Understanding American and Iranian Choices in the New Middle East

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Have the Iranians come to the same conclusion as their archenemy Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman?

Everything has changed in the Middle East. The combination of the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), American support for Israel to enforce its red lines against the growing Iranian military presence in Syria, and the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem have forced every player to reevaluate not only how to respond now, but how to prepare for the events that may follow.

Have the Iranians come to the same conclusion as their archenemy Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman? Namely that America doesn’t view the Middle East through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore, but now prioritizes thwarting Iran’s ambitions as America’s most important national security interest in the region? The three-year experiment that promised moderation of Iranian behavior in exchange for a limited suspension of some of its nuclear activity, retreating from the previous administration’s vow to stop Iran’s nuclear arms program forever, is now over.

How Iran will respond to this game-changing new reality that could threaten its regime, beyond the customary curses of defiance, remains to be seen. Critics of the withdrawal claim there is no strategy for what should come next, predicting catastrophe as the status quo has been upset.

According to the Washington Free Beacon, the administration’s strategy “deemphasizes US military intervention, instead focusing on a series of moves to embolden an Iranian population that has increasingly grown angry at the ruling regime.”

America is now positioned to make some real progress, if our national security team has a clear vision of where we want to move the region while avoiding the temptation to reach too far, too quickly. The administration knows that the Iranian economy is in trouble, and that Iranians are not happy with their economic situation. Iran also knows that the perceived lifeline of continued trade with China, Russia and the EU cannot be sustained if America fully enforces sanctions on third parties.

The US Treasury did not waste time, addressing the long-standing but unchallenged problem of Iran’s central bank’s money laundering in the Gulf States to help finance the blacklisted Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ overseas Quds Force.

How Iran responds to the new economic levers the Trump administration can use will depend on how Iran thinks it can exploit the political division in America between supporters and detractors of the Iran agreement, and how much economic pain ordinary Iranians will withstand before taking to the streets again, potentially threatening the stability of the regime.

Iran knows that the Middle East has always been an area America has misunderstood.

They know Congress and Americans think in days and months, impatient for solutions when there are none, while Iran thinks in decades and centuries, willing to wait out American impatience.

Iran is a rational state actor whose primary goal is self-preservation. It may have learned that it underestimated its citizens’ disappointment when the $150 billion in sanctions relief was used for Iranian expansionism in Syria and Yemin, not for their benefit. Has it reassessed the potential pain of new sanctions, especially if the EU decreases trade because it, too, will feel the pain from doing business with Iran?

Could it force Iran to change course and even consider renegotiating the JCPOA? Will the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard respond with pragmatism to the new sanctions, or will they choose to escalate the situation as their best option, directly confronting Israel and pursuing Iran’s long-stated policy of erasing the Zionist entity from the earth?

Or do they now believe Israel’s stated intent not to allow an Iranian presence in Syria, and that any attack by one of its proxies will be considered an Iranian-orchestrated attack, making Iran itself vulnerable to retaliation.

Israel doesn’t have to touch a single Iranian nuclear facility to decimate Iran economically. According to Prof.

Hillel Frisch writing in The Jerusalem Post, Israel could just threaten to attack Iran’s Kharg Island, which handles 90% of Iran’s natural gas and oil.

This is well within Israel’s military capacity now, and with Trump allowing Israel greater latitude in military action, Iran must seriously decide if its expansionism is worth the risk.

David Goldman writing in The Asia Times said, “Two dozen Israeli missiles or bomber sorties could wipe out Iran’s economy in a matter of hours… fewer than a dozen power plants generate 60% of Iran’s electricity, and eight refineries produce 80% of its distillates.”

A more likely, lower risk scenario with some plausible deniability would be returning to terrorism outside the Middle East, targeting Israelis and Jews, as Iran did in Argentina and Bulgaria in the past. How would Israel respond? Most likely in a more restrained way, without targeting Iran directly. As of now, only restarting of their nuclear weapons program or an overwhelming Hezbollah war endangering major Israeli cities would elicit an Israeli attack on Iran proper.

Other options Iran could choose are to move closer to the Syrian-Jordanian border trying to destabilize Jordan, indirectly threatening Israel, or increasing Iran’s already significant presence in South America, part of its longterm strategy to undermine America and project Shi’ite hegemony into the Western hemisphere.

If this administration has a plan and plays it right, Iran’s choices will be more limited and its regime could even be endangered, something not possible the day before president Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. As Dan Henninger of The Wall Street Journal wrote, “a year from now, the world may be safer without (the Iran agreement).’ 

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East. He is a contributor to The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, and The Forward.

The Importance of Secondary Sanctions to Rein in Iran

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

There is a lack of understanding of what secondary sanctions are, why they are an indispensable tool for advancing diplomacy in the Middle East and what the true nature of the Iran agreement is. 

As we approach President Trump’s self-imposed deadline to end secondary sanction waivers on Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it has become clear that amid all the hyper-partisan rhetoric, there is a lack of understanding of what secondary sanctions are, why they are an indispensable tool for advancing American diplomacy in the Middle East and what the true nature of the Iran agreement is.

Before we dive into sanctions, it is necessary to understand what the agreement actually entails. According to former secretary of state John Kerry, “We’ve been clear from the beginning: We’re not negotiating a ‘legally binding plan.’”

During a recent NPR interview, the State Department’s policy planning director, Brian Hook, disabused anyone from believing the agreement is a sacrosanct document. The “JCPOA is not a treaty… it’s not an executive agreement. It has no signatures. It has no legal status.”

