People watch the Israeli Air Force planes fly in formation over the Mediterranean Sea on May 2. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

Daily Kickoff: Experts downplay expectations for Trump’s Abbas meeting | Ivanka’s West Wing agenda | Wilbur Ross calls Syria strikes ‘entertainment’


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HAPPENING TODAY — In public debut, F-35 jets streak over Israel for Independence Day: “Israeli F-35 stealth fighter jets soared above cities throughout Israel on Tuesday for the country’s annual Independence Day flyover, marking the first time the public got a look at the Air Force’s state-of-the-art plane. Israel is the first country outside the United States to receive the state-of-the-art F-35, which is manufactured by Lockheed Martin. In total, the country is planning to purchase 50 of the fifth-generation stealth aircraft, known in Israel as the “Adir,” or “mighty one,” and has thus far received five of them.” [ToI]

“UNESCO disavows Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem in 22-10 vote” by Tovah Lazaroff, Herb Keinon: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Tuesday’s “absurd” 22-10 UNESCO vote disavowing Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem still represents a positive diplomatic change: more states abstained or supported Israel than voted against… According to Israeli officials, Germany was a driving force behind a deal that would see all EU states abstain in exchange for the removal of the most incendiary anti-Israel passages. But on Monday, Italy announced that it would vote against the resolution, apparently ending the effort to forge a European consensus.” [JPost; ToI]

“Why Israel Got Into a Dust-Up With Germany” by Daniel Gordis: “Most Israelis are keenly aware that without the IDF, they would not survive. Of all weeks of the year, this was certainly not the moment for a German to come to Israel to meet with an organization that most Israelis believe wants to make Jews vulnerable once again.” [Bloomberg]

“Every Senator Agrees the U.N. Must Change” by Senators Chris Coons and Marco Rubio: “As both the U.N.’s principal founding member and its largest financial contributor, the U.S. must insist on real reforms. We in Congress have a responsibility to conduct rigorous oversight of U.S. engagement at the U.N. and its use of our citizens’ tax dollars… Still, the U.N. continues to fund and maintain many standing committees that serve no purpose other than to attack Israel and inspire the anti-Israel boycott, sanctions and divestment movement. These committees must be eliminated or reformed.” [WSJ

TAYLOR FORCE ACT — “Senators Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton write to Trump that the PA is no partner for peace with Israel as long as it’s ‘spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year funding and incentivizing terror'” [Haaretz; FreeBeacon]

DRIVING THE WEEK — White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered no clarity at yesterday’s press briefing about Trump’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ahead of the Trump-Abbas meeting on Wednesday. “The President’s ultimate goal is to establish peace in the region,” he asserted. “That’s obviously the goal and the discussion that he’s going to have with the head of the Palestinian Authority. But that’s going to be a relationship that he continues to work on and build with the ultimate goal that there’s peace in that region between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

Asked about newly announced Israeli settlement building in E. Jerusalem,Spicer said, “I’m sure that we’ll continue to have conversations with the Prime Minister and — I’m not going to — that will be something that President will continue to discuss.” [CSPANA possible announcement about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem “is still being discussed by staff,” added Spicer.

YESTERDAY IN DC — Washington Institute (WINEP) panel calls for lowering expectations from Trump-Abbas meeting — by Aaron Magid: “In spite of the sudden spate of optimism that the Trump administration can do it, I would argue no major breakthrough is available now. No lack of effort or shortage of time prevented the deal so far during the many years since Oslo,” explained Channel 2 Arab Affairs analyst Ehud Ya’ari. “[Abbas] is not the man who is going to sign the deal giving up on the return of many, many refugees. Embarking upon a final status effort is going to once again backfire. It is simply not there now. Therefore, the big question is whether the Trump administration will come to the table with a fallback, which can only be some version of a comprehensive interim (deal).”

Trump’s approach to the meeting with Abbas “needs to be in the first instance to demonstrate the difference from Obama,” argued Ambassador Dennis Ross. “The one thing that can’t be the result of this meeting is that Abbas leaves and feels it’s ok to say no to Trump. He needs to understand that when you say no to Trump, you pay a price.”

At the same time, WINEP Fellow Ghaith Omari advocated that the Trump administration adopt a nuanced approach when setting the goals for the meeting. “If President Trump asks for too much and too quickly, Abbas might shut down and he might retreat to preserve his domestic standing and nothing will come out of the meeting,” Omari said. “On the other hand, if the President asks for too little and is willing to engage on a diplomatic process with no preparation, we might end up with a very familiar story with a peace process where neither or one of the sides is willing or able to reach a deal, and we are just being strung along.” [JewishInsider]

“Can Trump Make Mideast Peace Without Gaza?” by Grant Rumley: “Any feasible peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians will require serious concessions from both sides. And no Palestinian leader sitting in the West Bank can compromise on the most sensitive issues in Palestinian politics – the status of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, etc. – while a rival party controls half the territory of a future Palestinian state… Rather than ignoring Hamas, the U.S. can support a political process that not only diminishes the terror group’s standing but also gives the more pragmatic (albeit flawed) Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority a chance at re-establishing a legitimate claim to Gaza in future negotiations.” [Politico] • In Palestinian Power Struggle, Hamas Moderates Talk on Israel [NYTimes]

“What Trump’s meeting with Abbas means for the Middle East” by Aaron David Miller: “The bottom line on the Abbas meeting — like the Netanyahu visit in February — is that for now the emperor (in this case the peace process) has no clothes. It’s not yet ready for prime time. So whatever Trump’s strategy, and it’s not at all clear he has yet developed one, this meeting with Abbas and the Palestinians will be the first of many if the President is serious about involving his administration in a peacemaking effort.” [CNN]

