Ten years ago, the Arab Spring gave hope to people of the Middle East that they could take more control of their lives away from repressive regimes. Those in the West hoped that new governments would be more aligned with their interests, even without adopting Western-style democracy. Such dreams were dashed when Islamists and new authoritarians took advantage of the moment to seize control. The prospects of that “spring” turned into a lasting “Middle East Winter.” The one glimmer of hope was Tunisia, and that fragile democracy now also has turned authoritarian.
Lebanon is on the verge of collapse. There is little reason to believe the latest attempt to form a government will be different from past failures. The harsh reality is that no political or military decision in Lebanon can be made without Hezbollah’s approval.
Yet media reports have indicated that the US and France are considering expanding their military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces to counter Hezbollah’s ever-growing grip on the nation. The warnings of the commander of the LAF, claiming their soldiers have nothing to eat, did not fall upon deaf ears, and it seems that there is a desire to assist them.
This brings us to the question, should the US and France support a weakened LAF as a counterweight to Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah?
A July article in The Hill tried to make a case for continued American military assistance to the LAF, claiming that Hezbollah does not influence the LAF and the LAF command structure and special forces remain Western-oriented. The first claim is untrue, and the second may be more wishful thinking than reality.
In 2016, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stated the LAF is a partner with the resistance (Hezbollah). In 2017, it was revealed that Yahya Husseini, a commanding officer in the LAF, was also a member of Hezbollah. Israel spotlighted this officer to highlight the widespread exploitation of Shi’ite LAF personal as Hezbollah operatives. In southern Lebanon today, there are joint patrols between the LAF and Hezbollah. Hezbollah members use LAF uniforms to disguise their activities, and the LAF allows Hezbollah to use their observation towers into Israel.
Over the past 15 years, there have been many instances of cooperation between the LAF and Hezbollah. These include assisting with the concealment of Hezbollah’s weapons from UNIFIL in southern Lebanon and collaboration between the two armies’ intelligence units.
Despite its relative weakness and the severe economic and political difficulties the LAF and the Lebanese people have faced, the LAF is still one of the last remaining institutions in Lebanon that the Lebanese people still support.
To understand the LAF, one needs to know that this multi-religious country with long-standing internal rivalries is supposed to be reflected in the demographics of its army. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in the number of Christian members in the military compared to Muslims (Shi’ites and Sunnis), with a shift towards Shi’ites, the religion of Hezbollah. Most LAF soldiers in southern Lebanon facing Israel are Shi’ites with likely sympathies for Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Christian and Sunni soldiers are sent to central and northern Lebanon, where there is less Hezbollah control.
So why should the West support the LAF? There is a case to be made for some assistance, but it is not clear-cut or compelling, one of those choices between the lesser of the two evils.
One answer is that ending financial support to the Lebanese Army would likely lead to its collapse and bring on civil war. That alone is a reason to keep the LAF intact, as the chaos that would follow would destabilize an already volatile region.
However, if you expect the LAF to be a counterweight to Hezbollah, you will be sorely disappointed. It would be a mistake to overestimate the strength of the LAF. It is unable and unwilling to confront Hezbollah. It will not fulfill its mandate to disarm Hezbollah or demilitarize the southern Lebanese border with Israel, a constant source of tension and potential for a major regional war.
UN Security Council Resolution 1701 explicitly states that the area adjacent to Lebanon’s border with Israel must be “free of any army personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL… requiring the disarmament of all armed groups (Hezbollah)… no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese State.” The LAF is supposed to be responsible for enforcing this, but since the end of the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Lebanon in 2006, the LAF has done nothing to resist Hezbollah’s militarization of southern Lebanon.
In response to what is perceived as squandered American aid to the LAF, a bipartisan resolution in the US House of Representatives is being circulated that demands Lebanon’s adherence to UNSC 1701. The resolution calls for a report to demonstrate how American national security interests are advanced by assistance to the LAF and “how such assistance contributes to stability in the Middle East.”
