their identity is sectarian rather than national, and therefore they’re more concerned with the divides among Alawites, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds than the divide between Arab and Jew.

“Israel and Bashar [Assad] – same-same,” said Khalid el-Hassan, a 17-year-old from the Syrian coastal city of Tartus who recently made his way to Berlin.

El-Hassan cited the quietude that for years prevailed along the Syria-Israel border and Assad’s repeated failure to respond to Israeli airstrikes in Syria both during the civil war and before it.

Emad Khalil, a 22-year-old law student from Aleppo, repeated a myth that is widely accepted as fact across the Arab Middle East: that the two stripes on the Israeli flag represent the Nile and the Euphrates rivers, and the Star of David is a sign that the Jews seek to control all the land in between, from Egypt to Iraq.

“You come to visit Syria, OK. You come to take our land, not OK,” he said.

Some of the Syrian refugees interviewed in Berlin insisted on taking selfies with JTA's Uriel Heilman, in Yankees cap. (Uriel Heilman)

Some of the Syrian refugees interviewed in Berlin insisted on taking selfies with JTA’s Uriel Heilman, in Yankees cap. 

When I told Khalil the myth about the flag had no truth to it, he shrugged.

“I saw it on a documentary,” he said.

To be sure, I heard a range of viewpoints expressed, from the Syrian Kurd who was curious about teachers’ salaries in Tel Aviv to the bereaved Syrian mother who asked me why, if we’re all children of Adam and Eve, can’t we just get along?

To my Western ear, many of the Syrians’ convictions sounded outlandish, incoherent or ignorant. I mostly suppressed the urge to argue, however. My aim wasn’t to convince them why they were wrong, but to get a sense of how they see the world.

Given their experiences over the past four-plus years of civil war, the Syrians I met were less interested in talking about Israel than what they said was the West’s failure to help them.

Hadiya Suleiman, 45, a native of Deir ez-Zur in eastern Syria whose 18-year-old son was killed by a roadside bomb she said was rigged by ISIS, said she and other Syrians were happy when President Barack Obama was elected. But his inaction following the Syrian revolution changed her mind.

“I think what’s happening now is Obama’s responsibility; if Obama wanted he could stop the war,” said Suleiman, who has five surviving children.

Suleiman accused the “Jewish lobby” in America of thwarting any action on Syria, saying that U.S. policy favors seeing the civil war drag on so that the Syrians continue killing each other. She also blamed the rise of ISIS on America’s mismanagement of its invasion of Iraq.

Idris Abdulah, 30, an unemployed Syrian Kurd who came to Germany a year ago, said it wasn’t fair to blame America for ISIS; he fingered Assad for creating the ISIS problem by releasing Islamic militants from Syrian prisons shortly after the outbreak of the civil war. But Abdulah said America’s failure to act decisively in Syria shows American weakness, especially in contrast to Russia.

Noting Russia’s success at wresting Crimea from Western-backed Ukraine, Abdulah declared, “America is losing. Russia is winning.”

He added, “We all hate the American government because it’s not doing anything for the Syrian people even though it can. We don’t hate American people.”

Then he offered me the hot cup of tea a friend had just thrust into his hand.

El-Hassan said he was disappointed by the shoddy welcome Syrian refugees have received in Europe — especially given Syria’s “magnanimous” welcome of refugees in decades past from Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Until he reached Germany, el-Hassan said, he encountered mostly hostility, from the Hungarian guards who beat and detained him to the Serbians who refused to provide lodging and other assistance.

“In Serbia, in Macedonia, we sleep in the street, but nobody cared,” el-Hassan said. “Here in Germany, we sleep in the street, but people come to bring us food, sleeping bags. Here they are very good men.”

When I asked why Persian Gulf states weren’t taking in Syrian refugees, the answer was straightforward: “The Arabs don’t love us,” el-Hassan said.

Idris Abdulah, a Syrian Kurd who arrived in Germany in 2014 and still hasn't found a job, says he hopes one day to work helping refugees like himself. (Uriel Heilman)

Idris Abdulah, a Syrian Kurd who arrived in Germany in 2014 and still hasn’t found a job, says he hopes one day to work helping refugees like himself. 