SPOTLIGHT: “Trump’s Israel-Palestine Negotiator Isn’t Qualified — And that might be exactly why he pulls off a peace deal” by Armin Rosen: “[Jason] Greenblatt is only in the world of Middle East diplomacy because his longtime boss was elected president, but in the context of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, the appearance of favoritism might actually help him… It’s harder to stall an envoy, or to go behind the envoy’s back and appeal to other, friendlier administration officials or congressional allies, when the sides believe that the mediator is a direct extension of the president… Greenblatt is about as personally close to the president as someone in his position could be. And Trump has been remarkably and even uncharacteristically consistent on Israeli-Palestinian peace… Closeness with an engaged president is a powerful tool for an envoy — as long as there’s a policy vision and a sustained commitment from the Oval Office underlying his work.” [FP

“Rodrigo Duterte Says He May Be Too Busy for White House Visit” by Felipe Villamor: “President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines said on Monday that he might not accept President Trump’s invitation to visit the White House, because he was “tied up” with a busy schedule… “I’m supposed to go to Russia, I’m also supposed to go to Israel.”[NYTimes

“Trump’s warm words for strongmen set off alarms” by Annie Karni: “We’ve always had relationships with governments that are problematic, but we hold them accountable on it and we don’t lavish them with praise this way,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official under John Kerry… “It completely undercuts our soft power our influence and our credibility as the leader of the free world… The fear of complicating relationships with the United States acts as a restraint — when Trump lavishes this praise, he implies there is no restraint.” [Politico]

“Ivanka Trump’s West Wing Agenda” by Jodi Kantor, Rachel Abrams and Maggie Haberman: “Ms. Trump is her father’s all-around West Wing confidante… The two trade thoughts from morning until late at night, according to aides. Even though she has no government or policy experience, she plans to review some executive orders before they are signed, according to White House officials. She calls cabinet officials on issues she is interested in, recently asking the United Nations ambassador, Nikki R. Haley, about getting humanitarian aid into Syria. She set up a weekly meeting with Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary… Sometimes she seeks out Mr. Trump, telling other staff members, “I need 10 minutes alone with my father.” “A lot of their real interactions happen when it’s just the two of them,” Jared Kushner, Ms. Trump’s husband and fellow aide, said in a telephone interview.” [NYTimes]

“Trump Adviser Jared Kushner Didn’t Disclose Startup Stake” by Jean Eaglesham, Juliet Chung and Lisa Schwartz: “Mr. Kushner’s stake in Cadre — a tech startup that pairs investors with big real-estate projects – means the senior White House official is currently a business partner of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and billionaires including George Soros and Peter Thiel, according to people close to the company. The Cadre stake is one of many interests — and ties to large financial institutions — that Mr. Kushner didn’t identify on his disclosure form, according to a Wall Street Journal review of securities and other filings.” [WSJ]

ON THE HILL — “Senate panel puts Russia sanctions bill on hold” by Karoun Demirjian: “The committee’s ranking Democrat, Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), had hoped that the Russia sanctions bill would advance to a vote alongside compromise legislation to impose stricter sanctions against Iran over a spate of recent ballistic missile tests and the activities of the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps… That Iran sanctions bill — compromise legislation that Corker and Cardin unveiled in March after more than eight months of wrangling — could be voted on by the full Senate later this month, Corker said… The Senate does not go on an extended break again until the week of Memorial Day, and Corker said Monday that the Iran sanctions bill “could move at the end of this work period.”” [WashPost

LongRead — FRENCH ELECTIONS: “The Future of Europe Hinges on a Face-Off in France” by Lauren Collins: “I wandered away and started talking to a woman wearing a quilted leather jacket and lots of mascara. “I adore Marine!” she said, identifying herself as Michèle… She had high hopes for the election, particularly after what had happened in America. “Bravo, bravo for Trump!” she said. She was unimpressed by Macron, whom she called “a little opportunistic asshole.” She asked if I knew that he was “a Rothschild banker” (Macron worked for the firm from 2008 to 2012, earning around a million dollars a year), invoking a slur—I heard it repeated over and over, and not just by F.N. supporters—that seemed laser-targeted toward some primal place in the French imagination, where a fondness for conspiracy theory intersected with a suspicion of high finance. “Rothschild banker” suggested, without having to say it, that Jewish influence was at work, making it all the more irresistible for the Front National.” [NewYorker

** Good Tuesday Morning! Enjoying the Daily Kickoff? Please share us with your friends & tell them to sign up at [JI]. Have a tip, scoop, or op-ed? We’d love to hear from you. Anything from hard news and punditry to the lighter stuff, including event coverage, job transitions, or even special birthdays, is much appreciated. Email Editor@JewishInsider.com **

BUSINESS BRIEFS: Interview with Mitchell Davidson, Managing Partner of Post Capital Partners [LinkedIn] • David Geffen Sells Malibu Home for Record $85 Million[THR] • Media mogul Barry Diller’s IAC to buy Angie’s list [Reuters] • Chinese tycoon who sought stake in Kushner property faces scrutiny [BostonGlobe]

HEARD AT THE MILKEN GLOBAL CONFERENCE — White House advisor Reed Cordish discussed the administration’s plans for workforce development: “We’re going to retrain America to take on the new jobs we need.” Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who was also on the panel, appeared to endorse the idea. [Pic]

Via the Jewish Journal’s Ryan Torok who is covering Milken this week: At the conference, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin spoke of the effectiveness of policy implementing sanctions against terrorist organizations or countries sponsoring terrorism, including Iran. “These sanctions really do work [on countries such as Syria],” he said in an interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network. “When you cut off the money to terrorist organizations, you have a big impact and I think you saw this in the case of Iran. The only reason Iran came to the table to negotiate was because of economic sanctions on them,” he said, “and that’s what created the incentive.””

