Tag Archives: Israel News

How should Netanyahu approach the new Biden administration?

{Previously published by the JNS}

In the winter of 2015, one of Israel’s most senior security cabinet officials asked me what advice should he give to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in regard to Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to speak before the U.S. Congress, laying out his case of why the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was a “bad deal” for both Israel and the United States. My answer surprised him. I told him not to accept the invitation, but to wait a few months until the Israeli election was concluded. I learned later that Netanyahu’s former Ambassador Michael Oren also told him to decline the invitation. This is in contrast to Israel’s ambassador at the time, Ron Dermer, who incensed the Obama administration as the one who “orchestrated the invitation” and wrote much of the speech.

Why is this history relevant for Netanyahu in 2020? There is an analogy to today. He is likely to create conditions in 2021 for a new election to avoid handing over power as promised to Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The Biden administration would likely be negotiating with Iran, once again at a time when Netanyahu’s hold on the leadership of Israel is in doubt, as it was in 2014. This should be kept in mind by the Israeli prime minister before he has his first meeting with the Biden people, and strategizes how he should approach the new administration.

The 2014 visit to Congress was ill-timed, coming before an Israeli election later that spring. If Netanyahu won and formed a coalition, he could then have come later in the spring with a stronger mandate as the newly re-elected leader of Israel with a better chance not to throw kerosene into the fire of American politics. Any newly elected Israeli leader would naturally have asked to come to speak to U.S. leadership. If an audience with the president were denied, it would have been seen by much of the American public as petty politics on the part of the Obama administration. According to an NBC poll at the time, 68 percent of Americans “believed Iran was not going to abide by the nuclear agreement.”

I was and still am a strong critic of the JCPOA, believing that it undermines American and Israeli security interests, being both dangerous and unprecedented in giving a nation on our terror list the right to enrich uranium.

Yet knowing all of that, I still told my Israeli friend to try and dissuade Netanyahu from coming to Congress in 2014, even though I knew that Obama and his team had completely misled the Israelis, keeping them in the dark about the secret negotiations despite assurances that they would be kept in the loop, knowing the JCPOA was an existential issue for Israel’s survival.Top of Form

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Although some blame the frosty relationship between Obama and Netanyahu for his administration’s actions, most think that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s relationship with the Israeli prime minister was always warmer. However, we don’t really know whether Biden will prove more sympathetic to Israeli interests than Obama was. We do know that he fully supported the JCPOA and was aware of the behind-the-scenes maneuvers to keep the Israelis in the dark.

The Obama administration policy from 2009 on was to create “daylight” between Israel and the United States, and to move closer to the Iranians. Keep in mind it was Biden who told the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing that you say, but I love ya.” That was 2014—the same year that the administration was secretly negotiating with Iran. So with act two of the JCPOA about to preview, it would behoove Israel and its supporters to review all of the history, mistakes and consequences related to the nuclear agreement.

In 2014, I spoke with the foreign-policy advisers of the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressing my concern that they were being outmaneuvered by the Obama administration, which was cleverly creating a backdoor pathway for Senate approval of the agreement with only a minority of the Senate in favor of the deal. I emphasized that the JCPOA rose to the level of a treaty and should be submitted to the Senate as such, which would require 60 senators to vote in favor of its passage, as it was the most significant American foreign-policy commitment of the 21st century. In the end, the Obama administration brilliantly outmaneuvered the Republican leadership and was able to advance the agreement with something akin to an executive order, with only 42 senators in favor. The next year I was told by that same Senate office that when Europeans came to visit Washington, they were astonished that the JCPOA was not passed as a treaty.

If President-elect Biden re-enters the JCPOA or renegotiates a new agreement, will the 2021 Republican Senate try to weigh in? Will Netanyahu try a new approach, having learned the lessons of interfering in American politics? Biden promises to re-enter the deal in his first few months, so time will be of the essence.

The Obama administration took its revenge for the Netanyahu speech before Congress, when a year-and-a-half later, in December 2016, the United States orchestrated the passage of UNSC Resolution 2334, labeling any Israeli presence over the 1949 armistice line (1967 line or Green Line) an international crime and upending the UNSC Resolution 242, the keystone document that previously acknowledged that Israel was never supposed to return to the indefensible borders of 1967.

So how should Netanyahu approach dealing with Biden, knowing he wants to restart the JCPOA in a few months’ time and wants to fulfill his campaign promise to reopen the PLO mission in Washington, the U.S. Consulate in eastern Jerusalem for Palestinian use, and restore some funding to the Palestinians, even if they have to ignore the Taylor Force Law denying American funding to a Palestinian Authority that rewards and incentivizes terrorism?

The two leaders know each other very well. They also have clashed with each other for years over settlement building, most recently when mid-level Israeli officials announced settlement building during a Biden visit to Israel, embarrassing the vice president, who choose to publicly lash out at Netanyahu despite the prime minister’s apology.

Unlike the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which not only saw eye to eye with him on almost every issue—with tangible actions ranging from the U.S. embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to acknowledging that Israeli settlements do not break international law—Biden and his advisers want to promote a more balanced narrative and promote the aggrieved party of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They could, if challenged by the Israeli government, even choose to join the international community in boycotting Israeli goods from the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).

Netanyahu needs to prioritize his goals before engaging with the new administration. There is no doubt that the nuclear deal is the No. 1 issue on Israel’s plate, and there are rumors that the new administration, unlike the Obama one, will actually listen to Israeli suggestions for a new nuclear deal.

The Israeli prime minister’s highest priority is to emphasize to Biden that he shouldn’t rush to rejoin the flawed deal without significant changes to the agreement, as many of its provisions will sunset in less than five years. He must convince Biden that the United States has new leverage with the Trump sanctions in place, which have caused the Iranian economy to be under tremendous strain. The revolutionary regime’s first goal is to stay in power, and it worries about a rebellion from within. This is a great American advantage for negotiations if it is appreciated, as it could force the ayatollah and his minions back to the table.

“Patience, patience, patience with Iran” should be the bywords for the Biden administration, along with the willingness to leave negotiations if the regime’s leaders don’t meet the minimum threshold to truly end the Iranian nuclear program forever.

Netanyahu’s second goal is to continue the normalization process with the Arab world. Getting the Biden administration to prioritize this early on when there is still a window of opportunity for new nations to join will require him to give Biden something back in return. That inevitably will be something in regard to the Palestinians and Israeli settlement-building.

