Walter Meed Russell, writing in The Wall Street Journal, sees the glass of America’s 20-year presence in the Middle East as half full. He believes we bolstered our interests, if not advancing democracy abroad. One of the most important accomplishments that we take for granted is that our presence has prevented any “major new international terrorist attacks” on American soil over the last two decades. In addition, he points out the unprecedented accomplishment of the Abraham Accords where today “neighboring Arab states now consider Israel an ally to be cultivated” instead of a pariah to be annihilated.
But are these gains sustainable without a continued American presence in the region? What will be the consequences without an American security blanket?
The American withdrawal from the region, promised by US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, now has a September target date in Afghanistan. In Iraq and Syria, the US presence is also on life support. The long-anticipated departure from the Middle East will end a fragile status quo for all the players in the region.
The Sunni states, which have counted on the US as a final level of defense, are in uncharted territory. America is not only leaving the region but as a parting gift is returning to the Iran nuclear agreement, which will provide Iran with tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief. The Sunni states know this will encourage Iran to test the waters of how far it can push its influence before it suffers any repercussions. Consequently, all of the region’s nation-states are recalibrating their strategies and contemplating new alliances for their survival, even with their current enemy Iran.
So when Saudi Intelligence Chief Khalid al-Humaidan secretly met with Saeed Iravani, Iran’s deputy secretary of its Supreme National Security Council, it represented a possible tipping point between the Islamic world’s bitterest of rivals as a direct result of America’s retreat from the region. Kirsten Fontenrose of the Atlantic Council offered a positive spin, advancing the possibility of an Ishmael Track (Sunni-Shi’ite) between the bitter rivals to pursue détente. Pushing America’s longtime Saudi ally into the arms of the region’s most dangerous actor only serves Russian, Chinese and Iranian interests.
The most dangerous consequence of the American turn from the region will be the nuclear arms race left in its wake. The Sunni world will play catch-up, knowing they or anyone else cannot count on UN nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who are not permitted to visit clandestine Iranian nuclear sites, the very places weaponization is likely to occur. If Iran continues to enrich uranium, develops more precise ballistic and cruise missiles and achieves the compartmentalization of a nuclear warhead, a nuclear Middle East is inevitable. The Saudis, Egyptians and the Emiratis will join the race for their own nuclear bomb as a counterweight to Iran’s adventurism and intimidation. The Saudis have already contracted with Pakistan for nuclear technology and possibly a completed weapon.
So what happens when the US leaves the Middle East? Here are 10 possible outcomes that American politicians, the military and intelligence services will have to grapple with in the coming years.
1. Islamist terrorism will find both new and old havens from which to plot mayhem against the US and Israel. 2. Iran will increase its military activity at the region’s two strategic choke-hold points at the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el Mandeb, threatening international shipping lanes. 3. With America’s retreat, allies worldwide will know that American security commitments can be expected to have expiration dates. 4. Iran, Russia and China will be the new superpowers of the Middle East. 5. Israel will be more isolated if Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states move toward Iran out of desperation. Still, Israel hopes they decide to continue normalization (Abraham Accords), seeing them as the better choice of ally. 6. Iran will feel less inhibited in risk-taking, knowing the US will not want to challenge the Islamic regime, lest it withdraw from the nuclear agreement. 7. Iran will set its sights on Jordan, the next domino to fall, after Iraq and Lebanon, under Iranian influence. 8. The Taliban will retake Afghanistan, making all the gains achieved for women and minorities disappear instantly. 9. The chance for regional conflicts will grow. 10. Nuclear proliferation will arrive sooner or later in the Sunni world, to nobody’s benefit.
Are any of these outcomes in America’s national security interest? Will America be forced to return to the region as it did after Obama’s hasty retreat from Iraq in 2011, but under less favorable conditions? As former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren told Yaroslav Trofimov of the Journal in October 2019, “If you think the United States as a global power can pull out of the Middle East and not endanger itself, you are deluding yourselves.”
If President Joe Biden changes or adjusts the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—then he is obligated to bring it to Congress. This is not the wishful thinking of critics of the agreement; it is according to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015.
In May of 2015, Congress passed INARA, giving itself the right to review any future agreements or modifications reached regarding the Iran nuclear deal, in essence reserving the right to assess any changes made. Since it’s almost impossible to restore the deal intact since six years have passed since it was written, a return to the JCPOA promised by Biden means a new agreement. The administration’s strategy will be to ignore Congress, claiming that any changes will not be substantive, so INARA does not apply.
According to former Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker, writing in RealClearWorld, “The Act mandates congressional review—and provides for potential disapproval—of not just the JCPOA, but any “agreement related to the nuclear program of Iran … regardless of the form it takes … the Act (also) prohibits the extension of sanctions relief during the 30 days the law sets aside for congressional review of any nuclear agreement with Iran.”
Biden promised to rejoin the JCPOA, and lengthen and strengthen the unsigned agreement. Unfortunately, his Iran envoy Robert Malley has said that if Iran returns to full compliance, then they will immediately get sanctions relief. Does that mean removing all sanctions, including those for their egregious human-rights abuses, missile proliferation and counterterrorism? U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that no significant amendments will be added before rejoining the agreement. I don’t follow the administration’s logic—beginning negotiations with the wily Iranian regime by giving away all its leverage.
