Category Archives: Middle East

Does the Biden administration believe Iran is behind most Shia militias?

by Dr. Eric R. Mandel

{Previously published in JNS}

A controversy that occurred during a recent question-and-answer session for reporters by Pentagon press secretary John Kirby may have revealed a troubling insight into the Biden administration’s approach in rebranding Iran’s problematic image. He claimed that Shia militias that are causing so much trouble in the Middle East are not Iranian-controlled. After criticism made its way into the public arena, Kirby partially walked back his statement in a subsequent press conference, agreeing that some Shia militias are Iranian-backed. Was this a Freudian slip, a trial balloon or a real insight into administration thinking?

There is a well-documented history of the Obama-Biden administration misleading the public about the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Therefore, it is prudent to ask if Kirby’s first answer to a softball question that should not have flustered an experienced spokesperson was an accurate representation of the administration’s thinking. It’s all part of a strategy to create the illusion that the Islamic Republic is not responsible for supporting the majority of Shia militias throughout the Middle East in the hopes that in preparing the ground to rejoin JCPOA, Iran will be more palatable to the U.S. public.

So a primer on Iranian-controlled Shi’ite militias and what the administration is doing is in order.

What Kirby may have been attempting to do is frame the situation as an internal ethnic conflict between Shi’ite groups who are independent of Iranian influence. However, the overwhelming evidence is that Iran’s strategy is to create Iranian-controlled militias in the region’s crumbling nations to exert control and undermine U.S. interests while threatening American allies.

Statements like Kirby’s intensify Israel’s well-founded fears that America wants to pretend it doesn’t see Iran’s malign activity. Instead, the administration chooses to put all of its eggs in the JCPOA basket, focusing on the nuclear issue while ignoring Islamic imperialism. Almost no serious military or intelligence analyst believes the Islamic Republic of Iran does not control Shia militias, such as the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq or Syria (local militias). Iran’s hegemonic ambitions carried out through its proxy network are a threat to be taken seriously.

A not-so-subtle warning for Israel not to attack Iran was posted by the White House in its Interim National Security Guidelines. The administration stated, “We do not believe that military force is the answer. … We will not give our partners in the Middle East a blank check to pursue policies at odds with American interests.” Is that a warning not to attack Iran in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon?

As in Lebanon, Iran is slowly swallowing Syria and Iraq. Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah is the dominant military force while effectively controlling its parliament. Iranian symbols appear everywhere, as though you were walking in Tehran. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) martyr Gen. Qassem Soleimani was commemorated this year throughout the country with a massive statue placed in the center of the Lebanese capital Beirut. At rallies, Lebanese citizens under Hezbollah’s thumb wave the Iranian flag, not the Lebanese one.

What is groundbreaking in Syria is that Iran not only sent its IRGC troops with its Hezbollah proxy but has now recruited former Syrian rebels of local Sunni militias to create a permanent Iranian presence. The blueprint is the Hezbollah model in Lebanon. Iran’s goal is to surround Israel with its militias, proxies and allies, including Sunnis who are easily bought for money, bread or ammunition. Just think of the Sunni Arab Hamas terrorist organization in the Gaza Strip working with Persian Shi’ite Iran.

Alma, Israel’s best source for independent research on its northern border, has documented Iran’s support and control of Hezbollah, Shia militias, and now Iranian-controlled former rebel Sunni militias. This is groundbreaking information. The militias receive orders and salaries from Iran in conjunction with a well-thought-out civilian investment to support a long-term Iranian military entrenchment. In this way, Iran effectively takes control of weak nation-states like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. For example, Iran is heavily involved in Syria’s post-war reconstruction, buying agricultural land, establishing community and educational centers to promote the Islamic Revolution’s values among the local Sunni population.

One should bear in mind that the IRGC’s Quds force’s raison d’être since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s is to spread the Iranian revolution throughout the Middle East while backing almost every terrorist Shia militia to further its goal. Thousands of IRCG soldiers and commanders operate beyond Iran’s borders, leading and strategizing on how to get the United States out of the Middle East and put Israel out of existence.