With the Israeli prime minister looking to renege on his deal to hand over power to rival Benny Gantz next year—and another potential contender, Naftali Bennett, gaining popularity from the right—he will be seriously challenged to advance Israel’s long-term goals while advancing his own political interests.

For his legacy, I would urge him to think of the long-term survival of the U.S.-Israel relationship in light of the challenges Biden will face from his own party regarding the Palestinians, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and prioritize the nuclear deal and normalization, offering some carrots to the Palestinians. The P.A. is dysfunctional, and the Palestinian people don’t trust their leadership, now in the 15th year of their four-year term, so even optimists in the Biden administration know that there is a limit to what can be achieved.

You don’t get something for nothing, and if Netanyahu can get 80 percent of Israel’s agenda in line with a President Biden, that is a huge win for America and Israel.

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.”

Is it true that normalization doesn’t improve Israel’s existential problem?

{Previously published by the JNS}

Hadar Susskind, the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, penned an article in JTA titled, “Normalizing relations with the UAE does nothing to help fix Israel’s existential problems. … Frankly, we see little reason for celebration.” How sad, political and myopic a viewpoint. Even the progressive Haaretz newspaper called it a “historic signing.”

When I was in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai last year, accompanied by two Israelis, there was an enthusiasm for continuing the under-the-radar cooperation between these moderate Arab states and Israel for their mutual benefit. But the consensus view was that until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved, the relationship would be confined to an indefinite state of limbo. The Palestinian veto held sway in Arab capitals as it had since the infamous three “No’s” of the Khartoum Conference more than 50 years ago: No peace, no negotiation, no recognition of Israel.

After 72 years of saying no, some moderate and stable Arab states have begun to prioritize their own interests over the Palestinians, and with a remarkable and courageous step have decided to recognize Israel and normalize relations. How can one not celebrate the third and fourth Arab states, after Jordan and Egypt, to make peace with Israel with the likelihood of more on the way. Morocco, Oman, Sudan, Chad and Saudi Arabia are all on the flight path to normalization. If we were not in such a hyper-polarized political climate with a lightning rod of a president, these developments, if under a Barack Obama administration, would be placed on the fast track for a Nobel peace prize.

Yet Susskind looks through a lens that sees everything through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Israel as the intransigent party that has blinded him and his fellow travelers to the complex reality of the situation, completely ignoring the fact that peace has not been achieved because of the Palestinians. Their demand for an unconditional right of return of descendants of refugees, something Einat Wilf calls the “War of Return,” is a demand that has not been granted to any other refugee group and is minimized or ignored by progressive “peace” advocates. He says that the signing is happening as Israel “continues to entrench the occupation,” completely ignoring the quid pro quo for an agreement that suspended the extension of sovereignty into any new territory in the West Bank.

It cannot be repeated often enough that under Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority could have had a state with more than 100 percent of the territory of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) with land swaps and eastern Jerusalem as their capital. But because of its corruption, inability to sign an end of conflict agreement with Israel and contest with their rival Hamas to show who can more honor terrorists, the Palestinian people have become the real losers. That is why Israeli society has moved from the center-left during the Oslo years to the center-right today. Progressive voices like Susskind and Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street are magnified by like-minded mainstream American media and progressive groups, but they are unrepresentative of the vast majority of Israelis who have to live with the consequences of imposed solutions. There is something unseemly and condescending when one democratic nation tells another democratic nation what is in its best interests, especially when it deals with existential security issues.

The peace deals between Israel, UAE and Bahrain (and those to follow) are the best thing that could happen to the Palestinian people, but perhaps the worst thing for the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It is now up to the Palestinian people—the most subsidized people in the world—to end their grievance and victimization industry, and demand a new leadership that is more pragmatic. It needs a leadership that will prioritize the interests and well-being of their people, not letting the anti-Semitic ideology that permeates their mosques, textbooks and media to continue to ruin their chance to join their Arab brethren in the Gulf states in economic progress and the path to their own state. That begins by openly accepting a Jewish state in a territorial dimension that allows for its security.

Palestinians and their supporters, like Susskind, cannot remain blind to the reality of where the region is going, and that their Arab brothers will leave them behind as the intransigent player. If they care about Palestinians, then they will embrace these normalization deals as an opportunity to restart negotiations—something Abbas has avoided for years.

As far as an existential issue, while the Palestinians issue must be dealt with sooner or later, the true existential issue for Israel and the moderate Sunni world is Iran and its hegemonic ambitions. The Palestinians are not the primary issue for Arabs or for Israel’s immediate security, as evidenced by these treaties and the lack of outrage in the Arab world, except by the political Islamists in Tehran and Ankara.

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.”

For their survival, Saudis need to follow UAE’s lead

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

In the five-dimensional chess board of the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates’ announcement of normalization and formal ties with Israel is equivalent to moving your queen into position, checking your opponent.

As long-time peace negotiator Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment said, I “have to admit, it’s extremely clever… the UAE will say it’s prevented annexation; US prevents annexation too and gets a big breakthrough in Israel’s normalization with Arabs and Netanyahu gets an enormous win and is freed from the complications and traps of annexation… It’s a big win for all three.”

Palestinians quickly denounced the agreement, pointing out that Israel received this enormous prize of diplomatic ties for just delaying its extension of sovereignty in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), while Israel was not forced to give up any settlements over the 1949 armistice line that the Palestinians and much of the international community claim are illegal.

As Natan Sachs, director for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, said, “The losers… are the Palestinians. The impatience in the Gulf with the Palestinians now comes to full daylight. The Gulf won’t wait for them any longer, asking of Israel only to avoid declarations of a major change to the status quo.”

If US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his special adviser on international relations Avi Berkowitz orchestrated this deal behind the scenes, they deserve tremendous credit, something the international pundits have never offered them.

Marginalizing the Palestinians for their intransigence and for refusing to negotiate with Israel for years, is the best path to a settlement in the future.

According to Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an Iran sanctions expert, “This appears to be a decisive victory for the Kushner approach, where regional interests and regional peace win out over annexation.”

The UAE is likely the first among at least two other Gulf states (Bahrain and Oman) that will begin the process of normalization with Israel. They are not doing this because they have become Zionists overnight; the much more likely answer is that they want to position themselves well going forward as Iran will become more assertive in the coming years. To the Gulf states and Israel, Iran is a real and growing mutual threat.

