By Yury Barmin
Israel has been an unofficial ally of Moscow since 1991, when diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel were restored, having been severed following the Six-Day War in 1967. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Russia was rapidly losing its political and economic clout in the rest of the Middle East region, while its relations with Israel improved.
The relations between the two countries have always taken the form of an informal alliance, as Israel has traditionally been regarded as a key partner in the region of the United States, and Washington has historically guaranteed Israel’s security. In the words of its minister of defence, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel and Russia have developed ‘special relations’ over the past few decades, despite the political pressure being exerted on Israel by the country’s allies. The deep historical ties between the countries serve as the basis for stabilising their relations and give them a less politicised character.
The traditional focus on solving the Palestinian problem, which is rapidly losing relevance in the Arab world amidst talk of the Iranian threat, has started to wane in Russia-Israel relations too, as a direct consequence of Moscow’s decision to pursue a more active policy in the Middle East. While Russia may have seen an opportunity to play a significant role in a Palestinian-Israeli resolution following the decision of the US president, Donald Trump, to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Israeli leadership now sees the Syrian conflict and the Iranian nuclear deal as the main issues on the bilateral agenda. It is these two events that have strengthened Iran’s position, thus becoming a catalyst for threats to Israel’s national security.
Against the backdrop of the escalation in the conflict between Israel and Iran, Russia’s relations with Israel are being put to test over Syria. This was demonstrated by the 17 September incident in which Syria accidentally downed a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance aircraft during an attack by Israeli F-16 jets on targets in Syria. While certain analysts have started to assert that Russia has taken on the role of the USA as a guarantor of Israel’s security and survival in the Middle East, it is hardly likely that the country’s leadership sees it this way.This notwithstanding, Israel has made it clearthat it views Moscow, and not Washington, as the party that is capable of preventing the conflict with Tehran from turning into a full-scale war.
When the war in Syria broke out, active discussion within the Israeli establishment took place as to what position the country should take with regard to the conflict. The 2005 reference of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to Bashar al-Asad as ‘the devil we know’ when he warned George Bush against attempting to overthrow Asad, was no longer relevant in 2011. In Israel’s estimation, the Arab uprisings, which benefited Tehran in many ways, would, if successful in Syria, greatly reduce Iran’s influence in the region. This is why Israel took the firm stancethat Asad had to go, although this did not evolve into a campaign to support the Syrian opposition.
However, as Damascus grew weaker and the role of Iran in the military conflict increased, Israel’s position started to change. This was primarily due to the commencement of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ operation in Syria in the second half of 2015. Like the Sunni-majority countries in the region, Israel was counting on the Russian military presence to contain and control Asad and, more importantly, Iran. Thus, Israel expected the Syrian war to proceed in a more predictable manner, because neither the potential risk of radical forces coming to power in Syria nor the comprehensive victory of government forces, and therefore Iran, would be in Israel’s interests.
The principle of Israel’s non-involvement in the Syrian conflict, as well as its rejection of the possibility of replacing the Asad government that the country’s leadership has repeatedly stressed at meetings with their Russian counterparts, has in many respects served as a guarantee for Moscow that Israel was concerned exclusively about its own national security. In other words, the threat to Damascus is a ‘red line’ for Moscow, and Israel has thus far indicated that it does not intend to cross it.
Nevertheless, should Iran strengthen its political and military positions in Syria, at the same time that the government in Damascus is stabilising and restoring its control over the country’s territory, this would radically alter Israel’s deliberate distancing from participation in the military conflict. The situation in Syria changed drastically on 10 February 2018, when the Israeli Air Force incapacitated almost half of all Syrian missile defence systems in response to a violation of its airspace by an Iranian drone launched from Syria. During the attack, one of Israel’s F-16 fighter jets was shot down by the Syrian air defence system near Haifa. Given that the Syrian government is no longer in self-preservation mode, and the last opposition enclave in East Ghouta was swallowed up by the Syrian Army in April 2018 (a process that Moscow calls transforming the de-escalation zones ‘in line with peaceful settlement’), it was a matter of time before things started to heat up between Iran and Israel in the country’s southwest. The point here is that the southern de-escalation zone, like similar areas in Syria, turned out to be nothing more than a temporary measure to freeze the conflict. The issue of Golan Heights, whose border had been peaceful for decades, and where the Israeli and Syrian militaries have served under the supervision of the UN Peacekeeping Mission, is becoming both a subject of political dispute and a potential zone of military escalation.
Escalation on the border of the occupied Golan Heights could radically change Israel’s position with regard to the Syrian conflict. In negotiations with Russia, Israel insists on the Golan Heights issue being a ‘red line’ and that ‘with or without an agreement, Golan Heights will remain part of Israel’s sovereign territory’. Israel’s policy of distancing itself from the conflict in its neighbourhood had become noticeably less pronounced. The events in Syria’s south are starting to resemble the 1982 Lebanon War, at least in terms of the scale of Israel’s military operations against Syria. The involvement of the Syrian air defence systems that shot down the Israeli fighter jet on 10 February made Damascus a party to the conflict that is unfolding between Iran and Israel.
In conditions where Damascus is carrying out an offensive campaign near the borders with Israel together with pro-Iranian forces, as far as the Israeli’s military leaders (who are known for being uncompromising) are concerned, the line between the pro-Iranian forces and Damascus is being eroded. In other words, any provocation by Iran aimed at probing the ‘red lines’ set by Israel automatically implies the involvement of Damascus, which could dramatically change Israel’s position on the need to remove the Asad government.
In addition to eliminating the supposed danger, Israeli strikes on Iranian and Hizbullah positions in Syria have two additional goals: to demonstrate to Damascus that its alliance with Iran is dangerous for the survival of the Asad government, and to let Moscow know that, in pursuing its policy in the region, it is not in Russian long-term interests to rely on Shi'a militias. Moscow understands the risks associated with Damascus becoming directly involved in the confrontation between Iran and Israel. The influence of Iran, operationally and politically, on the Syrian government has made its armed forces dependent on Iranian support, and has made Russia dependent on pro-Iranian units when carrying out its operations. Thus, the issue of Iran is extremely threatening to relations between Russia and Israel.
Military cooperation between Russia, Iran and Hizbullah within the framework of the coordination centre in Baghdad cannot but alarm Israel. Thanks to joint military operations in Syria, where pro-Iranian units and the Syrian Army provide ground support and a Russian airborne tactical formation guards the skies, Moscow and Tehran have significantly deepened their military cooperation. Additionally, according to certain media reports, Iran could violate the UN embargo on the import of weapons by receiving certain types of Russian weapons through Syria and sending equipment to Russia for servicing.
Further, during joint military operations with Russia, Hizbullah significantly improved the quality of its combat training and tactical planning and obtained access to better intelligence following joint work of the military staff of the Russian Armed Forces and Hizbullah in Damascus and Latakia. Hizbullah has also mastered its offensive military tactics in Syria, which could have grave consequences for Israel, whose leadership seriously fears Hizbullah, which boasts some 10 000 fighters in Syria. Many in Israel are wondering when, rather than if, and under what circumstances, another war with Hizbullah might break out.
Throughout the Syrian conflict, Israel’s stance on the danger posed by Iran and Hizbullah did not always resonate with the Kremlin. For example, days before Russia launched its military operation in Syria in September 2015, in a meeting with Netanyahu, Putin rejected the Israeli assertion that Iran was, in collaboration with the Syrian Army, attempting to create a ‘second terrorist front’ against Israel in the Golan, saying, ‘The Syrian Army, and Syria in general, is in such a state that it is not even entertaining thoughts about opening up a second front, as it is trying to save its own statehood.’ Nevertheless, Putin did acknowledge that rocket attacks had been launched against Israel. Several key Russian politicians expressed the same position, including the Russian minister of foreign affairs, Sergey Lavrov, and the deputy minister of foreign affairs, Mikhail Bogdanov.
Despite Russia’s clear position on Israel’s security and the role that Iran plays in it, Moscow has given Israel considerable operational freedom. Thus, Moscow refrained from criticising Israeli operationsto destroy convoys transporting weapons (often Russian) across Syrian territory for Hizbullah. That was until the second half of 2015, when Israeli air operations obstructed Russian air defence systems deployed in Syria. Former Israeli defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, also confirmed that, since an emergency channel of communication between the Hmeimim Air Base and the Kiriya Command Centre in Tel Aviv was set up in 2015, Israel has not had to inform Moscow about forthcoming operations, since Russia independently identified Israeli fighter jets and did not consider it necessary to interfere in their operations.