Which brings us to sanctions. Sanctions are a non-military, diplomatic tool to put pressure on international entities, nations and persons which undermine American national security interests. They are targeted against nations and entities that participate in things like narco-terrorism, or undermine American interests by seeking to acquire nuclear, biologic or chemical weapons. America’s use of sanctions has been an integral part of its strategy to contain Iranian nuclear weapons capabilities, as well as other malign behaviors.

Primary sanctions target only American companies and individuals who would do business with sanctioned entities. Whereas the goal of secondary sanctions is to target non-American businesses and individuals who would otherwise trade with regimes that defy American national security interests. This is all the more important after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his inaugural Middle East trip this week called for new Iranian sanctions. Meanwhile, the European Union, led by Italy, refuses to reinstate or add any meaningful non-nuclear related sanctions. President Obama invited the Europeans to resume lucrative business with Iran, and they don’t want to stop.
The goal of secondary sanctions is to penalize non-US companies and persons who commercially transact with Iran by limiting their access to the American financial network and economy.

As Ole Moehr said, writing for the Atlantic Council, “Secondary sanctions amplify [the effect] of primary sanctions… [They] put pressure on third parties to stop their activities with the sanctioned country by threatening to cut off the third party’s access to the sanctioning country.” The JCPOA affected only secondary sanction waivers regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Since the summer of 2015 when the JCPOA was agreed to, there has been underwhelming enforcement of sanctions that were not waived as part of the agreement.

THIS IS in part because the international community and American supporters of the Iran deal have claimed that significant enforcement of non-nuclear secondary sanctions is really a subterfuge to scuttle the JCPOA. According to The Wall Street Journal, the State Department has been trying but has been unable to convince the international community to sanction even those entities that are obviously associated with Iran’s missile program.

During the Obama administration, the United States deferred to the United Nations and to members of the UN Security Council, in effect allowing China and Russia to undermine American interests by the power of their veto. President Obama’s Wilsonian view of the world turned a blind eye to the 21st-century reality of global Shi’ite Islamic hegemonic aspirations and to Iran’s religiously sanctioned deception (taqiyya). As a result, the chance for future Middle Eastern wars has only increased, the exact opposite of the international community’s goal for stability.

If America judges its foreign policy interests are being undermined by international organizations – particularly the UN and EU – it must act independently to take charge with its own targeted secondary sanctions. As the world’s economic leader, other nations will be forced to comply with the US or lose access to its financial system.

My conversations with former Treasury Department officials have clearly indicated that without the implementation and enforcement of secondary sanctions against foreign businesses and countries transacting with Iran, America will be spinning its wheels. This is true only in regard to nuclear proliferation, but also regarding the reining in of Iran’s organization, training and funding of terrorist proxies, missile development and human rights abuses.

Congress was promised that the US waivers of secondary sanctions in the JCPOA were to be related only to the Iranian nuclear program. In reality what happened is we have allowed the JCPOA to hold hostage the imposition of legitimate and promised sanctions for Iran’s other offensive in-our-face hostile acts.

The Trump administration now has the opportunity to fix the JCPOA, using the leverage of non-nuclear secondary sanctions. The “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” signed last August by President Trump was a good start, but it is not enough.

The Iranian economy is on the ropes. Enforced secondary sanctions on companies doing business with Iran can have a real impact on Iran’s footprint in Syria; affect its support of Hezbollah and Hamas; curtail its missile development; and bring it back to the table to fix the flaws in the JCPOA. Among those flaws are getting rid of the agreement’s sunset provisions and obtaining effective access to Iran’s weapons development sites.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™ who regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East and a contributor to ‘The Jerusalem Post,’ The Hill and ‘The Forward.’

DO BOYCOTTS OF ISRAEL CROSS THE LINE OF LEGITIMATE CRITICISM?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Natalie Portman made a poor choice, and she must come to terms with the consequences of that choice, which supported BDS despite her protestations.

Now that some time has passed since Natalie Portman announced her refusal to come to Israel to accept the Genesis Prize, it is appropriate to analyze a more important issue it brought to light: how actions perceived as a boycott against Israel will be addressed in the future by the greater pro-Israel community.

Many major Jewish organizations choose to ignore the problem, hoping this is an isolated incident, not wanting to offend a public figure who has been supportive of her Israeli identity. StandWithUs, however, pointed out that Ms. Portman did accept a prize from the Chinese government, which is a gross human rights violator.

Yousef Munayyer, a leading advocate of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel (BDS), wrote an op-ed in The Forward titled, “Actually, Natalie Portman, You ARE Practicing BDS.” BDS advocates like Mr. Munayyer believe, “What you’ve done is… found your own way to participate [in boycotting Israel].”

Progressive critics like Hen Mazzig, writing in The Jerusalem Post, contrasted Ms. Portman’s behavior with the ideas of progressive Israeli writer David Grossman, a harsh critic of Israel’s current government.

Despite being the political polar opposite from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Grossman showed up to accept his Israel Prize, knowing both the prime minister and Education Minister Naftali Bennett would be in attendance.

Let’s be clear, Ms. Portman is too well informed not to know that her refusal to go to Israel and accept her Genesis Prize would be hailed as a victory for BDS.

But what is much more disturbing and dangerous is that Ms. Portman’s actions will be used as a precedent to blur the lines between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and the real goal of boycotters – the destruction of Israel. This is part of a trend to legitimize boycotts against Israel, making it easier for far-left organizations to convince Israeli critics who up until now have been against the use of boycotts, to move over to the dark side. The double standard not addressed is that for Israel alone, it is considered reasonable to delegitimize the whole state if you do not like the current elected government’s policies.