If Trump is reelected, despite his claim that Iran will sign a new nuclear deal with him in just a month’s time, the more likely scenario – should Trump sticks to his guns and demands that the Islamic Republic truly end their nuclear project and their ability to enrich uranium – is that Iran will categorically reject it, which will lead to more American sanctions. This would also lead to Iran accelerating its nuclear program, shortening the breakout period for producing enough enriched uranium for a nuclear device.

If Democratic nominee Joe Biden is elected, he has made it clear he will rejoin the JCPOA and will end sanctions if Iran returns to compliance. Iran will jump with joy, getting an economic lifeline to save the regime, with enough new money to finance their hegemonic ambitions – endangering the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel. Remember that the JCPOA has no constraints on Iran’s missile development, human rights abuses, destabilization of neighboring countries or terrorist activates.

Both scenarios increase the risk of war, and the UAE and the other Gulf states, along with Jordan and Egypt, want to be on the side of Israel and America if a regional war with Iran is on the horizon.

Status quo may be the best option for Israel regarding the Palestinians, but not for the Gulf states. By making a move toward Israel now, it is a calculated risk that being aligned with the regional superpower Israel is the best chance to preserve their monarchies. The Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities earlier this year opened the eyes of the Gulf leaders to their future if they are not aligned with the Americans and Israel.

Although the UAE has a formidable and professional air force, the Saudis, despite having hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons, are at best a mediocre fighting force, not a match for Iran. The Iranians, despite their antiquated conventional forces, have a sophisticated missile program, and the battle-tested Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps could bring the Saudis to their knees. Shi’ite Persian Iran wants control of Mecca and Medina, the holiest sites in Islam, taken away from Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia.

Mohammad Bin Salman, the crown prince and Saudi leader, knows and has been told by Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Kushner, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien that he is in the crosshairs of Iran, and to survive he needs to get out of the closet and openly align with Israel. As Amos Yadlin, director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies said, Saudi Arabia will be closely watching this “trial balloon.”

Some will say that the conservative Wahabi monarchy is not capable of making such a step.  A couple of months ago, the same was said about the UAE.

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the US Senate, House, and their foreign policy advisers. He is the senior editor for security at the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post, and is a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, RealClearWorld, JNS, JTA, Defense News and The Forward.

Does the Beirut explosion increase chances of a northern war with Israel?

{Previously published by the JNS}

As officials in Lebanon continue their investigation into the devastating explosion at the Beirut port, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been quick to deny any responsibility claiming the explosion “has nothing to do” with the group. “We don’t rule the port or administrate it … nor do we know what’s going on there … our responsibility is resistance [against Israel].” In reality, both the United States and Israel believe that Hezbollah controls much of the port as well as Beirut’s airport, both conduits for weapon transfers from its patron Iran.

Nasrallah’s comments come amid mounting anger among ordinary Lebanese at the negligence, corruption and mismanagement of successive Lebanese governments, in which Hezbollah is a dominant player that has allowed an enormous stash of combustible ammonium nitrate to sit at Beirut’s port for more than six years. The port warehouse that exploded on Aug. 4, held 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate—a chemical used for fertilizer and as an ingredient in bombs. To put that in perspective, Timothy McVeigh used about 2.4 tons of the same chemical in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

So who in Lebanon could have an interest in keeping such vast quantities of explosive material close at hand?

“We have nothing in the port: not an arms depot, nor a missile depot nor missiles nor rifles nor bombs nor bullets nor ammonium nitrate,” protested Nasrallah. Despite his desperate attempts to distance the group from this tragic blast, most Lebanese will assume that the ammonium nitrate belonged to the militia for use in Syria and against Israel. As their grieving turns to outrage, Hezbollah is expected to be the people’s target.

And that is leading many to conclude that this explosion will deter the Iran-backed terrorist group from aggressive action, at least for a while. According to Haaretz’s defense analyst Amos Harel, “For Hezbollah, Beirut’(s) devastation makes provoking Israel even riskier … (Lebanese) public pressure may lead to a real attempt to demilitarize.’ The conventional wisdom is that Hezbollah’s leader and Iran are in no position to confront Israel now. But a wounded animal is far more dangerous … .”

With fury directed at Hezbollah, could it revert to the tried-and-tested response of terrorist organizations and authoritarian regimes, and try and turn the people’s attention away from its own incompetence and complicity, and scapegoat its opponents? Nothing works better in the Arab world than to blame Israel, or better yet, escalate violence by provoking an Israeli response that will assuredly kill Lebanese civilians who are used as human shields. Hezbollah’s modus operandi is to stockpile munitions and missiles in civilian areas, intentionally placing innocent citizens in harm’s way. Israel has long warned that it will strike if its security is threatened, so could Hezbollah try and force Israel into the fray, and divert the anger elsewhere?

Some see a parallel and historical precedent for another popular uprising of the Lebanese people against Hezbollah. In 2005, Hezbollah and Syria assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, precipitating the Cedar Revolution, a mass movement of the Lebanese people that forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon. Two movements arose, the March 14 coalition lead by Rafic’s son, Raad, with Western and Sunni backing, faced off against the opposing March 8 coalition movement backed by Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

In 2006, Hezbollah instigated the Second Lebanon War by killing eight Israeli soldiers and abducting two others. During the 33-day war, Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel; the Israelis retaliated and devastated Lebanon. Hezbollah remained the dominant force in Lebanon and over time gained more military strength, while effectively increasing its control and participation in the Lebanese government.

As the Lebanese government investigates the cause of the massive explosion at the port, will it look at itself in the mirror? Will it see its own corruption and acquiescence, allowing Hezbollah to control Beirut’s airport and ports, permitting the Lebanese Armed Forces to become a shell of an army, cowed by Hezbollah, Syria and Iran? Its incompetence and weakness leave its fate and potential war with Israel in the hands of Hezbollah and Iran.

If these growing protests do lead to more pressure against the Lebanese government, the chaos and anarchy that may follow could actually serve Hezbollah’s interest, with Lebanese society retreating to their warring camps of the March 8 and March 14 movements. This would then circumvent the potential for a large Lebanese consensus to come together against Hezbollah and its Iranian patron.

