By Marwa Fatafta
(This article was first published by Al-Shabaka - The Palestinian Policy Network)
Palestinians recently ranked corruption as the second largest problem they face after the economic crisis – higher than the Israeli occupation, which ranked third. Indeed, Palestinians generally view Palestinian Authority (PA) officials as a self-serving, elitist group disconnected from the Palestinian national struggle and the daily sufferings of the people. Such perceptions are fostered by the failure of the Oslo Accords, the death of the Palestinian statehood project, and the continued fragmentation of political leadership in the context of Israel’s ongoing oppressive occupation and its violations of Palestinians’ fundamental rights.1
Despite this dissatisfaction, there has been little change in the last two decades, whether at the top leadership level or within the ranks of PA institutions. What remains a constant is the ‘old guard’ maintaining a tight grip on power, rampant and systemic corruption, and the alienation of Palestinians from participation in decisions that impact their lives and future.
The present reality of the PA in no way resembles the kind of Palestinian government promised since the heady years of the Oslo Accords. As Nathan Brown observed, ‘Palestine is, in short, a model liberal democracy. Its most significant flaw is that it does not exist.’ This discrepancy between envisaged democratic leadership and reality can be explained by the neopatrimonial nature of the Palestinian political system. Neopatrimonialism is a hybrid model in which state structures, laws, and regulations are formally in place but overridden by informal politics and networks of patronage, kinship, and tribalism. Instead of being organised according to merit, public function, or administrative grades, a neopatrimonial regime finds its glue in bonds of loyalty to those at the top of the political hierarchy.
In an institutional context in which Palestinians have no mechanisms to hold their leaders accountable, Palestinian neopatrimonialism has created a situation impervious to serious change in leadership or political system. Though the PA, after the onset of the Second Intifada, began to make attempts at reform, Palestinian political structures have remained corrupt and captured by one political faction, Fatah. The assets and resources of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PA have been channelled toward serving the interests of the few at the expense of the majority.
The question of what can be done to remedy this crisis cannot be answered without understanding the nature of Palestinian political corruption and how it has led to the failure to serve the Palestinian people and rendered any attempt at reform useless. This policy brief examines Palestinian neopatrimonialism and corruption through a consideration of PA overreach, patronage practices, and collusion with Israel, as well as pressures from the international community. It ultimately proposes avenues for genuine reform, with the goal of building a truly democratic leadership and a governance system that represents all Palestinian people.
The two main Palestinian political bodies, the PLO and the PA, in principle should be democratic and representative as set out in the Palestinian Basic Law and the PLO’s constitution. However, the PLO has not only failed in the mission it carries in its name, but has also failed to act as the ‘sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people’. The PLO’s weakness can be seen in the fact that its legislative arm, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), convened in May 2018 after 22 years of inaction. The absence, during which the Oslo ‘peace process’ proved a total failure, demonstrates how the Palestinian leadership impeded the PLO from fulfillingits duty as a representative of Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories.
The PA, on the other hand, has overstepped its role as an interim government as stipulated in the Oslo Accords, and has increasingly become an authoritarian governing force in the West Bank. Hamas has followed suit in suppressing political dissent in the Gaza Strip.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas enjoys almost absolute power as the highest executive authority – an arrangement inherited from former President Yasser Arafat, who is often credited for institutionalising the neopatrimonial regime. During his presidency, Arafat maintained power via political cooptation and suppression.
Since the 2007 shutdown of the PA’s legislative arm, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Abbas has consolidated more power by assuming the roles of both the executive and the legislative branches of government, issuing legislation through presidential decrees and often in a process that lacks transparency and proper consultation with the public.
Among Abbas’s most recent legislative decrees is the Palestinian cybercrime law of 2017. The law, despite being amended following a public outcry, allows authorities to block websites and conduct surveillance on ordinary social media users. Palestinians can be arrested for expressing their opinions and political views online and charged with ‘cybercrimes’, punishable by up to fifteen years in prison.
The executive capture of power also extends to the judiciary. In April 2017, Palestinian judges, lawyers, and prosecutors gathered in Ramallah to protest a draft amendment that would grant the Palestinian president the authority to appoint the head of the High Judicial Council and the head of a committee that oversees judges. The amendment would also allow for the early retirement of judges, opening the door for the executive to interfere and threaten judges’ independence. Under such a provision, judges would have to think twice before issuing a ruling that challenges or opposes the executive authority. In an example of such forced pressure from the executive, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Sami Sarsour signed an undated letter of resignation shortly before he was sworn in.
The constant failure to reach a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, despite announcing a national unity government in early 2017, also speaks volumes in regard to Fatah’s power monopoly and its marginalisation of other Palestinian political actors and their constituencies. Power sharing is a prerequisite to the establishment of a solid national unity government, and requires fundamental changes to the current political setup.