SO WHAT is legitimate criticism that doesn’t cross a line?

1. Expressing concern about the ultra-Orthodox monopoly that undermines the rights of America’s more liberal religious movements in Israel.

2. Weighing in about the corrosive effects vs. the legitimate security needs of Israel in regard to its prolonged occupation of the disputed territories.

3. Complaining about the Israeli government reneging on a pluralistic space for liberal prayer at Robinson’s arch.

However, any support, direct or indirect for the BDS movement is not legitimate, even if you refer to yourself as pro-Israel.

One must question the pro-Israel credentials of organizations whose advocacy is primarily for Palestinian rights first, but never seem to make it a priority to denounce the UN’s despicable treatment of the Jewish state, or to condemn the antisemitic incitement that permeate the Palestinian Authority, or express outrage against Hamas’s use of human shields, which contravenes international law.

Everyone has a right to criticize Israel and even support boycotts in America, as long as you don’t commercially transgress the growing body of American municipal, state and federal laws against collaborating with companies that accede to international boycotts of Israel.

So if your actions are perceived to support a boycott of Israel, but you claim that you are not part of the BDS movement, is that credible? When J Street or its campus affiliates claim they are not part of the BDS movement, but give a platform to pro-BDS speakers, in effect legitimizing them, is that not being part of the BDS movement? The boycotters of Israel never call for boycotts against Russia and Iran for their support of Syrian genocide; or call for a boycott of Turkey for jailing more journalists than any other nation in the world; or show interest in boycotting Russia for its occupation of Ukraine, Crimea and Georgia.

Natalie Portman made a poor choice, and she must come to terms with the consequences of that choice, which supported BDS despite her protestations.

She should know that the goal of BDS is not about 1967 and the West Bank, it is the antithesis of two states for two peoples, in other words, the destruction of Israel. When she accepted the Genesis Prize she clearly knew Netanyahu would be there, and canceling one month later was interpreted as being someone who chose Hollywood politics over her professed love for her country of birth.

So here is your binary choice.

Legitimate criticism of Israel crosses a line when it supports boycotting Israel in any way, shape or form, because this is not about improving Israel’s Jewish democracy, it is about destroying it.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East and is a contributor to ‘The Jerusalem Post,’ ‘The Hill’ and ‘The Forward.’

 

When Interests and Values Collide in Middle East Policy

{Previously published in The Hill}

Advancing a country’s foreign policy interests usually means coming to terms with the inherent contradictions between national values and strategic interests. Translation: sometimes you must consort with unsavory characters. Just as the United States did during World War II, when it allied with the Soviet Union in the name of the greater good to defeat Nazi Germany, sometimes you have to temporarily align with a nation that commits despicable deeds to advance broader goals.

Europe soon will be asked to decide whether to support new U.S.-initiated, non-nuclear sanctions against Iran. Will the Europeans choose economic interests over their proclaimed liberal values?

To advance their national interests for trade, Europeans have turned a blind eye to Iran’s misdeeds: its direct support of Syria, a government that commits genocide; its attempts to eliminate Israel, a member state of the United Nations; its continued use of the slogan “Death to America!”; and its use of proxies such as Hezbollah to target civilians in terrorist attacks. Have European nations crossed a line by rationalizing their economic interests while enriching a regime that is a leading state sponsor of terror?

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, has pointed out that Europeans aim to convince skeptics that “renewed economic activity in Iran (will) ultimately strengthen Iranian civil society.” But Iran has undermined this argument by using the billions of dollars in economic relief from the 2015 nuclear agreement not to improve quality of life for its citizens but instead to inflame conflicts in Yemen and Syria and to advance its expansionist goals.

European governments — and too many Americans — allow themselves to believe the protestations of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini that nuclear weapons conflict with Islam and that “the Iranian leadership’s aversion to developing chemical and nuclear weapons is deep-rooted and sincere.” Yet Iran unconditionally supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his use of chemical weapons on civilians.

After concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi reaffirmed: “Iran’s commitment to not seek nuclear weapons is permanent.” But this month, the head of Iran’s atomic agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, became the latest official to contradict Iran’s policy against acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities, saying, “If senior Islamic Republic officials issue an order to resume the 20 percent enrichment, we can do it in (the) Fordo (nuclear facility) within 4 days.” (As a reminder, there is no need to enrich uranium beyond 5 percent if your desire is a peaceful nuclear program.)

Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, notes that Iran’s threats “confirm that the Iranian regime never gave up on its atomic weapon ambitions. … Iran has pathways to dozens of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking U.S. forces, U.S. allies, and eventually the U.S. homeland.”

The JCPOA has allowed Iran to continue unfettered research and development for advanced centrifuges. That means the Obama administration and Europeans claimed a Pyrrhic victory, mothballing obsolete Iranian IR-1 centrifuges while acquiescing to the Iranian demand for the development of the next generation of ultrafast centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

Iran is not the only nation whose despicable behavior and anti-Western rhetoric have been met with a hands-off response by the United States and its European allies. Iran’s ally, Turkey, has shown its hypocrisy this month. Before the U.S.-led missile strikes on Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the West for not doing anything about Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the Syrian government’s genocide. But because Turkey is allied with Assad’s patrons, Iran and Russia, Erdoğan refused to criticize Moscow for saying there was no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma.