Despite Moscow’s operational dependence on pro-Iranian forces, and despite the strategic proximity of the positions of Russia and Israel on Syria, Russia is unlikely to back either Iran or Israel should an open confrontation break out between them. From a strategic point of view, there is no good option for Moscow in this conflict, other than to strive for balance and to position itself as a referee. Whatever position it takes, Russia’s balancing act between Iran and Israel will inevitably seem like crisis management, and the political dividends of this role will be minimal. One example of this type of crisis response was the telephone call from Putin to Netanyahu on 10 February 2018, which ended the spiralling escalation between Israel and Syria.
Moscow aims to maintain a balance in the Iran-Russia-Israel triangle. In this context, in 2017, Lavrov stated that Iranian units were in Syria legitimately, at the invitation of the Syrian government. In July 2018, he added that it was unrealistic to expect Iran to leave the country soon. At the same time, Lavrov criticised Tehran for calling for Israel’s destruction. Russia also maintains a balanced position on the issue of Golan Heights. All official statements and documents, includingthe Final Statement of the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue held in Sochi, as well as materials published by the Russian ministry of defence, recognise this region as a part of Syria.This notwithstanding, Russian fighter jets avoid violating the airspace of the Golan Heights, de factorecognising Israel’s sovereignty over the region.
Against the background of escalation in the south of Syria, Israeli media reported in late May that Russia and Israel had reached an agreement on Iran. According to the deal, Israel agreed to return the areas in the southern de-escalation zone that border Golan Heights and Jordan to the partial control of the Syrian Army. Russia, in turn, guaranteed that pro-Iranian Shi'a forces would not be present on the border with Israel, and undertook to withdraw foreign troops from the country. The degree to which the agreement will be implemented in its current form remains unclear. However, in late July, the Russian presidential special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said Shi'a units and heavy equipment and weaponry had been withdrawn to 85km from the demarcation line with Israel (yet at the same time confirming that Iranian advisers were permitted to be present in the Syrian Army within this radius). It is not clear what Moscow’s position on the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Syria actually is, as the statements of Russian officials often involve mutually exclusive solutions. For example, in November 2017, the minister of foreign affairs announced that Iran was in Syria legitimately at the request of the Syrian government and that Moscow had never promised to ensure the withdrawal of pro-Iranian troops from the country. Nevertheless, in May 2018, Lavrentiev said that the entire foreign contingent, including Hizbullah and Iranian forces, had to be withdrawn.
Recent events have proven that Israel is prepared, and would prefer, to settle the issue regarding the southwestern borders of Syria via negotiations through an intermediary. However, Israel has made it abundantly clear that its ‘red lines’ – the presence of Iran and Hizbullah on its borders – had not shifted. This is why the failure of Russian attempts to achieve a compromise settlement could lead to Israel’s unilateral attempts to resolve the issue militarily, which will affect both the Asad government and Russian interests in Syria.
The terms of the agreement between Russia and Israel on Iran have also not been disclosed. Like Russia, Iran was officially invited to Syria by the Damascus government. While Russia can complain about the illegitimacy of the presence of US troops in Syria, similar, even veiled, attacks on Iran would be seen as unfriendly not only in Tehran, but also in Damascus.
According to some researchers, Iran has set up permanent military bases inside Syria which can accommodate up to 10 000 troops under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Russia can benefit from the weakening of Tehran’s military positions in Syria, which it regards as an obstacle to a peaceful settlement, because they create the illusion in Damascus that a military option for resolving the conflict remains open. However, Russia has few political levers to enact a recalibration of Iran’s position. Tehran has already stated that no one has the right to demand Iran’s withdrawal from Syria. Therefore, the Israeli campaign to prevent Iranian forces from taking root in Syria benefits Russia too, as long as it does not look like an open provocation. This could also have a negative effect on the future of the last de-escalation zone in Idlib, which Lavrentiev said will not be a site of any major military operations. The statements by Asad about the forthcoming Idlib campaign, and the fact that Iranian forces are concentrated on the border of Idlib, suggest that, as far as Tehran and Damascus are concerned, a military operation has not been ruled out.
There are currently doubts about Russia’s ability – and political expediency – to impede the establishment of Iranian forces outside the southwest region, despite reports in the Israeli media that Moscow prevented Iran from setting up a naval base in Tartus. In all probability, the most that Russia can guarantee is a reduction in the presence of pro-Iranian troops within a given radius of the Israeli border; it may suggest extending the existing radius beyond the current eighty-five kilometres. In any case, Moscow kept pro-Iranian forces from taking part in an offensive operation in the southwest of Syria, and, according to some reports, caused the withdrawal of some Hizbullah units from the border areas in Syria to Lebanon.
Most likely, Moscow will insist on the partial demilitarisation of southwest Syria and will assume a significant role in guaranteeing security in the region. Thus, as part of the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 350 adopted in 1974 on the disengagement of Syrian and Israeli troops in the Golan Heights, the Russian Military Police helped redeploy the UN Peacekeeping Mission to the demilitarised zone for the first time since 2012. In addition, Russia plans to deploy eight observation stations along the demilitarised zone as a temporary measure to protect the UN contingent. However, it is possible that Russia will maintain a permanent military presence in the region.
It appears that Iran was prepared to partially reduce its presence in southern Syria, at the very least in order to protect its own forces in the country. Just how long and how rigorously this zone might remain ‘Iran-free’, however, is up for debate. There are a number of reasons for this: the 85-kilometre radius includes Damascus, with its strategically important crossing to Lebanon, and the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, an important place of pilgrimage for Shi'a Muslims. The presence of Iranian forces in the southwest is necessary primarily to support the land bridge from Tehran to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Thus, by securing limited Iranian presence in the region, Moscow addressed the symptom, rather than the problem itself, meaning that it has achieved only a temporary and localised de-escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran.
By withdrawing Shi'a forces from the line of mutual disengagement of forces, Russia has guaranteed the security of Israel’s borders in the medium term. While the IRGC and Shi'a groups are being redeployed to the regions of instability in the Deir ez-Zor and Idlib governorates, the issue of Iran’s military presence in Syria is likely to fade into the background of Russia-Israel relations. This notwithstanding, Israel has made it clear to Moscow that it regards the entrenchment of Iranian troops across the country as unacceptable; there is a clear difference of opinion between Russia and Israel on this.
Outside southern Syria, the coastal regions and Hama, where Russia has a strong presence, Moscow will find it difficult to restrain Iran, particularly in conditions where Asad is skilfully manoeuvring between the interests of the two countries. It will also not be easy for Russia to keep Iran from deploying its air defence systems and surface-to-surface missiles, which is another ‘red line’ for Israel.
Russia will accept a confrontation between Israel and Iran that does not develop into a war but is marked by the regular probing of each other’s ‘red lines’. Moscow cannot demand that Iran reduce its military capabilities while Russia has entrenched itself in Syria with two military bases. Thus, Israel’s campaign to consistently undermine Iran’s military capabilities on the ground and weaken its influence partly fulfils the functions that Russia would like to take on itself but cannot for political reasons.
Moscow will likely reconcile with Tehran’s desire for a military presence in Syria, while assuming the responsibility for monitoring the areas of Iranian deployment and the weapons that it will obtain. It should be noted that Russia has little influence over Iran’s decisions with regard to Syria. A key player in limiting Iran’s influence is Asad himself; he has thus far skilfully balanced the interests of his two allies, using the complex dynamics between them to his advantage.
Iran’s presence in Syria has evolved over the course of the conflict. The Syrian National Defence Forces, effectively a parallel army with approximately 50 000 personnel, are sponsored and trained primarily by Iran. Further, home-grown militia were created and are under the protection of Iran, such as Hizbullah in Syria (Hizbullah fi Suriya), suggesting that the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country will still allow Iran to maintain significant influence on security matters across Syria, including in the southwest. For this reason, the issue that Russia will have to solve in the long term in Syria is not the number of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers and Shi'a fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan deployed in Syria under the Asad’s protection, but rather how the Syrian Armed Forces will be made up in the post-war period and what role Iran will play in security sector reform.
Closely intertwined with the growing confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria is the nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or, rather, the US withdrawal from the agreement on 8 May 2018. Trump’s decision to reject the JCPOA was fully supported, and partially reinforced, by Netanyahu, who produced an archive of documents allegedly proving Iran’s ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons several days before the US announcement. Both Russia and Israel should be concerned by the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, primarily because Iran’s response could be asymmetrical and involve a more aggressive military strategy in Syria, as well as attempts to take it out on one of Washington’s key allies, Israel.