This is based on the concept of velayat-e faqih, or “guardianship of the jurist,” which gives absolute religious authority to the Iranian Supreme Leader, who is in charge of the world’s Shi’ites. Shias are thereby obligated to support the Islamic revolution everywhere in the world. The Biden administration should be cautious replacing radical Sunnis like ISIS and Al-Qaeda with extremist Iranian Shi’ism.

More than half of the pieces are in place to surround Israel. Next on the target list is the West Bank and Jordan to surround Israel with the threat of missiles and militias under Iranian control. All in preparation for a day when Islamist Iran unleashes its proxies to devastate Israeli civilians and destroy Israel’s infrastructure, with the hope that Israelis will abandon the Zionist experiment.

Going forward, U.S President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin should make clear the obvious. Iran is responsible for Shia militias’ creation and actions that threaten Middle East stability and American soldiers’ lives, and that rejoining the JCPOA should not obscure that fact.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”

A Cold Egyptian-Israeli Peace Undermines Both Culture and Security

by Marwa Maziad and Eric Mandel

{Previously published in The National Security Magazine}

Recently, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet in Egypt for the first time in a decade to discuss their shared interests. This includes the growing threat of their political Islamist adversaries, Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. The agenda consists of improving economic ties, finding new opportunities created by Israel’s normalization with Arab Gulf nations, and exploring ways that Egypt could facilitate talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. What is missing is the desire to restart a people-to-people exchange to strengthen the peace accord, arguably essential for long-term regional integration and stability.

President Sisi sees the handwriting on the wall. He knows the Biden administration will be more critical of Egypt than previous ones. Sisi sees Egypt as part of a coalition of Arab states and Israel, strategizing together to mitigate the consequences of Biden’s plan to turn back towards Iran, as he rebalances American relationships in the Middle East away from the Arab Quartet (Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain) by rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear agreement).

American sanctions relief will inevitably be part of rejoining the nuclear deal. It will embolden Iran and be taken as a sign by its Islamist partners to challenge Egypt and its allies. Turkey wants sovereignty in the Eastern Mediterranean energy corridor, while Iran desires a Mediterranean naval base on the Syrian coast. Qatar, the political Islamists’ banker, believes it has the upper hand over the United States because it hosts America’s Central Command and U.S. Air Force Command headquarters at its al Udeid air base. How the new rapprochement between Qatar and the Gulf States will translate into any Islamist moderation or cooperation against Iran is a big unknown.

According to the American Security Council Foundation, “For ordinary Egyptians, a combination of opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, lingering hostility from when the countries were at war and antipathy from some officials means that contact with Israelis is rare. The ties that do exist are often secret… The so-called cold peace is the result of a dual approach by Cairo in which it engages in a warm relationship at the top, but still limits social and institutional ties, in part due to fear of losing public legitimacy.”

But does this strategy of maintaining a cold peace between the peoples help long-term Egyptian security interests, especially in light of a new Middle East where political Islamism is an ascending threat?

President Sisi should consider that one possible strategy to indirectly strengthen Egypt’s relationship with America is to draw closer to America’s closest friend in the Middle East, Israel. The Biden administration and the majority of Congress will favorably view an opportunity to warm the relationship between the two American allies through economic and personal interactions.

The choice is not clear cut. Some might argue that it is in Egypt’s interest to not only preserve the treaty but to strengthen it, as political Islamists want nothing better than to undermine the accord, create distrust in the Egyptian public, and threaten Sisi’s political legitimacy. But Egypt doesn’t want Israel taking it for granted, especially as the most populous Arab nation of over one hundred million people that took the risk to sign a peace agreement.