Gen. Joseph Votel in late February warned Congress about rising tensions among all these parties in Syria, and said that Russia and Iran will try to erode the strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey, a member of NATO.

Yes, sometimes it is indeed difficult to balance national values and strategic interests. But going forward, the Western allies need to draw a firm line with extremist, revolutionary and theocratic regimes that try to undermine our long-term security interests. Otherwise, we risk dangerous repercussions for emphasizing economic interests when security is paramount.

Eric R. Mandel is director of the Middle East Political and Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and policy groups on the Middle East, and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.

Could a Mass March on Jerusalem Ignite the Middle East

According to Zalman Shoval, “No security fence or even a concrete barrier can stop an organized mass attempt to breach the Israeli border along a much larger front than merely the Gaza border.”

What if 100,000 Palestinians march en masse from the West Bank toward the 1949 armistice line that separates the Palestinian Authority from Israel? This week at the United Nations, Joint List MK Haneen Zoabi said, “We need millions of Palestinians to march on Jerusalem.”

According to former Israeli ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval, “No security fence or even a concrete barrier can stop an organized mass attempt to breach the Israeli border along a much larger front than merely the Gaza border.”

The PA is worried that Hamas’s “Great March of Return” in Gaza may upstage and eclipse it. Palestinian political movements compete for who can be the most anti-American and anti-Israeli. So it is logical that the PA will stage their own march, only this time from the West Bank into Jerusalem, Hebron, or Bethlehem.

To complicate matters, what if many of the 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose political allegiance is overwhelmingly to their Palestinian brothers in the disputed territories, join the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank in protests and violence within Israel. A civil war within Israel could truly ignite the region.

Twice in the past two weeks, a well-coordinated and financed operation by Hamas sent thousands of Gazans to challenge the security barrier between Gaza and Israel. Hamas’s strategy is to use civilian shields embedded with terrorists and activist supporters to breach the Israeli international border, provoking a violent Israeli response. This will culminate on Israel’s Independence Day or to the Palestinians, “The Day of Catastrophe” (Nakba). The PA will not want to be outdone.

A mass demonstration that crosses the Green Line, whether from the West Bank or Gaza, will inevitably lead to significant violence and casualties. The Israeli-Gaza security barrier has been attacked on a daily basis for years with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), sniper fire, infiltrations of terrorists attempting to kidnap Israeli soldiers, and attempts to build tunnels for terrorist attacks on Israeli civilian communities.

Hamas and the PA’s strategy is based on the expectation that a sympathetic international media can be manipulated into believing these are peaceful protests in the style of Gandhi, and that they will report on the disproportionate Israeli response against the victimized Palestinians, including terrorists posing as journalists. It has long been a strategy of Hamas to use human shields, firing rockets from civilian areas, hospitals and schools, in the hopes of winning propaganda points with the maimed and wounded Palestinians purposely placed in harm’s way.

As American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris said, “It’s basically all about Gaza’s innocence and Israel’s guilt… Hamas threatens and harasses Israel, but it is only Israel’s response that warrants close attention and scrutiny.”

It must be repeated to the American audience that Hamas’s goal is not a “two states for two peoples” solution. The stated objective is an unlimited right of return of descendants of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

A recent Palestinian survey by An-Najah University PA reported that 71% of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza reject Israel’s existence even within the 1967 lines. To Hamas and the PA, the two states are both Arab and Muslim.

What would happen if 50,000 Palestinians and their anti-Israel NGO supporters took over the Temple Mount, the most religiously sensitive piece of real estate on the planet? What if terrorists embedded within the civilians start throwing firebombs onto the Western Wall platform? The conflagration could be the spark that starts the next Middle East war. This scenario is not unrealistic. Palestinians last summer stormed the Temple Mount in protest over Israel installing metal detectors after Palestinian terrorists opened fire on the Temple Mount.

So does Israel have a strategy to prevent a mass march toward Jerusalem, or from anywhere in Areas A and B toward the Green Line? First, Israel needs a sophisticated strategy to manage the public relations and perception issues that are faced when a sovereign state is seen as an occupier, even if it borders and is attacked by a terrorist entity. There is little dispute that Israel is treated by the international community according to a standard not applied to any other nation. However, Israel can do a better job minimizing live fire as this plays directly into the Palestinian hands for their propaganda purposes.

Believe it or not, Israel may have been given a gift, as its adversary is clearly signaling in advance what it is planning to do. It is up to Israel to come up with an effective plan to deal with tens of thousands of Palestinians crossing the ‘49 armistice lines from both Gaza and the West Bank simultaneously. This has been years in the making.

America will stand with Israel for the time being, but it should also be reaching out to its Arab allies in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States to put pressure on the PA not to embark on this strategy, as it can easily get out of control and turn into a third intifada.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East. He is a contributor to The Jerusalem Post , The Hill , and The Forward.

Will There be War in Israel this Summer?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Today there are upwards of 150,000 missiles in Hezbollah’s arsenal, enough to overwhelm every layer of Israel’s missile shield, capable of targeting any location in Israel.

Since the State of Israel was created 70 years ago, the question has always been not if there would be a war, but when. The only question now is will it be in the north against Iran and its proxies Hezbollah, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Units, or will it be in the south against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, or will it originate from over the Green Line among the Arab Palestinians of the West Bank? In the north, the likelihood of war this summer will be increased if US President Donald Trump goes ahead with his plan to withdraw American soldiers from Syria and ends aid to allies in Syria fighting Assad.