Significant in this regard was an incident on 10 May 2018, when Iran’s elite Quds Force launched thirty-two rockets at the Golan Heights from Syria; Israel responded with strikes targeting a number of military facilities and an ammunition storage dump. This event is important, first, because it was the first time that Iran had committed such actions. The episode, just two days after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, may be interpreted as a harbinger of what the confrontation between Iran and Israel could resemble in the event of an asymmetric Iranian response to US actions. It also marked the merging of the Syrian conflict and the nuclear agreement into a single political issue for Israel.
The strategy of the USA and Israel on the JCPOA raises the suspicion that the US withdrawal was necessary to force Iran to respond and resume its nuclear programme. Even if Tehran did not make such a decision, the fact that there is suspicion over Iran’s intentions and mistrust will serve as an argument for the USA and its allies to pursue a more aggressive policy of isolation and deterrence. Israel supports a military solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, but it does not have a strategy for dealing with it politically. Military confrontation with Iran and a scenario of containment is far more understandable to the Israeli leadership than political confrontation in a state of coexistence. At the same time, it is clear that if the nuclear deal falls through, Israel will likely pay the highest price.
Although Israel played no role in negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme, the nuclear deal was seen as part of the general policy to contain Iran by both the USA and Israel. Even if Israel is not a key player in diplomatic negotiations, it is clearly seen as a critical player in deterring Iran, being capable of taking unilateral steps to degrade Iranian nuclear infrastructure. In March 2018, ten years after the incident, Israel admitted it had deployed Israeli fighter jets to strike a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, an admission that was meant to indicate to Iran that Israel was ready to launch a military strike on Iran if it believed the latter has resumed its nuclear programme.
Nevertheless, not all Israelis share Netanyahu’s view that the JCPOA was a historical mistake. For example, the chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eizenkot, expressed confidence that ‘right now the agreement, despite all its faults, works and prevents the implementation of the Iranian nuclear programme for the next 10-15 years’. The agreement with Iran did not bring the country any closer to the nuclear bomb that Netanyahu talked about. On the contrary, it was built on the fundamental distrust of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and based on the need for verification.
Within Israeli military circles, a more pragmatic position on the JCPOA has taken root, and it is with people in these circles that Moscow needs to build a more substantive dialogue on the Iranian nuclear issue. Judging by the fact that the discourse on Iran has changed in Israel since the USA pulled out of the deal, with the focus turning to Tehran as a source of regional problems, the dialogue between Russia and Israel is likely to be narrow, and the main challenge that Moscow will face in this context will be to return the focus to the nuclear programme.
The biggest dilemma for Russia within the framework of the Iranian response to the failure of the nuclear deal will be to balance the interests of the various circles within the political elite in Iran. The Iranian leadership is not unanimous on the policy to be pursued in response to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. Trump’s actions have left Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in the minority, despite his call for joint action with Europe, Russia and China to preserve the deal.
Rouhani made it clear to the European Union that Iran’s decision about whether it remains part of the JCPOA depends entirely on the EU. Despite the fact that sections of Iran’s leadership threatened to pull out of the deal as soon as Trump had made his announcement, a decision was nevertheless delayed until the EU took its own decision on the matter. It is clear that, despite the warlike rhetoric, which is often little more than populism, for Iran, the nuclear deal – or, more importantly, the potential economic benefits accompanying the deal – is extremely important.
Iranian hardliners reacted sharply to the US decision and sought Rouhani’s resignation, since they did not believe in the ability of the EU to preserve the deal without changing its terms or attaching the regional aspect of Iran’s foreign policy to it. The 10 May events in Syria made it clear that Tehran’s asymmetrical response to the failure of the JCPOA in the form of intentional military escalation is an acceptable option for Iran, or for at least part of the Iranian establishment. In this context, Iran’s campaign in Syria, led by Major General Qasem Soleimani, is becoming extremely risky for Moscow. As far as the USA, EU and Israel are concerned, negotiations on the nuclear deal could very well be combined with the questions of Iran’s ballistic missile programme, and its regional expansion. It should be noted that EU countries are more careful about expressing this position than the USA and Israel.
The positions of Tehran and Moscow remain unchanged. In the negotiation process, neither Russia nor Iran (whose negotiations on the nuclear agreement are still being overseen by Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister) is prepared to amend the JCPOA and tie new restrictive measures to the agreement. However, judging by recent events in Syria, as far as the Iranian hardliners are concerned, Syria itself has become an unofficial response to the JCPOA’s collapse. Under these conditions, Russia should clearly divide its negotiating tracks and categorically oppose attempts to ‘increase the pressure on Tehran due to circumstances unrelated to the JCPOA and which, to a large extent, have nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear programme’. Moscow will probably not be prepared to use the Syrian problem as a lever in multilateral negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal, as it understands the lack of unanimity on these issues in Tehran.
Against the backdrop of the Syrian crisis and growing tensions in the Middle East, the issue of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement is gradually losing its relevance, and many experts now viewthe Middle East Quartet as an outdated format. Were it not for Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the transfer of the US Embassy there, the Palestinian issue would have remained on the global backburner.
Trump’s ‘deal of the century’, as it is being called in Washington, on a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue effectively eliminates key elements of the peace process (the establishment of the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees), forcing Palestinians to search for new allies. Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, sees Moscow as an actor that can possibly return the processes of recent months into the framework of existing negotiating agreements. The PA has openly asked Russia for this.
Russia has traditionally been clear on the issue of the Israel-Palestine resolution. Putin repeatedly expressed his position at meetings with his Palestinian and Israeli counterparts, emphasising that Russia’s principled position supported the right of Palestinians to self-determination, and that the result of any solution should involve the cessation of the Israeli occupation of Arab lands that began in 1967 and the creation of an independent State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Russia first offered to host negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in Moscow in 2005. The idea of holding direct talksbetween Abbas and Netanyahu was brought up in the meeting between the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Putin in August 2016. The first direct meeting between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders since 2010 was supposed to have taken place in Moscow in September 2016, but the parties blamed each other for its cancellation. Abbas claimed the Israelis had unilaterally cancelled the meeting, while the Israelis said Palestinian preconditionswere unacceptable.
Moscow made a number of attempts to organise a summit, most recently in June 2018, but they all failed to materialise. Obviously, getting Netanyahu and Abbas to meet with Russian mediation is not an end in itself for Moscow, and such a meeting is not capable of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It could, however, help restart the peace process, the Russians hope. But the Russian mediation initiative, unsuccessful for the past two years, threatens to turn from an intermediate goal into mission impossible for Russian diplomacy.
Multiple international initiatives on Israeli-Palestinian settlement that already exist risk working against the role that Moscow hopes to play. For example, the French conference the issue in 2016, which was actively promoted by the former French president, François Hollande, went no further than a single meeting in Paris. By spearheading mediation efforts, Moscow risks again demonstrating that relaunching the peace process in its current format is impossible. This will assist Washington’s ‘deal of the century’, and will open the path to a review of the terms of the negotiation process based on new facts on the ground since new borders were determined in 1967.
For Russia, a more visible role in the Palestinian settlement would provide it with a unique opportunity to strengthen its clout in the Middle East outside the Syrian setting, that is, outside a military context. To some extent, Moscow’s efforts on this front have to do with its positioning vis-a-vis the USA, Europe and Israel, and many experts agree that, for Putin, the fact of Russia’s participation in the peace process could be more important than the final settlement itself. In this context, the PA’s expectation that Moscow will become the advocate of the Palestinian position in negotiations with Israel is misplaced, despite the fact that the two have similar stances on the issue.
For Abbas, getting Russia involved in the process serves both foreign and domestic policy goals. The PA, headed by Abbas, has been unable to form a sense of national cohesion for Palestinians, while the administration is deeply localised and territorially fragmented. Many Palestinians are disappointed with the ‘peace process’, which has relied on US initiative for over two decades. Russia’s attempts to take a more active role hopes to reboot, in a sense, the internal Palestinian discourse and gives additional internal political support to Abbas.
Israel is not keen on Russia’s initiatives. Moscow is attempting to get Israel to negotiate on the Palestinian issue, but it is clear that Israel is counting on the American ‘deal of the century’. Thus, in April 2017, for the first time ever, the Russian foreign ministry recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. This step, which was received well by Israeli media, should have kickstarted Russia’s negotiation process, but the Israeli leadership approached it with caution.