And to be clear, it is Iran that ultimately pulls the strings. Although Hezbollah is the dominant player in Lebanon, it is not an independent actor. Hezbollah is better viewed as a division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; its leader follows the explicit orders of the Iranian ayatollah based on the religious doctrine of Twelver Shi’ism that gives ultimate authority to the Supreme Leader in Iran.

How the Beirut port blast will affect Iran’s master plan to convert tens of thousands of Hezbollah’s conventional missiles into precision-guided projectiles that could overwhelm Israel’s multi-layered missile defenses, and accurately strike its most vital security and infrastructure locations, is not known.

However, Hezbollah may decide to make lemonade out of lemons, and utilize this as an opportunity for Iran to transfer precision systems into Lebanon under the guise of humanitarian shipments avoiding the inevitable Israeli attacks. If Iran brings game-changing weapons directly into Lebanon—smuggled along with aid deliveries—Israel would not dare act, knowing the reaction of the world in light of the suffering of the Lebanese people. Yet in time, Israel could be forced to strike to stop weapons transfers it deems game-changers, escalating the chance for war.

Before the explosion, Hezbollah was increasing its activities on Israel’s northern border with terror cells probing multiple locations and provoking fire from Israel’s army. A Western perspective has claimed that the combination of the ongoing economic devastation of Iran’s and Lebanon’s economies by the coronavirus, coupled with the U.S. sanctions campaign against Iran, have reduced Tehran’s ability to fund its proxy armies, decreasing chances for confrontation. However, this explosion has now made the region even more volatile, and the Beirut chaos may increase the possibility of violence spiraling out of control. As Seth Franzman wrote in National Review, “If Hezbollah does capitalize on this disaster, it will only accelerate Lebanon’s economic collapse, and hold the country hostage in a future war with Israel.”

If the pressure against Hezbollah from Lebanon’s Sunni, Druze and Christian citizens for storing munitions in civilian areas escalates, will Hezbollah and Tehran back off and opt away from confrontation, or will they conclude that a northern war with Israel is their best bet to deflect the fury burying their incompetence in the lives of the human shields that will inevitably pay the price?

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.”

Michelle Makori is an internationally acclaimed television journalist, news anchor, reporter and producer. Most recently, she was the lead anchor and editor-in-chief at i24News. Makori has also worked as an anchor and reporter for Bloomberg, CNN Money, CGTN and SABC.

Will annexation embolden Iran?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Could the ramifications of annexation reverberate from an exclusively Israeli-Palestinian issue, into one with regional implications that could lead to a large-scale war?

Does Israel’s extension of sovereignty (annexation) into the West Bank, in accord with the Trump peace plan, play into an Iranian strategy that has been looking for an opportune time to respond to Israel’s continuing attacks on its interests in Syria, and against its missile shipments transiting through Iraq?

Iran’s strategy in Syria in regard to Israel has not changed, biding its time, waiting for a better landscape when Israel will be internationally isolated, to finally respond to the hundreds of Israeli missile and air attacks against its assets and allies in Syria. It has 150,000 missiles under its control in Lebanon, targeting every Israeli city and Israel’s nuclear facility in Dimona.

With the extension of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank and the inevitable international condemnation, Iran’s patience may have been rewarded. It can hope for a new American administration that may not only relieve sanctions on Iran and rejoin the JCPOA, but may actually sanction Israel because of its annexation of the disputed territory in the West Bank.

Could the ramifications of annexation reverberate from an exclusively Israeli-Palestinian issue, into one with regional implications that could lead to a large-scale war?

Just as some in Israel believe now is the time to act and extend sovereignty, as the opportunity will not being there under a Biden administration, Iran may also calculate that if Biden becomes president and re-enters the JCPOA, there would then be the opportunity to take military action against Israel, believing Biden will not want to endanger a nuclear deal by siding with Israel.

Iran remembers that after the JCPOA went into effect, it paid no consequences for its continued support of terrorism, complicity in the Syrian genocide, increased human rights abuses against its own citizens, and accelerated development of long-range missiles. This was despite the Obama administration’s promises to the contrary. The administration chose instead to ignore these Iranian transgressions in the name of preserving the deal.

So would a Biden administration give Israel a black eye over annexation? Remember that after the surprise Egyptian and Syrian attack on Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, an audio recording of then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger said, “[The] best result would be if Israel came out a little ahead but got bloodied in the process.”

Are there any parallels to today? Kissinger’s Machiavellian strategy hoped to cower Israel by refusing to resupply it for a week under dire straits, hoping to make Israel less intransigent on territorial concessions in the future. If Israel has annexed land that Biden views as Palestinian, what kind of support can Israel expect if Iran unleashes Hezbollah against Israel?

The administration’s ear will be tuned to J Street, an organization highly critical of Israeli policy and that believes for Israel’s own good it needs to be taught a lesson.

Israel hoped its repeated air strikes and the American sanctions that have left the Iranian economy in shambles would force Iran to withdraw from Syria, unable to afford to continue to invest in Syria.

Unfortunately, revolutionary Islamist regimes don’t play by Western rules.

NOT ONLY is Iran still in Syria, but Russian promises that the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and Shi’ite militias would not move into southern and eastern Syria to threaten Israel have been ignored, increasing the likelihood of more Israeli attacks and a potential war.

As Amos Yadlin, the head of INSS and former head of Israeli Military Intelligence, said, “The extensive attacks in Syria… show that the assessment that the Iranians are leaving Syria is a wish…. We must be prepared for the entire scope of possible responses from the Shi’ite axis, from missiles to cyber terrorism.”

Iran’s long-term strategy to encircle Israel is halfway home with effectively control of Syria and Lebanon today. The next significant domino to fall is the vulnerable Jordanian monarchy, whose collapse would result in a Syrian-style civil war between Iranian Shi’ite proxies and Sunni Islamists who will fight tooth and nail, destabilizing the region.

If Iran sees a limited window of opportunity to attack Israel while influential factions of America are furious with Israel over annexation, will it act on that?

The conventional wisdom is that Iran will wait until after the US presidential election to see if the unpredictable Trump wins, or if a more compliant Biden prevails. From an Iranian perspective, Israeli annexation and the international fallout against Israel will play into their hands, especially if Democrats control the Senate, House and executive branch, and work in concert with the United Nations.

In the international community, Belgium has telegraphed Western European wishes, asking for sanctions on Israel and recognition of Palestinian statehood even before Israel acts to extend sovereignty.