For those advocating some assistance, they must not overstate their goals, which should be:
1. Keep the LAF from being completely turned into a vassal of Iran’s Hezbollah
2. Prevent the collapse of the Lebanese state by keeping the LAF functional
3. Keep America on the doorstep of Lebanon by supporting the LAF in case things change over time
4. Ensure LAF’s ethnic makeup (percentage of Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Christians) be honored
5. Verifiable mechanism to prevent LAF weapons from being transferred to Hezbollah
The reality is that Hezbollah is stronger than the state of Lebanon, both militarily and politically; taking advantage of the nation’s dysfunction to commandeer its financial resources, Hezbollah uses intimidation and violence to exert its power. It has a worldwide money laundering and drug network, extending from South America to Europe to support its terrorist infrastructure, not to mention its financial support from its patron, Iran.
Hezbollah will only grow in influence if the US ends sanctions on Iran as part of rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. Hezbollah uses its comprehensive civilian social services to replace Lebanon’s non-functioning services in a nation with massive debt and poverty, forcing Lebanese civilians to be indebted to Hezbollah.
If America and France choose to end military aid, Iran and Russia will fill the vacuum the West leaves behind. It is undoubtedly not optimal, but the assistance allows the West to stay in the game, especially with the future unpredictable and the possibility for some leverage down the road.
But the US must get more bang for its buck without expecting more than is possible at this time. The LAF cannot be an alternative to Hezbollah unless the Lebanese people rise and demand a change. It is impossible to expect the LAF to end its cooperation with Hezbollah completely or significantly slow the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah from Iran.
What types of aid will be helpful?
With chaos everywhere in Lebanon, providing riot-control armaments that cannot be used offensively against Israel should be considered. It must be assumed that every weapon given to the LAF can fall into the hands of Hezbollah or be used against the IDF if there will be war between Israel and Lebanon. US military and police trainers could work with the LAF to teach them how to protect protesters from agitators.
Humanitarian aid is needed, but it cannot be funneled through Hezbollah intermediaries. Since corruption is endemic in Lebanon, America and France should demand the right to monitor all monies transferred and verify the location of all weapons given. No compromises whatsoever should be made on this.
Managing expectations is the only way to justify American support to the LAF. Lebanon is a “state within the State of Hezbollah.” It is evident that even though there are areas in Lebanon in which Hezbollah is less present, no political or economic decision in Lebanon can be made without Hezbollah’s consent. So the aid given to the LAF must not be passed onto other parties. The US and France need to ensure that the LAF does not become an Iranian or Russian puppet or provide it with weapons.
But the choice to end support at this time will only strengthen Iran’s hold on the country. A good compromise would be to offer humanitarian aid but withhold any dual-purpose military assistance until the LAF delivers on some very modest demands.
Iran’s new president may become its next supreme leader.
Much has been written about Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, who has been branded as a hard-liner compared to the departing “moderate” President Rouhani, and how he will influence Iran’s return to the JCPOA (Iran nuclear agreement). Raisi had earned the hard-liner status by playing a pivotal role in executing thousands of opposition prisoners in 1988 as part of the Death Committee. During the Green Revolution in 2009, he brutally suppressed the protesters who attempted to throw off the shackles of the repressive Islamic government, while the Obama administration pointedly ignored their struggle.
But the American designation of any Iranian government official as a moderate is not only false but dangerous. Rouhani was never a moderate. He was the most moderate hard-liner tolerated by the Guardian Council in 2013 that approved presidential candidates and which the supreme leader controls. Hundreds of Iranians try to enter the presidential race each cycle, but only those vetted to be reliably obedient to the leadership of the “revolution” are allowed to become candidates.
As the Foundation for Democracies’ Iran expert Reuel Gerecht has said, “Rouhani is one of the architects of the national security state [in Iran]. He’s got so much blood on his hands, he’ll never be able to wash it off.”
Back to Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-liner of hard-liners who was elected to his first term as president. The former head of the judiciary is not opposed to rejoining the JCPOA, as long as he, the supreme leader, and the leadership of the IRGC can get sanctions relief to reverse the devastating effects on the regime of the Trump-era sanctions. They are all quite cognizant and satisfied that they will be returning to basically the same deal that guarantees Iran an industrial-size nuclear program with international approval in less than 10 years. We should hire the Iranians to help us negotiate with the Chinese.