“Wilbur Ross Says Syria Missile Strike Was ‘After-Dinner Entertainment’ at Mar-a-Lago” by Gene Maddaus: “Just as dessert was being served, the president explained to Mr. Xi he had something he wanted to tell him, which was the launching of 59 missiles into Syria,” Ross said. “It was in lieu of after-dinner entertainment.” As the crowd laughed, Ross added: “The thing was, it didn’t cost the president anything to have that entertainment.” [Variety]

“Unusual Honor for U.S. Jews on Israeli Independence Day Fires Up Local Twittersphere” by Allison Kaplan Sommer: “The fact that the speeches of the torch-lighters, billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and Rabbi Marvin Hier, were in English instead of Hebrew particularly grated on some ears. “Truthfully, it would feel much more natural to me to hear Arabic spoken at the torch-lighting than English,” diplomat Shani Cooper, Israel’s deputy head of mission in Ankara, Turkey, tweeted. Channel 2’s political reporter and commentator Amit Segal went a step further, tweeting that: “The torch should only be lit by those who speak Hebrew and live in Israel. Elementary.” … Several on Twitter joked that the gesture to wealthy American Jews was necessary in order for [Minister Miri] Regev and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to raise sufficient funds for the country’s planned 70th anniversary festivities next year.” [Haaretz] • How a US billionaire’s Jewish spark became an Independence Day torch [ToI]

SPORTS BLINK — Aly Raisman teams up with T-shirt company to remind us Life is Good: “The executives at Life is Good are hoping that Aly Raisman’s gold-medal glory can rub off on the Boston apparel company. The gymnast has signed a two-year partnership with Life is Good, and she played a key role in creating a line of T-shirts being launched this spring. The new Ally Tee Collection is geared to girls and women and features three designs that emphasize kindness, authenticity, and courage.” [BostonGlobe]

DESSERT: “Israeli-born chef strikes gold with top U.S. prize” by Richard Leong: “Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov, praised for his modern Israeli cuisine, struck gold by winning the top U.S. chef prize from the James Beard Foundation on Monday… Solomonov… turned his focus on Israeli and Jewish cooking after his younger brother David who served in the Israeli army was killed on Yom Kippur in 2003.” [Reuters]

BIRTHDAYS: Former Lord Chief Justice and President of the Courts of England and Wales, Baron Harry Kenneth Woolf turns 84… Professor of international relations and Middle Eastern studies at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, journalist, international negotiator and private consultant, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir turns 80… Author, publisher, president of four radio stations in the Pacific Northwest, conservative political activist, gun rights advocate, Alan Merril Gottlieb turns 70… Former member of the Texas Senate (1993-2013), she was born in NYC to Holocaust survivor parents, Florence Shapiroturns 69… Former US AID contractor, imprisoned by Cuba from 2009 to 2014, Alan Gross turns 68… Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, previously Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (2014-2016) and Managing Editor of Time Magazine (2006-2013), Richard Allen “Rick” Stengel turns 62… Member of the New York State Assembly, previously a member of the NYC Council and former Deputy Superintendent of the NYS Banking Commission, David Weprin turns 61… Billionaire businesswoman, entrepreneur, civic leader, she served as US Secretary of Commerce (2013-2017), now chairman of the private investment firm she founded PSP Capital Partners, Penny Sue Pritzker turns 58… DC-based CBS News correspondent, once a K-12 student at CESJDS in Rockville, Julianna Goldman turns 36… Campaign director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, previously the executive director of the Young Democrats of America during the 2012 election ctycle, Emily Tisch Sussmanturns 35… Communications Specialist at the NYC office of HIAS, previously a Senior Strategist at West End Strategy Team, Gabe Cahn turns 27… Founder & CEO of the Helena Group, Henry Elkus turns 22… Director of communications at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, previously senior director of media relations at the National Retail Federation, Stephen Schatz… Rosalyn Spiegel… Susanna Fried… Israel’s best tour guide Michael Bauer

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Celebrating Israel’s global humanitarian impact on its 69th birthday


When a car bomb went off in the town where he had evacuated to, shrapnel ripped through Fadi’s leg, making it nearly impossible to walk on his own. A father of four, Fadi has lost 25 family members, his village, and his way of life in Syria’s brutal civil war. Yet, he says he may be able to run again, thanks to the world-class medical treatment he is receiving from Israeli doctors.

As Israel prepares to celebrate its 69th birthday, the Jewish state stands out on the international stage for its thriving democracy, diverse and dynamic society, and innovative humanitarian work, which makes a global impact well beyond the country’s tiny size.

In Syria — a country officially at war with the Jewish state since its independence — Israel has responded to its neighbor’s six years of devastating conflict with an outstretched hand and an open heart. More than 2,600 Syrians have received medical care in Israel since 2013.

Within a month of the outbreak of hostilities in Syria in 2011, the Israeli organization IL4Syrians began sending fresh water, food, medical supplies and post-trauma care specialists, who covertly crossed the Syrian border to provide care. In addition, the Israeli humanitarian organization IsraAID has been providing medical and psychological support since 2011 to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, Iraq, Greece, Turkey and Germany. The Israeli government is now constructing a plan to absorb Syrian children who have no home, including victims from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s horrific gas attack April 4 in Khan Sheikhoun.

As Israel prepares to celebrate its 69th birthday, the Jewish state stands out on the international stage for its thriving democracy, diverse and dynamic society, and innovative humanitarian work.

Israel’s humanitarian intervention in Syria illuminates the dream its founders long envisioned: that a modern Jewish state could not only serve as a homeland and haven for the Jewish people, but also as Or LaGoyim — a light unto nations.

At Israel’s founding, the future of this vision was far from certain. Surrounded by hostile neighbors — with swamps in the north, deserts in the south, very little water and no natural resources — the new country had to fight for its survival.  