In response this month, Sens. James Risch (-Wis.) and Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) introduced legislation called the Iran Sanctions Relief Review Act of 2021 (S. 488) to address the administration’s contradictory approach and messaging. Risch said, “It’s increasingly clear that the Biden administration’s promises to ‘lengthen and strengthen’ the Iran nuclear deal are instead an attempt to re-enter the flawed 2015 JCPOA at any cost. … This bill would require Congress to approve any Biden administration effort to lift sanctions against the Iranian regime. The United States currently maintains a position of significant leverage with Iran because our sanctions are working. Given that reality, the administration should keep its promises to address the JCPOA’s looming sunsets, as well as Iran’s regional terrorism, ballistic-missile activity and wrongful imprisonment of Americans.”
And that is where INARA comes in. If Biden keeps his promise to be the anti-Trump, following the law he needs to go back to Congress before obligating America to trust the theocratic Islamic regime, which hid and lied about its nuclear program for decades. Like all recent executives of both parties, Biden will claim that foreign policy is the exclusive purview of the president. That is because the Senate has allowed presidents to run roughshod over its constitutional duties for decades. The Senate should speak up now—that includes members on both sides of the aisle. Will Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who voted against the deal the first time, speak up again and act? The JCPOA in 2015 should have been submitted to the Senate as a treaty, being the most consequential American foreign-policy agreement of the 21st century.
According to an article in Foreign Policy by Daniel Kutzer, Aaron Miller and Steven Simon, “Little constituency exists in Washington for returning to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran on precisely the same terms as before. Republicans and even some crucial Democrats oppose it.” If that is true, then the president is bound by law to send any updates or changes to Congress for review.
I received a request from a reader about what voters should “ask for” from Congress. First, don’t be fooled by rhetoric that claims we are all on the same page, agreeing that Iran should never get a nuclear weapon. That does not mean and is not the same as improving the JCPOA now. When Brett McGurk, Biden’s national security council coordinator for the Middle East, said this week concerning the United States and Israel’s goals regarding Iran, “there is no disagreement. … Iran can never get a nuclear weapon, period,” that is political doublespeak. It does not address that the JCPOA, which the administration has vowed to return to, still allows Iran to develop an industrial-size nuclear program in less than 10 years when its sunset provisions fully kick in.
The answer for pro-Israel Americans is to let the Democratic Majority for Israel, the Jewish Democratic Council and their state legislators know the JCPOA’s weaknesses are your No. 1 foreign-policy concern. Let them know you expect Biden to keep his word to strengthen and lengthen the deal, but to do it before rejoining a flawed JCPOA. And you want the Senate to be able to weigh in and review the modifications. Let them know that rhetoric alone without a fundamental change of the sunset provisions is not enough. The handwriting is already on the wall for a return to the old JCPOA. Now is the time to speak up.
In the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine, there is an essential component that well-meaning Western negotiators have underestimated: religion factors more into the equation the West might expect, even for secular Arab citizens.
Religious beliefs are a core reason that many Palestinians cannot accept the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism (Zionism) or peoplehood. For them, it is a religious obligation never to cede land that once was Islamic. The Western mindset can’t fathom the importance of this, unable to comprehend that there is no separation of mosque and state for these believers. If it were simply about haggling over borders, the conflict probably would have ended long ago.
Israelis also have a religious narrative, especially among those who settle the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) for religious reasons — the biblical homeland of Jewish people.
With the Biden administration re-engaging with the Palestinian Authority and restoring funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine refugees, it would be wise to reflect on past failures in achieving Middle East peace. This requires something difficult for Washington: thinking beyond conventional State Department wisdom. Typically for Washington diplomats, it is all about Israeli settlements and not the role that religion plays in the conflict.
But Western analysts have underestimated the vehemence of those who believe that Judaism is only a religion, and not a people or a nation. From their perspective, the Jews don’t have a civilization or one with legitimate aspirations for their ancestral home in the Levant. On the other hand, they feel a duty to keep, or to regain, control of any place that once was under Islamic control.
For example, the first Islamic presence on the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif), the Dome of the Rock, was built in the late 7th century, nearly 1,600 years after the Jewish temple first stood on that location. If you listen to the Palestinian Authority’s line, never mind the archeology, Jews were never there and are simply colonialist interlopers.
Western experts should appreciate the importance of the Abraham Accords, in which moderate Islamic nations chose pragmatism and respect for their Jewish cousins’ claim to nationhood. It could be a gift to create a new paradigm between the Israelis and Palestinians. But only if a new Palestinian leader emerges in the image of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), a pragmatic Sunni moderate who signed a peace treaty with Israel, will there be a chance to resolve the conflict anytime soon. Such a leader must accept a Jewish state without territorial demands dictated by strict interpretation of Islam. Many Middle East experts failed to see the Abraham Accords coming, wherein Arab states would recognize Israel and choose moderation over religious orthodoxy.
The origins of the Israel-Palestine conflict were never simply territorial, ending in Arab and Jewish states as envisioned in United Nations Resolution 181. The most unmistakable evidence is that former leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas both declined offers for a Palestinian state and Arab East Jerusalem as the capital in 2001 and 2008, respectively.