This will be taken as a sign to Iran, Russia, Turkey and the whole Muslim world that America has yet again tried to abandon the region, except poor choices in the Middle East have a way of bringing America back with less leverage and not on its own terms.

As Tom Rogan of The Washington Examiner wrote, “President Trump should pay attention to what happened after former President Barack Obama’s hasty 2011 withdrawal from Iraq.

Because Obama’s withdrawal led to the increasing influence of Iran over Iraqi politics… In turn, these policies helped foster the rise of ISIS and led to Obama being forced to return forces to Iraq.”

This decision will hurt both Israeli and American security interests, as it increases the likelihood that Israel will be drawn into a northern war, confronting Russian troops stationed in Syria.

Iranian, Hezbollah, Syrian and Shi’ite PMU’s are positioned, on purpose, next to Russian military sites or have Russian advisers embedded. It is inevitable that Israeli strikes in Syria will kill Russian soldiers, increasing the chances of turning this into a wider regional conflict.

Ronen Bergman in The New York Times wrote, “Israel has been asking Russia to guarantee that the Iranians will leave Syria once the war is over. Those requests have been met with indifference… Russia wants to build a secure foothold in the Middle East and its policy requires it to maintain good relations with Iran…if anyone was not yet aware of it, Russia is the dominant power in the region.”

The downing of both the Iranian drone in Israeli airspace and an Israeli fighter jet in February brought all the adversaries to the brink of war. Russia, the new sheriff in town, ordered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stand down, and knowing he was alone, he did.

Simon Tisdall opined in The Guardian, “if Iran refuses to leave Syria and continues to expand its military presence…and if Israel continues its cross-border raids, something big, sooner or later, is going to blow.”

A few years ago I spoke to one of the senior international medical personal stationed in Lebanon caring for Syrian refugees. He told me that in every one of the 300 villages he visited in Hezbollah- controlled southern Lebanon missiles were hidden in people’s homes.

Today there are upwards of 150,000 missiles in Hezbollah’s arsenal, enough to overwhelm every layer of Israel’s missile shield, capable of targeting any location in Israel.

To the south, Hamas in Gaza is now feeling like a cornered rat, with no way out. The economic situation is worsening as the Palestinian Authority tightens the noose around their neck. The PA allows Gazans only four hours a day of electricity, while Gaza is an inferno always waiting to explode, fertile ground for radicalization and recruitment to terrorism, with an unemployment rate nearing 50%.

Four years ago Hamas was in a similar economic position, and it choose war as a way to get the attention of the international community. Expect Hamas to have learned from its past three wars with Israel, becoming a more lethal enemy. Israel does not want to take over Gaza, becoming responsible for its services, and it fears that if it overthrows Hamas, an even worse entity may emerge, or uncontrollable chaos.

Last week Hamas did a test run of its newest weapon, mass protests on the border, sending human probes to the security fence, hoping they would be killed and elicit the usual Pavlovian denunciations from anti-Israel groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW), who condemn Israel first and ask questions later. HRW choose not to mention that Hamas even sent a seven-year-old child as bait to cross the border, breaking all international standards. This ongoing test-run may be the starting point for a summer of violence and war.

In Judea and Samaria, PA President Mahmoud Abbas is still trying to show he can be as anti-Israel as Hamas, while the battle to succeed him has already begun. He wants to be remembered as leader of a resistance that did not make peace with the Jews. The rogues’ gallery of would-be successors, from intelligence chief Majid Faraj to former security chiefs Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, to deputy Fatah chairman Mahmoud Aloul, may also decide that agitation and violence this summer may give them the upper hand.

So will there be a war this summer? Nobody knows. But the possibility of a coordinated war aligning Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, all acting in concert, would present Israel with unprecedented challenges. Israel must be prepared for the next war to break out at any time, and even with the best intelligence, events can spiral out of control, even if none of the adversaries are prepared for an all-out war.

The best way to decrease the chance for war in the Levant this summer is for Trump’s new team of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to convince him that it is in American interests to remain in Syria for the immediate future, and be resolute that Iran cannot remain in Syria after the civil war ends.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network ™. He regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East. He is a contributor to The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, and The Forward.

It’s Time for the US to Swap Carrots for Sticks in the Middle East

America’s choices in the Middle East continue to challenge the best of our foreign policy experts. There are no easy answers in a region with ever-changing interests and alliances, but one tool to consider for advancing American interests is the use of “consequences” against those who deliberately stick a finger in our eye. This is necessary with four regional players: Iran, Turkey, the Palestinians and Qatar.

Iran

The case of Iran is instructive in the power of consequences, and it is a timely assessment since America must plan for the day when President Trump truly decertifies the Iran nuclear agreement. Supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action believe new sanctions on Iran, even for non-nuclear transgressions, will destroy the deal. In the carrot-and-stick approach, they would continue to try to tame the Islamic Republic of Iran with more carrots.

But the JCPOA is not a treaty; we can amend it. Those who disagree with the idea of placating the Iranian government instead favor imposing sanctions for ballistic missile development, terrorism, human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing under the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Iraq.

When serious economic sanctions were placed on the revolutionary regime before 2015, to punish Iran for its nuclear program, Iran’s economy and its currency dose-dived. Those sanctions brought Iran to the table, and the removal of those economic consequences with the front-ended largesse of tens of billions of dollars, brought the opposite response: an emboldened Iran.

We also should consider consequences for European allies, such as Germany, who refuse to help the United States because they profit from new Iranian business ventures. Such consequences could begin with a public campaign to embarrass Germany for cavorting with a regime that has been complicit in helping Syria President Bashar al-Assad commit genocide. When push comes to shove, I bet Germany chooses the $17 trillion American economy over the third-rate Iranian economy.