Against all odds and in the face of constant threats, Israel has not only survived, but thrived. In 68 years, we have transformed from a developing country into a high-tech powerhouse, earning the nickname “Startup Nation.” Israel has turned arid desert into blooming farmland, built tiny towns into thriving cities and gathered a scattered people into a modern nation. With a population of just 8 million, it has produced 11 Nobel Prize winners and has 83 companies listed on the NASDAQ — more than any country except the U.S. and China.

U.S. News & World Report ranks Israel as the eighth-most powerful country in terms of international influence and leadership, and Bloomberg ranks Israel as in the 10th-most innovative economy in the world. For the past four years, Israel consistently has ranked as the world’s 11th happiest nation.

Israeli innovation is lifting up people in all corners of the world — whether on the plains of Africa, where Israeli-designed sustainable bio-sand filters give residents long-term access to safe drinking water, or in the tropical forests of South Asia, where advanced agricultural techniques are helping farmers to move from poverty to prosperity.

While Israel’s journey has been nothing short of remarkable, as our nation begins its 69th year, we still must fight for our freedom and legitimacy — not only against threats of terrorism and the specter of enemies such as Iran — but also against a coordinated campaign to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.  

Israel’s enemies have turned college campuses into anti-Israel bastions of hate, and international forums like the United Nations into theaters of the absurd, where demonizing the Jewish state takes precedence over everything else, including pressing issues like the conflict in Syria. Each year, the U.N. Human Rights Council spends more time investigating and criticizing Israel — the only free and democratic country in the Middle East — than the rest of the world combined, as brutal dictatorships like Iran and North Korea get a free pass.

After 2,000 years of being a people without a state, and without a voice, we have once again become a sovereign nation that can speak up for itself, and that cannot only defend itself, but also help others and shine as an example for humanity. Although we may not always get credit for it in the international arena, Israel will never cease to pursue our values, striving to be a light unto the nations. On this anniversary of Israel’s independence — and the many more to come — we celebrate not only the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland, but the way that the modern Jewish state continues to make a difference in the world — one innovation, one invention and one refugee at a time.


Sam Grundwerg is the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles.

A view of the Suruc refugee camp in Turkey, which houses some 35,000 Syrian refugees. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

Recalling lessons of Passover, Israelis pray for their Syrian ‘enemies’


At a Shabbat service in Tel Aviv on Friday evening, congregants recited the mourner’s prayer for those killed in Syria’s civil war.

Standing before a mural of the Tree of Life, the rabbi of Beit Daniel, the largest Reform synagogue in Israel, delivered a sermon on the Jewish obligation to condemn the savagery of the war. And a bar mitzvah boy led a prayer for peace in honor of the Syrian people, whom Israelis have long considered enemies.

“When you include something in your prayers, you push it to a higher level of consciousness,” said Gilad Kariv, the head of the Reform movement in Israel and a member of Beit Daniel. “We declared that the Syrian people are rooted in the deepest part of our soul as individuals and as a community.”

After an apparent chemical attack in Syria on April 4 killed dozens of people, including children, liberal and Orthodox Israeli Jews alike adapted their Passover prayers to address the tragedy unfolding just across their northern border. They found inspiration to pray for Syrians in the story of the holiday, which some Jews have long interpreted as urging sympathy for the oppressed — and even the oppressor.

Israel’s Reform movement this year asked its members to dedicate the Sabbath before Passover, called Shabbat Hagadol, to the Syrians and refer to them at least twice during the seder, which recounts the Israelites’ biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt. The first mention is to come before a prayer for peace by the 18th-century Hasidic rebbe Nachman of Braslav, which some may add to the Haggadah. The second should come when seder participants spill a drop of wine for each of the 10 plagues God visited upon the Egyptians to win the Israelites’ freedom.

Kariv cited the view that the wine ritual symbolizes that the Jewish “cup of joy” is diminished because the Israelites’ emancipation came through the suffering of the Egyptians. If inheritors of that Jewish tradition can find room to forgive the biblical Egyptians, he said, Israelis can certainly sympathize with Syrians, with whom they have battled and never made peace.

“Despite the fact that Israelis can identify the Syrian people as our enemies, the vast majority of us feel deeply saddened about what is happening next door,” he said. “We are using this tradition to remind us to have sorrow for the suffering of all people.”

Zeev Keinan, a longtime leader in Israel’s Conservative, or Masorti, movement, delivered a Torah commentary on Friday at his Maayanot synagogue in Jerusalem about whether Israelis should pray for the Syrians. His conclusion – yes – was not a surprise to anyone who read the prayer he wrote several months ago for the Syrian people on behalf of the movement. He said the prayer, which has been widely distributed, is being read at his synagogue and others throughout Passover.

Appropriately, Keinan noted, a line from the prayer is taken from a passage of Exodus that refers to the aftermath of the final plague God inflicted on the Egyptians: the death of every non-Jewish firstborn son.

Keinan, whose mother is a Holocaust survivor, said repurposing the phrase “there is not a house without one dead” (Exodus 12:30) is in keeping with the Passover tradition. In addition to the spilling of the wine, Keinan referred to the Talmudic story that God stopped the angels from rejoicing when  the Egyptian soldiers who were pursuing the fleeing Israelites drowned in the Red Sea, saying, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying.”

In the Orthodox world, a prayer for Syrians has been making the rounds online ahead of Passover. Written in 2013 by a leading religious Zionist ethicist, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the prayer reads in part: “We beseech You in prayer to arouse in the killers their basic humanity and evoke mercy in their hearts, that they may recognize that we are all created in the image of God, and that there are limits even to human cruelty.”

Cherlow said he wrote the prayer, despite a reluctance among Orthodox Jews to add to Jewish liturgy, out of concern for the “civilians and children” in Syria. He said Jews are commanded “as part of our going out of Egypt” to observe that they are allied with any oppressed or displaced people. But Cherlow acknowledged being uncertain about what exactly to ask of God, given that most of the warring parties in Syria could be considered enemies of Israel.