Both Egypt and Israel know they need their peace treaty to endure. Political Islamism’s goal is to weaken that treaty and eventually take over Egypt. The treaty’s Achilles heel is the lack of human interaction between the two peoples. Although the cold peace has survived for over forty years, there is nothing inevitable about it lasting for another forty years. According to Ephraim Inbar, director of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), the distrust is “rooted [in] cultural and religious barriers” with the Arab world viewing Israel as an “alien body.” Although Morocco’s, Bahrain’s, and the United Arab Emirates’ relationship with Israel is new, the level of interaction between their peoples has already surpassed Egyptian and Israeli exchanges over the last thirty years.

Why should this matter? Some experts will say that as long as their respective military and intelligence services’ cooperation is strong, the soft power of people-to-people interactions is of minor consequence. With the common enemy of political Islamism threatening both nations, this should be enough, and taking the risks of changing the Egyptian people’s perception of Israelis is a bridge too far to cross.

Unfortunately, as evident from the Arab uprisings of the past decade, political discontent can rise anew over time. In a world controlled by malign social media forces, Islamists have become experts not only in riling up discontented populaces but can coordinate uprisings by merely pressing a few keystrokes on a computer, instantaneously sending their rallying messages of destabilization to millions. The Brotherhood and Salafists brought the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi to Egypt’s presidency in 2012. There is no guarantee that next time the Egyptian people will be able to throw off the yoke of political Islamism as they did with the Egyptian military’s help, one year after Morsi’s rise to power.

Egypt needs stability, intelligence, economic security for its people, and military prowess to survive in a world where its rivals, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, are looking to destabilize it. The Turkish-Qatari alliance would like a compliant and like-minded Egyptian leader like Morsi. This is not a war between Sunnis and Shiites, but a confrontation between moderate Sunni Arab states and ideological political pan-Islamists.

Real stability would need a new approach. It is crucial that Egypt’s people self-examine their beliefs about who their friends and enemies are. Today the Egyptian people still see the Jewish state more as an enemy than a friend. The memory of four wars, 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, still resonates strongly with them. During the Mubarak era, contrary to the state’s official stance of peace, the media, schools, and mosques at the societal level portrayed Israel as a perpetual enemy. To President Sisi’s credit, he has hesitantly begun to change this dynamic, and his invitation to Netanyahu is a good first step.

Things may be looking up for the relationship. According to a report in the Times of Israel, Israel’s new Ambassador to Egypt Amira Oron believes relations are already improving. Oron says that new possibilities for cooperation are emerging in Mediterranean energy development.

For their part, Israelis have not been able to find common ground with the Palestinian Arabs, who have the sympathy of their fellow Arabs. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, what matters is the Egyptian people see Israel as victimizing their brethren. Arab nations making peace with Israel today had become frustrated with Palestinian intransigence, that the Palestinian Authority chose not to negotiate with Israel when it offered East Jerusalem as their capital and 100 percent of the West Bank with land swaps in 2008.

Political Islamism has weaponized the Palestinian issue. Egypt need not double down by placating their populace with more criticism of Israel but begin the complicated process of changing the way the Egyptian people view Israel. An excellent place for Egypt to start would be to offer to broker negotiations with Israel based on two states for two peoples, a Palestinian Arab state and a Jewish state, with Palestinian refugees welcomed by the Palestinian entity.

Egypt has joined moderate Arab states, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco, and Bahrain, in opposing the rise of the political Islamists. Morocco cut off relations with Iran two years ago because it supported insurgents in Western Sahara, and the Gulf States fear that Iran will try to reduce them to satraps, as they have done to Lebanon. With the United States as a less reliable ally, as it turns away from the Middle East and focuses on its greatest threat, China, the moderate Arab states, and Israel will need to work together as never before.

A new Egyptian initiative that would change the messaging about Israel, as it appears in their government communications, national media, schools, and mosques, would help strengthen the treaty. If there is an end to Covid-19 travel restrictions, encouraging the Egyptian people to visit Israel and welcoming Israelis to Egypt would begin to break down barriers of suspicion. Egyptians already have business partnerships with Israelis through the QIZ arrangements that allow both to export to the United States.