Western foreign policy officials say that we all know how this conflict has to end — two states for two peoples, with a division of the land and Jerusalem based on the 1949-1967 Armistice Lines. Yet, they forget there were those who would not sign an armistice unless it made clear that these lines would not be permanent borders, insisting instead on a ceasefire that stated, “The Armistice Demarcation Line is not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial boundary,” so it could not legitimize a Jewish entity.
Today, conventional Western wisdom is that Palestinians sustained “Al Naqba,” a “catastrophe,” with the creation of the State of Israel, which expelled 600,000 indigenous people. But this catastrophe for the Palestinian people wasn’t only of Israel’s doing. Respecting Palestine’s loss is something with which most Israelis could empathize — if most Palestinians could overcome the belief that Israel has no right to exist. Both peoples must learn to respect the other’s narrative.
Religion was a motivating factor in Palestinian leaders and Arab nations not accepting a Palestinian state in 1948, 1967, 2000 and 2008. This more realistic, but politically incorrect, narrative is not one that today’s foreign policy experts want to accept.
America should not mediate any negotiation for final-status talks without a precondition: The signing of an unassailable end-of-conflict treaty, stating that neither side can have claims on the other’s territory. That is a non-negotiable demand to avoid past failures, because it would mean the religious dimension of the conflict is addressed regarding territorial concessions.
Palestinians deserve a government that prioritizes their future and begins the process of accepting the painful compromises needed for their economic empowerment and freedom. With Palestinians about to vote in legislative elections, it is incumbent on the U.S. to articulate a clear position on what it expects of Palestine and Israel.
If accepting Zionism and embracing the principles of the Abraham Accords is a bridge too far for the political leaders to cross at this time, a good beginning would be to foster grassroots dialogues between moderate Muslim and Jewish religious leaders, who can see the humanity in the other people with whom they are destined to live in the land. Who knows — if the Abraham Accords were possible, anything may be possible?
Two media events struck me this weekend. The first was the lack of mainstream media reporting that Palestinian Authority President Abbas’ Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claimed responsibility for shooting rockets from Gaza into Israeli civilian population areas this Saturday. Isn’t this the government that President Biden just restored funding to?
The second story involves NPR and their reporting of the recent riots in Jerusalem. The story reported that right-wing Israelis were marching in Jerusalem, screaming death to Arabs, while attacking Palestinians leaving Damascus gate after Ramadan prayers.
What was not reported was that this was in reaction to videos circulating on social media of those same Arabs attacking religious Jews in Jerusalem on previous nights. Of course, there is no justification for attacking anyone, and certainly not for screaming death to Arabs, but the situation was complex. This was classic reporting of facts out of context to advance an anti-Israel political viewpoint. It was an opinion disguised as news.
Just to be clear, the only person interviewed by NPR in the report was a so-called Israeli activist who parroted the anti-Israel narrative. Unfortunately, nuance and balance are not on the agenda if they get in the way of progressive activism.
Previously published in the Jerusalem Report. Written with Sarit Zehavi.
Does the US fully understand Iran’s grand designs for the Middle East?
The Iranian regime presents its long-term strategic plan to export the Islamic revolution as a religious duty. Establishing civilian communities and loyal fighters in surrounding lands to further its sphere of influence and exert control is an integral part of their plan.
The goal is to make these tribal communities financially dependent on the Islamic Republic while proselytizing Shi’ism and increasing the respect for their brand of Shi’ism in these vulnerable populations. Israel watched this strategy play out in Lebanon and is now seeing it implemented in Syria and Iraq.
In 2018, after Syria’s President Bashir Assad regained control of southern Syria with Iran and Russia’s help, Iran began cultivating and investing in the local Syrian population. It used a strategy that helped civic organizations along with economic investment. Iran planned to turn southern Syria into a dependent front line against Israel, mimicking the infrastructure and populace under Hezbollah’s control in Lebanon.
The research and educational think tank Alma (co-writer Sarit Zehavi is the founder and CEO) has uncovered civic foundations under Iranian control in Syria, receiving direct funding from Hezbollah and Iran. At the same time, their combatants are embedded within the civilian Sunni population.
According to Alma’s research, after the reconquest of southern Syria, there was a concerted effort to take over mosques and establish Hussainiyas (Shi’ite religious gathering sites). The goal was to ingratiate themselves with the population who would become dependent on Iran for all aspects of their economies, education, and religion.
The Iranian-controlled axis from Tehran to Beirut includes Shi’ite brethren, and co-opted Sunnis, Druze, and Alawites. Iran’s imperialistic ambition is always on the lookout for opportunities to embed itself within local populations to exert new influence. Whether it was the instability of the Arab Winter in 2011 or the chaos that followed in the Syrian civil war, Iran has a single-minded focus on perpetuating its revolutionary plans and dominating the Middle East and beyond.
To understand what is happening in Syria, you need to understand Lebanon. Since Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government with cabinet ministries, it allows them to transfer monies to themselves. The estimated amount of financial support Hezbollah sent to the Lebanese provinces of Tyre, Bint Jbeil, and Marjayoun in 2020 was twenty-two billion, one hundred thirty million Lebanese pounds for health, education, and social services. Unfortunately, there is little counterweight from the Lebanese government to oppose Iranian influence as it provides few public services to its people, especially in Hezbollah-dominated regions.