Abdulah said he believes Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia are afraid that incoming Syrian refugees could destabilize their tightly controlled societies by pushing for more freedoms.

So far, Syria’s Muslim neighbors have borne the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis. Approximately half of Syria’s 17 million citizens have been displaced by the civil war. Aside from the millions who have been internally displaced, some 2 million have gone to Turkey, more than 1 million have fled to Lebanon, over 600,000 have found shelter in Jordan and about 250,000 have gone to Iraq.

Many of those countries have balked at taking in more Syrians due to dwindling international funding for Syrian refugees and concerns about the destabilizing effect of an even greater influx.

When Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany announced six weeks ago that her nation would take in 800,000 asylum seekers, it prompted a fresh wave of Syrians to risk the perilous journey to Europe. (By contrast, the United States has accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees over the past four years. The Obama administration announced in September that by 2017 it would increase the number of asylum seekers it accepts annually to 100,000 from 70,000. That figure includes not just Syrians but refugees from all over the world.)

Syrians aren’t the only ones heading to Germany. The refugee camps I visited in Berlin are full of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Eritreans and citizens of too many other countries to count – including Russian speakers from Central Asia. Some are fleeing war, violence or repression, but many are economic migrants seeking better opportunities. It’s a point of consternation for many of the Syrians, who accuse others of misrepresenting the dangers they face back home – and even acquiring fake Syrian identity papers – in an effort to be granted asylum in Germany.

Despite her hopes for a new life in Germany free of war and peril, Suleiman said she’d go back to Syria in a heartbeat if the war ended. But there may not be much to go back to.

“For 10 years I worked to build a house, and now it’s all crushed by Assad’s bombs,” she said. “I tried living under ISIS control, but anybody who said anything that disagreed with ISIS was beheaded.”

Suleiman said she tried to gain admission to Kuwait, where her husband has worked for the past 13 years, but she was denied entry. The same thing happened when she tried Saudi Arabia. Now she has one child in Austria and four with her in Germany, where she arrived in late September.

“But Syria,” she said, “is still my home.”

Clinton: Middle East peace almost impossible


This post originally appeared at Jewish Insider.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday poured cold water on those eager to see the Israeli-Palestinian peace process renewed in the near future.

Appearing at a campaign event in Mount Vernon, Iowa, on Wednesday, Clinton said a lasting peace settlement is out of reach until Israel and the Palestinians “know what happens in Syria and whether Jordan will remain remain stable.”

Clinton told the college students and others, gathered at what dubbed as a community forum on the economy and the affordable healthcare, that peace in the region is even more difficult given the uncertainty of what Hezbollah’s next move is. She did not specifically refer to the Iran nuclear deal, but her argument reflected Israel’s argument that the international accord will bolster Iran’s regional power in the region, using at least 10 percent of its freed funds to sponsor Hezbollah’s terror activities on Israel’s border with Lebanon.

As Secretary of State in President Barack Obama’s first term, Clinton headed three face-to-face meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. But the relatively short period of direct negotiations ended as Israel refused to extend a unilateral 10-month settlement freeze and the rise of the Arab spring.

When a member of the audience asked the presidential hopeful how she plans on reconciling peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Clinton joked: “You guys ask the easiest questions. You know, we can be here until dark. Maybe we can serve breakfast. I dunno.”

But turning serious, Clinton paused for a moment and went on to describe the early days of the administration’s efforts with the appointment of George Mitchel as the U.S. envoy for the Middle East and how difficult peace is. “There is nothing easy about making peace. You don’t make peace with your friends,” she explained. “I know what the hard decisions are – for the Israelis it is security – how you secure it against a now volatile neighborhood. Security is a real issue and it is not something you can quickly resolve. For the Palestinians, it is autonomy – for them to make their own decisions and not be continually under the authority of the Israelis. And that is really where the two collide.”

“And now it is very difficult to figure out how either the Palestinians or the Israelis can put together a deal until they know what is going to happen in Syria, and until they know if Jordan will remain stable. It’s a really dangerous and complicated situation” she added.

But she said that no one should ever give up on pushing for a two-state solution, and should keep pushing for more support and relief for the Palestinians “so they can have more authority over the territories they are largely responsible for.”