Despite the fact that Israel does not see Russia’s role as a mediator outside of international initiatives, Netanyahu needs to give at least some leeway to Putin’s mediation initiatives. It is extremely important for Israel to preserve its fragile partnership with Russia, as this partnership is closely linked with cooperation in Syria, while the deterioration in relations against the backdrop of disagreements on Palestine could well undermine the dialogue on Syria. The issue of Israel’s recognition as a Jewish state in the Middle East remains and, in light of Iran’s growing role in Syria, the Israel-Palestinian process becomes even more dependent on the regional context. This is another reason why the Israeli leadership may value Moscow’s support.
Moscow, however, does not view Palestine and Syria as related issues in its relations with Israel. Further, Russia sees the prospect of a Palestinian deal as a logical continuation of its role in the region, a process that was set in motion by the country’s military campaign in Syria. At the same time, however, policy toolkits for Palestine and Syria files will remain different.
* Yury Barminis an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. He focuses on issues related to Syria, and consults for government and private clients on issues related to the Russian policy in the Middle East.
By Matthieu Rey
Western powers have recently expressed great concern concerning unfolding events in the Syrian crisis and have denounced the ‘escalation’ of violence, by which they mean the fighting predominantly between Israeli and Iranian forces in the Golan Heights and in the southern part of Syria. Israel appears to have become increasingly more engaged with Syria. An examination of the Israeli commitment to Syria since the beginning of the uprising reveals a certain continuity and sheds light on whether there is a real directional shift for Israeli strategy.
2011: surprise and circumspection
While Syrians took to the streets in 2011, Syrian and Israeli authorities pursued tumultuous relations. On the one hand, Bashar al-Asad highly publicised his commitment towards Hizbullah’s struggle against the so-called Zionist state, organising meetings in Damascus, and posing with Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad, for example. He also helped transport weapons to Lebanon. On the other hand, al-Asad invited the regional powers to invest in the country and agreed on a new round of negotiations with the Israelis. Chaired by the Americans, Syria and Israel agreed on the main point of contention and seemed ready to find a solution.This policy was part of a broader one towards foreign partners. The Emir of Qatar and the Turks were granted good conditions in which to do business in Syria, while the Gulf elites could buy lands at strategic points. In this regard, the Syrian regime tried to strengthen itself by increasing its resources and stabilising its geopolitical situation in the post-2003 Middle East. It achieved success when French authorities under Sarkozy’s supervision invited Bashar al-Asad to the national celebrations on 14thJuly, 2011 and the Americans initiated discussions to re-open their embassy in Damascus. In this context, both Israel and Syria came closer to settling a major disagreement.
While settling the Lebanese’s issue under international constraint, informally and unofficially, the Syrian regime pursued discussions with the Israelis under American and partly French auspices. Bashar al-Asad sought a peace agreement that would return all Syrian lands to the regime and a financial commitment from the international community that would protect the agreement. Part of the negotiations involved an expectation that the Syrian regime would end its connections with Hizbullah. Decades previously, Henry Kissinger had laid the groundwork for Syria’s ambiguous diplomatic affinity with Israel. In 1974, Hafez al-Asad signed an agreement to halt strikes against Israel and to stop guerrilla attacks against Israel from its territory, and in exchange, Israel agreed to evacuate part of Syrian territory that it illegally annexed and occupied since 1967. Despite this agreement, Syrian propaganda towards Israel did not change and Hafez and Bashar al-Asad both presented themselves as the vanguard of resistance against Israel via open declaration and tactical support for some of Israel’s opponents. Continuing to covertly help Hamas, Hizbullah, and shelter the PKK was a way for al-Asad to gain traction over American diplomacy without facing retaliation.
Within a month of the start of the Syrian protests in March 2011, it was clear to the main protagonists that the Syrian – Israeli peace process could not continue while the Syrian regime was facing a massive uprising. From the Syrian regime, the cost of peace with Israel was too high because the Syrian rhetoric soon after the protests broke out sought to project the uprising as an ‘international plot against the Resistance’. While the protest spread from the southern part of Syria to other places and started to become organised, the regime focused on curbing the movement by inviting its historical ally, Iran, to help deal with the problem. From the Israeli side, the authorities put the discussions with Syria on hold, waiting to see if– as was the case with the other regimes – Bashar would fall and, if that was the case, therefore preferred to engage in negotiations with a reliable partner. At the same time, in May 2011, Israel did not complain about the tank movement towards the border, as they were deployed to curb the demonstrations in Hawran and the Golan Heights.
Israeli attitudes towards the Syrian crisis quickly took a new shape. A common reaction, both in society and in government, was surprise that popular mobilisation could shake a well-known dictator. During this period, Tel Aviv also witnessed protests, sit-ins and demonstrations calling for a new social contract and demands that state discourse and action move away from ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Arab’ issues towards internal distress. These feelings, nevertheless, did not build the new ‘Syrian’ policy. Israeli attitudes towards Asad’s regime had always been ambiguous. On the one hand, Syria provided assistance to enemies such as Hizbullah, Iran, etc. On the other hand, it had not launched any attacks on Israel since 1974, even in 2006 during the Israeli war against Lebanon, when strong popular pressure from Lebanese and Syrian populations called for an armed response from the Syrian regime.The Syrian revolts, therefore, did not immediately shift Israeli policy towards Syria, but discussions and contact between the two sides came to a standstill as diplomats and politicians awaited a more settled situation.
Tension between two positions (2011-2012)
On 6 June 2011, while protests were now taking place on a national scale, Asad’s regime initiated a tactical move to remind the Middle East of Syria’s abilities to harm the region. Syrian demonstrations celebrated Naqsa Day (the anniversary of Palestine’s losses during the Six-Day war) and protestors forced their way through the barricades on the Golan Heights. One protestor was able to reach his family’s land near Tel Aviv and then surrendered to the Israeli police. The police duly interrogated him about his journey, without any physical coercion, and returned him to the border, where the Syrian moukhabarat arrested him. This episode illustrated in several ways how the Syrians played the Israeli card. They launched a symbolic reconsideration of the status quo but refused local actors – even Palestinians – the freedom to act independently. This new policy provoked several reactions on the Israeli side.
Two main attitudes emerged from the Israeli debates during this period – from the second half of 2011 through the first half of 2012. On the one hand, the long enmity between Israel and Syria prevailed even though both sides undertook peace talks, thus leading some Israeli leaders to seek to undermine the Syrian regime. They voiced the possibility to help topple the regime, requesting either American pressure or support in different ways. The bloodshed also shook Israeli public consciousness. Some wanted to “help the Syrians” and stop what could be the next holocaust. However, these public statements were not connected to any general plan or policy. Therefore, Israeli humanitarian interventions in Syria remained an untaken path because of long-term consideration for the USA’s official policy position on the Syrian civil war.
On the other hand, the main policy position in Israel regarding Syria and military action was “wait and see”. While the Syrian regime was deeply focused on countering the protests, they fulfilled requests by the Israeli Defense Forcesand the Israeli government. The evolution of a revolutionary impulse in Syria concerned Israel on three main counts, and affected its daily activities. First, the collapse of the Asad regime could provoke chaos equivalent to that caused by the Iraqi crisis in 2003. Such a situation produced concerns that it might deeply threaten the common border. Second, Islamist groups could use the opportunity to take root in Syria and thereafter become a new enemy. In this regard, Israel frequently re-affirmed an old credo: “better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know”. Third, the repressive process of the Syrian regime provided momentum for the Iranian authorities and their allies to extend their positions in Syria. These unfolding developments quickly became a red line for Israel: Iran should not be capable of exchanging weapons on Syrian territory with anyone, and it should not be allowed to build military installations targeting Syrian soil.
The importance of patiently monitoring the unfolding demise of the Syrian state progressively dominated Israeli policy towards Syria. ‘Wait and see’, or “undermining Asad’s capacities without being involved” seemed the best option to the Israelis. This conviction was strengthened by the international community’s attitude, predominantly the Americans. Two milestones marked the path of the American attitude towards the Syrian crisis and signalled American intentions to the Israelis. First, in August 2011, Barak Obama declared that Asad must to step aside.While Syrians interpreted the American position to imply that the USA planned to get involved in the crisis, the Israelis understood perfectly that the Americans did not plan any further intervention in the Middle East at the time they were withdrawing from Iraq. Second, in May 2012, Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons in Syria, if was found to have been perpetrated by the regime, would constitute a red line that might propel American intervention in the Syrian crisis. While several investigations during Spring 2012 provided evidence of wrong-doing by the Syrian regime, the USA did not pursue further action against the Asad government, thus proving to Israeli that the USA merely delivered speeches but rejected any involvement.