Iranian-controlled Hezbollah fills the void, providing the daily necessities, a terrorist organization masquerading as a social movement to create dependency and willing soldiers. Hezbollah is also the dominant political organization that effectively controls an impotent Lebanese government. Shockingly, there are still European nations that treat Hezbollah as a legitimate political entity, making a disingenuous moral distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wings.
The Achilles heel of American foreign policy is that it changes every four years with a presidential election. The US is profoundly disadvantaged in creating long-term planning to oppose Iranian influence. In contrast, authoritarian regimes like Iran, Turkey, and Russia can remain in place for decades, knowing they can strategize for the long term.
Today, Israel’s north is in the hands of the Iranians. Israel knows it, but the US doesn’t fully appreciate it, minimizing the Supreme Leader’s and his Revolutionary Guards’ apocalyptical words as hyperbole and rhetoric. The US incorrectly believes that sending one hundred forty million dollars a year to the Lebanese Armed Forces provides an effective counterweight to Hezbollah. When Iranian and Hezbollah leaders deliberately lie (taddiyah), it is part of a grand strategy to defeat the greater and lesser Satans – the US and Israel. What all American administrations since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 have in common is a difficult time fully comprehending the Iranian Twelver Shi’ite mindset that prioritizes Islamist imperial desires over its people’s well-being.
US Democratic Party administrations’ single-minded focus on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal) in dealing with Iran serves them poorly in understanding Iran’s goals. In particular, it distracts from what is likely to be the arena for the next major Middle East War on Israel’s northern border, with Iran calling the shots.
For decades, US Congress members have visited Kofi (café) Annan, a coffee shop at an old Israeli fortification on Mount Bental that looks into Syria’s Golan. In plain sight is the abandoned old city of Quneitra that seems just a stone’s throw away. They were told that this was Israel’s quietest border, at least until the start of the Syrian civil war. Today Iran has created and controls civilian life in the Quneitra, Daraa, and Suwayda districts of southern Syria, in plain sight of Cafe Annan. The civilian establishment solidifies the long-sought-after Shi’ite Crescent across the Middle East, an Islamist conduit for the transfer of precision-guided weapons systems and military personal, as part of an extended-range plan to destroy Israel.
In March 2021, Hezbollah chief Nasrallah looked directly into the camera and told the world that if we had “accurate (precision-guided) missile factories, we would tell everyone with “pride.” But “we don’t have anything of the kind.” On the contrary, Alma has overwhelming documentation of weapons depots, launching pads, and missile factories throughout Lebanon and Syria.
It should make everyone pause because they are embedded in civilian neighborhoods. Especially in Beirut, Hezbollah hides missile launching sites and rockets within heavily populated civilian areas. Using Wikimapia, an open-content collaborative mapping project site on the internet, Alma exposed rocket launching sites next to Al Rassoul Al Azam Hospital. Another production site for Iranian Fatah-110 missiles is located in the Ghobeiry neighborhood, near the Lebanese Ministry of Labor, another civilian facility. Prime Minister Netanyahu also exposed missile factories in the Alelichi neighborhood under four seven-story residential buildings’ housing foundations, next to a medical center and church. In the Shuifat area, a missile factory is hidden under civilian housing and is next to a mosque.
Can you imagine the international uproar if Israel, in retaliation for a Hezbollah attack against Israeli civilians, struck a mosque or apartment house from where the missiles were fired?
In January, Alma Research and Education Center published a connection between two military facilities and a Lebanese charity. The Islamic Shi’ite Waqf Committee in Burj al Barajneh is complicit in hiding Hezbollah’s Fatah 110 missile launch sites within Beirut. The Hussein Maktabi High School and the Burj al Barjneh-America Football Stadium are situated next to missile sites. Launchers and missiles were found not only next to the hospital but next to the Al Aytam petroleum facility, many restaurants, and the Ansar football (soccer) field.
The local Lebanese council members demanded the Lebanon Armed Forces investigate the use of a hospital by Hezbollah, but the LAF claimed there was nothing there. They are simply intimidated by Hezbollah. The local council members resigned in protest, not wanting to be blamed if another massive Beirut port explosion occurred under their watch.
Iran and Hezbollah have taken notice of Alma’s embarrassing exposés. The research center in Galilee is now in the Islamist’s crosshairs, literally. Hezbollah made public the exact coordinates of Alma’s research and educational facility in Galilee, where Congress members often visit. Alma has been cyber-at-tacked multiple times by Iran and its proxies.
This is what Hezbollah posted on its page: “Who is Alma? The Zionist Alma Center is an educational and research center dedicated to fabricating security lies on the northern borders of occupied Palestine and educating Zionist opinion-makers, research centers, academia, and others on how to make innocent civilians a military target in war.”
Nasrallah said, “Hezbollah points the finger of blame and repeated claims, that Alma is nothing more than a branch of the Israeli government.” In reality, Alma is independent and receives no funding from the IDF. Scapegoating to deflect your deficiencies is a tried and true formula of Islamist regimes. Facts are inconvenient problems when you have brainwashed those who have trusted you to protect them, and you not only fail to deliver but put them in harm’s way by using your people as human shields.