As a result of Fatah’s control of the PA and the PLO, the Palestinian administrative and political machines run on dynamics of inclusion vs. exclusion and reward vs. punishment – fundamentally, according to loyalty. Appointments of public positions and promotions, for example, are awarded or withdrawn not on the basis of performance or professional merit but on the level of loyalty to the leadership.
For instance, holders of senior positions in the PA have invariably been appointed. Position descriptions are not publicly posted, nor are there openly established criteria for determining job scales, salaries, promotions, benefits, and bonuses. According to the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity – AMAN, the salaries and bonuses of the heads of some non-ministerial institutions have been higher than the salary of the president of the PA, whose monthly income, as stipulated by law, stands at $10 000. The appointment of freed Palestinian prisoners in the cadres of the civil workforce as compensation for their contribution to the Palestinian liberation movement is another example of the informal nature of PA positions.
Relatedly, in 2017 President Abbas forced 6 145 PA employees in Gaza into early retirement to pressure Hamas to cede control of the Strip. The number of PA employees in Gaza – both civil and security – is estimated to be around 50 000. Despite Hamas seizing control in Gaza, their salaries continue to be paid – albeit at a lower rate – to secure their loyalty to the PA. At the same time, Abbas uses government resources for political exclusion and punishment. A particularly abominable instance of this was the cutting of PA payments to Israel for electricity in Gaza, reducing the electricity supply to the Strip’s two million inhabitants to four hours a day.
The dysfunction of the PLC and the PNC, two toothless legislative bodies, has resulted in the executive monopolising and signing secret negotiations and agreements. The Oslo Accords are a prime example of how the PLO executive monopolised negotiations with Israel and took decisions in the name of the Palestinian people that proved disastrous. In a similar vein, the PA’s executive ignored on numerous occasions the PLC’s decisions mandating that the leadership must immediately stop negotiations with Israel in response to its continuous oppression of the Palestinian people and the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank.
The PA’s clandestine signing of agreements with Israel on matters related to energy, electricity, water, and communications demonstrates how far the leadership will go in ignoring formal processes and consultation with the public. These agreements have catastrophic political, economic, social, and environmental implications. One electricity-related agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinian private sector in September 2016 settled the PA’s outstanding $550 million debt to the Israel Electric Corporation with the aim of transferring the responsibility of providing electricity in the West Bank to the PA.
The PA, which celebrated the agreement as a national victory and a step toward liberation, kept the agreement confidential despite public demands to disclose its terms. Palestinian civil society, media, and electric companies wanted to know: How will the power to distribute electricity be transferred to the PA? How will it be regulated? What are the implications? Every Palestinian citizen, as service recipients, should have the right to know of such an agreement. In the absence of basic transparency, Palestinians are denied their right to access information that impacts their daily lives and the basic services delivered to them by their government. This also impedes them from exercising any accountability over the PA.
The Red Sea-Dead Sea agreement, signed by the PA, Jordan, and Israel, was also completed in secret. Palestinian water and environment experts protested, warning that the agreement would cause irreversible environmental damage if implemented, as it will destroy what little is left of the Dead Sea’s ecosystem. Palestinians also protested the pact because it will entrench Israel’s denial of Palestinians’ rights to water, as the agreement undermines Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and part of the Jordan River basin. The PA, represented by the Palestinian Water Authority, excluded Palestinian experts from consultation and ignored them when they questioned the motivation behind signing such an agreement that achieves nothing for – and in fact damages – Palestinians.
This lack of transparency and accountability has translated into the misappropriation, misuse, and waste of public funds. For example, Abbas constructed a presidential palace on a 4,700 square meter parcel of land (with another 4,000 square meters for auxiliary buildings, including a helipad) to host guests and foreign delegations. He decided last year to convert the building into a national library, to the cost of $17.5 million. While a national library is a noble idea, the investment in costly infrastructure by a government who is heavily in debt and dependent on foreign aid is a testament to misplaced priorities.
The PA’s reliance on foreign aid has also undermined the Palestinian political system by making it accountable to international donors rather than the Palestinian people. The PA’s reform agenda and anti-corruption efforts have mostly stemmed from US and EU pressure since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, when the security situation on the ground deteriorated. The intent behind the agenda has been clear: Emphasise security over administrative reform and thus ensure the security of Israel at the expense of the security and basic civil and political freedoms of Palestinians. This has been reflected in the prioritisation of security in the PA’s budget allocations, with that sector taking twenty eight per cent of the annual budget at the expense of other, more vital sectors such as health, education, and agriculture.