On the humanitarian side, Syrian and international NGOs implemented new programmes that mostly targeted the wounded on the Syrian side. They increased their activities during Summer 2012, when the Golan Heights became a theatre of fighting and the number of casualties increased. They participated to a certain extent in the cross-border operations without ever going over the border, as the Syrian civilian and rebel wounded were delivered to the non-military zone on the Golan. These initiatives came mostly from civil society and did not take into consideration the ideological or partisan positions of the wounded. Operations were supervised by the Israel Defence Forces and were the beginning of encroachment of Israel on the Golan front.
2013-2014: Implementing the red line, playing a diplomatic role
In late 2012 and early 2013, the weakening of Asad’s regime led other participants to get involved in the crisis. While foreign fighters entered the ranks of the opposition, other military groups helped the regime to fight against the Free Syrian Army and its allies. In April 2013, Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah, recognised that the security of Asad and his organisation went hand in hand. Hizbullah forces then became the vanguard in the battle for the border town of Qusair. On the Syrian stage, Hizbullah’s involvement and its military successes turned the conflict into a more sectarian war than it had been previously. On the regional stage, this change showed Israel that its main enemies were heightening their involvement and interventions in the conflict.
Israel had its own red lines, and it implemented a response to one of those red lines on 31 January 2013. Israel targeted an alleged weapon convoy in the northwestern part of Damascus with an airstrike. This attack took place a week after the formation of Netanyahu’s third government. The Israeli prime minister had just won legislative elections. He immediately put into practice his hard line which he had been promoting for a long period of time. From his perspective, Iran was a danger to Israel and consequently to the world, especially as it sought to develop nuclear weapons. More generally, in his view, the downfall of the Islamic Republic would help to reshuffle the Middle East by allowing Israel’s friends to establish their dominance. The Free Syrian Army confirmed the death of an Iranian officer during the first bombing.
Over the next few months, Netanyahu’s government oscillated between two targets. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched strikes on 3 and 5 May, 2013. Each time the justification was that Israel could not tolerate the planned exchange of high quality weapons. Soon after, Obama declared that “The Israelis, justifiably, have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organisations like Hizbullah”, and therefore provided American validation and support for the Israeli military incursions in Syria. These interventions, nevertheless, were not in any way part of the American policy towards the Syrian regime. During the Spring, oppositional Syrian fighters received supplies and formed a ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ front in Syria. However, these operations were not coordinated because different agencies commanded the fighting without subscribing to a common strategy. From this perspective, the Israeli attacks were one of the several initiatives authorised by the White House to curb recognised terrorist groups without making direct targeting its official policy.
On 5 June, Israel launched a new strike. This episode shed light on another aspect of Israeli politics. The attack – as has been said – targeted once again, a delivery of weapons to Hizbullah. The novelty was the location and the timing. The operation destroyed a convoy just after its formation on Russian military base. Finally, the United States publicised the strike, proving that Israel could act as a sword arm in the Middle East. This attack took place at a time when Russian military capacities were increasing and becoming more closely connected to the Syrian regime and its allies. The year 2013 constituted a turning point for the Israeli strategy and showed that Syrian anti-aircraft defense could not prevent the national territory from attack.
Consequently, during the first half of 2013, Israeli strategy became further clarified. Its enemy in Syria was Iran and its allies. The Syrian regime and its allies could not protect its facilities nor transport weapons. Occasionally, Israel supplied the United States with air power to manifest some of the latter’s commitment. In a sense, Israeli movements clarified the true meaning of the American policy. Two further developments confirmed this assertion. In August 2013, after the massive chemical attacks, Israel did not react when the United States postponed their response which paved the way for Russian re-entrenchment. In September 2014, Israel did not commit itself in the war against the Islamic State. Why? This enemy remained confined to the north-eastern part of Syria and Israeli intelligence monitored enemy progress towards its territory. On the southern Syria front, the al-Nusra front did not threaten Israel. Finally, the only change that came with the expansion of Israeli involvement in the conflict was the deployment and use of artillery and tanks from the Israeli side of the Golan against the Syrian side, targeting both opponents and partisans of the regime. Israel also reminded the Syrian regime of the cost of any counter attack against the coalition by destroying a Syrian airplane on the first day of the war.
Since 2015, playing Russia against Iran
At the beginning of 2015, with the sudden weakening of the Asad regime and the ascendance of autonomous Hizbullah forces on the ground, the main protagonists established front lines and demarcated territories. This reversal of fortune for Asad’s forces led some officers to call for aid. Vladimir Putin then saw a very specific moment for greater Russian involvement. Three factors underpinned his decision. First, Obama ended his presidency and the American administration was paralysed by the transition. Second, some Syrian officers clearly requested Russian intervention and as a result, Russia could establish talks with certain factions. Third, the latest advance of opposition forces on Hama and Deraa fronts put the whole Russian enterprise in jeopardy. In May 2015, Russia undertook the first steps towards a greater commitment in Syria, deploying forces and negotiating a military base for its actions.
On 29 May 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu fled to Moscow and meet Vladimir Putin.He was the only head of State to reach the Russian capital immediately after the redeployment of the Russian army in Syria was first announced. While the United States and Russia did not discuss a further common strategy because Russia did not belong to the international coalition active in Syria against the Islamic State, the prime minister of Israel offered mediation between Israel and Russia on the Syrian files. Their negotiations reached some conclusions, the most important one being the exchange of the code to identify military aircraft flights. Consequently, the IDF and the Russian army could coordinate – or at least know about – attacks from both sides.
Why did Israel and Russia agree on this? The Israeli-American alliance has been well-known since the 1960s. However, since the USSR collapsed, connections between Israel and Russia had increased thanks to the migration of Russian Jews to Israel which motivated increased economic ties with Russia. From this perspective, Russia had an economic interest in Israel, more than in any other country in the Middle East. From the Russian point of view, Israel was important. On the Israeli side, Benjamin Netanyahu understood the opportunity to work hand in hand with Russia in order to implement his own agenda. He wanted to assure that Russia would not counter the Israeli strategy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis, and particularly its struggle against Iran.
Since 2015, major lines have emerged. On the one hand, Russia has operated widely in Syria without acting on the southern front. On the other hand, on several occasions, the Israeli army attacked the Syrian territory, targeting weapons transfers, but it did not involve itself in Russian operations. This was the precise time when Benjamin Netanyahu presented his arguments against Iran and its potential nuclear research to the United Nations General Assembly. Israel nevertheless restrained from a massive operation on Syrian territory while monitoring any further advances of the Iranian army into Syria. In turn, it also looked for allies in the rebels’ brigade that might allow for the protection of the Golan Heights border. This strategy seemed to reproduce Israeli strategy in Lebanon whereby Israel targeted groups against Hizbullah to build a southern protection zone. General fatigue and long-term fights between rebels and the regime explained how and why some groups favoured an alliance with Israel.
The election of Donald Trump changed Netanyahu’s agenda. The new American president deeply committed himself to reversing his predecessor’s politics. He placed troops on the ground in the northern part of Syria, launched further attacks against IS but also targeted the Syrian army when it attempted to encroach on SDF territory. This change in the American approach towards Syria was part of a broader agenda. Trump’s administration quickly adopted a more traditional American policy towards the Middle East that included defending oil roads (that also supported Petromonarchies and their policies) and Israel. Trump asserted three main points: Israel was their greatest ally in the region; the monarchies of the Gulf were strategic allies; the United States had to support leaders whatever their ideologies or policies, if they were in favour of the United States.
Following these new guidelines, Benjamin Netanyahu waited for a clear sign from the White House to act in Syria. He restrained from launching further attacks during the last sequence of the war against IS. Russia then pursued military operations saving the regime and reconquering most strategic places. When major actors took control over major assets, that is protecting the Asad’s regime for the Russians and controlling the North-Eastern part of Syria for the United States, preserving the link between Iraq and Syria, then, the Israeli government deemed it would be empowered to move against its declared enemy: Iran. Why did Iran push further its local presence? This action was most likely a sign for its Syrian supporters. The Iranian authorities acting in Syria failed to notice the American political reverse towards Iran. When President Trump denounced the Iranian nuclear agreement, it paved the way for the Israeli intervention against Iranian troops and facilities inside Syria. Jordan, Israel, and the United States also agreed in 2017 to de-escalate actions in Southern Syria, thereby further highlighting the new geopolitical approach of the region.