Why is Hezbollah taking this so seriously? In part, the information Alma exposes is damaging, as it justifies Israel’s repeated attacks to thwart the Iranian missile threat. But even more critical is that Hezbollah’s strength is that it receives the support of the Shiite population. If it loses the people’s help, its legitimacy could crumble. Exposing missiles and launchers next to schools, hospitals, residential neighborhoods, and sports facilities have struck a nerve with Hezbollah. They know that this is a line in the sand that the local population may not stand for as it purposely endangers their families and neighborhoods.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi has made clear that Hezbollah’s human shield strategy doesn’t grant Iran’s Hezbollah proxy immunity against future attacks. Israel will attack legitimate military targets as long as the military advantage outweighs the civilian loss. And yes, this is according to international law. In response, Nasrallah has said there is no difference between Israeli civilians and soldiers, an old story first told by the Palestinians to justify terrorist attacks on Israeli innocents.
Hezbollah and Iran are banking on winning a propaganda war against Israel. The global community would judge Israel harshly if more Lebanese are killed than Israeli civilians, a cynical battle of moral equivalence.
In a future Israeli northern war, Iranian-controlled militias that have partially withdrawn from Syria could quickly return to Israel’s Golan border in great numbers if the border gets hot. Missiles could fly this time from not only Lebanon but Syria, Iraq, and even Yemen.
Israel knows it will have to strike fast before the diplomatic fallout constrains its efforts, as the Israeli people who will suffer terribly will demand an overwhelming response, knowing the Lebanese and Syrian human shields will be paying the price.
Israel is worried that if the US rejoins the JCPOA, sanctions relief will directly flow to Iran’s proxies. That will increase the chance for war. The Biden administration should hold fast to sanctions no matter how immovable the Iranians are on the JCPOA, especially if they want to minimize the chances for a northern Israeli war with Iran and its proxies. At the very least, the sanctions against Iran for missiles and terror will be maintained.
If I were them—and with Iran in mind—I would conclude that all the misbehavior that the Biden administration wants to punish me for would evaporate if I only had a nuclear-weapons program that I could use as leverage to extract whatever concessions I wish.
While the Biden administration offers sanctions relief to Tehran in exchange for temporarily limiting uranium enrichment to less than 20 percent, it is fulfilling another promise, to “recalibrate”—i.e., punish—longtime American ally Saudi Arabia. As the Saudis sustain Iranian-directed missile and drone attacks from Yemen and Iraq, the Biden administration chose to remove Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia, as well as redeploy an aircraft carrier and surveillance systems away from the region. The clear message to Iran is: We will abandon our ally Saudi Arabia, your arch-enemy, if you will only rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.
If I were the Saudis, I would conclude that all the misbehavior that the Biden administration wants to punish me for would evaporate if I only had a nuclear-weapons program that I could use as leverage to extract whatever concessions I wish from the Americans. I could do like the Iranians—threaten, intimidate and take over neighboring states—and be absolved if I would just slow down my nuclear-development program.
The Saudis might open their Rolodex and call Pakistan. According to the BBC, in 2013, “a senior NATO decision-maker … had seen intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery.” This is the logical conclusion. The way we are headed, the Biden administration is about to start a nuclear arms race in the region with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, among others learning the lessons of the Iranian nuclear agreement. The formula is to develop a secret nuclear program, lie about it, engage in disruptive behavior and then trade some of that for a nuclear deal in your favor or foreign aid.
Saudi Arabia is no angel. The stain of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the country’s exporting radical Sunni Islamist ideology in the late 20th century has ramifications that we live with to this day. ISIS was the worst permutation yet of radical Sunni ideology. But after 9/11, the Saudis turned a page and began to align more closely with American interests. In the 21st century, they have been a moderating and stabilizing force in Sunni Islam.
Their support of the Abraham Accords, which allowed the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to recognize Israel with diplomatic relations, is groundbreaking. Previous administrations did not even contemplate its possibility. If nurtured for regional stability, it is a path to suppress the Saudi need for a nuclear-weapons program. It also ended the fiction that the Israeli-Arab conflict needs to wait until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ends. That is excellent news for those who believe Palestinian intransigence has been the roadblock to peace.
Instead of building on the game-changing Abraham Accords and pulling Saudi Arabia to the finish line by recognizing Israel, the Biden administration has chosen to make the Saudis a pariah, while begging the Iranian revolutionary regime to return to a deal that was created in their favor. As a reminder, it was created to give Iran international legitimacy for an industrial-size nuclear program within the decade. Stipulated within the nuclear agreement is Iran’s ability to buy an unlimited number of conventional weapons right now. No wonder that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei allowed his minions to sign it.
Like the Obama team, the Biden administration still believes that you can appease Iran by acquiescing in their nuclear blackmail. Obama’s policy was to distance the United States from its Gulf state allies and Israel while ingratiating his administration with the Iranians, who have never ceased undermining U.S. security interests worldwide. The only good to come out of this mistaken policy is the increased willingness of the Saudis and others in the region to be friendlier to Israel as the only nation willing to take on the Iranians. This has been especially evident as Israel continues to impede Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon, most recently with its alleged attack this week on the Natanz enrichment facility.