“In this case, I can’t say we know what we wish for,” he said. “While I can’t use the term ‘happy,’ I prefer the bad people shoot each other and not kill me.”

Echoing the overwhelming sentiment in this country, Cherlow said Israel has little choice but to maintain its policy of nonintervention in Syria. Most Israelis feel getting involved would accomplish little and risk incurring the wrath both of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his backers Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, as well as the radical Islamic rebel groups, including the Islamic State, that seek to topple him.

Still, Cherlow emphasized that prayer is not enough in the face of evil, and said the events in Syria also inspired him to demand action. He recently recommended to the army’s chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, that the Israel Defense Forces expel reserve soldiers who assist as mercenaries in conflicts in African and South American countries, among others, and formally add ethical considerations to its decisions about weapons sales.

According to Kariv, Israel’s Reform movement plans to issue a letter on Wednesday demanding that Israel, which has not taken in any Syrian refugees, welcome 100 orphan children from the country — a plan proposed earlier this year by haredi Orthodox Interior Minister Aryeh Deri.

How complicated is Syria? Trump just helped ISIS


We like our problems clean and direct. Good versus evil. Good fights evil. Good wins.

The Syrian regime of President Assad is evil. Its use of chemical weapons to murder children was barbaric. It makes sense to not let him get away with it. So, you can argue that President Trump was right to order missile strikes against the regime.

This satisfying moral action, however, should not make us dumb down a complicated conflict. The dominant reality of the Syrian conflict today is that it represents evil vs evil. You can get rid of one evil only to see something worse replace it.

On one side of the conflict, you have the Assad regime, supported by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. A few years ago, Assad was on life support. Now, with his strong partners, he’s made a comeback.

On the other side of the conflict are anti-regime rebel groups who fight each other as much as they fight the Assad regime.

The largest is ISIS, with 25,000 to 80,000 fighters. ISIS has become the enemy par excellence in the Western world. Trump has talked incessantly about destroying them. Now consider this: By striking Assad, Trump ended up helping ISIS. Complicated enough?

Besides ISIS, there are groups like Al-Nusra Front (15,000 to 20,000 fighters), Jaysh al-Islam (17,000 to 25,000), Ahrar ash-Sham (10,000 to 20,000), Asala wa-al-Tanmiya (13,000), Jaysh al-Fatah (10,000), Sham Legion (4,000) and Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union (3,000).

In the middle of this jungle is the Free Syrian Army, with 100,000 fighters, which was started by former Syrian officers. Everyone seems to fight them.

Geography further complicates the picture. The country has been heavily splintered. Different groups have different power bases. Of course, the more land you can conquer the more power you have.

In the North is the Kurdish group, which is another story altogether, because Kurds are known to be more moderate. But Turkey hates the Kurds. Just as Iran and Syria are supporting the Assad regime, countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are supporting their own rebel groups.

The point is this: Syria has become a complete, violent mess. When it comes to the most likely winners in this conflict, the choice has become evil versus evil. The good people of Syria who initially rose up against Assad, and the militias they organized, have been slowly crushed.

As much as it may satisfy us to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, it’s important to keep our eye on the whole picture. What can America do? At this point, not much. Six years ago, when the more moderate rebel forces were stronger, we could have given them military assistance and established no-fly zones. Would it have worked? Who knows? There’s no certainty when so many violent forces are at play.

What we do know today is that extremist groups have the upper hand pretty much everywhere and that Russia has established its own military presence. That limits our options. On the humanitarian front, we can certainly help establish safe zones to assist the millions of refugees. We can even order the occasional pinprick attack to show we’re still here and we have our limits, and the use of chemical weapons is one of them.

But let’s be real. There are no good options. The Syrian fire has gotten too big to simply suffocate. Yes, let’s stay vigilant. Let’s make sure things don’t get too out of hand and spill over into other countries (like Israel). But as vexed as I am to say this, when evil fights evil, sometimes the best option is to let them fight it out, and to help ensure no one wins.

As Daniel Pipes writes, “Iranian- and Russian-backed Shi’ite pro-government jihadis are best kept busy fighting Saudi-, Qatar-, and Turkish-backed anti-government Sunni jihadis; because Kurds, however appealing, are not contenders for control of the whole of Syria; and because Americans have no stomach for another Middle Eastern war.”

Trump can go on about how attacking Assad is a “vital U.S. interest,” but who’s he kidding? Is he ready to invite the head of ISIS to the White House for peace talks?


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

The USS Porter firing a Tomahawk missile at a Syrian military airfield in the Mediterranean Sea on April 7. Photo by Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Why Israelis are happy about Trump’s missile strike — and why they should be wary


Israel’s government and pundits are unabashedly pleased by the missile strike ordered by President Donald Trump early Friday on the Syrian airfield from where Tuesday’s deadly chemical attack is believed to have been launched.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put out a statement out at 6 a.m. local time – unusually early – just to make clear he “fully supports” the strike.

“In both word and action, President Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated,” he said.

Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles on the airfield in northern Syria believed to be where a sarin attack that killed at least 72 civilians, including many children. The missile attack, Syria said in reports that could not be confirmed, killed nine civilians – including four children – and six troops, and caused extensive damage.

Here are some reasons why Israelis are backing the strike – and some reasons why it might not be so simple.

The moral imperative

Images of children gassed a few hundred miles north of Israel hits close to home for a country where the helplessness that Jews faced against the Nazi genocide remains a defining national characteristic.

“There was a genuinely strongly felt moral issue, and that was something that Israelis felt across the political spectrum when the pictures emerged of people killed in the chemical attack, given the Jewish people’s history of being gassed in the Holocaust,” said Daniel Shapiro, who until January was the U.S. ambassador to Israel and still lives there.