Over the past few weeks, Israelis added a new conflict to the ongoing fight. The authorities’ targets are the Iranians building up a new stage for a regional reconfiguration. Iran’s recent actions have further isolated it. The Iranian regime faces opposition from the Gulf countries, internal political forces (as Sadr in Iraq), Israel, and the United States. Israel moved to be the sword arm of this group. On the other side, Russians did not commit themselves in the protection of the Iranians. They even called for the removal of all foreign troops on Syrian soil which included the international coalition and Iran. Consequently, a low level violence conflict will continue for the next few months between Iran and Israel. The grip of Iranian militias on Quneitra, however, has prevented the Israeli from complete control of the border.
The southern battle proved how Russia managed its intelligence’s war by obtaining allegiance from most of the rebels’ leaders. Then, using intense bombing, their followers – mostly elite Syrian troops and militias – reconquered cities and villages. Iran did not take a great part in the operation but its forces rooted in Quneitra had not been removed either. The status quo prevailed. The quick move highlighted the Israeli connections and tractions on the Golan front. Since 2013, Israel had financed nearly 12 rebel groups. Militia chiefs were asked why they agreed on an alliance with Israel, they answered hypocritically that Israel does not target civilians, contrary to Bashar al-Asad. This shift also pinpointed the reverse of the Palestinian cause on Syrian minds. Humanitarian help in the Golan Heights had been maintained until last June as a way to keep the Syrian population in Syria (to mitigate mainly a refugee crisis in Israel), and to respond to requests of the public to save civilians dying on the border. Finally, under Jordan, Canadian and European pressure, Israel helped evacuate White Helmets into Jordan. While the Southern battle is over for at least a few months, none of the Israeli partners seemed to leave Syria. The recent strike around Mezze and in the Alawite mountains clarify Israeli commitment to undermine any Iranian facilities in Syria.
Three main outcomes can be underlined as follows:
 Author’s interview with Ambassador Hof, Washington, April 2014.
 Author’s interview with Vladimir Glassman, Paris, December2013.
 Rey, Matthieu (2015). ‘La diplomatie de l’incompréhension.’ Moyen-Orient(automne).
By Fadi Quran
Instead of bringing an end to the occupation, the current Palestinian leadership and its institutions have become a key component of it. Yet a new generation of leaders is slowly emerging. Their goal is to build a new framework for the Palestinian struggle that avoids the mistakes of the past and ensures that freedom is achieved in their lifetime. Their successful entrance into leadership will require both a reckoning with and breaking of a cycle that blocks change.
Looking at former and current Palestinian leadership, one can observe a cyclical trajectory in which members of the elite first acquire the legitimacy to lead through a combination of traditional structures and foreign support. The legitimacy of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin Al-Husseini, for example, was grounded in religious and familial authority and enhanced and institutionalised by the Ottoman Empire and then the British Mandate. Ahmed Shuqeiri’s legitimacy derived from the Arab League as well as his educational status and familial ties, while President Mahmoud Abbas’s legitimacy was founded on factional loyalties within Fatah and then significantly consolidated by the US and Israel.
These leaders and the institutions they administer fail to deliver on popular aspirations, leading to stagnation and public dissent. This precipitates an inter-Palestinian power struggle that is often intergenerational and highly destructive. The struggle ends when a national tragedy occurs that either destroys or unites the competing factions. During these historical moments of national chaos, a new generation of leaders rises, mesmerising the public and accruing revolutionary legitimacy that propels them to the top.
In each turn of this cycle, sitting leaders either adopt the new discourse and co-opt members of the new generation or maintain status via intervention by foreign sponsors who kill or arrest insurgents. An example of this dynamic is the death of Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam, and later the leaders of the 1936 Revolt, who were crushed with great brutality by the British. Yasser Arafat’s conquest of the PLO from Shuqeiri in the 1960s, in which Arafat incorporated members of the new generation, is another. Such transitions also occurred on the local level during the First Intifada, and with Hamas’s gradual takeover in Gaza during and after the Second Intifada.
The third phase of this cycle sees the rise of a technocratic class, a generation of leaders that attempts to rebuild or replace the institutions that were destroyed in the internal conflict. These leaders are or perceive themselves to be institution builders, and although they rarely reach the pinnacles of power, they are able to acquire significant authority. These builders can take many forms in their approach to reinvigorate society, from the revolutionary to the neoliberal. Examples include Khalil Al-Wazir, a key founder of Fatah who was pivotal in slowly rebuilding the national movement in Palestine after the PLO’s failures in Lebanon. He was assassinated by Israel in Tunisia for his role in laying the groundwork that launched the First Intifada. Another example is Salam Fayyad, who pursued a Western-backed neoliberal institution-building process in Palestine after the Second Intifada. Regardless of the political leanings of these builders, their efforts are often short-lived as they tend to clash with more deeply-rooted power structures. This phase of the cycle often closes with a return to the first phase, wherein a small set of elites, supported by outside forces, hold control.
Today, this cycle seems blocked. An ossified Palestinian leadership has managed to cling to power for more than two decades. The institutional framework established by the Oslo Accords – a Palestinian Authority (PA) without authority providing inadequate administrative services, low-level employment, and security for Israel – still governs a subset of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The PA has become a buffer zone between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation, one that largely favours the occupation. Meanwhile, through heavy foreign assistance, the PA has transformed the socioeconomic landscape of Palestinian society by increasing inequality, widening political divisions, and even attempting to alter the media and educational landscape to weaken all forms of effective struggle against the occupation.
The results of these developments, combined with the deteriorating regional politics of the Middle East, has led the most astute observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to conclude that the Palestinian struggle for freedom is comatose.
But one need only look a bit deeper to see that something is stirring. A new generation of Palestinians is organising and growing in strength. They are waiting for the right moment to transform the status quo and create the momentum that will end the occupation. The Israeli security establishment, although it may not fully understand these dynamics, sees this coming. Why else would defence minister Avigdor Lieberman ban the Palestinian “Youth Movement” and put it on the terrorist list? In fact, there is no organisation or organised body called the “Youth Movement” on the ground in Palestine. Rather, the term Al-Hirak Al-Shababi is most commonly used to refer to any social or political action led by youth. What scares Lieberman so? Why does the Palestinian General Intelligence maintain a file on “youth-led activities?”
Over the past five years I have met and spoken with thousands of young Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in the diaspora. In every town, city, and refugee camp, youth groups are blossoming. Most focus on very local needs and lead volunteer work. They appear non-political and are not affiliated with any faction. These groups often fail, fall apart, and use what they have learned to try something new. Their growth is anything but linear, but their learning is exponential.
These groups’ driving questions are: What do we need to do to have a better life? What is our purpose? How do we achieve it? Having asked these questions, it is not long before they discover that the occupation and the PA as its governing body are obstacles in their path. This generation’s focus on grassroots action and its ability to conceptualise the PA as an impediment to a genuine liberation movement are fundamental to its potential to transform the stagnant Palestinian leadership model.
Further, many young people in Palestine are despondent about the status quo. This is clearest in Palestinian universities, which have been transformed from beacons of liberation to factories of disenchantment. Once hotbeds of Palestinian political struggle, the universities today produce young men and women focused on two things: a paying job or an opportunity to emigrate. One university dean I spoke with defined his job as simply training a workforce for the PA economy. Although youth groups are active on campuses, offering glimpses of hope, the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and Hamas's forces in Gaza have turned student politics and electioneering into a shadow of what they once were, ensuring that superficial slogans and fear override genuine student organising and hope.
However, despite these repressive policies, the new generation has not given up on its Palestinian identity or its dreams of freedom. Many are preparing to enter the struggle for freedom under the right leadership: one they can be part of and trust. This new generation of leaders, learning from the experiences of the past, have wisely chosen to work quietly, away from the spotlight, and patiently prepare for when the moment is ripe.
Identifying that moment, however, will be difficult because three stars need to align: a) Reigniting hope: The Palestinian street needs to go from being risk averse to being hopeful that a better future is possible; b) Overcoming the power threshold: The youth must feel they have the human resources and endurance to slog through the obstacles the PA and Israel can put in their way; c) Consolidating to confront the occupation: Given that the PA and its security apparatus are pivotal in maintaining the status quo, and that any more internal Palestinian strife is to be avoided, the youth will have to find a moment when the occupation has committed an act so severe that they can mobilise many of the ranks of the apparatus into the struggle against the occupation and away from internal repression. Of course, Israel and its backers will do their best to make sure these stars do not align, from killing hope to arresting dozens of youth activists. The only way for this moment to arise is for Palestinian civil society and youth activists to build their strength and expand societal self-awareness.