What makes this election so consequential is that Raisi is not only close to Ayatollah Khamenei but is also the likely favorite of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, which chooses the next supreme leader. Raisi is close to the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which acts more and more as a state within a state, with disproportionate and growing influence. Khamenei would like his son to follow him as supreme leader, but he does not get to choose his successor.
According to CNBC, “In 2019, Saeid Golkar of Al Jazeera called Raisi “the most likely successor of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei” as supreme leader of Iran. In 2020, Dexter Filkins of The New York Times described him as “frequently mentioned” as a successor to Khamenei.”
That makes Raisi’s influence as president more consequential than Rouhani’s ever was. Unlike when Khamenei criticized Rouhani over the JCPOA and the re-imposition of sanctions by Trump, there are likely to be far fewer public disagreements between the ailing supreme leader, the IRGC, and President Raisi.
According to the Atlantic Council’s Iran expert Raz Zimmt, “Raisi’s presidency may be characterized by a higher level of coordination with the supreme leader’s office because, unlike former presidents, Raisi expresses positions that are even more aligned to Khamenei’s views on domestic and foreign issues. Similarly, Khamenei seems to have a clear interest in ensuring Raisi’s success as president – assuming the former truly considers the latter a leading candidate to succeed him.”
Raisi’s job will be made infinitely easier as the Biden administration is already chomping at the bit to return to the JCPOA and celebrate a return to the JCPOA as an American victory. If only.
The US has already blinked, removing some Trump sanctions. The Iranians, who are master negotiators, are just waiting for the sanctions house of cards to completely crumble in exchange for an Iranian nuclear deal heavily in their favor.
Raisi will play his part acting tough. The US and its European sycophants will feign frustration. A few changes will be made to the JCPOA, and the selling of the deal in Ben Rhodes fashion to a compliant media will seal the American and European return to the Iran nuclear deal. At the same time, the Russians and Chinese will see this as a sign of American weakness for future dealings with them.
Rhodes, it should be remembered, was infamous for bragging about how he bamboozled and manipulated the press to advance the Iran deal during the Obama/Biden administration. The media were so in bed with the former president and his agenda that they didn’t even object when Rhodes’s comments became public. Today’s mainstream journalists may be even more willing to accept a return to the deal without any investigative reporting on why missile development, terrorism, Iranian human rights abuses or hegemony into the Levant are not addressed.
It is not if, but when will the supreme leader pass away, whether from his metastatic prostate cancer or some other ailment not shared with the Iranian people. When that happens, President Raisi will most likely ascend to the dictator’s throne of the Iranian Revolution as supreme leader. As the rock band The Who sang, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Israel is watching carefully, and so should the United States. If Israel still believes in the Begin Doctrine, never to let an enemy state have nuclear weapons, the ascendancy of Raisi and the end of American sanctions increases the chance for a preemptive Israeli strike in Iran and a large-scale regional war drawing in all players.
Let us hope that Biden’s allegiance to former president Obama’s legacy does not blind him to the likely consequences of a deal that President-elect and future supreme leader Raisi will appreciate.
This is one of many seditious statements over many years from leaders of the Arab Joint List. There should be no rationalization of these seditious statements. In America, there would be an overwhelming call on both sides of the aisle to remove those members of Congress that called for the overthrow of their nation’s Capitol.
The complexity and contrast become even starker as a new Israeli coalition was sworn in this week with the support of an Islamist Arab leader Mansour Abbas, who choose pragmatism over rhetoric. With incendiary bombs targeting Israeli communities in the South, Israeli retaliation, and the raw nerves in the wake of the Israeli flag day march in Jerusalem, the new Israeli government has its hand full to keep the desperate members of its coalition together. Its collapse would please both ends of the spectrum, Bibi and Hamas.
The article states Prime Minister Netanyahu’s long tenure has left a “lasting legacy. He shifted the fulcrum of Israeli politics firmly to the right —and presided over the dismantling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”
The Israeli polity shifted from center-left to the center right not because of Mr. Netanyahu, but because of the Second Intifada beginning in 2000. That was when President Arafat rejected a Palestinian state and East Jerusalem as his capital and started the bloody Intifada of homicide bombers in Israeli malls, restaurants, and busses. Israelis were shocked and realized that their hopes for compromise with their Palestinian neighbors were an illusion. In 2008, an even more generous offer of 100% of the West Bank, East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital, and even control of the Temple Mount was rejected by the moderate Palestinian President Abbas.