Behind the scenes Israel’s strongest allies against Iran will remain the conservative Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt – which all know that Iran is its primary threat but can’t say so publicly. They will do whatever they can to help Israel defeat Iran, annexation or not.

Their current not-so-secret intelligence and security cooperation with Israel could actually increase even after annexation, but unfortunately their anti-Israel public rhetoric will also increase with any Israeli annexation, in order to placate their citizenry, who have been fed a lifelong diet of blaming Israel for all their problems.

A Biden administration may not like Israel’s annexation. However, if it wants to keep a lid on a major war erupting between Israel and Iran, it will need to be out ahead of the issue. That means publicly warning Iran that if it initiates a war with Israel, likely perpetrated by its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, it will not only be held responsible, but the United States will be fully supportive of Israeli actions. That is the best chance to avoid war.

This will be a tough sell in 2021 because of the anger a Biden administration will have for Israel’s extension of sovereignty into the West Bank. The greater picture of keeping a lid on an explosive Middle East, though, should lead Biden, if elected, to bite his lower lip and stand with Israel against Iran when the inevitable northern war from Syria and Lebanon under the direction of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s direction occurs.

The writer is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, as well White House advisers. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post, and writes for The Hill, JNS, JTA, RealClearWorld, and Defense News.

Will Territorial Annexation Weaken Support for Israel in Congress?

{Previously published by the JNS}

It certainly could. Timing it to coincide with a Trump second term would be a much better strategy.

There is a solid consensus within Israel that it must continue to control the Jordan River Valley, as it is Israel’s only truly defensible border to the east. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, nearly twice as many Israelis are in favor of annexation of Jordan River Valley than are opposed.

There is little doubt of the necessity of the Jordan River Valley for Israel’s long-term safety, especially with a fragile Jordan controlling the eastern bank of the Jordan River, and both Iran and Sunni jihadists waiting for an opportunity to destabilize the Hashemite Kingdom.

It is not often said, but any Palestinian state that is created in the foreseeable future would destabilize Jordan. Israel’s control of the valley is also in America’s interest, which is served by regional stability.

Critics of continued Israeli control of the Jordan River Valley claim that its annexation is illegal as it is “occupied territory,” according to their definition of international law, and would preclude the creation of a Palestine state.

According to this view, ending the possibility for a Palestinian state is against Israel’s own interests, for it to remain both a democratic and a Jewish state. Others also claim that there is no need for Israeli topographical advantage or controlling the passages through the mountain ranges in Samaria with today’s defensive advanced technologies, which in this view are less dependent on geography.

Countering this view is the reading of international law that would dictate that territory acquired in a defensive war should not be returned unless there is a complete end of conflict agreement, with a demilitarized Palestinian state. In addition, since the territory never had a previous legitimate stakeholder, Israel has at least equal rights to the territories beyond the 1949 armistice line, and so the land should clearly be viewed as disputed, not occupied.

The first duty of any nation is to protect its people, and control of the Jordan River Valley clearly rises to the level of an essential long-term strategic defensive priority, especially in this neighborhood of very bad actors.

But does Israel need to annex the Jordan River Valley now?

Supporters say that there will never be another President Donald Trump in the next 100 years—someone who was willing to recognize the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, when no previous American president, Democrat or Republican has been willing to do so. Those presidents and their “peace teams” not only didn’t recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, but also encouraged Israeli prime ministers to consider a near complete Israeli withdrawal for a “words only” promise of peace with Syria.

Israel doesn’t have to annex the Jordan Valley in order to control it indefinitely. Its choices include leaving the status quo or extending Israeli civilian law to the region without annexation.

According to Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research for the Israeli Defense forces, and now a security and intelligence expert at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), applying the law “means that the area is still a disputed land that is subject to future negotiations,” whereas annexation is more irreversible.

Annexation at this time would, in my view, be a mistake.

It would be unnecessarily placed on the agenda of the contentious Democratic Party debates, forcing Democratic candidates to criticize Israel to remain relevant in the primaries where progressive anti-Israel forces are likely to hold sway.

The rhetoric and damage will only increase during the 2020 elections between Trump and the Democratic presidential candidate, where Israel will be placed on the docket—the worst place it could be to accelerate the bipartisan divide.

Five years ago, I was asked by a member of Israel’s security cabinet what he should recommend to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in regard to accepting the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner to speak about the upcoming Iran deal. Knowing that I was strongly against the deal that was being negotiated, he was surprised when I told him to tell Netanyahu not to come. The timing was wrong.

I advised him to wait a few weeks until after the Israeli election; it will put Israel in a better position diplomatically with wavering members of the Democratic Party. I said that if he won the election, he would be received with much stronger support from the Democratic side in just a few weeks. But if he came now, he would further polarize bipartisan support and weaken the case, which needs Democratic support.

The annexation story has strong parallels, and the subject should be avoided in American politics as much as possible. If Trump losses the next election, a premature Israeli annexation may force the next Democratic president to impose consequences on Israel, especially if there is Democratic control of both chambers of Congress, a totally unnecessary and self-inflicted wound.

There is no imperative to annex now unless Israel believes that the move cannot be reversed in the future, which is not certain. Timing it to coincide with a Trump second term would be a much better strategy.

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.”

Israel’s Self-Destructive PR Must Change in its Next Government

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Wouldn’t be great if Isrotel worked with StandWithUs like El Al, to empower their employees, helping them to realize they are the face of Israel.

American supporters of Israel have complained for years that Israel’s public relations, hasbara, has been ineffective, counter-productive, and its importance for strengthening the US-Israeli relationship unappreciated by Israelis as a core national security interest.

This all came to mind during a wonderful weekend wedding at one of Israel’s leading hotels, when I went to breakfast and the only newspaper available to read was the Haaretz/New York Times edition. This was not the first time this has happened to me in Israel.
Haaretz’s Hebrew-language readership is dwarfed by other Israeli print dailies, but you would never know that if you were a visiting American tourist or English-speaking journalist staying at some of Israel’s many fine hotels, reading the Haaretz English edition that is combined with The New York Times, another paper that has a long history of harshly critical views of Israeli policy.

Within Israel, the newspaper is widely known as being to the hard-left of the political spectrum, representative of a small segment of the Israeli population, although it is influential within Israeli academia and intelligentsia. It is a legitimate and important viewpoint, but not one representative of the majority of the Israeli people based upon election results and surveys over many years.