In his critique of the Oslo aid model – a model based on the neoliberal policy of investing in peace – Alaa Tartir argues that the donor-driven development agenda has worsened the economic and political circumstances for Palestinians. For example, agriculture – a lost, key pillar of the Palestinian economy – received only one per cent of the PA’s annual budget between 2001 and 2005, while around eighty-five per cent went to staff salaries. Consequently, the agricultural sector’s contribution to GDP shrunk from around 13.3 per cent in 1994 to 5.9 per cent in 2011.
Palestinians have launched grassroots campaigns and union strikes, demanding better education and health services, including a massive teacher strike, a campaign against medicine shortages led by a coalition of Palestinian civil society organisations, a campaign against the electricity cuts in Gaza, and a campaign urging the PA to address medical negligence. The PA often leaves these public demands unanswered, and they are rarely reflected in its fiscal planning and public policies. As one member of the National Social Security movement, which leads the opposition to the controversial national social security law, said, ‘The government is not listening to our concerns.’ The law, which obliges private sector employees to pay seven per cent of their monthly salary and employers to pay nine per cent of salaries in exchange for social security coverage, has caused a wave of anger among Palestinians, who have protested mainly against the high monthly deductions as well as the lack of a guarantee to safeguard their money in the context of political and economic instability.
In February 2017, the PA adopted a new agenda, ‘National Policy Agenda: Citizen First 2017-2022’, that aims to prioritise the Palestinian citizen in the government’s policies, promoting accountability and transparency in managing public funds and affairs. This is a US- and EU-supported financial and administrative reform that began during the tenure of former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; the agenda states that it is a second phase, following the previous one of building state institutions and enhancing their capacity. It proclaims that it is now time ‘to improve our citizens’ quality of life by providing high-quality public services, fostering job creation in the private sector, and protecting the vulnerable.’
The PA’s new agenda does not acknowledge that Fayyad’s state-building phase failed to lead to statehood, let alone democracy. The international donor community hailed Fayyad as the Palestinian good governance messiah as his cabinet led efforts to create a de factoPalestinian state under the Israeli occupation in the context of a major political schism between the two largest Palestinian political factions. Fayyad’s reforms did not go beyond technical and administrative parameters to ensure that whatever shakeup the cabinet made did not rock the entire boat.
The 2003 restructuring of the prime minister position itself under US and EU pressure to loosen Yasser Arafat’s executive grip is another example of how futile these structural reforms are in such a context. The prime minister’s role, decisions, and policies must be in line with Fatah and the president, as the prime minister simply implements the president’s decisions and has no political standing of his own. When Fayyad filled the position in 2007 and embarked on his reform plan, he became the target of senior Fatah officials who continuously pinned the PA’s ailments and the effects of the economic crisis on Fayyad’s policies. The international community’s strong financial and political backing of Fayyad also constituted a threat to Abbas, who did not defend his premier against the attacks of his party and challenged his authority by overruling some of his decisions.
The international community also dictates which Palestinian political figures are in power through financial and political support. This was the case when the US attempted to overturn Fayyad’s resignation, and when it withdrew funds to suffocate unwanted authority even if it was fairly and legitimately elected, such as when Hamas won the majority of seats in the 2006 legislative elections.
Any additional reforms dependent on international approval will not address the legitimacy crisis in leadership, nor will they lead to the much-needed rebirth of a united Palestinian national movement that could fulfil the aspirations of the Palestinian people. These reforms reinforce the same neopatrimonial dynamics that underlie systemic corruption in the Palestinian Authority by acting as a band aid rather than a solution that tackles corruption from the root.
Essentially, any PA effort to end the occupation and achieve independence – often the stated goal in many of these reform agendas – translates into the PA simply continuing to override the role of the PLO. By doing so, it continues to marginalise if not ignore altogether the voices of the millions of Palestinians who live in the diaspora and have a direct stake in whatever course of action the PA’s executive takes vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation and the ‘peace process’.
If Palestinians are serious about democratic, representative, and transparent leadership, they must end the farce of reform and build a representative and democratic system from the bottom up. Palestinians, especially the youth living in the occupied territories, in Israel, and in the diaspora, have a significant role to play in mobilising and initiating national grassroots dialogues to debate and build a common vision for future democratic Palestinian leadership. This task requires a massive effort given the existing challenges. However, the continuation of the status quo offers only a bleak future.
To ensure that a new model, whatever its shape or form, does not recycle the same neopatrimonial dynamics, three fundamental elements must be considered:
To break the monopoly of one group or party, there must be a healthy political ecosystem of counterbalancing powers. The limitations of the PLO as an umbrella body representing all Palestinians invites the question of whether such a central authority infrastructure is capable of representing Palestinians everywhere. Any Palestinian governance model must be agile enough to lead and be responsive to the Palestinian polities living in different geographical, juridical, and administrative jurisdictions in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Israel, and the diaspora. The experience of the PA thus far suggests that a central authority, as it exists, cannot fulfill such a role.