Israelis in just days have raised hundreds of thousands of shekels for the victims; fundraisers have explicitly invoked Holocaust imagery.

“No Jew can stay silent as children are being gassed in the streets of Syria,” IsraelGives says on its web page.

The sheriff is back in town.

Israelis were frustrated by the Obama administration’s hesitancy in confronting Assad.

In 2013, President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons would trigger an attack. But when Syria crossed the line, instead of launching an attack, Obama coordinated a deal with Russia under which Syria would divest itself of its chemical weaponry. It now appears clear to the United States and its allies that Syria’s divestment was more fraud than fact.

Trump while campaigning for the presidency appeared to want an even further retreat. His sole conceptualization of Syrian President Bashar Assad until last week was as an ally in combating Islamic State terrorists, an embrace that Obama, however feckless his chemical weapons retreat was, forcefully rejected. Trump officials said last week that they were ready to reverse stated Obama administration policy that any resolution to the Syria conflict must include the removal of Assad.

That worried Israelis – most prominently Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman – who were concerned that a resurgent Assad would allow Israel’s deadliest enemies, Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, a foothold on Israel’s border with Syria.

Trump over the last three days did a 180 on Assad – “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” the president said the day after the chemical attack — and so, commensurately, have Israelis warmed to Trump.

“American leadership is once again credible,” Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, until last year the director of policy at the Israeli Defense Ministry, told Israel Radio. “When you use nerve gas against a civilian population, the message is clear.”

Netanyahu in his praise for Trump said the message should resonate as far as Iran and North Korea. The prime minister and his government continue to see the 2015 nuclear deal Obama negotiated with Iran, trading sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program, as a license for Iran and its proxies to continue its regional interventionism.

Israel “hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere,” Netanyahu said.

Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent years in Syria, said in a media call that the chief concern for Israel and America’s Sunni Arab allies was what was “baked into” the nuclear deal: “That Iran could use rump governments in Iraq and Syria to shoot people into the region into submission” while the principal U.S. concern was sustaining the Iran deal.

What’s not predictable

1. Do Israeli jets still get to take out potential threats without triggering a Russian response?

An ally of the Assad regime, Russia was furious at the missile attack and suspended its “deconfliction” agreement with the United States – one under which the two nations give each other prior notice of any military action, particularly from the air, so there’s no risk of an inadvertent clash.

Russia has a similar arrangement with Israel; does that go by the wayside? Israel as recently as last month sent jets into Syria to stop the smuggling of Syrian arms to Hezbollah.

Gilad, speaking on Israel Radio, said he was confident that Russia would continue to allow Israel to act.

“I don’t think there’s any threat on Israeli action as long as it in the defense of Israel’s interests,” he said.

2. Is Israel more of a target than before?

Israel’s most potent threat is Hezbollah, which has positioned tens of thousands of missiles throughout Lebanon since the last Hezbollah-Israel war in 2006. Israeli brass believes Hezbollah could be positioning itself for another Israel war, if only as a pretext to draw attention away from Syria, where its alliance with Iran and the Assad regime has taken hits.

Hezbollah called the missile strike an “idiotic” action that was “in service” to Israel and predicted that it would increase tension.

3. Russia’s mad? But wait, we like Russia.

Netanyahu has gone to great lengths to cultivate Russia, in part because Israel sees Russia as the likeliest agent to broker a final status deal that would keep Iran and Hezbollah as far as possible from Syria’s southwest, where Israel’s border is.

He endured a tongue lashing on Thursday from Russian President Vladimir Putin just for intimating that Syria is responsible for the chemical attack. (Russia insists there is no proof yet.)

The closeness of Trump and his team to Russia – in Washington, increasingly seen as a burden, as it engenders a string of scandals – is seen as a plus in Israel, where it was hoped Trump would leverage his friendship with Putin as a means of containing Assad, Hezbollah and Iran.

“Israel still sees Trump as a dealmaker with Russia, and they want to know if Trump drives a wedge between Russia and Iran-Hezbollah-Syria,” David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, said in an interview.

4. That Sunni alliance thing … it’s complicated

The conventional wisdom in Washington after the attack is that Trump has revivified the U.S. profile in Israel among the United States’ Sunni Arab allies.

Except as much as Assad is despised among Sunni Arabs, both for his belonging to the secretive Alawite sect and his alliance with Shiite actors like Iran and Hezbollah, direct U.S. intervention is not necessarily popular.

Critically, Egypt – whose leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, just this week lavished praise on Trump – was less than enthusiastic about the strike.

“Egypt affirms the importance of sparing Syria and the Middle East the dangers of crisis escalation in order to preserve the safety of the nations that comprise it,” its Foreign Ministry said Friday, according to Al-Ahram. “We see the necessity for swift action to end the armed conflict in Syria to preserve the lives of the Syrian people through a commitment by all Syrian parties for an immediate cease-fire and a return to negotiations under the aegis of the United Nations.”

Egyptian unhappiness could hamper Netanyahu’s bid to use Egypt as a conduit to new peace deals with other moderate Arab states.

“Sisi sees Assad rightly or wrongly as part of the battle against Islamic extremism,” said Shapiro, who is now a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel.

“There’s also the more traditional Egyptian value of not wanting to see any foreign intervention in an Arab state lest it be directed at Egypt,” he said. “And Egypt has in recent months gone a bit closer to the Russians, and Russians have participated in counter ISIS operations in western Egypt. That creates some potential tensions between Egypt and its strategic partner Israel and Sisi and his new friend Donald Trump.”

5. It’s open-ended – which means, duh, we don’t know how it will end.

Tabler cautioned against seeing long-term consequences because of a single strike; no one knows yet where Trump will take U.S. involvement.

“This strike is not the same as the invasion of Iraq in 2003,” he said.