When an English-speaking journalist, organizational leader or businessperson visits Israel, if they receive only one critical viewpoint to start their day, does this matter? It does, and it is representative of the greater problem of Israel’s approach and investment in projecting a positive image, and explaining its policies to a world that is increasing hostile to its very right to exist.

There is little doubt that some of the news writers for Haaretz, not only its editorial and opinion-page journalists, are profoundly hostile to Israeli policy. When I brought this up with then chief political columnist, editorial writer and US bureau chief, Akiva Eldar, at his Haaretz office about 10 years ago, complaining that news articles shouldn’t be editorialized and should strive to present a factually balanced news story, he simply told me to go read another paper.

So when a hotel offers only Haaretz to its guests, it’s representative of a pervasive Israeli attitude that stretches from the halls of the Knesset to Israeli companies to the Prime Minister’s Office that they are indifferent or exasperated, that they need to continually plead to the world for understanding of their precarious situation.

But when you are a lonely democracy living in a very bad neighborhood, you’d better start caring.

Haaretz is a legitimate view of Israel but not the only one. If during your time in Israel when impressions are formed and this is the only newspaper you read, as it is for too many foreign journalists, it will present a distorted and biased view. In short, it feeds the echo chamber for those who see Israel responsible for all the problems of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict – a brutal, undemocratic, colonialist occupier.

BUT FOCUSING the blame for bad public relations on Israeli businesses is just the tip of the iceberg, as Israel’s government has slashed its investment into its Foreign Ministry that is tasked with explaining its case to America and to an unsympathetic world. Instead of expanding and increasing consulates in the United States, there are plans to close consulates.

This month Israel ordered most of its overseas embassies to stop work due to a “grave deficit” of its Foreign Ministry budget.
According to the Foreign Ministry, “The main effect is that during this sensitive time, when faced with diplomatic and strategic challenges… foremost among them the threat by Iran… and on the eve of a UN General Assembly – the Foreign Ministry and its missions abroad will be almost entirely paralyzed.”

This is insanity.

PM Netanyahu bears responsibility as he has overshadowed his own foreign ministers, when he has appointed them at all, choosing inexperienced lightweights, the most recent having made too many mistakes since filling the vacancy earlier this year.

Sometimes Israelis do get it, as when StandWithUs partnered with El Al pilots and flight attendants, helping them use their two-to-three day layovers overseas to educate people about the real Israel, sharing their personal stories.

Which brings us back to the wedding at one of Israel‘s best hotels owned by one of Israel’s leading hotel chains, Isrotel. The assistant manager told me that offering Haaretz was the way it has been for years. I explained why multiple viewpoints are important for their guests and for Israel’s hasbara, or public diplomacy.

The guests at the wedding included many distinguished young American and Europeans from the world of governments, business and NGO’S.

When they walked into the dining room and picked up their English-language newspaper, they were presented with a one-sided minority Israeli view, but most were completely unaware of this.

Wouldn’t be great if Isrotel worked with StandWithUs like El Al, to empower their employees, helping them to realize they are the face of Israel.

Israel is about to form a new coalition government. Whether it is led by incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu or Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, both need to realize that Israel’s security is not just in the hands of its very capable defense forces, but needs the help of all of its people, companies and government to present the real Israel in all its beauty and complexities.

It’s about time Israel started putting its best face forward with increased government expenditures for its Foreign Ministry overseas, and work in partnership with Israeli companies and their employees, who very often are the only face that the world sees representing Israel.

Criticism is great for the health of a democracy. Thank you Haaretz. But if you have only criticism reinforced by poor hasbara, then at the end of the day instead of debating Israeli policy with the world, you will continue to simply fight to explain why you have a right to exist at all.

The writer is the director of the Middle East Political Information Network who regularly briefs members of the 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.

The Question Israel’s Leaders Ask Every Day: Will Tomorrow be Too Late?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Critics of any pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities rightly claim that Israel cannot totally destroy the Iranian nuclear program. But that misses the point.

How far away is the day when Israelis and Americans will wake up and realize that it is too late to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program? This is not a new question. Seven years ago Jonathan Tobin writing in Commentary also asked, “Is it already too late to stop Iran?

Last week, I met with Israeli military, security and intelligence experts, and I asked if it is already too late to significantly affect the progress of the Iranian nuclear program with a pre-emptive strike, and the answer was always that it is not too late. But the caveat that followed was, the Americans can do it much more effectively than we can.

Critics of any pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities rightly claim that Israel cannot totally destroy the Iranian nuclear program. But that misses the point.

Delaying the program five or 10 years, which would be the case with an Israeli strike, could be game changing, especially in conjunction with continued cyberattacks and escalating American sanctions that undermine the support for the regime by the Iranian people, who are increasingly becoming economically harmed and blaming it on the Mullahs and their corrupt cronies.

We know that before the 2015 JCPOA deal, Iran was already technically capable of reaching the crucial 20% uranium enrichment level, and was within a just a few months of amassing enough 90% uranium for a nuclear weapon, even using obsolete and unpredictable IR-1 centrifuges.

So the question to ask now is, how much have Iran’s nuclear capabilities advanced over the last four years since the beginning of the JCPOA? How much closer are they to a nuclear breakout?

We know that the agreement allowed Iran to continue to develop advanced centrifuges that can enrich weapons-grade material in a significantly shorter amount of time than the older IR-1 centrifuges, reducing the critical time to produce enough fissile material to just a few months. These advanced centrifuges are also much smaller and harder to detect.

Additionally, Iran never accepted the Additional Protocol, a nuclear addendum that allowed international inspectors to visit military sites where they would likely be developing nuclear missile warhead production.

Already last year, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, estimated that Iran could enrich enough material for a bomb in eight to 10 months. The deal’s supporters claimed that the agreement would not allow Iran to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon for one year during the length of the agreement, something that is already probably untrue.

After Israel’s revelation of Iran’s nuclear archive, we now know without doubt that Iran planned to build a nuclear weapon, and still has the information and capabilities to accomplish this. This is not Saddam Hussein all over again.

Even if international inspectors wanted to visit a military faculty, the JCPOA gives them a month’s time to comply, more than enough time to clear away any evidence.