Decentralisation of power, through empowering grassroots and local community leadership, is essential to break the existing power monopoly. The leadership and organisation during the First Intifada, albeit belonging to a different political and social context, offers one example of what a collective leadership could look like.
Corruption and abuse of power thrive when those in power cannot be held to account. Any new governance model will be vulnerable to capture of power without the following parallel accountability mechanisms in place:
First: A vertical accountability line that enables the Palestinian people to question their leaders and participate in the decision making process. This is not limited to local and national elections but can extend to grassroots public committees and hearings, shadow councils, robust protection of freedom of expression and the media, and Palestinian civil society taking an active role in monitoring not only Palestinian government institutions but also the private sector and service providers.
Second: Horizontal accountability – such as an independent parliament, independent audit organisations, and so forth – is important to investigate and stop the wrongdoings of public officials.
While the current system has these institutions formally in place to some extent, the neopatrimonialism of the Palestinian political system renders these internal accountability mechanisms useless. This is why power sharing, decentralisation, and public scrutiny are important first steps to ensure that no Palestinian authority can abuse its power.
To restore the Palestinian public’s trust in leadership, the impunity of the corrupt must be eliminated. Despite the various attempts and claims of the Palestinian anti-corruption committee to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials, Palestinian officials and politicians remain largely immune to any serious consequences for their actions. Impunity of the corrupt makes individuals hesitant to report corruption they witness or experience because they see no value in, or change resulting from, taking such action.
There are existing hotlines and legal centers available to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to report corruption cases in a safe and confidential manner, such as the one operated by the Palestinian anti-corruption organisation, AMAN. However, encouraging Palestinians to report corruption must be accompanied by the availability of solid anti-corruption laws and an independent judiciary that can hold the corrupt to account regardless of their political, financial, or social position.
To end corruption and ensure accountability in the Palestinian context, an institutional and political overhaul, rather than limited and fragmented political and legal reforms, is necessary. The repeated patterns of Fatah’s power monopoly, systemic corruption, and informal politics, in addition to the current political stagnation, suggests that it is past time for Palestinians to build new institutions that are more democratic and more representative of their rights and needs.
* Marwa Fatafta is a Palestinian analyst based in Berlin. The MENA Regional Advisor for Transparency International, her work focuses on issues of governance, corruption, accountability and civil society in the Arab world.
Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justice
International conference and Study tour
Keynote Speakers: Dr Rabab Abdulhadi (SFSU) and Dr Robin D G Kelley (UCLA)
South Africa’s history of struggle against colonialism, settler colonialism and apartheid with different streams of resistance has been amply documented. Today, apartheid remains one of the worst crimes ever against humanity. Parallels have been drawn between South Africa’s apartheid rule and Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights, on one hand, and the resistance against settler colonialism in Palestine and South Africa. .
The South African anti-apartheid struggle was led by internal and external forms of resistance and struggle. A mix of social, political, economic, and cultural struggles involved movements of workers, students, religious organisations, political and community that culminated into what Neville Alexander, described as “the multi-faceted resistance focusing on curricula, language, culture and broadly, the national project”. In Palestine, anti-Zionist resistance has appropriately taken multiple shapes and forms in all geographies of dispossession, displacement and precarious existence. Against such brutal oppression Palestinians have been facing mutlit faceted expressions of (settler) colonial erasure and exhibit the sort of justice-centered knowledge production that is counter-hegeomonic and challenges every aspect of paternalist, authoritarian and colonial ideologies and policies in learning spaces globally and locally.
Campus activism has been widely documented in the Palestinian struggle against the Zionist project and in other contexts, including the last 50 years in Mexico, Senegal, Tunisia, France and the US. Especially prominent is the 1968 SFSU Student Strike led by the Black student Union (BSU) and the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF). The 50thanniversary of the Spirit of ’68 continues to inspire the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies (AMED) Program. The resolute Palestinian students and faculty mentors who face Israeli colonial military and political brutality, killings, abductions and incarcerations are too familiar in South African history of oppression and resistance. In both situation, and other anti-colonial resistance, collective memories and oral history archives, remind us of the oppressor’s goals of targeting education, erasing histories of struggle and the generations it produces. As a result, decolonising the curriculum has been a rallying call epistemologically, intellectually and politically within and outside campus grounds.. Iran, Cairo, Beirut, Tunisia, Algeria, Senegal, Pretoria, Soweto, Birzeit, Nablus, Gaza and Hebron has resonated with San Francisco, Oceanhill-Brownsville, Mississipi, Georgia and Havana. The call for the decolonisation of everything in the educational system through curricular innovation, pedagogical approaches, the language we use and the questions we ask has been reflected in the campus uprisings in the 1970s and 1980s and their re-invigoration the 2015 and 2016 Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa. This movement brought together the decolonizing mission of decolonizing the mind that Biko, Fanon, and others in the Palestinian, Vietnamese, Cuban, Indigenous and African movements for national liberation spoke and theorized about. Holding the state accountable for what public education must be challenges the structures of power to live up to their claims and pronouncements. This has been evident in the Palestinian case and in the case of South Africa. This has been increasingly evident in the violent pressure applied by the United States and other international donor agencies, such as the World Bank, to impose revisions in Palestinian curriculum. The case of South Arica And public institutions in the global south in this respect is neither isolated nor coincidental.