Israel initially was supportive of the U.S. action in Iraq, but soon grew apprehensive as the Bush administration neglected increasing threats from Iran and its war radicalized Sunni Arabs in the region.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that the strike was a one-off.

“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today,” he said in a media availability.

That did not assuage concerns among Democrats and even some Republicans in Congress, who called for consultations with Congress ahead of any further action.

“Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer, and Syria will be no different,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said on Twitter: “I’m deeply concerned the strike in Syria could lead the U.S. back into the quagmire of long-term military engagement in the Middle East.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, alongside Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sept. 4, 2016. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90

Israeli minister: Syria strike repositioned America as regional leader


Adding to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s praise for the U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian army base, a senior Israeli Cabinet minister said it “restored America’s regional leadership in a big way.”

Yisrael Katz, the intelligence minister and a member of the Cabinet’s defense forum, spoke Friday with Army Radio about the U.S. strike the previous night in which dozens of guided missiles were launched at an army base of forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. Earlier this week, his military was accused of using chemical weapons in attacking rebel-held areas.

“There are things that only the No. 1 superpower in the world can do,” Katz said. “In contrast to the failed policy of leading from behind, which led to Iran’s entrenchment, the United States has restored America’s regional leadership in a big way in the Middle East.”

Also Friday, Netanyahu praised President Donald Trump in a statement that said Trump, “in both word and action,” had “sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. Israel fully supports President Trump’s decision.”

Israel, Netanyahu added, “hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere.”

U.S. defense officials “updated Israel in real time” about the strike, Katz also said.

Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Netanyahu to protest the Israeli leader’s condemnation of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. Putin said the allegation was unproven and that Netanyahu should have waited for an international investigation before commenting.

Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, told Army Radio on Friday that the disagreement did not signify a deterioration of relations with Russia.

“There are understandings in place” despite rhetoric intended for the media, he said.

Russia last year joined Iran’s military intervention in Syria in favor of Assad, who has lost control of approximately 75 percent of the internationally recognized territory of Syria since the eruption of a civil war in 2011 that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Former President Barack Obama, who spearheaded an international agreement offering Iran sanctions relief in exchange for a scaling back of elements of its nuclear program, had described the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a red line following previous attacks. Obama’s critics accused him of failing to enforce that red line.

According to the international media, Israel has carried out a number of military strikes in Syria before and during the civil war, primarily to keep advanced weapons from being moved or reaching Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian militia that is based in southern Lebanon and is committed to fighting Israel.

Shivi Froman

We refuse to fall into the abyss


On Jan. 18, 2016, a Palestinian youth entered my hometown and stabbed my beloved wife, Michal, who was five months pregnant at the time. One young terrorist brought us face to face with the pain, danger and hatred that has accompanied our return to Zion. A few days of mortal danger for a beloved woman and an unborn child clarified the moral obligation we have to defend ourselves without compromise.

Last Oct. 16, I published my first post calling on the people of Israel to take action against the horror taking place just beyond our border in Syria. Thousands of Israelis responded, creating the largest crowdfunding campaign in Israel, raising millions of shekels for humanitarian aid — aid that was transferred by the Israeli Flying Aid organization to the real victims of that war: the suffering children in Syria.

These donors were thousands of Israelis who did what people in no other nation have done, not even Muslim countries. Thousands of Israelis who, with donations large and small, chose to be on the right side of history. This was done despite the bloody history between the Syrians and Israelis, despite the current situation between the two countries, which is full of hate, despite the uncertain future between us. Or, in the words of one of our donors: “My husband and my brother were killed in Israel’s wars with Syria, and my donation is the way I choose to honor them.”

This is not my personal story; it is the story of Israeli society, a small example of the strange existence that is our reality. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said the whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid. To live the true reality of our lives, we must achieve a delicate balance in crossing this bridge, without falling into either side of the abyss.

On the one side is an abyss of surrender to those who want to destroy us; an abyss they have tried to throw us into in the past; an abyss they hope will swallow us in the present. On the other side is the abyss of focusing only on our own existence, of drowning out everything and everyone else.

But despite our enemies’ hopes that we will either fall into one abyss and disappear or descend willingly into the other, and despite their accusations, we, the Jewish people and Israeli society, are carefully traveling across this bridge. We refuse to fall into the abyss. We refuse to lose ourselves and our identity as Jews in the Land of Israel. We also refuse to lose the image of God within us and our responsibility to others, even when they are our enemies.

There is so much pain in this world, and so many people who are purposely inflicting that pain. And it saddens me that the United Nations has chosen again and again to focus on Israel, a nation that is walking a very narrow bridge. We’ll continue on the path we have chosen because that is who we are. We will continue to exist as we are, because that is what is right and what is true. We will continue to exist as we are, because it is the righteous way to defeat the likes of those in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement who are against us.

My father passed away four years ago. Menachem Froman z”l was a rabbi, a resident of Judea and Samaria, and a peace activist. My father taught me that we were born with two hands. One hand with which to defend ourselves, and a second hand to extend in peace, compassion and caring for others. He taught me that our lives should be the clapping that happens when these two hands come together. Our lives should be an ongoing encounter between these conflicting motivations.

So let us raise both hands. Let us honor those two tasks — for the people of Israel, for the State of Israel, for our right to exist in our homeland, for our constant desire for peace, for the Israel Defense Forces and those who stand up for Israel, for Israelis who are engaged in acts of humane compassion, wherever they may be, for all those sharing our prophets’ vision of making the world a better place.

This is our story.

This article is adapted from a speech delivered on March 29 at the United Nations and reprinted at timesofisrael.com.


SHIVI FROMAN is an Israeli human rights activist and co-founder of Just Beyond Our Borders, a crowdfunding initiative that provides humanitarian aid for children in Syria.