THE DAY Iran passes the threshold for creating a nuclear weapon, everything will change for Israel, the Sunni Gulf states, Turkey, the US and Europe, and the world will be a much more dangerous place. A nuclear arms race will begin in the Sunni world, dramatically increasing the potential dangers of a nuclear conflict in the future.

So can Israel, this late in the game, still effectively strike the Iranian program? The answer is yes – but again, the US can do it better.

Iran has a plan to make Israel think twice before attacking. According to former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror, now a Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and a distinguished fellow at JINSA, Iran’s strategic plan – which is well underway – is to create a deterrence barrier around Israel, stretching from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to the Gaza Strip, in order to threaten Israel with an overwhelming and devastating strike on its homeland, should Israel attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Is delaying their program five years worth the price Israel will pay if tens of thousands of missiles are unleashed, capable of hitting everywhere in the country, while the negative diplomatic fallout will be enormous, especially if Donald Trump is not US president?

Hillel Frisch of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies wrote “In both word and deed, Israel is firmly committed to its redlines. The reddest of all is that Israel will not permit Syria to be turned into a forward base for direct Iranian operations and a manufacturing center for precision-guided missiles.”

Which means the noose will only tighten around Israel, as the Iranian operating bases in Syria over time will eventually look more like Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Yet when I ask the Israeli experts if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the paper tiger that the Obama administration portrayed when a senior official called him chickens**t, the response was clear. If Bibi is convinced tomorrow is too late to stop a functioning Iranian nuclear weapon, he will indeed act today.

What will an Israeli attack on Iran look like?

Think out of the box. Not only cyberattacks and sophisticated strikes against known and presumed nuclear sites like Natanz, Fordow and the unnamed military sites conducting nuclear work, but targeting the lifeline of the Iranian economy – the port of Bandar Abbas, where almost all of Iranian commercial shipping trade transits, and Kharg Island, the location where Iran exports most of its fossil fuels.

An Israeli attack at Kharg or Bandar Abbas would make the impact of the current sanctions look like a popgun, and the survival of the regime would hang in the balance, as an economically devastated Iran will be imperiled from within.

If Israel does launch an attack on Iran, what would Israel look like the day after?

I remember visiting the North after the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Hospitals hit, hundreds of thousands of residents displaced to the South or living in steaming hot underground shelters and millions of Israelis throughout the country feeling vulnerable and angry.

Now imagine a hundred times worse, with the Dimona nuclear faculty in the South and Azrieli towers in central Tel Aviv in the crosshairs of Iran. The layers of Israel’s missile defense are remarkable but are incapable of stopping all the missiles heading for Israeli cities.

Time is not on Israel’s side, but when will tomorrow be too late?

The writer is the Director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, and regularly briefs members of the 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.

HOW ISRAEL’S CHOICES FOR GAZA AFFECT AMERICAN PLANS IN THE MIDDLE EAST

{Previously published in the Jerusalem Post}

According to Avi Issacharoff writing in The Times of Israel, Israel has already lost the Fourth Gaza War. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar “has not only managed to score military and diplomatic victories, but can even claim to have likely brought about the end of Netanyahu’s government.” 

A positive spin would see a Hamas victory as possibly giving them political cover to accept a longer-term ceasefire, much as Sadat was able to claim success after the 1973 war before reconciling with Israel. Make no mistake, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas is an American-designated terrorist entity that will never accept a Jewish state, but Israeli and American interests may be served if its claim to victory delays the next war, giving Israel and America some more years of quiet before Israel has to “mow the grass” again. Unfortunately, the more likely assessment is that Hamas will see their victory as evidence of Israeli weakness, encouraging them to be aggressive sooner rather than later.

For America, the first fact we need to be clear about is that the agenda of radical Islamist ideology will continue to trump the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people. Economic incentives or sanctions will not alter Hamas’ goal. After years of incitement against Israel, the people of Gaza would still re-elect a radical Islamist government over the corrupt Palestinian Authority.

Israel has no apparent military answer for Gaza, despite the Israeli public being in favor of a significant operation against Hamas to end the constant threat of missiles that have made life intolerable for Israelis living in the South in a perpetual state of traumatic stress.

Senior Likud official Tzachi Hanegbi was forced to apologize this week for publicly stating the unspoken truth that within the government and IDF leadership, Gaza’s conflict is considered a “minor” and non-existential threat, as long as life goes on in the Tel Aviv bubble. 

We hear from Israeli politicians like former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman and Jewish Home Party leader Naphtali Bennett, whose call to war is more calculated to influencing voters before the next election, but whose demand that their government protect its citizens from the constant threat of mortars is completely reasonable. 

So then why is Israel not contemplating a full-scale invasion to remove Hamas from Gaza once and for all? Why is the IDF so leery about conquering Gaza?

1. Logistics: Within the dense urban networks are miles of advanced tunnels crisscrossing Gaza with booby-trapped civilian structures set as traps to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

2. Lawyers and Proportionality: Israeli commanders may fear lawyers more than Hamas. Israeli lawyers will be embedded within all levels of the IDF, perpetually second-guessing every operation, knowing every Palestinian civilian killed will be part of the evidence used against Israel at the ICC (International Criminal Court). The army’s hands will be tied as it tries to fight a terrorist entity that uses human shields as canon fodder, and hospitals and schools as forward bases of operations. Israeli lawyers will also be dealing with the politicized definition of proportionality where Israel will be accused of disproportionality if more Palestinians are killed than Israelis.

3. Keeping the Eye on the True Existential Threat: According to David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, “Many senior security officials see Gaza as a distraction from Israel’s primary military challenge: keeping Iran from entrenching a Hezbollah-style military infrastructure in Syria. 

Former Military Intelligence head and National Security adviser Maj.-Gen. Yaakov Amidror said, “A war in Gaza will only benefit [PA President] Abu Mazen and Iran, and we don’t want to give Iran any gifts.”

4. Nation Building With a Hostile Neighbor: The last thing the IDF wants to do after defeating Hamas is control and provide for two million Gazans who have been indoctrinated to blame Israel for all of their ills. Just think of Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 after the Second Lebanon War, except this time with much more dangerous possibilities.

So what happens the day after Israel “wins”?

Does Israel hand Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority (PA) as many American foreign policy advisers advocate? If it did, Gaza could turn into an even more chaotic territory where Iran and Turkey would support an Islamist insurgency, while Israel supports an unpopular Palestinian Authority who will be portrayed as Jewish collaborators without the support of the Gazan people.