Inviting more Egyptian businesses to partner in the Israeli economy in shared enterprises would be a winning proposition. This can come in baby steps and follow the path of their Emirati cousins. Reconciliation of the peoples would set an example to Palestinians to create a new playing field to resolve the conflict once there will be a younger generation of Palestinian leadership, allowing both the Israelis and Palestinians to find a compromise.

A year ago, no one predicted 50,000 Israelis would be visiting Dubai in a month’s time, and many Arabs are coming to Israel to investigate business opportunities. Thinking out of the box means recognizing that the old paradigm of scapegoating Israel undermines Egyptian national security interests. President Sisi is on the right road; now, he needs the support of like-minded moderate Arab leaders, journalists, and academics, to secure Egypt’s future.

Marwa Maziad is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Eric Mandel is a Jerusalem Post columnist and the founder of the Middle East Political and Information Network.

What Congress Can Do for An America Without a Coherent Middle East Policy

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Our boots on the ground have left in the aftermath of the infamous Trump-Erdogan phone call, turning 100,000 American trained allied SDF troops into part of the Syrian army.

Two days of briefings on both sides of the aisle revealed an overwhelming consensus within Congress that America is hampered by not having a coherent Middle East strategic policy.

During my meetings in Congress, what struck a chord but was not yet on their legislative radar, as Congress is usually more reactive than proactive on foreign policy, was the escalating control of Iraq by Iranian controlled militias (PMU or PMF), and the fate of the Kurds in northern Iraq.

In the aftermath of the Syrian withdrawal, almost everyone expressed the desire to remain engaged in the region with as small a presence as possible to advance our goals, similar to the small footprint we had in northern Syria that blocked the Iranian land bridge to the Mediterranean. Now our boots on the ground have left in the aftermath of the infamous Trump-Erdogan phone call, turning 100,000 American trained allied SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces opposed to Assad) troops into part of the Syrian army.

Now that the damage of the Syrian withdrawal is a fait accompli, can Congress move the needle and make a difference in American policy?

Foreign policy is primarily the purview of the President; however, Congress does have the power to impose sanctions, control American taxpayer money, and voice its strong opinions for Americans and the world to hear.

A bipartisan letter of support to our Kurdish allies in northern Iraq is needed to calm their jittery nerves. Kurdistan in northern Iraq is a zone of pro-American stability, borders Iran and Turkey, and is vital to American interests. We need to preclude the possibility that the President could sell them out and force them to make a deal for survival with Iran, much like the Syrian Kurds were forced to do with the Syrian regime.

A primary American goal to advance our foreign policy interests should be to bring to light Iran’s growing entrenchment in Iraq using its Hezbollah model of marrying Iranian controlled militias (PMU or PMF) with members of Parliament who are under their control.  In Iraq this has been implemented through the Badr organization which controls the largest militia, al-Hashd al-Shabi, and second largest Iraqi political party Fatah.

According to the Washington Institute’s Phillip Smyth the ‘militia/party model that Hezbollah has long used in Lebanon… function(s) as the most powerful element of direct Iranian influence in the Iraqi political sphere.” They are dominant players in Iraqi foreign and domestic policy. 

As George Friedman of Geopolitical Futures wrote, “pro-Iran groups advocate and fight to further Iran’s interests regardless of whether they conflict with the interests of Iraq.“

How would Americans feel if they knew that directly or indirectly our taxpayer monies allocated to the Iraqi government may be ending up in the hands of Iranian controlled Iraqi militias with more blood on their hands than the US sanctioned Hezbollah terrorist entity.  

According to George Friedman, former Prime Minister al-Maliki legislated “the formation of the PMF Commission, which administers Iraqi state funds for PMF groups (Iranian controlled Iraqi militias). Iran also discreetly funds some of these groups, and many pro-Iran militia leaders today occupy important positions within the Iraqi government, giving them substantial control over funding decisions… and even battle plans.”