Fighters of the Syrian Islamist rebel group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham cheer on a pick up truck near the wreckage of a Russian helicopter that had been shot down in the north of Syria's rebel-held Idlib province. Aug. 1, 2016. Photo by Ammar Abdullah/REUTERS.

Syrian truck driver on road to Damascus reportedly killed by Israeli drone


A Syrian man was killed when the truck he was driving in the Quneitra region of the Golan Heights on the road to Damascus allegedly was fired on by an Israeli drone, Syrian media is reporting.

The Israel Defense Forces is not commenting on the alleged air strike, neither confirming nor denying the Syrian reports.

The alleged victim has been named as Yasser al-Sayed, with some reports calling him a terrorist member of Hezbollah and others identifying him as a civilian.

Hours before the strike, Syrian media reported that Syrian army forces had repelled an Israeli drone in the same area.

The actions come after the IDF confirmed carrying out aerial strikes in Syria and intercepting missiles launched at its aircraft from the ground on Thursday night.

No Israelis were hurt during the strikes Thursday night or from the anti-aircraft fire, the first time that Israel has used the Arrow anti-missile system.

According to the nrg news site, the strikes Thursday were against targets affiliated with Hezbollah, possibly on a weapons shipment to the Shiite terrorist group, which is based in Lebanon but is fighting in Syria alongside Assad’s forces against rebels and Sunni militants.

The incidents on Thursday are reported to be the most serious between Syria and Israel since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war six years ago. At that time, Israel Air Force planes struck targets in Syria and Syria’s air defense system fired an anti-aircraft missile at the Israeli planes.

Israel is believed to have carried out several attacks on Syrian soil in recent years, but usually refrains from confirming or denying reports on its alleged actions there.

Also on Sunday, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in an interview with Israel Radio threatened to take out Syrian air defense systems.

“The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Liberman said. “Each time we discover arms transfers from Syria to Lebanon we will act to stop them. On this there will be no compromise.”

President Donald Trump on Feb. 24. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Liberté, égalité, Trumpism


One month into the Trump presidency, I flew to Paris to escape.

I was suffering from an acute case of Trump Fatigue, exhausted by the endless bad news, the moral outrage, the hysteria of the left, the hypocrisy of the right, the mass protests and activist meetings — not to mention the sleepless nights, the fear and uncertainty, the hundreds of articles about the future of American democracy, U.S. foreign policy, an ever-complicated Israel, and how the world as we know it is basically going to hell.

It turns out that although my capacity for outrage is apparently endless, my stamina for expressing it begins to ebb at a certain point, and then it’s time to do something dramatic, like follow through on my threat to leave the country.

So I flew to Paris thinking I’d walk the streets of Le Marais, stare at Monet’s “Water Lilies,” skulk around the gardens of Musée Rodin and eat a lot of cheese. I would revive myself with a renewed commitment to Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom and love — like in the movie “Moulin Rouge!” — and reclaim a sense of optimism for the future. What better way to restore some joie de vivre to my battered American soul than visit the place that invented joie de vivre?

I made it about as far as the cab ride from the airport when I realized that the stark political realities I had hoped to leave behind were in some ways closer than ever.

To enter Paris, my driver had to pass a small tent city of homeless people, who weren’t typical homeless people at all, but scores of women wearing hijabs, crowding the intersection with cardboard signs that read, “Je suis Syrien.”

To see up close what in the United States is discussed mainly in the abstract was shocking in its realism. In an instant, the only thing separating me from the Syrian civil war that destroyed and displaced millions of lives was the door of a cab.

Within an hour, it was easy to see why politicians such as Marine Le Pen have capitalized on France’s immigration “problem,” which is ripe for politicization. The evidence France has not well integrated many of its immigrants is creeping farther and deeper into Paris.

Homelessness and idleness were visible on street corners and in metro stations. And it isn’t only Syrians you see, but Algerians, Malinese and Senegalese, all trying to make their way in a country that, like the U.S., contains factions that are becoming increasingly nationalistic and hostile to outsiders. If you are inclined to seek reasons for why immigration is a threat to France’s fantasy of itself, you can easily find them.

Perhaps that’s why some Parisians are sympathetic to Trump’s anti-immigrant tactics. At a concert at the Maison de la Radio, I sat next to a sophisticated middle-aged woman who told me she didn’t much mind President Donald Trump. “The Clintons would have been much worse,” she whispered between Prokofiev and Shostakovich. “They wanted war. Trump only wants the money” — which she pronounced “Monet,” like the artist.

Some Parisians couldn’t care less about Trump’s atrocious identity politics, his nepotism or his greed —as long as he doesn’t drag Europe into another Iraq War.

But that comment seemed somewhat ironic, only a few days later, during dinner with Italian expatriates who are much more worried about the damage France may do to itself should Le Pen get elected and have her way. Over homemade tortelli with brown butter and crispy sage, an academic from the prestigious Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, warned that if European nationalist trends continue — resulting in more referendums like the one that led to Brexit — the porous borders and economic cooperation that have cemented European peace since World War II could disappear, producing renewed potential for regional conflict. Recently, this professor said, one of the top deans at his school suggested renaming his course track from “Negotiation” to “War Studies.”

“It’s like we’re going backward,” the professor said. “All the progress we made after the war — the focus on human rights, peace and prosperity for all — it’s as if it doesn’t matter.”

Europe, like America, is divided. And they’re watching us very, very closely. Even the French daily Le Monde is obsessed with the reality show that is the Trump White House and is now publishing a regular column called La journée de Trump — a roundup of the president’s day.

So much for my glamorous escape.

Political anxieties are alive and well in Paris, too, and no amount of aperitifs or digestifs can distract from a world in flux. “Travel robs us of refuge,” wrote French philosopher Albert Camus. He believed that we cannot hide ourselves when we travel — that we are “stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks … completely on the surface of ourselves.”

I used to come to Paris and feel only its wonders; now I also see its stains.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

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.

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.