Turkey

Once a rock-solid NATO ally, Turkey has become, at best, a “frenemy.” NATO’s former supreme commander, Adm. James Stavridis, writing in Time, suggests a cooperative relationship to advance our interests in Syria: “U.S. policy in Syria rests on the U.S. and Turkey working together. The problem is that the U.S. relied on the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. … We need to consider a Turkish security zone. … This is a NATO border that we are sworn by treaty to protect.”

But Stavridis is advocating for a secular Turkish ally that doesn’t exist anymore. Over the past 14 years, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has transformed his nation, replacing its secular military and judiciary with Islamists while imprisoning or exiling moderates and pro-Western democrats. So we must ask: is Turkey in 2018 a reliable and indispensable NATO ally?

Repairing U.S. relations with Turkey is important, but it needs to be on our terms, not those that Erdoğan dictates. Adversaries such as Iran, Syria, Russia and China are closely watching how we respond to his provocations. No doubt America would like to keep its air base in Incirlik, but even here Turkey has threatened America. Last year, says former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman, there were “several attempts to impress upon the United States that Incirlik could be cut off at any time.”

As Washington continues to try to reconcile the American-Turkish relationship with carrots, not sticks, I am reminded of an old friend’s words: “In this part of the world, you cannot placate your enemies.” Critics believe that consequences will just push Turkey closer to Iran and Russia. But Turkey knows that both these countries, in the long term, are adversaries and, prodded with sticks, Erdoğan might turn back toward the West.

Palestinian Authority

The United States is trying such consequences in another part of the Levant. After years of offering carrots to the Palestinians, Congress and the Trump administration have decided to decrease financial aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it stops rewarding terrorists and suicide bombers’ families with American taxpayer dollars.

President Trump also imposed consequences by decreasing funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a humanitarian organization for Palestinian refugees that has allowed Hamas to work from its facilities. Congress, under the leadership of Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), has been advancing the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, legislation that will have consequences on those who boycott our ally Israel.

Qatar

Another supporter of American adversaries, Qatar deserves consequences for associating with Iran, harboring terrorist entities, and supporting radical jihadists. Qatar’s defenders claim the American air base Udeid in Qatar is irreplaceable, but that is not necessarily true; there is an advanced base in Saudi Arabia that was used in the early 2000s.

Some believe that if America offers enough incentives to problematic Middle East states such as these four, they will reciprocate. But typically, they perceive our concessions as weakness. The better tool to reduce the chances of war is to impose economic consequences through sanctions, and to target the finances of people, companies, banks or states that support terrorism.

Offering carrots has failed, so why not try brandishing some sticks?

Eric R. Mandel is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and policy groups on the Middle East and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.

Is Fighting for Israel at the U.N. Worth the Effort?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

A current exhibit at the United Nations presented by the Israeli mission includes a newly found 2,700-year-old First Temple seal in ancient Hebrew – a major discovery. Another treasure on display is the seal of Israeli King Hezekiah from around 700 BCE. Instead of celebrating a member nation’s proud heritage, as it does with every other nation, the UN posted something bizarre: a disclaimer that the contents do not represent the views of the United Nations!

The idea here is that the archaeological items, which demonstrate the concrete fact of the presence of Jews in these areas at those times, might challenge Palestinian narrative creators (who lately trace their lineage, with no evidence whatsoever, to the ancient Canaanites) and their UN supporters.

So is it worth the effort to fight the world organization’s anti-Israel, anti-Jewish bias? Does it make any difference? Because if it doesn’t help, why should we do it? It’s exhausting.

Despite the shameless antisemitism of many diplomats at the UN, there are signs of positive moves toward Israel far beyond the halls of Turtle Bay. India welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with open arms this year, while the Guatemalans are moving their embassy to Jerusalem and another 10 nations are considering doing the same, including Paraguay and Honduras. Israel is respected among the Tiger nations of the Far East, and there are even glimmers of hope in the Sunni Arab world.

Last week according to The Jerusalem Post, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said Israel is committing war crimes by building in Jerusalem, and it has committed a “grave breach of article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention” by transferring its population into occupied territory.

Excuse me, but is he is speaking about Iran and its massive ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from Syria and Iraq, with the illegal transfer of hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites into formerly Sunni territories to solidify Iranian expansionism? Not a chance. At the UN, a few hundred proposed – but not yet built – homes in Jerusalem take precedence over genocide and large-scale expulsions of minorities.

Did Hussein call the massive and now permanent Turkish transfer of population into occupied northern Cyprus a war crime? Of course not. How about the massive population transfer of Chinese nationals into Tibet over many decades? In all these cases the transfer of populations truly broke international law. Not so in Israel’s case, where the territory is legally ambiguous and disputed with legitimate claims by both parties, which the UN conveniently ignores.

We are in Israel-hunting season at the UN. It is like shooting fish in a barrel. Israel is fair game, the only country in the world subject to delegitimization simply for existing as a Jewish homeland, subjected to a perverted politically, correct version of international law applied only to Israel.

Many people would say why bother, this is an uphill struggle that will never be won or fought on even terms. You need to remember this exercise in refutation is primarily for an American audience. Those sound bites of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley resonate the most with the American people who still sympathize with Israel.

Last year according The Times of Israel, every single American senator signed a letter to the UN secretary general demanding an end to anti-Israel bias and a reform of the “standing committees, which far too often serve no purpose other than to attack Israel and inspire the anti-Israel boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) movement.”