For all of his triumphs and faults, Netanyahu did not dismantle the peace process or move Israel to the right. That was the Palestinians themselves, who could have had a state at least five times over the last 73 years.
Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s article says that a two-states-for-two-peoples (Arab and Jewish) solution is the only “answer to the national aspirations of both the Jewish people and the Palestinians.”
Interestingly, she chooses not to mention the most significant event that occurred during her tenure as Foreign Minister, that when Prime Minister Olmert offered Palestinian Authority President Abbas 100% of the West Bank with land swaps, East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, and internationalization of the Temple Mount, Mr. Abbas never even responded. He was not willing to give up the demand for an unlimited right of return of descendants of Palestinian refugees that would demographically destroy the Jewish state, as well as signing an end of conflict agreement to end all future claims.
Ms. Livni says that neither side will ever accept the narrative of the other and won’t convince the other of “who has more rights to the land.” That may be true, but what is needed is for each side to respect the narrative of the other and be willing to compromise. Only then will the possibility of a resolution of the conflict come into view.
I read the New York Times lead story this weekend, “Life Under Occupation: The Misery at the Heart of the Conflict,” as a justification for this Gaza war and militant violence. Personal stories to pull at your heartstrings are the strategy of pro-Palestinian organizations and the Times.
“Mr. Abu Alia seethed as he described seeing his son outside in the dark, ‘afraid, crying because of the soldiers, and I can do nothing to protect him. It makes you want to take revenge…. But we have nothing to defend ourselves with. Stone-throwing must suffice. We can’t take an M-16 and go kill every settler. All we have are those stones. A bullet can kill you instantly. A little stone won’t do much. But at least I’m sending a message.’”
A few years ago, I debated a J Street representative at the Columbia Graduate School of International Affairs. After my presentation, which presented the conflict in all of its complexities, the J Street representative said, I cannot argue with any of Dr. Mandel’s facts, but let me tell you about… He then went on to tell a litany of personal stories of suffering.
I believe I lost that debate because I did not pull at the audience’s heartstrings, purposely manipulating people’s emotions so they could avoid the more challenging task of evaluating the merits of each debater’s arguments.
I should have spoken about the equally compelling tragic stories of Israeli children and residents of Israel’s South who live continually with traumatic stress. One psychologist in Sderot told me 80% of the residents suffer not from PTSD but rather from continual traumatic stress.
As in the case of my J Street debater, what was left out of the Times news article was any context. There is a word for one-sided news articles. It is called advocacy journalism, meant to convince the reader of the writer’s opinion. Personal narratives are there to make you sympathize with one side or the other. What was most egregious in the article and in that debate was the complete lack of context.
Israel left 100% of Gaza 16 years ago, and Gaza could be flourishing today like Dubai, in Palestinian-controlled territory. Instead, Hamas has committed innumerable war crimes, sending thousands of rockets into Israeli civilian areas while using Gaza residents’ children as human shields.
The only reason Israel controls the Gaza borders is that if it did not, there would be an unrelenting resupply of Iranian missiles and weapons, killing and maiming thousands of Jewish civilians. Excuse Israel for doing the No. 1 thing a nation should do – protect its civilians so they are not living with fear every hour of every day.
The author seemed to have amnesia, leaving out that the occupation of the disputed territory could have ended numerous times over the last 72 years if the Palestinians had accepted a Palestinian state living next to a Jewish state. They refused that in 1937, 1947, 1967, 2000, 2001, and 2008. That is because Palestinian Arab leadership prioritizes destroying a Jewish state more than it wants a Palestinian state. Something you won’t read in a J Street press release. An ADL survey showed that the Palestinian people has the highest ranking for antisemitism in the whole world, at 93%. This was not a poll of anti-Israel bias but blatant stereotypical Jew-hatred.