While post-1994 South Africa stands as one of the most vocal African supporters of Palestinian resistance, especially when compared with pre 1994 and the strategic collaboration between Israel and the Apartheid regime, It is not surprising that insisting on justice-centered knowledge production for/in Palestine an elsewhere in the world has been subjected to relentless Zionist campaigns including Christian-Zionist misinformation. These smear campaigns seek to disrupt activists, researchers, students who engage in the praxis of Palestine as justice-centered praxis, nonetheless the power of justice-centered knowledge production and the necessity of decolonizing the curriculum has marched forward and has clearly and unambiguously denormalized oppression and questioned the very premise of the corporate university in Palestine, South Africa as well as the in the United States. The broadening of no-business-as-usual labor and intellectual call for the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been evident at the Tshwane University of Technology which declared its refusal to cross the academic-justice-picket line in December 2017, declaring that it will not enter any partnerships with Israeli institutions until and unless Israel ends its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands. South African civil society, including labor, women and religious organisations, have also independently and collectively pressured the South African government to unapologetically support the Palestinian struggle and reclaim the legacy of the South African freedom struggle. Civil society organizations have called on the South African government to cut off diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with the Israeli state. The South African government has followed the anti-Apartheid mass movements in South Africa and refused the Israeli offensive to recolonize and normalize settler colonialism in the African continent. As a result South Africa has fended off Israeli attempts to gain observer status in the African Union (AU).
It is against this backdrop of past and current principled struggles and pedagogies that in South Africa and Palestine that we seek to historicise and contextualise the praxis of Palestine in a counter-hegemonic knowledge production. This Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justice challenges the anti-Palestinian ideological (and colonial) tilt in South Africa. Initiated by the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies (AMED), this is project is co-sponsored by the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) and universities and research centres in Palestine, in the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem, the 1948 areas and in the Palestinian exilic Diasporas. . Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justiceinternational conference and study tour will be convened in South Africa in March 2019.
Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justiceinternational conference and study tour will be convened in South Africa on March 18-19, 2019 (international conferences), and March 20-25, 2019 (study tour).The two-day international conference will bring together South African and international participants to contextualise the praxis of Palestine as a justice issue in its multiple manifestations and nuanced dialectics. The conference will also examine the tensions and contradictions of the academy and the community dialectic, bringing up questions of social movements and intellectual inquiry.
The Teaching PalestineSouth African conference on March 18-19, 2019 will take place at two sponsoring universities (in Johannesburg and Pretoria) in a formal conference setting. Building on multi-site conversations inside and outside the academy, scholars, advocates and activists will weave theory and praxis in pedagogical intellectual and community imaginaries, teaching about justice-centred knowledge production on Palestine.
International participation is invited. Such participation must be historically contextualised and currently relevant to justice-centred knowledge production in ways that intentionally invoke and take into account opportunities and limitations of comparative analysis. We particularly seek participants from the global North and South with the understanding that the North exists in the South and vice-versa. This is aimed at challenging the boundaries of what teaching and learning mean, in settings including, but not limited to, scholarly associations, university classrooms, prisons, community centers, , formal and informal labour settings, social movements and activist’s contexts as well as informal teaching and learning spaces.
Interested participants are hereby invited to submit a 300 word abstract of individual presentations or 500 word proposals along with individual abstracts of pre-organised panels, roundtable (Other creative format is also welcomed) no later than January 18, 2019. In addition, the submission must include a 250 word bio for each participant, including pre-organized panels, roundtables and/or other format. An international committee will review and approve proposals. Notification of accepted proposals will be made by January 31, 2019. Full papers must be received by March 1, 2019.