How will these young people avoid the mistakes of the past and break the cycle outlined above? For a new Palestinian leadership to be successful, a culture of transparency, accountability, and feedback must first be created at the local level. No matter how powerful, resilient, and disciplined a leader is, and no matter how much they love their country and people, they are human. It is only through developing a culture of accountability that a community can produce leaders that can move the struggle forward. While Palestine has had many leaders, none have maintained a culture around them that helped birth new leaders and ensured that they remain accountable. Creating this culture is not something done through legislation or rules alone, but is a daily practice.
Although there is not enough space here to flesh out the necessary practices in detail, some are fairly straightforward. For example, leaders at all levels of society, from volunteer groups to ministries, can work with their teams to put forward a clear vision for what they want to achieve, define each person’s responsibilities and specific outcomes, and ensure that leaders take ownership of their and their teams’ results. They should allow team members to provide feedback on the process in an open setting, such as in a weekly meeting when tasks are tallied and learning is discussed in a convivial manner.
In such a process, the group’s leader helps ensure that the team achieves its vision in a united, collaborative spirit. Eventually, this ensures that everyone in the group is a leader because leadership is not couched as a zero-sum process.
The process may not always work perfectly, but the lessons learned are valuable, including lessons about how one’s ego can get in the way of achieving team goals. Most importantly, the youth participants become aware of a method of teamwork and leadership that transcends what they see in local politics. Though it may sound cliché, it is nonetheless true that nothing is more impactful than leading by example and learning through experimentation.
These self-aware leaders and their culture of transformative leadership will clash with the socioeconomic environment and political elite established and strengthened by international players and Israel. Such a people’s-based leadership, whether directly or indirectly, will be the target of massive co-optation and, if that fails, assassination. One can argue that Israel’s “mowing the grass” in Gaza and the PA’s assault on student and youth politics are pre-emptively attempting to destroy rising leaders.
While some argue that a top-down approach to reform will fix the leadership problems – by restructuring the PLO, gaining representation, and holding elections, among other strategies – the current socioeconomic dynamics, reality of occupation, and international intervention in Palestinian politics make these efforts at internal reform easy targets for political manipulation. It is authentic change at the local level that can fix the problem from its roots and bring about a lasting leadership transformation for Palestinian society. If this generation succeeds, it will not only liberate the nation, but will ensure that the future beyond liberation is more beautiful than many of us today can imagine.
* Fadi Quran is a Senior Campaigner at Avaaz and a Popular Struggle community organiser. Fadi is also an entrepreneur in the alternative energy field, where he has founded two companies bringing wind and solar energy to Palestine and other countries in the region.
** This article was first published by Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network as part of its Policy Circle on Leadership and Accountability.
Israel began this year by announcing that African refugees (who are mostly from Sudan and Eritrea) faced imprisonment if they did not choose the controversial ‘voluntary departure package’ that the government was offering them before April. The package was part of an ultimatum to African migrants in Israel, allowing them two options: accept the $3 500 USD and leave to a ‘third country’ (said to be Rwanda or Uganda) or permanent incarceration in an Israeli jail. Rwanda and Uganda have denied agreeing to host African migrants deported from Israel, but evidence collected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suggests otherwise. The decision to kick out around 20 000 African migrants comes as Israel embarked on a new strategy to rally African diplomatic support in international bodies. The UN and certain states – such as Canada – have condemned the Israeli migrant plan, but the African Union (AU) and most African countries remain silent on it, creating the perception that there is no substantial opposition to it.
African migration to Israel
Since 1950, Israel’s Law of Return has allowed the immigration of Jews from around the world, including from Ethiopia. African refugee migration to Israel began in the mid-2000s, and the numbers increased rapidly in the late 2000s. By late 2010, Israel received its highest number of African migrants, with between 30 000 and 45 000 entering through the Israeli-Egyptian border. Currently, around 38 000 African migrants – mainly asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan – live in Israel. The first wave of Sudanese migrants (mostly from the conflict-ravaged Darfur region) started arriving in Israel in December 2005 through Egypt. Due to the circumstances that forced them to flee Sudan, asylum seekers in Israel have a right to have a sur place refugee claim, and should automatically be recognised as such under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of Refugees.
The sur place refugees claim is also applicable to Eritreans, who fled widespread human rights violations, including forced conscription, forced labour and torture. Eritreans who evaded being drafted into the military face persecution if they return. Additionally, according to the UNHCR, many Eritrean migrants seeking asylum in Israel since 2004 have been Christians who faced abuses in Eritrea since 2002, qualifying them for refugee status and asylum in Israel under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Despite this, Israeli officials and Israel’s prime minister have continuously labelled African migrants ‘infiltrators’ who arrived in Israel for economic reasons. Moreover, many of the migrants in Israel do not enjoy asylum status as the application process is notoriously slow and hardly produces favourable outcomes for the migrants.
Asylum application in Israel is so slow that by the end of 2017 only 10 persons had been granted refugee status in response to 15 000 asylum applications since 2010. The slow and unresponsive process seemed to be changing in 2007 when the then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, granted 500 temporary residence permits to migrants from Sudan under pressure from the UNHCR. This changed when Benyamin Netanyahu became prime minister. The current 38 000 African migrant number is after years of sporadic deportations of Africans to unnamed countries. They are concentrated in south Tel Aviv neighbourhoods, and are from among the refugees who arrived between 2006 and 2013. After Israel built a fence on its border with Egypt in 2013, the number of African migrants arriving through Egypt decreased drastically. Holot, a migrant detention centre in the Negev desert, currently houses 3 000 African migrants.
Holot was built in 2012, and has the capacity to house around 1 400 people at a time. It has been at the centre of Israel’s immigration policy towards African migrants. In November 2017, Israel announced plans to close the Holot centre and to deport the residents of the centre. It is over capacity with 3 000 African male migrants who do not possess residency or work permits. The Holot detainees are unable to work as they are required to report to the centre at specified times during the day. Migrants in other parts of Israel face similar challenges to those at Holot, and work illegally, facing exploitation and below minimum wage salaries. Israeli citizens who hire African migrants without permits face fines, and are required to deduct twenty per cent of their wages to put into a controversial ‘deposit fund’, thus making it near impossible for African migrants to survive.
Migrants regularly face abuse and ill-treatment from Israeli citizens, with many calling for their deportations. In August 2017, tensions came to a boil when south Tel Aviv residents protested the presence of African migrants. This was followed by a visit by Netanyahu, who promised to remove the ‘infiltrators’. The closure of Holot centre and the prior construction of a steel barrier fence at the Egypt-Israeli border form part of the various measures that Israel has taken to dramatically reduce the number of African migrants.
Africa’s (and South Africa’s) complicity
At the Egypt-Israel border stands a steel barrier that stretches for 242 kilometres, boasting five to seven metre high fences constructed of 35 000 tons of metal and steel. This gigantic barrier was to curb the influx of African migrants into Israel. The steel barrier intends to prevent African migrants from entering Israel through Egypt’s Sinai. The construction of the fence also saw contracts awarded to the Yehuda Fences Company, which is part of the Yehuda Group owned by the South African company Cape Gate. This is not Cape Gate’s first foray into illegal Israeli activities. In 2009 a report by the Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid wall campaign revealed that the company was complicit in maintaining and assisting with the construction of what Israel calls a ‘separation barrier’ and the organisation calls an ‘Apartheid Wall’.
The Israeli African migrants’ policy is being abetted by certain African countries that are said to be receiving deported migrants from Israel in exchange for financial compensation. The UNHCR reported that between December 2013 and June 2017, Israel deported 4 000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers under the ‘voluntary departure programme’ to Rwanda and Uganda. Both countries have denied claims that they had been complicit in Israel’s controversial plan. Although they deny having made deals with Israel to accept the migrants, the two countries have embraced Israel’s attempts to strengthen links with African states. In the wake of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by US president, Donald Trump, the UN passed a resolution rejecting the move; nine African states abstained, including Rwanda and Uganda, suggesting a solidification of links with Israel.
The silence of many African countries about the ill treatment of African migrants in Israel demonstrates complicity. The AU, in which Israel seeks to gain observer status, has not condemned the Israeli deportation plan, nor pronounced on reports that two of its member states, Rwanda and Uganda, have assisted Israel in its deportation and ill-treatment of African migrants.
Voluntary departure package
Israel’s being a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees obligates it not to return refugees to a country where they face serious threats to their lives or freedom. Israel’s policy towards African migrants came into the spotlight around 2013 after the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that Israel was offering a ‘voluntary departure’ ultimatum. Israel attempted to redeem itself by stating that the plan did not include women and children, and targeted only males of working age. The UNHCR responded that the plan could not be considered ‘voluntary’ as both options given to the migrants threatened the life and freedom of the asylum seeker, and was thus in contravention of the 1951 Refugee Convention. By deporting the migrants back to their home countries, Israel placed their lives in more danger than they had previously faced. This is especially significant in the case of Sudanese migrants who, according to the UNHCR, faced jail sentences under Sudan’s Criminal Act, which prohibits citizens from visiting an enemy state, which Sudan considers Israel to be.