The pretext for this war, according to the article, was the decades-long court case involving a few families in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The article chose not to mention that Jews have owned the homes since the 19th century, and the tenants have been offered to remain in their homes if they pay rent.
Palestinian supporters have chosen select facts to advance their charge of ethnic cleansing and Judaization of Jerusalem. On a political level, it would have been better for Israel to have ignored this dispute, allowing the Arab residents to stay and having Israel compensate the owners. But Israel is a democracy with the rule of law and courts for real estate disputes.
Perhaps it is time for Israel to realize that the world and a growing part of the Democratic Party will never see Israel as anything but an occupier. Maybe the unrelenting double standard against Israel should be seen as an opportunity for Israel to choose its security borders and not wait for the Palestinians. Heck, nobody thought the Abraham Accords would ever happen. This certainly would upset many people. But considering decades of Palestinian rejection of their own state because they would have to sign an end-of-conflict resolution, accept a demilitarized Palestinian state and end the demand for a right of return, maybe the time has come for Israel to set a new path.
Advocacy journalism can inspire Israel to take the initiative and control its own destiny, as it lives in a woke world where its right to exist is fair game, and violence against Jews is excused as a natural reaction to occupation.
So here are some proposals to get people’s blood pressure to boil.
1. Israel unilaterally defines its borders based on security considerations
2. No further Jewish building in the areas designated for a future Palestinian-controlled territory.
3. Jewish growth is confined to the settlement blocs or settlements essential for security considerations.
4. Continued Israeli security control of the designated future Palestinian territory until the Palestinians can unreservedly sign an end-of-conflict agreement and recognize a Jewish state next to an Arab one. That could take generations, if not longer.
5. Consider drawing the lines of a future Palestinian state that would incorporate areas within pre-1967 Israel with an Arab population. If Arab citizens of Israel want to keep their Israeli citizenship, they may need to move to Israel or remain Israeli citizens living under the Palestinian Authority.
6. Redefining Jerusalem’s artificially created borders to designate overwhelmingly Arab Muslim areas of Jerusalem for a future Palestinian entity, thereby demographically moving hundreds of thousands of Arabs from the census of Israel, if and when Palestinians decide to live in peace with a Jewish state. All Jewish holy sites and neighborhoods remain under Israeli control.
7. Tangible consequences when Hamas sends rockets into Israeli civilian areas.
Mind you, this is all to stimulate debate. None of this would satisfy the international community, the Times, the Biden administration, or for that matter many Israelis, like my fellow columnist Caroline Glick. But it is food for thought.
The Times writers believe Israel is an apartheid state and want Israel to become a binational state – in other words, the demographic destruction of a postcolonial aberration of Jewish racism.
So is it the time for Israelis to consider taking their future into their own hands, offering an olive branch to future Palestinians, that a Palestinian state could be theirs for the asking?
The status quo may be the safest choice for Israel to avoid sanctions from the Biden administration, the EU and the UN. However, now is the time for Israelis to have a serious internal debate about the future, to move forward without waiting for the Palestinian leopard to change its spots.
This war was more about sabotaging the emerging Israeli-Gulf relationship and preventing an Islamist Israeli-Arab party from joining an Israeli government, than it was about a few homes in Sheikh Jarrah. But admitting that would undermine the thesis of advocacy journalists.
Palestinian Israelis refuse to acknowledge the dilemma they put Jewish Israelis in when they choose to align themselves with the enemies of the Jewish state.
In 2003 at the height of the Second Intifada, I tagged along with a group of American Conservative Rabbis who went to Israel to show solidarity with the Jewish state. We were brought to the King David Hotel to hear from then-foreign minister Shimon Peres, and the event was covered by Israeli television. During the Q&A, I asked Mr. Peres if there was a fifth column brewing in Israel among Israeli Arab citizens, “fifth column” being a term used for citizens who sympathize and support an external enemy.
Peres looked at me with an angry stare, and I will never forget what he said to me. “I do not like that expression. I do not like that term.” He then proceeded to march off the stage.