Please submit your proposal to co-coordinators of the Teaching Palestine South African project to:
To ensure reciprocity in intellectual/community exchange and to deepen the sense of solidarities, a select group of Teaching Palestineconference participants will spend five days of formal and informal interaction with communities, activists, religious leaders, worker’s, trade unions, students in townships and campuses in learning South Africa’s resistance and struggle culture. In the process, conference participants will visit geographies of South African anti-apartheid resistance.
With the US Republican Party having lost control of the House of Representatives, expectations are that the White House, under President Donald Trump, will have a difficult time meeting its domestic policy or legislative objectives. American presidents, in such circumstances, often focus their attention on foreign policy, attempting to achieve victories there rather than engaging the hopelessness of victories in domestic policy. In Trump’s case, one foreign policy issue that is closely linked to his retaining support within his electoral base is that of his full backing of Israel. It can be expected, then, that over the next few months Trump will focus on concluding what he calls his ‘deal of the century’, which aims to decisively establish Israel’s control of all Palestinian territory and end the Palestinian struggle.
The promise of an Israeli-Palestinian ‘deal’ featured prominently in Trump’s election campaign two years ago. Even then, it was clear that the deal he sought would guarantee Israel’s needs and would be imposed on Palestinians – whether they liked it or not. After assuming the presidency, Trump lobbied selected Arab leaders while virtually ignoring the Palestinian Authority (PA) or any other Palestinian interlocutor. It is accepted by many that his ‘deal of the century’ has largely been crafted already. Although its contents are yet to be made public, various leaks suggest it recycles Israeli demands that had previously been rejected by the Palestinians, and even by previous US administrations.
Ultimately, Trump’s ‘deal’ will likely enable Israel to continue illegal settlement building on Palestinian land; crush Palestinian ambitions of building a sovereign state with a capital in Jerusalem; subject West Bank Palestinians to continued military rule with a bantustan-type administration that controls none of its borders; ensure that there is no Palestinian-controlled airspace; and there will be no prospect of the realisation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Gaza will become a protectorate of Egypt, which will facilitate the Strip’s economic transformation, freeing Israel from the Gaza problem.
With Palestinians not being consulted, the PA has emphasised that it will have nothing to do with such a deal, and has rejected the USA as a mediator between it and Israel. The proposals, which are much worse for Palestinians than the disastrous Oslo Agreementsof the 1990s were, have seemingly, however, been supported by certain Arab leaders.
Since assuming office in January 2017, Trump has repeatedly mentioned his efforts to conclude his deal. He appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his special adviser in January 2017, making him the lead person in the ‘deal of the century’ initiative. Kushner and his father-in-law both relate to the resolution of the Israeli occupation as a business arrangement where Israel is the client that needs to be satisfied and Palestinians (and their land) the real estate that has to be disposed of. Kushner, a businessperson like Trump, is part of a family empire that has been funding illegal settlement building in the West Bank. His family contributed $315 000to the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF) between 2011 and 2013, and he served on the FIDF board until he joined the Trump administration. His father is also a close friendof Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Apart from Trump’s nepotistic streak, the other reason he appointed Kushner is because the latter ‘loves Israel’and is intimately connected to Netanyahu. These connections mean that any deal will be heavily influenced by Netanyahu, who will definitely be pleased with the outcomes.
Trump also appointed Jason Greenblatt– a Trump confidante and lawyer – as his special envoyto the Middle East. Kushner and Greenblatt undertook numerous trips to the Middle East, meeting various Arab leaders and Israeli officials, as well as PA president Mahmoud Abbas(in August 2017), but ceased engaging the PA when the PA announced it would boycott US involvementin the process. That announcement followed Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018. In their many visits to the region, the pair met, on numerous occasions, with Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS), Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Jordanian king, Abdullah. MbS has been most involved with Kushner and Greenblatt, and has seemingly promised to give up most of the rights that Palestinians have demanded, and to accept the Trump deal. In April, he toldheads of US-based Jewish groups, ‘Palestinians must accept the conditions that will be set up by this deal or shut up and stop complaining.’ He also attempted to bully the PA into accepting a US role and to accept US conditions. In December 2017, he even summoned Abbas to Riyadhto threaten him into acquiescing to the USA. However, MbS appears to differ on this matter with his father, Salman, who expressed support for the Palestiniansand said Saudi Arabia remained committed to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which proposed a Palestinian state along the 1967 armistice line, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Salman’s statement followed an MbS-Netanyahusecret meeting in Amman, facilitated by the Jordanian king, which signalled a strengthening public relations campaign for the acceptance of Trump’s conditions.