The Council on Foreign Relations reported that as of October 2018, the US was providing 5.3 billion dollars to Iraq. We need to know, how much of our money is going to Iranian controlled Iraqi militias?   

In the past, Congress passed legislation through the defense authorization bill imposing sanctions on some of the most notorious Iranian controlled militias, like Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH).

However, the largest militias are controlled by the Badr organization which is not sanctioned.

How can we square the circle that Iranian controlled militias have been legally integrated within the Iraqi military for the past two years without any of the hoped for moderation that was supposed to happen?

Without sanctioning all of the Iranian controlled militias, we have no hope of loosening the grip of the Iranian octopus in Iraq, where we have lost so much blood and treasure over the last 16 years.

However, some Senate offices worry that the leader of Badr could become the next Iraqi PM and rationalize that it would be counterproductive to sanction him now. Yet today Congress is willing to personally sanction Erdogan after the attack in Syrian Kurdistan.

If we want to advance US interests we should sanction the whole Badr organization, which would focus American money to truly moderate Shiite Iraqi groups, or at least ones not directly controlled by Iran.

If Hezbollah, an Iranian controlled proxy, became part of the Lebanese armed forces would we continue to fund the Lebanese Armed Forces. In Iraq, we fund the Iraqi government where both Iraqi members of Parliament and militias are controlled by Iran, and we don’t know where our taxpayer dollars really go.

On a humanitarian level, displaced Iraqi minorities cannot return to their homes because the Iranian controlled militias are in control of their former homes. Empowering the Iraqi government means funding the parts of the Iraqi government and military that are not associated in any way shape or form with Iran.

The President has said that Iran is our primary enemy in the region. This would be a time for him to act as a fiscal watchdog, and work with Congress on sanctions against all Iranian controlled militias in Iraq.

According to Reuters, Iranian backed militias deployed snipers in Iraq killing scores of protestors this month. How would the President respond to the question, why is America funding Iran’s militias in Iraq who are shooting Iraqi civilians, and preventing Christian and Yazidi minorities from returning to their homes?

It is time for Congress to be pro-active and not wait for the President to make the next foreign policy faux pas. A return to Senator Rand Paul isolationism in a fortress America with no physical presence in the Middle East is not a realistic strategy to keep radical Islam away from our homeland. We haven’t had any significant Islamist terrorism here, because we are still engaged over there.

It is incumbent for Congress to step up and get ahead of an impulsive President before the next self-inflicted calamity occurs in the Middle East.

The author is the founder and director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political and Information Network.

Reclaiming the Language of Human Rights to Advance Peace in the Middle East

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

While speaking in Europe last week on political Islamism, the Iran agreement, and American national security interests in the Middle East, I continually emphasized the importance of reading multiple points of view to combat today’s editorialization of the news. 

To do this effectively, you must literally examine the “accepted” meaning of words used to describe Israel’s behavior in the Palestinian conflict. Far too often, benign sounding words like “human rights” have been transformed into rhetorical weapons to advance a political agenda – in academia, the media, or in Congress – whose goal is to undermine America’s relationship with Israel, and Israel’s very legitimacy as a nation-state.

When I am in meetings at US congressional offices or when I lecture, I assume everyone does not share the same understanding of “international law, occupation, war crimes, Zionism, two states and human rights,” and I take pains to clarify their meanings in context.

This was highlighted by two articles I read this week while in Europe: one by Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Israel and Palestine, and the other an academic analysis by Dr. Donna Robinson Divine, titled “Word Crimes: Reclaiming the Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” published by Indiana University Press.

Shakir used the accepted politicized language of Middle East NGO’s – while Divine examined and challenged the current use of these words as they have come to be understood in the halls of academia, where the fashion is to bad-mouth Israel and give a nod to the BDS movement.