The point in telling this story is that for generations, Israeli leaders have not been willing to contemplate the possibility of a painful truth of what Palestinian Citizens of Israel (PCI) truly believe about living as citizens in the State of Israel. Suppose that the most Israel can offer PCIs (Israeli Arabs) – full rights, recognition of their Arab identity and economic empowerment, while simultaneously accepting the responsibilities of living as minority citizens in a Jewish state – doesn’t meet the minimum they can accept, namely the eradication of the Jewish nature of the State of Israel?
Too many PCIs and anti-Israel activists believe Judaism is only a religion, not a legitimate national movement of a people or a civilization. Despite having freedom of speech, religion and the press, and elected Muslim members in the Knesset, and being freer than any other Arabs in the region, Israel to them will never be a democracy so long as it retains the Jewish nature of the state and the Jewish right of return for Jews living in the Diaspora.
In 2018 I wrote an article titled, “What Do Palestinian Citizens of Israel Want?” This was based on a MEPIN/Keshet seminar I helped organize in which we met with Arab academics and school children and Israeli Arab mayors, and visited Arab colleges, teachers and human rights organizations. That was just the beginning. To deny that PCIs have faced discrimination in allocating government funding, infrastructure and employment opportunities would be to deny reality. As Yossi Klein Halevi said, “Palestinian Israelis have a profound sense of dislocation, humiliation and grievance going back to 1948. Palestinian Israelis are conflicted, as the country they reside in is at war” with their brothers over the Green Line.
But then I asked Palestinian Israelis, if all the economic inequities were magically erased, would they then accept living in a Jewish state assuming the responsibilities of minority citizens? None said yes, proving this is an existential, not an economic issue. They do not believe Israel ever had a right to be created on land that was once Islamic or was their ancestral home.
The current Gaza war between Israel and Hamas may not differ from the three previous military actions (2008, 2012 and 2014) between Israel and the terrorists in Gaza. Israel will not risk the lives of its soldiers or innocent civilians embedded within Hamas military assets in an attempt to replace Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and then having to take charge of civil services for the Gazan people. It will “mow the grass” and hopefully buy a few years of deterrence.
What is different about this war is that the Palestinian Arab street in the West Bank and Palestinian citizens of Israel are openly cheering on Hamas. Hamas told PCIs to “rise up” against “our enemy and yours.” And a not too insignificant number of Israeli Arab citizens responded by lynching Jews, burning synagogues and fomenting pogroms. This is of existential importance, especially when 21% of your population empathizes with an enemy who wants to end your existence. Far-right Jewish nationalists attacking Arabs in retaliation have fanned the flames of violence. They also need to be condemned and incarcerated – one standard of justice and the rule of law for all.
So does Israel have a civil war on its hands? Are the Abraham Accords in danger of collapsing because of the allegation that Israeli security entered al-Aqsa Mosque for no reason? Can’t the world see that Hamas has exploited a land dispute involving just a few Arab families to weaken the Palestinian Authority and prevent a groundbreaking possibility of an Israeli Arab party joining a coalition as a full stakeholder?
So, where do we go from here?
Palestinian Israelis complain about job discrimination because employers favor Israelis who served in the military. But when presented with the option of compulsory non-military civil service to match fellow Jewish citizens, leveling the playing field for employment opportunities, they overwhelmingly reject that option. There is almost no acknowledgment that they, too, have the responsibilities of citizenship.
You can’t complain you aren’t getting your fair share when you refuse to do compulsory civil service to match the time young Jewish citizens give to the nation. Palestinian Israelis refuse to acknowledge the dilemma they put Jewish Israelis in when they choose to align themselves with the enemies of the Jewish state.
Israeli Arab politicians elected to the Knesset, except for Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party – who seemingly prioritized the PCIs he represents and who wants to work with the Israeli government – have bordered on treason for years. Mansour Abbas’s pragmatism is a significant reason that Hamas wanted to fight a war at this time, lest Arab citizens in Israel look towards a new path that could reconcile them with the Jewish majority.
The Middle East is in flux, and Israel may be facing one of the most critical tipping points in its history. How Israel deals with its Arab minority over the coming years may rival in importance the threat of 150,000 Hezbollah missiles and Iranian nuclear weapons capabilities. As Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said, the internal Jewish-Arab violence is “no less dangerous than the Hamas rockets…. We must not win the Gaza battle and lose at home.”
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?
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.