Kowtowing to a third-rate military that supports terror sends a poor message to American allies around the world. The administration seems intent on settling for merely slowing down Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons while ignoring and, in effect, funding with sanctions relief the Islamic Republic’s decades-long worldwide campaign of terrorism. The false hope offered to the American people that the administration will be able to negotiate a new agreement dealing with Tehran’s malign activities after the resumption of a deal would be laughable if it were not so dangerous.
Hopefully, the administration will reflect on the potential consequences of its actions and change course to avoid turning the Middle East into a nuclear Wild West. The Saudis and the rest of the Sunni Muslim world are watching.
In 2017, Congress passed the bipartisan Taylor Force Act (TFA) to put an end to the Palestinian Authority (PA) practice of using US taxpayers’ dollars to finance “Pay for Slay,” a policy rewarding terrorists and family members of imprisoned and deceased terrorists. The legislation’s clearly expressed goal is to deny the PA funding until it stops their program of incentivizing and paying for the murder of civilians.
The bill was named after an American Army veteran who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was killed by a Palestinian terrorist while visiting Israel. The PA media called his killer a “martyr,” and he was venerated throughout the Palestinian territories.
The Taylor Force Act requires the Biden State Department to issue a report to Congress for Acts of Terrorism. Despite the report’s conclusion that the PA “has not terminated payments for acts of terrorism to any individual (and) has also not taken proactive steps to counter incitement to violence against Israel,” the administration’s report states that the “Biden-Harris Administration has made clear its intent to restart assistance to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.”
Which is to say, they intend to ignore the continued support of terrorism and resume supplying the money.
The Biden administration claims it can restore funding to the PA without violating the TFA. It claims its goal is to provide humanitarian assistance, rebuild trust with the Palestinians that was undermined by the Trump administration, economically stabilize the government while advancing the moribund peace process with Israel.
The Trump administration cut off funding to the PA and UNWRA, the UN agency that financially supports descendants of Palestinian refugees. The Biden administration is also planning as a goodwill gesture to reverse Trump’s decision to close the PLO / PA office in Washington, which was done to give more consequence to their continuing to incite and pay for terrorism.
The State Department report is clear enough; it says the “PA expressed its intention to expend approximately $151.6 million in payments to convicted prisoners, administrative detainees, and former prisoners (and) expressed its intention to expend approximately $191 million in support of families of deceased Palestinians referred to as ‘martyrs’ by the PA.” In November 2020, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said they would “remain loyal to the souls of martyrs, the blood of injured, and the sufferings of prisoners… we will not abandon them.”
The perverse incentive used by the PA is that the more gruesome and worse the attack, the more money the imprisoned “martyr” and his family receive through the PA’s Martyr’s Fund. The PA spends nearly $350 million per year on Pay for Slay, but just $220 million for its other welfare programs for the rest of its citizens.
In Washington today, everything is seen through a political lens. In 2017, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said, “Abbas has to stop making payments to terrorists and their families, and all elected officials should call them out.” Will Schumer, now majority leader, challenge the president of his party to keep the pressure on the Abbas and enforce the law? Or will he go along with spinning some words to fashion a legal loophole to allow money to flow to the PA? The PA would like to create a legal fiction by distributing the money through the PLO, Abbas being both the president of the PA and head of the PLO.
For the first time in 16 years, the Palestinian people will be voting for a new president and parliament. The list of potential candidates is not promising if you are looking for moderation. The leading candidates try to outdo one another with their non-conciliatory rhetoric and incitement of violence.
The Biden administration should learn from prior administrations’ failures. America giving the PA carrots without reciprocal concessions has never been fruitful. As surely as the sun rises in the east, giving up leverage for nothing gets you nowhere with the PA/PLO.
The administration needs to uphold the Taylor Force Act.
How did we reach a point where America’s most important ally in the Middle East is forced to deal with Russia if it wants to act against Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias in Lebanon and Syria? Today, all of the Middle East’s major players, from Iran to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Israel, know that Russia is the “go-to mediator” that has relations across the region’s ideological spectrum and can successfully navigate between opposing sides.
As Jonathan Spyer wrote in the Jerusalem Post, Russia “maintains open channels …with the main players …which the United States has chosen through weariness or other priorities to keep absent. … [Russia is] comfortable in the environment of frozen conflicts and divided countries. … Under Biden [the U.S.] shows no signs of wanting to come roaring back to major commitments in the region.”
America has outsourced its foreign policy in the Middle East to Russia, which has forced Israel to change its approach to its most imminent threat from its northern Iranian front in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. With American financial help for its anti-missile systems and Israel’s essential intelligence-gathering to advance American national security interests, the U.S. and Israel are indispensable allies. Beyond that, there is little America can do, or is willing to do, since it has decided not to be an active player in the Levant.
The relationship between Israel and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a complex cat-and-mouse game, in which Russia winks and allows Israel to strike its erstwhile allies — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Iranian-controlled militias. Yet, Russian interests demand that it also keeps those entities in control of Syria and Lebanon to solidify the crucial gains it attained by supporting the Syrian civil war’s winning side. Russia’s Syria victory allowed it to expand and upgrade its Tartus seaport on the Mediterranean Sea, a warm water port that expands its regional influence toward Europe. Add to that its upgraded Khmeimim Air Base near the Syrian city of Latakia, and Russia is as much a victor as Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the former head of research for the Israel Defense Force Military Intelligence Division, retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, “Everyone understands that Israel isn’t acting against the Syrian regime [as long as it is not] doing anything that jeopardizes Russian interests. Russia appears to be giving Israel a free hand against game-changing technology transfers from Iran, as long as it plays by its rules.”