Two generations of American college students are now in positions of influence across the spectrum of American society, government and business, who were raised on a terminology of the Middle East that has become the default starting point for international discourse, but is in fact a cleverly transformed lexicon to undermine Israel’s right to exist, advancing a political agenda where various aggrieved peoples must join forces (intersectionality) to undermine the racist Western civilization and its Jewish outpost in the Middle East.

To argue or challenge the meaning of these words labels you as a racist, immoral or beyond the pale of worthy discourse. You don’t even have the right to free speech, as evidenced by speaker after speaker being disinvited or screamed down in the halls of universities. I know first hand.

Divine says that: “Much of the academic discourse on the Middle East conflict has distorted the truth by transforming even the very idea of what constitutes a “fact”… How the change took hold in academia is best understood by focusing on the vocabulary that purports to show why the establishment of a Jewish State was an international crime… Students learning only this language graduate with a vocabulary that identifies Israel not simply as a force hostile to Palestinian interests, but also as a major source of evil for the world.”

For the vast majority of people who are unaware that the vocabulary of human rights has been co-opted to demonize Israel, you fall right into the hands of organizations like Human Rights Watch.

Shakir claims that Human Rights Watch takes no position on BDS, an international movement whose goal is the delegitimization of Israel through an economic boycott.

Yet he sees no contradiction in using the benign sounding words of human rights advocacy to claim HRW’s mission is “to defend the right of people to boycott… [that] telling businesses to stop engaging in activities that abuse rights in the occupied territories, is neither a call for a consumer boycott nor a boycott of Israel itself.”

Leaves you scratching your head.

“Human rights” organizations operating in Israel and funded by European governments accuse Israel of some of the worst abuses in the world, while using moral equivalence to claim impartiality by equating the actions of terrorist groups – like Hamas that target civilians or the Palestinian Authority that financially supports convicted terrorists – with Israel, which takes pains to avoid civilian casualties.

Ten years ago, HRW founder Robert Bernstein took to task the transformation of his organization from an unbiased sword to one where “Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.” Nothing has changed for the better since he wrote those words, except that both the United States and Israel now identify BDS and its defenders for what it is: antisemitism hiding in the clothes of anti-Zionism.

It is time to realize that language matters for those who care about the US-Israel relationship and its importance to American national security interests. Semantics is the coin of the realm in diplomacy, and words are the ammunition of the lawfare campaign to destroy Israel.

A number of years ago, I sat with a senator and her chief of staff (COS) describing the complexities and conflicting narratives of what the occupation of a disputed territory means according to a non-politicized definition of international law. The COS thanked me, and I asked why.

What I learned was that many pro-Israel organizations have adopted the words of their adversaries, undermining their case to present a contextually correct understanding of the complexities of the conflict. Terms such as occupation, 1967 border, war crimes, collateral damage, disproportionate force and settlements need more than a 280 character tweet.

Organizations that are trying to advance peace in the region need to think about reclaiming the language of human rights, and learn to explain how it is used today as a weapon against Israel. Otherwise, those peace advocates will be fighting a continually uphill battle in Congress, on college campuses and with the American public, against an adversary with a decided advantage that has won the tools of debate.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the Senate and House, and their foreign policy advisers. A regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post and i24TV international, he is a contributor to The Hill, JTA, JNS and The Forward.

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.

Can Egypt be the Path to Peace for the Middle East?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

After the disaster of the Morsi regime, during which the MB tried to turn Egypt back to the dark ages, Egypt has now come to a fork in the road.

In the Middle East, what they say is not what they mean, and what they mean is not what they say.

According to The New York Times, U.S. President Donald Trump is “developing a strategy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would enlist Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to break years of deadlock.”

It would behoove his new foreign policy team to reflect carefully on these words before forging ahead with Middle East diplomacy.

The key to any possible path to conflict resolution in this region is to understand the shifting web of “interests” that motivate the players on this chessboard in the sand.

During meetings in Egypt and Israel this past week, almost everyone I spoke with cautioned against over-reaching beyond what is possible for the region at this time.