Having faced increased pressure from local and international groups to halt the deportations of migrants to their home countries, Israel revised the policy and included a component to allow refugees to choose to be deported to a ‘third’ country, which the UNHCR said was either Rwanda or Uganda. If migrants choose this option, they are given $3 500 USD to help them settle in the new country, an Israeli travel document, and a letter from the ‘third country’ guaranteeing a tourist visa upon arrival. Various Eritrean and Sudanese migrants who took this option and were deported to Rwanda have reported to the UNHCR that although they received the promised $3 500 USD, their documents were confiscated upon arrival and they could not apply for asylum. Further, they claim, immigration officials in Rwanda extorted money from them and ultimately trafficked them to Uganda where they face imprisonment for entering the country illegally.
In a recent twist, in its efforts to accelerate these deportations, the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority has offered an incentive to Israeli civilians to serve as ‘inspectors’ and implementers by forcibly removing African migrants from Israeli neighbourhoods. Under this offer, civilians are recruited as ‘inspectors’ who will rout out migrants who do not take up the ‘voluntary departure’ deal. The main targets under this new plan are African migrants residing in the greater Tel Aviv area. Once the ‘inspectors’ have identified those willing to take the departure package, they will facilitate the paperwork for their departure as well as monitor their entry to the third country. These inspectors will receive an incentive of $8 700 USD per deported person for a two-month period – higher than the total sum of $3 500 offered to the Africans who accept the deal and the $5 000 USD reported to be given to Rwanda and Uganda for each migrant they receive.
Israel insists the majority of African migrants in Israel are not asylum seekers but economic migrants. The UNHCR claims most of them are from Eritrea and Sudan and fled war and persecution, which qualifies them as asylum seekers and refugees. The controversial ‘voluntary departure’ package, the barrier fence on the Egypt-Israeli border, and the plan to close the Holot refugee detention centre signals Israel’s commitment to rid the country of ‘infiltrator’ African migrants seeking refuge. The African migrants have been given until April this year to take up the ‘voluntary departure’ package or face permanent jail detention, prompting widespread protests from the migrants and local human rights groups. Israel has also been condemned by the UN and some western countries, but the silence and the complicity of African countries in this controversial African migrants’ policy leaves little hope for the migrants. With this plan to rid itself off African refugees, Israel adds to its list of human rights and international law violations.
AMEC's executive director, Na'eem Jeenah, spoke as part of a panel organised by SISO (Save Israel, Stop the Occupation) and Liliesleaf Farm on 5 February 2018 at Liliesleaf. The other panelists were Alon Liel, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, and Benjamin Pogrund former South African journalist now living in Israel. The three speakers addressed the topic 'Israel and Palestine: What lies ahead?'
Let us be clear. ‘What lies ahead’ for Israel and Palestine is not Israel and Palestine!
The reality as it is today is that we do not have two states called Israel and Palestine, and we will not have two states. There is no Palestinian state today, even if certain sections of the official Palestinian leadership would like to convince us and themselves that there is. All we have is a bantustan that is given certain limited trappings of a state – much like Bophuthatswana or Venda were given in South Africa under apartheid. Indeed, the Palestinian ‘state’ that exists today has fewer powers than the South African bantustans did in the 1970s and 1980s; has less authority; less independence; less sovereignty; and cannot rely on the state that spawned it (as South African banstustans could) to support it financially.
The reality today is that we have one state – Israel – that is in control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, in control of all the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The fact that that state exercises its power over this territory through different regimes of control in different parts of that territory does not derogate from the fact that all this territory is, de facto, under the control of, and therefore part of, a single state.
If we want to talk about a future that will see an Israeli state and a Palestinian state existing side-by-side, then, at the very minimum, the Palestinian state in that configuration should be one in which all Israeli settlements have been dismantled; whose capital is in Jerusalem; whose borders are on the 1967 lines; which has full control over its borders; and that exercises full sovereignty on all of its territory – including the airspace above it and the water, gas and other resources below it. And, such a solution would require the exercise of the right of return of all Palestinian refugees to their homes – wherever in either of the two states those homes were. None of this is a fanciful demand of the Palestinians; all of these are guaranteed and required by international law.
But this is no longer a plausible future reality – if it ever was. Israel has ensured that such a solution cannot come to pass. Israel and its successive governments have ensured that there can be no possibility of an independent, sovereign, viable Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state. This has been done systematically through the construction and expansion of the settlements and settlement infrastructure; the building of the so-called ‘separation wall’ which has stolen Palestinian land; and other geographical and social engineering undertaken by Israel. That is why no Israeli politician talks about two states any longer. This reality and the fact that Israel has a US administration that is willing to give it anything it wants means Israel no longer has to pretend it wants a two-state solution. And even a few years ago, when Israeli government officials would occasionally refer to a two-state solution, it was clear that they were not talking about two states, but about an Israeli state controlling a Palestinian bantustan. Netanyahu’s ‘vision’ of a Palestinian state was one in which that state would have no control over its borders, no control over its airspace, no sovereignty over the Jordan Valley where Israeli troops would permanently be stationed, no control over its security, no army, no police force except one that is under Israeli oversight, no possibility to establish a capital in Jerusalem or to have any claim to Jerusalem whatsoever… In short, Netanyahu articulated a ‘two-state solution’ where the Palestinian entity would be a bantustan and a permanent vassal of Israel.
Of course, all of this, we were told, was necessary in the interests of Israel’s security. Because, of course, Palestinians do not deserve any security; Palestinians do not need to be safe from a belligerent, racist state with one of the most powerful armies in the world that occupies their land; Palestinians have no right to defend themselves. Only Israeli security needs consideration.
Among Palestinians, there are only a few today who believe that a two-state solution is possible. In general, most Palestinians believe that Oslo is dead; and that the agreements and creatures of Oslo are irrelevant.
This event is hosted by SISO, and while I am not criticising the organisation, I ask whether the slogan ‘Save Israel, Stop the Occupation’ is a realistic one. I suppose the answer to that question depends, in part, on what is meant by ‘Israel’. What borders, what powers, what is the nature and character of the state, who are its citizens and its nation…
The future for Israelis and Palestinians – the ‘What lies ahead’ – is not an end to the occupation in a manner that will ‘save’ Israel in the form it exists today. The more likely future scenario is one where the occupation will ‘end’ in a manner that will result in Israel, de jure, being a singe state from the river to the sea.
The real question, then, is not whether we will have one or two states in future. The real question is: what is the path from where we are now to the future one-state reality. The real question is whether that path will be one that is a (largely) non-violent, negotiated, carefully envisioned and re-envisioned one with minimal loss of life and minimal misery for Israeli Jews and for Palestinians (especially for Palestinians); or whether that path will be characterised by belligerence, massive violence, bloodshed, death and misery for all concerned (especially Palestinians).
With the current extreme imbalance in power between Palestinians and Israelis, the decision for which path should be taken lies largely in the hands of Israelis and Israel’s supporters around the world.
If Israel perpetuates its violence – as it seems intent on doing, remains intransigent, continues to use its military and security forces to attempt to suppress the Palestinian people and their legitimate aspirations and demands, then we will arrive at the same future, but through the second, more tortuous and bloody route. Palestinians, as they have proven to us over the past seven decades, will not be perpetual victims; they will fight back – even if the balance of force is hugely against them. As the quotes that we read scattered around Liliesleaf suggest, such resistance is built into the nature of human beings.
Let me end, then, by focusing your attention on two quotes I read here in the past hour, which should give Israel’s supporters in this room cause to pause and ponder.
At the entrance to this institution, museum and monument is a quote from an Umkhonto we Sizwe pamphlet issued soon after its founding. It says: ‘…the people's patience is not endless. The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa.’ Although no quoted on the board at the entrance, the pamphlet continues: ‘We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom.’
And at the entrance to this hall is a quote by that former president of the African National Congress known for his emphasis on non-violence, Chief Albert Luthuli, who said, in response to the sentencing at the Rivonia Treason Trial: ‘… no one can blame brave just men for seeking justice by the use of violent methods; nor could they be blamed if they tried to create an organised force in order to ultimately establish peace and racial harmony.’
The choice and the decision, as I said, lies in the hands of Israelis and their supporters.