How did Russia become the most influential force in the region?
The die was cast nearly 10 years ago when former President Obama allowed his chemical weapons “red line” to be crossed, choosing not to militarily respond to Assad’s use of sarin gas that killed 1,400 civilians. Instead, Obama chose to abandon Syria and turn over the removal of chemical weapons to Putin, who was more than willing to accept the invitation as a path to becoming the dominant power in the Levant. The Obama administration apparently was convinced that turning Syria over to the Russians would be analogous to America’s experience with Vietnam. Russia thanked Obama and immediately proceeded to change the Syrian war in favor of Iran and Syria.
According to The Atlantic, “Obama’s failure to follow through on (his) threat … has continued to haunt America’s involvement in the Syrian tragedy. The subsequent U.S.-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal did not prevent the horror of April 4  when … Assad’s forces mounted a new sarin attack on civilians. … The agreement and its implementation mechanism were deeply flawed.”
Israel’s long-term plan of playing Iranian Whac-a-Mole — hitting game-changing military targets as they emerge throughout Syria, Iraq and Lebanon — needs Putin’s consent. Israel’s continuing air campaign must be coordinated with the Russian military to avoid its accidentally targeting Israeli aircraft. Neither Israel nor Russia would like Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft system to shoot down an Israeli jet aircraft, or worse, to force Israel to target a Russian missile system in response. That would be a diplomatic disaster. Syrian anti-aircraft destroyed a Russian plane during an alleged Israeli missile strike in 2018.
The unspoken “quid pro quo” between Israel and Russia is that Israel must settle for half a loaf. It can attack Iranian proxies and their advanced missile facilities, but it must accept a permanent Iranian presence and influence in Syria, just as it has in Lebanon with Hezbollah. In 2017, Russian promises to keep Iran and its proxies 53 miles away from the Israeli Golan evaporated almost from the moment they were uttered.
Russian pronouncements regarding Israeli actions in Syria and Lebanon are decidedly hostile. According to Newsweek, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov said, “Israel is attacking Hezbollah; Hezbollah is not attacking Israel. … The problem is Israel, not the Iranians. … There is no way we are approving any Israeli strikes on Syria.” But so far, it’s more Russian bluster than any tangible action inhibiting Israeli actions in Lebanon and Syria.
Israel knows the address is Moscow if it wants to advance its interests and attempt to minimize Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Watching Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Hezbollah’s Lebanese parliament leader Mohammad Raad be given equal access and respect in Moscow this month must have turned a few Israeli stomachs. Then again, Russia is no angel — it delights in any opportunity to diminish the United States.
The status quo in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq won’t last forever. Iran could turn the screws on Israel at any time if it senses weakness or military advantage. With American willingness to return to the Iranian nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Israel could decide at some point to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, prompting a massive Iranian directed attack emanating from Syria or Lebanon. The likelihood that the situation on Israel’s northern border would spiral out of control over the next decade is high. However, Israel and Russia share an interest in not letting things escalate. Russia wants to solidify its gains, and Israel would like to avoid the costs of a major war with Iran.
If Israel’s northern Iranian border gets hot, some would argue that it is in American interests to actively engage in diplomacy to quiet the situation. The last time the U.S. worked with Russia on the northern border, the U.S. trusted Putin to keep Iran from permanently entrenching itself on Syria’s border with Israel. As with chemical weapons, Russia held the cards and did as it pleased, making America look impotent to its allies and enemies alike. With both Democrats and Republicans eager to get the U.S. out of the Middle East, Israel is left to deal with Russia for the foreseeable future.
In a straight NY Times news article, not analysis, “The Iran Nuclear Talks Explained,” Steven Erlanger writes:
“They (the signers of the JCPOA) want to restore compliance with an agreement that put strict controls on Iran’s nuclear enrichment, to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”
“Trump pulled the United States out of the accord in May 2018…restored and then enhanced harsh economic sanctions against Iran, trying to force it to renegotiate….Iran responded…by acting more aggressively in support of allies in the Middle East, like Hezbollah, Hamas, Shia militias in Iraq and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.”
Sounds correct, right? Nope.
It is entirely misleading to say Iran responded to Trump’s withdrawal by acting aggressively. The implication is that they were restrained and compliant since the agreement was signed during the Obama administration.
Yet, from the summer of 2015, when the deal began to go into effect, until President Obama left office in January 2016, Iran never paused in ramping up its support of its terrorist proxies. It knew that no matter what it did, the Obama administration would not impose any sanctions or consequences for their expansionism, terrorism, missile development, or human rights abuses despite promises to the contrary. It was nearly three years later, two years into Trump’s term, before the US left the JCPOA, so the article is at best misleading, with facts out of context.
The claim that the JCPOA is “to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon” is not correct. In fact, the JCPOA allows Iran to legally begin a full-scale nuclear industrial program in 2030, with the blessing of the signers of the JCPOA.
Facts are inconvenient for supporters of the JCPOA, but when they are disguised as news in the NY Times, they perpetuate a fraud on the public. Buyer beware if you read the NY Times and nothing else for comparison.