Western European hypocrisy regarding Israel borders on the delusional, especially in how they regard Israel and Iran. As Emily Landau of the Institute for National Security Studies said, the gap “between liberal values that Europeans claim to hold dear and their willingness to embrace Iranian regime, at seemingly any cost, is cause for concern… Europe increasingly… values its economic interests more than its expressed commitment to… human rights… Federica Mogherini [High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy] tends to pull out the liberal values card only when it comes to… lecture and scold Israel.”

So let’s review the disproportionate standard Israel has been subjected to over the past couple of years at the United Nations of Hypocrisy.

In 2017 there were 20 UN General Assembly Resolutions against Israel versus six resolutions for the rest of the world. North Korea, a country that is starving its citizens and threatening the world with thermonuclear annihilation, received one resolution, as did Iran, the number one state sponsor of terrorism.

Israel does lead the world in something at the UN General Assembly; despite its tiny size it has amassed more UNGA resolutions against it than every other nation in the history of the UN. That is the very definition of bias.

In case that didn’t get your attention, did you know Israel is the number one abuser of women in the world, according to the UNHRC? Council members North Korea, Syria, Iran and Sudan say so.

Not to be outdone, the World Health Organization said Israel is the only country in the world that is a violator of health rights. And the feel-good UNICEF isn’t so touchy-feely with Israel, as it declared Israel a grave violator of children’s rights.

UNESCO revised history and claimed that Judaism’s second holiest site, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, is a Palestinian world heritage site.

UNRWA is supposed to be a humanitarian body, yet it fosters antisemitism among Palestinian children through the incitement in their schoolbooks, and works hand-in-hand with Hamas, a US-designated terrorist organization.

And yes, Israel is the only UN member state targeted for annihilation by another member, Iran.

Remember that when you disproportionately single out Israel, certainly as compared to every other nation, you are in effect antisemitic, according the US State Department. The moral equivalence crowd throws a few bones back in defense of its overwhelmingly anti-Israel stand by acknowledging that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas commit a few human rights violations, but that doesn’t cut it.

There is nothing to inoculate the PA and Hamas from their profound misogyny, homophobia, extra-judicial killings, incitement against Jews, use of human shields, indiscriminate targeting of civilians and kleptocracy.

So in the end, is it worth fighting for Israel at the UN? Yes.

Israel will not be winning any UNGA votes any time soon, and will likely continue to lose votes in the Security Council 14-1. And yes the UN could use a profound reformation, becoming a purely humanitarian body, leaving security issues to coalitions of willing democracies led by the United States.

If Israel was not participating at the UN, or its supporters didn’t respond to the slanderers, it would not have the opportunity to refute the lies. The UN is in the media capital of the world, with more balanced press coverage to Israel than in the rest of the world. The spotlight shined on Israel allows it to fight the good fight, at least for an American audience that can tell the difference between a democratic ally being molested, and a UN Human Rights Council that represents countries that are obvious human rights abusers. Israel and its supporters actually improve its public image by being present and going on the offensive.

So keep fighting the good fight at the UN. It is still worth it.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East, and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.

Is Favoring Israel an American National Security Interest  

{Previously published in The Hill}

Should the United States distance itself from Israel to become a neutral negotiator?  According to a Wall Street Journal article, the Trump administration’s recent “moves have been seen as favoring Israel by Europeans, the Palestinians and their supporters.”

Lost in the discussion is whether America’s national security interests would be best served as a neutral intermediary, or, as Nikki Haley recently said, “There’s nothing wrong with showing favoritism towards an ally.”

Is Israel a strategically vital ally?

Back in 201, the Washington Institute’s Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe said, “There is no other Middle East country whose definition of national interests is so closely aligned with that of the United States.” Today those interests include reigning in Iranian expansionism and its quest for weapons of mass destruction, while combating both radical Sunni and Shiite Islamist terrorism.

The State Department, over the years, has been reluctant to “take sides” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that this would have negative effects for America’s other interests in the region.

However, it seems this has not advanced American interests or brought peace to the region. It has magnified Palestinian intransigence, while draining American taxpayer dollars, propping up a corrupt Palestinian Authority without demanding anything substantial of it.

Beyond shared democratic western values, does Israel advance American interests?

In the 21st century, intelligence and cyber-defense are paramount for security. For the United States, there is no better source of reliable information in the Middle East than Israel. The Israelis live in this bad neighborhood and understand the realities better than those on the outside.

It was Israel that discovered the North Korean-built Syrian nuclear reactor and destroyed it. Can you imagine the threat to American security if there were loose nukes in today’s Syria? Who would control them — ISIS, Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, or Iran? These days, do we want our military in the region to be dependent on Turkey’s President Erdogan?

Today the United States has a reliable naval port in Haifa, joint military exercises preparing its soldiers, American troops manning the X-band anti-missile system in Israel to protect Europe, Israeli security technology for U.S. homeland security, and Israel’s advances in drone technology to benefit our military.

It should be clear to all that the present Palestinian leadership is incapable of making the hard but essential choices for real peace, a demilitarized state, ending the claim of a “right of return” of descendants of Palestinians refugees to Israel, accepting a Jewish State, and signing a final end-of-conflict agreement.

The Palestinians disengaged from meaningful negotiations years ago. President Abbas used the opportunity of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement to end America’s primary role in mediating the conflict, moving it to the more friendly confines of an internationalized mediation. Abbas knows full well that the Europeans are his best ally and advocate, with the deck stacked against Israel.

As retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog wrote in World AffairsAbbas “was afraid of the U.S. peace plan coming his way, felt he would have to reject it — while Israel may say yes — and didn’t want to navigate that situation.”

Pro-Palestinian Americans, such as Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, have encouraged the Palestinian leadership to distance itself from America; Khalidi called  the United States the “eternally dishonest broker” in an op-ed in The Nation. A binational state controlled by Palestinians, where Israel now stands, would be an unreliable American strategic partner and would cripple American security in the Levant.

Far too many American secretaries of State have wanted to be the one to be the hero to cut the Gordian knot, to do something about the Arab-Israeli situation, so they have pressured Israel to make major concessions. American administrations have pressured Israel repeatedly because it is the one party in the conflict that is susceptible to pressure.

Unacknowledged by the realist school of thought advocated by Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Israel over the years has taken profound risks to accommodate American interests to its own detriment. President George W. Bush’s demand for Palestinian elections in 2006, against Israeli advice, directly led to Hamas’ takeover of Gaza. Bush’s father demanded that Israel break its own strategic doctrine by not responding to the Iraqi Scud attack during the Gulf War.

If a Western-style peace settlement is beyond possible in the shifting sands of the Islamic Middle East, what, then, will advance American security interests? The problem is that our interests have moved way beyond the conflict over the past decade, with our primary security problem being Iranian hegemony and its alignment with anti-American allies and proxies — Russia, Syria, Hezbollah and Turkey’s Erdogan.

So, how can America and Israel move forward without a Palestinian partner? The best, but still unlikely, possibility is encouraging the Sunni Arab Gulf states to start dealing with Israel as an equal and legitimate nation in the open, forcing the Palestinians to make more reasonable demands. The idea of treating these two belligerents evenly is morally obtuse, but treating them fairly according to our interests is appropriate.

Yes, American foreign policy interests would be advanced if there is resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but not at the expense of endangering the security interests of its indispensable ally Israel — security interests that are vital to combating Iranian, Turkish and Russian expansionism. You need only to look at Turkey, the eastern flank of NATO, to know how important Israel has become to American long-term security interests in the region.

Favoring Israel is an American national security interest. It lets our other allies know that America sticks with its longtime friends, and warns our adversaries not to underestimate American loyalty.

Eric R. Mandel is director of the Middle East Political and Information Network (MEPIN™). He regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East.

The Jew-Free State Solution

{Previously published on Forward.com}

In a recent solicitation email, J Street President Jeremy Ben Ami proclaimed that the “Palestinians are the only party willing to publicly endorse the goal of two states for two peoples.” Referencing Abbas’ speech to the United Nations Security Council, Ben Ami claimed that “Abbas laid out explicit support for the two-state solution and put forward a serious proposal for how to get there.”

He did — if your goal is a Palestinian state ethnically cleansed of every Jew.

When we talk about creating two states for two peoples, shouldn’t we mean a Jewish State of Israel and an Arab State of Palestine living side by side, created through a final status agreement which settles territorial disputes and leaves each state secure and in control of its destiny?

If this is what you mean by a two state solution, President Abbas and the current Palestinian leadership are not your ideal partners. Just listen to Abbas:

In 2014, he told the Arab League, “We will never recognize the Jewishness of the state of Israel.” In 2016 in Sudan, he reiterated that he will “recognize the State of Israel, and that is it. However a Jewish state is not my affair. I will not recognize it at all and I will not accept it.” In December, his chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Palestinians need to strive to reclaim “historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.”And this January, clearing up any ambiguity, Abbas asserted from the safety of his West Bank compound that the state of Israel is “a colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism,” and rejected any Jewish ties to the land.

As for accepting Israel’s legitimacy and right to a state, Abbas asserts that Israel’s occupation started in 1948, not 1967. This clearly means that he believes Israel proper to be occupied, not just the West Bank and Gaza.

Abbas’s “serious proposal” calls for Israel to become a binational non-Jewish state with an unlimited right of return for descendants of Palestinian refugees, a clear path to the demographic elimination of a democratic and Jewish Israel. Nowhere in that speech did Abbas call for two states for two peoples.

Abbas’ speech was also notable for its denial of Jewish historical claims in Israel and fanciful claims that the Palestinians are the original residents of Israel, “ the descendants of the Canaanites that lived in the land of Palestine 5,000 years ago and continuously remained there to this day.”

This contradicts the claims of almost all Palestinian tribal clans, who trace their lineage to the Arabian peninsula or Egypt.

Grant Rumley, writing in the Atlantic, said that Abbas’ January speech “ deployed anti-Semitic tropes, undercut the Jewish connection to Israel, and blamed everyone from Oliver Cromwell to Napoleon to Winston Churchill for Israel’s creation… Frustration, it seems, has led Abbas to reveal his true colors.”

Abbas again calls Israel an apartheid state, and yet the Palestinian Arab state he wants to create must be a Judenrein, free of Jews. In Israel, 20 percent of the population is Arab — they have full voting rights, freedom of speech and government supported Arab schools.

Making Abbas something that he is not is both disingenuous and dangerous to Israel’s existence. The claim that Abbas is the best, last chance for Israel to have a moderate partner is doubtful.

Claiming Abbas is for two states for two peoples is simply untrue. It may be a pro-Palestinian position, but it is definitely is not a pro-peace, pro-Israel position.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN™. He regularly briefs Congress on issues related to the Middle East and is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.