Trump regards Arab leaders’ support for his deal as critical for Israel’s pursuit of legitimacy, and the US goal of countering Iranian influence in the region. Abdullah played a key rolein crafting the deal, trying thereby to safeguard Amman’s interests, particularly its role as the custodian of the holy sitesin Jerusalem. Abdullah is also concerned about the potential implications of the deal’s announcement on Jordan, where a large number of Palestinian refugees reside. Jordan has thus served as a key meeting point for many Kushner-Greenblatt talks, signalling that Amman has been identified as a strategic partner in achieving their desired outcomes. The collaboration of Arab countries such as Egypt,Jordan and Saudi Arabia shows that Israel has made substantial headway in its relations in the region – with the support of the USA. Israel has been growing closer to Arab governments despite the latter’s proclaimed support for Palestinians.
On 15 August, Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel arrived in Tel Avivas his attempts to broker a ceasefire deal with Hamas and to implement economic reform in Gaza were under way. Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, has relations with Israel, although it also claims to support the Palestinians. Its involvement seeks to rid Israel of the political nuisance that Gaza has become, especially with the intensifying peaceful Friday return marchesat the Israeli blockade fence.
The PA’s rejection of a US role in negotiations with Israel has not negatively affected the attitude of Arab leaders in Egypt and Jordan. This is despite Abbas’s efforts to forge a united Arab response in rejecting a US role, especially after Trump’s embassy move. With growing Palestinian disillusionment, and the worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza, Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ is unlikely to be warmly welcomed by Palestinians, especially considering that the deal proposes old conditions that have long been rejected by Palestinians, and new conditions that are unacceptable to Palestinians and in violation of international law.
Contents of the ‘deal’
Although no official announcement has yet been made about the contents of Trump’s proposal, a number of leaks and positions articulated by the US president, Kushner and Greenblatt, suggest the general direction of the proposal and even certain specific provisions. It is no secret that the Trump administration takes its cue on Middle East issues from the Israeli government. The ‘deal of the century’ will therefore represent and uphold Israeli interests over and above everything else. For Palestinians, the demands for a state, an end to illegal settlement building, and the return of all Palestinian refugees will be subjugated to Israeli interests.
When Trump met with Netanyahu in February 2017, in Washington, he said he supported what ‘both parties like’. ‘I’m looking at two-state and one-state,’ he said, ‘I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.’ What he understood by a two- or one-state solution remained unclear. What isevident is that Trump is determined that there will not be a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. He sealed this matter, in his mind at least, by the US decision to recognise Jerusalemas Israel’s capital. US recognition, the US and Israel believe, legitimises Israeli ambitions to annex all of Jerusalem and to deny any Palestinian claim to it, a plan set in motion after the 1967 war. Clearly, the ‘deal of the century’ is unlikely to refer to a Palestinian state in the way that Palestinians envision it.
Instead, MbS attempted to persuade Abbas to accept Abu Disas the Palestinian capital in order to smooth the way for Trump’s proposal. A rural village that overlooks the old city of Jerusalem, Abu Dis was touted as the home for the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1995, in the wake of the Oslo Accords. The administration of then-US president Bill Clinton proposed renaming Abu Dis ‘Al-Quds’(the Arabic name for Jerusalem) in order to deceive Palestinians, but it was roundly rejected by Palestinians. With a population of just 12 000, Abu Dis lies in ‘Area C’ of the West Bank, meaning it is fully under Israeli control. Part of the massive illegal settlement of Maale Adumimlies in the Abu Dis district. Palestinians will certainly reject Trump’s proposal for Abu Dis as a Palestinian capital, as they had previously done, knowing that such an acceptance will mean the permanent loss of Jerusalem and access to it, its holy sites and its 300 000 Palestinian residents.
Jerusalem’s status is a major issue of contestation, and if the protests that marked Trump’s Jerusalem decision are any indication, Palestinians will not accept the usurpation of the city by Israel and the USA. It is noteworthy that the Second Intifada was sparked by a large Israeli military entry into the Al-Aqsa mosque; placing the entire old city of Jerusalem under permanent Israeli control could spark another intifada.
Airspace, resources, borders
With Jerusalem promised to Israel by the USA, Trump’s proposal looks to craft a fictitious Palestinian ‘state’ crammed into tiny pieces of West Bank land separated from each other and from Gaza, and having no control over its borders, natural resources or airspace. The Palestinian ‘state’ will also have no sovereignty. The USA and Israel will attempt to convince the world that the bantustan they create is a state, and will attempt to gain entry for that entity to international bodies such as the UN by providing it the trappings of an independent state, much like apartheid South Africa attempted with its bantustans.
The Israeli government currently controls the territorial borders of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Palestinian water sources and Palestinian airspace. Israel also collects Palestinian taxes on behalf of the PA, supplies electricity to Gaza (until last year when the PA refused to pay for Gaza’s electricity), and continues its military control of the West Bank. The Trumpian ‘state’ will maintain this reality. The Trump-Kushner proposal is being drafted based on the assumption that Palestinians will accept its conditions as long as a sufficiently large financial package incentivises it. Palestinians will almost definitely refuse this, and Palestinian airspace, resources and territorial borders will continue to be controlled by Israel.