Where are their voices for freedom of speech when their pro-Israel students and their speakers are screamed down in the name of racism, apartheid and colonialism?
The growing acceptance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism by scores of nations, including the European Union, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and our own country, have made critics of Israel apoplectic. This is because the IHRA asserts that many forms of anti-Zionism rise to the threshold of anti-Semitism. This has driven both anti-Zionists and harsh critics of Israel to find ways to undermine the legitimacy of IHRA. The most recent attempt is to create new definitions of anti-Semitism that minimize or eliminate any association between anti-Semitism and delegitimizing Israel’s existence.
Recently, a group of 200 university professors has taken up the mantle against the IHRA with their Jerusalem Declaration of Anti-Semitism (JDA). It states that opposing Zionism or Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state doesn’t necessarily constitute anti-Semitism. It defines anti-Semitism as discrimination, prejudice or violence against individual Jews or Jewish institutions, but eliminates any association between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It is as if they are living in a time warp, damning old-time anti-Semitism while ignoring the most recent and virulent strain of anti-Semitism emanating mainly from the hard left. That virus has mutated from the politically incorrect prejudice against the Jewish religion into the new anti-Semitism, hatred of the Jewish nation. As one of the signatories said, “The Israeli government and its supporters have a keen interest in blurring the distinction between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism to paint any substantive, harsh criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians as anti-Semitic.”
According to the JDA definition of anti-Semitism, “hatred of Israel” is not anti-Semitism. Boycotting, demonizing and sanctioning Israel is not anti-Semitism. Mind you, this is not just BDS of products from the West Bank, but boycotting all of Israel because it does not have a right to exist, as their Palestinian supporters allege. Sorry professors, this is anti-Semitism in its most blatant form. One doesn’t even need the IHRA definition to know it.
Harsh critics of Israel are alarmed that the IHRA definition is gaining more legitimacy, adding more national governments, colleges, organizations, and local and state governments to the list of supporters. And they worry for a good reason. IHRA explicitly targets all forms of anti-Semitism—from old-time right-wing hatred of Jews to today’s progressive anti-Semitism. Right-wing anti-Semitism gets all the notoriety because it is often manifested as local violence against Jewish people or their property. Left-wing anti-Semitism is ubiquitous on college campuses among academics and pro-Palestinian students, and of more significant consequence, advocating policies that threaten an entire country’s safety. And being Jewish does not mean that someone who supports reprehensible anti-Jewish policies gets a pass.
Signers of the JDA twist themselves in knots claiming that anti-Israel actions don’t have much to do with anti-Semitism. Yet many of them are invested in Palestinian “rights” and disregard Palestinian society’s pervasive advocacy of hatred and violence, from their mosques to media to schools and government, which is blatantly anti-Semitic. When these professors next go to Ramallah, they should notice that the word “Jew” and “Israeli” are interchangeable. Palestinian calls for two states—one binational and the other Arab—are just fine with them, knowing that this would mean Israel’s demographic destruction.
Many of these professors who rightly claim love for the freedom of speech are mute about today’s campus environment, where pro-Israel students are demonized, intimidated and restrained from their First Amendment rights by Palestinian supporters. Protecting students who disagree with your perspective used to be a pillar of academic freedom, but too many professors are activists first, not academics. Silence makes one complicit in stigmatizing Zionist students and pro-Israel professors. This is the very definition of illiberalism. Where are their voices for freedom of speech when their pro-Israel students and their speakers are screamed down in the name of racism, apartheid and colonialism? Is that not anti-Semitism?
One signer of the JDA claimed the IHRA had reached a “point where Palestinian students feel threatened on campus.” This is Orwellian. A primary reason for the need for the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism was the threats and intimidation to Jewish students on campus by Palestinians and their supporters. A 2015 Brandeis University poll of North American colleges’ Jewish students found “nearly three-quarters of the respondents reported having been exposed … during the past year to a least one anti-Semitic statement.” There is little evidence of any concerted intimidation against Palestinian students. Still, they and their progressive supporters are often the perpetrators of anti-Semitism against Jewish students who are pro-Israel.
True academic integrity should demand that many of these professors define themselves as pro-Palestinian or anti-Zionist and not hide behind the pro-peace, pro-Israel moniker. Who are some of the signatories? City University of New York professor and New York Times writer Peter Beinart wrote an article in July 2020 titled “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.” In response, the ADL’s deputy director said “such calls are themselves anti-Semitic, or at the very least, as in the case of Mr. Beinart, play into the hands of the anti-Semites.”
Another endorser of the JDA definition is the anti-Zionist Richard Falk. Former President Barack Obama’s representative to the Human Rights Council, Eileen Donahoe, called his comments on Israel “deeply offensive,” condemning them in the “strongest terms.” She charged that Falk had a “one-sided and politicized view of Israel’s situation and the Palestinian Territories.” No wonder he signed a definition of anti-Semitism that minimized equating anti-Zionism with Jew-hatred.
So kudos to those professors who fight against right-wing anti-Semitism; we should all join them. But shame on them for claiming that it’s not anti-Semitism to back the BDS movement, to deny the Jewish people a right to self-determination, to allow Israel to be judged by a double standard and to intimidate Jewish students on campus because they are pro-Israel.