The American abstention on UNSC Resolution 2334 has cast a dark cloud. For the first time ever, an Israeli presence over the 1949 armistice line is labeled an internationally recognized illegal act, with the blessing of the United States.

What I heard from those on the ground, including an international observer, is that 2334 will become a major obstacle to a two-state solution, the exact opposite of what the Obama administration claimed was their intent. “Counterproductive” is an understatement in assessing the damage it has done.

Far too many well-meaning intermediaries fail to understand the Middle East’s complexities, the staggering array of contradictory interests, often making little sense to Western eyes.

During meetings with the Egyptian foreign policy establishment I was asked to convey to Congress a number of their concerns.

1. Please explain that the 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime of president Mohammed Morsi was not a coup but a democratic revolution.

They insist it was a people’s revolution of 33 million in the streets demanding an end to Islamist suppression and economic incompetence. Although Morsi was elected in a fair election with a coalition of MB and Salafist voters representing 70% of the Egyptian electorate, officials repeatedly reminded me that today the MB would not receive more than 20% of the vote.

However I fear that if the current monthly inflation of 20% in Egypt continues, an Islamist coalition could win the next election, a potentially devastating blow to American security interests.

Egyptians of all stripes still cannot understand president Barack Obama’s hidden outreach to the MB before the “Arab Spring” of 2011, and his continued support of the Brotherhood, looking to them to be the moderating influence in the Islamist world.

2. Egyptians want Americans to understand that Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai is under control, and that the more pressing concerns are the Libyan border and the internal Islamist threats to destabilize Egypt.

We need to understand that the ever-changing interests between Hamas, Egypt and the indigenous Beduin make Western strategic choices in the Sinai fraught with peril. Most outside observers believe that the situation in the Sinai is far from stable.

3. Egyptian officials want Congress to know that the Egyptian military is the strongest in the region and should be an important ally for America.

Yet according to the INSS’s Yitftah Shapir, Egypt has “embarked on an unprecedented break from its traditional military relations with the US,” turning to Russia, France and Germany. They seem to ignore that America already has in Israel a reliable ally that shares its Western democratic values.

However, Egypt does have an opportunity to make a case to challenge Turkey as America’s primary Muslim ally now that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned NATO’s eastern flank into an Islamist authoritarian state.

The unprecedented military, security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Egypt are privately acknowledged, yet the Egyptian people are completely unaware of this cooperation as a matter of policy.

A leading Israeli expert on Egypt said that the Egyptian public opinion makers “hates our guts,” except for the highest government officials and the military, who cooperate against a common enemy. Transient interests should not be misunderstood as a change in the fundamental relationship.

An international official spoke about the endemic antisemitism in the Middle East, which is staggering in scale; remaining a convenient excuse to avoid normalizing relations until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. In the Middle East the terms “Jew” and “Israeli” are interchangeable.

After the disaster of the Morsi regime, during which the MB tried to turn Egypt back to the dark ages, Egypt has now come to a fork in the road.

For Egypt today there may be a small window of opportunity to change course and lead the Arab world into the 21st century for a more stable future.

Now that the MB leadership is in jail, the time has come for Egypt to slowly change the anti-Israel narrative in its state-controlled media.

Going forward, my advice to Egyptians is to bring other Sunni Arab nations who currently have secret relationships with Israel out into the open, as a way to advance the peace process.

Egypt strongly desires to strengthen its relationship with the US, and the answer is to broaden its relationship with Israel. Americans and Congress see the Middle East through their support of America’s most stable ally in the region. Strengthening the Israeli- Egyptian relationship is not a favor to Israel, but in Egyptian interests.

The excuse that Egypt cannot lead unless the Palestinians agree is the failed formula of the past. The Egyptian economy is on the ropes, and the path forward is in part through Israel.

The author is the founder and director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political and Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East. He just returned from his 15th annual seminar in the Middle East with Keshet Insight Seminar’s Yitzhak Sokoloff.