Trump’s plan for Gaza consists mainly of an economic initiative, with control of the strip largely being handed over to Egypt. Trump seems to believe that easing Gaza’s economic strain will solve the political headache that the strip represents for Israel. He will thus propose a free-trade zone in El-Arish in the Egyptian Sinai desert bordering Gaza. This plan, its drafters hope, will alleviate the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Gaza, which were created by an eleven-year land and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt. The plan will propose that five industrial projects be established, which will be funded by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Arab states. This plan resembles Israel’s long-time ambition to move responsibility for Gaza to Egypt.
The economic initiative seems to be based on a proposal by Israeli general Yoav Mordechai, which he had submitted to the Trump team in a White House meeting in March. It includes the construction of air and sea ports, and the establishment of a trade zone and power station. Mordechai’s plans are premised on Egyptian cooperation and supervision of the implementation of the projects. Egyptian president el-Sisi discussed the plan with Kushner and Greenblatt, who encouraged Egyptian intelligence officials to present the proposal to Hamas, the de facto rulers of Gaza. The plan to relegate Gaza to a quasi-Egyptian province is not new, and has been an idea that Israel has pushed since it redeployed its soldiers out of Gaza in August 2005. Israel seeks to cement and formalise Gaza’s separation from the West Bank and, with US encouragement, Egypt is expected to come to the party.
The plan will, undoubtedly, be rejected by Palestinians, especially the political and civil society groups that have been participating in the Friday marches of return at the Gaza-Israel fence. Egypt has thus been working tirelessly to get Hamas on board, as Egypt faces stiff pressure from Trump and the Saudi-supporting Arab states. Hamas has engaged in several talks with Egypt in pursuit of humanitarian relief in Gaza and reconciliation with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The reconciliation project is in tatters because of non-cooperation from Fatah, but the Egyptians are keen to move ahead without the group, especially since most other Palestinian groups have accepted the Egyptian role. If implemented, the plan will alienate Hamas from the PA, which is facing an internal succession battle and declining Palestinian support. This week’s Israeli operation in Gaza, when a Hamas commander and seven other Palestinians were killed, might delay progress of the Egyptian initiative, but it is expected to resume soon with the next stage: negotiations around prisoner exchanges.
Return of refugees
Palestinians have always been very clear about the return of Palestinian refugees who were displaced in 1948 when Israel was created. The issue of refugees has thus been a huge sticking point in previous negotiations, with Israel refusing to recognise the right of return of the refugees, who now number around five million (about 700 000 were originally displaced) on the basis that they would be a ‘demographic threat’ to the ‘Jewish character’ of the Israeli state. The Kushner-Trump deal will certainly protect Israel on this issue. To lay the foundation for this protection, the USA has already cut funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Kushner said he wanted to expunge the refugee status of the five million Palestinians living in West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other countries in the world. This plan has already been set in motion as Trump has started pressuring the Jordanian king, Abdullah, to strip Palestinians living there of their refugee status. This is consistent with Trump’s guarantee to secure and protect Israeli security. The attack against UNRWA is thus part of the US attempt at protecting Israeli interests by ensuring that Palestinian refugees lose their refugee status and can never return to their homes.
Trump hopes to end years of deadlock in talks between Israelis and Palestinians, even though biased US support for Israel has already been demonstrated. Trump, his son-in-law Kushner and the Israelis want an Israeli state with all of Jerusalem as its capital, while maintaining the status quo of Israel building and expanding illegal settlements in Palestinian territories, controlling Palestinian borders, resources and airspace, while subjecting Palestinians to indefinite military control. Under this arrangement, Palestinians will be given limited control over small parts of the West bank, separated from Gaza and Jerusalem. Gaza will be handed over to Egypt with an economic aid package to solve the deteriorating economic conditions created by the Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed land and sea blockade.
Abbas’s PA has refused to engage with the USA on the crafting of this deal, giving Trump, Kushner and Israelis the opportunity to label Palestinians as being opposed to peace, even though any PA involvement would have been unlikely to significantly influence the shape of the final proposal. The ‘deal’ has thus been negotiated without Palestinian input and will certainly not protect any Palestinian interests. Trump and the Israelis hope for international applause when they announce their ‘deal’, despite knowing that Palestinians will reject it. With the proposal having received the support of certain Arab leaders, Palestinians are being set up to lose their land and rights in exchange for crumbs from the Trump and Israeli table. The deal will simply reproduce old proposals which have been rejected multiple times, now packaged under the Trumpian label.
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).