That new reality in Gaza may also be a lightning strike destabilizing the West Bank and Jordan, empowering jihadists to ramp up terrorism while challenging both the PA and the Hashemite monarchy, a pillar of any American peace plan. A domino effect could also motivate Iran to unleash Hezbollah in the north, while it enjoys weakening Israel in a new proxy war in Gaza.

Some American Middle East experts say the end game would include Egypt, or a consortium of Arab states working with the Palestinian Authority. Unfortunately no Arab nation wants any part of Gaza, knowing it is a basket case that will cause political repercussions with its own citizens.

Egypt has enough on its hands with al-Qaida in the Sinai and chaos next store in Libya. All Egypt wants from its enemy Hamas is for it to stop supporting the jihadists in the Sinai. The Saudis do not want to be involved in another Yemeni proxy war with Iran in Gaza, and Israel would never allow Qatar or Turkey into Gaza, knowing that both are in cahoots with Iran.

So where does that leave us?

“Cutting the grass” every few years, unless Hamas steps over a red line such as hitting a school bus full of children, or incinerating a kindergarten. That would automatically elicit an overwhelming Israeli response where Israel might finally take the fateful decision to take Hamas out of Gaza.

Then the law of unintended consequences will rear its ugly head.

The writer, a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post, is the director of MEPIN™ (Middle East Political and Information Network™), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders.

America Needs a Syria Policy to Avoid a Regional Conflagration

{Previously published in the Jerusalem Post}

Trump has put America in a position of strength by withdrawing from the JCPOA and re-imposing sanctions.

According to Steven Cook of the Council for Foreign Relations, “the Syrian war is over and America lost… Washington has proved either unable or unwilling to shape events in the Middle East… which is to say, it has abdicated its own influence.”

But is it too late or still in American interests to influence the endgame in Syria and beyond?

American foreign policy in Syria since 2014 has prioritized the defeat of ISIS, choosing to sideline the more important and challenging confrontation with Iran over its permanent entrenchment and expansionism in the region. Syria is just one theater of operation among many interconnected pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which includes Iraq and Lebanon, where all roads lead to a malevolent Iran.

But Syria is ground zero with its outcome still uncertain, still susceptible to American influence, and affecting all aspects of Iran’s quest for a Shi’ite corridor to the Mediterranean. America’s Syrian policy or lack of one reverberates throughout the region and the world.

The Trump administration has been saying all the right things about Iran’s malign influence on American security interests. The administration has put the world on notice that it is not business as usual and has taken tangible actions, including withdrawing from JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) and re-imposing escalating sanctions against Iran and her proxies, in part because of its role in the Syrian civil war.

But the next crucial step for the administration is to articulate a longer term, more comprehensive policy with a less ad hoc approach in Syria. The goal is nothing less than a return of American leverage in the region to advance our interests. This is in direct contradistinction to the isolationist approach of Stephen Walt of Harvard who wrote in Foreign Policy that he would like to forge an alliance with socialists against American exceptionalism and outsized influence in the region. (This the same Walt who, with John Mearsheimer has been arguing that America is fooled by the “Israel lobby” into thinking Israel is an ally worth supporting.)

To advance American interests, the president will need to overcome his impulse to prematurely withdraw troops from Syria, as their presence is essential to prevent Syria from becoming a permanent Iranian base threatening Israel and Jordan, which would fly in the face of US President Donald Trump’s stated vision.

This is the lesson to have learned from former president Barack Obama’s disastrous premature withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq after the successful surge, which left Iran in the driver seat in today’s Iraqi politics, undermining American interests.

America must articulate its strategic goals and redlines to all the actors operating within the Syria theater, so miscalculations can be avoided and small problems won’t snowball into a significant escalation. The accidental Syrian downing of a Russian plane with blame ascribed to Israel is a case in point.

It was just a matter of time before Russia and Israel crossed paths in the crowded skies over Syria.

Without an American Syria policy, Russia can distance itself from cooperating with Israel without repercussions, while avoiding putting any pressure against Iran’s permanent presence in Syria, which they know crosses Israel’s existential redline.

Russia took notice when America did not utter a peep while Russia invaded Syria’s de-escalation zones in Daraa and Quneitra without paying any price. With a lack of an American policy on Syria, Russia feels free to threaten Israel, now offering to supply the advanced S-300 anti-missile system to the Assad regime.

An American Syria policy should not only make clear that Israeli strikes on Iranian military targets is in American interest, but be willing to enforce a no-fly zone over its Kurdish and moderate Sunni allies in the 40% of Syria they still control.

The downing of the Russian jet is just the tip of the iceberg for future game changing confrontations that threaten to bring the local war of Israeli preemptive attacks into a regional conflagration. The lack of an American policy and redlines contributes greatly to regional instability, while Israel is more isolated without an American plan for its interests in the Levant.

So what should be America’s Syria policy?

1. America will support its Kurdish and moderate Sunni allies in Syria. This does not mean any more boots on the ground, but does mean that America won’t leave Syria until Iran, and its proxies, the PMU’s (Iranian controlled Shi’ite militias) and Hezbollah are permanently gone. According to James Phillips and Luke Coffey writing for the Heritage Foundation.

“The pace of (US) withdrawal should be based on security conditions on the ground in eastern Syria, not on a pre-determined timetable.

2. America supports Israel’s objective to end any permanent Iranian presence in Syria. As the Washington Institute of Near East Policy’s Assaf Orion, Anna Borshchevskaya and Matthew Levitt wrote, “So long as Iran and its agents – especially foreign fighters – are active in Syria, US policy should be to contain the Assad regime and oppose steps that would strengthen it.”

3. America’s goal is the complete disarmament of Hezbollah in Lebanon according to UNSC Resolution 1701, even if it is not realistic at the moment.

4. America considers Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, PMU’s, or any political entity controlled by Iran to be the equivalent of an Iranian presence, and will hold Iran responsible for any attacks on Americans or her allies.

5. Reaffirm America’s commitment to NATO, as this directly confronts Russian influence in Syria. However, all NATO members i.e., Turkey, must not integrate any non-NATO military systems into NATO defenses. NATO is still important, even if Turkey decides to commit suicide by aligning with Russia and Iran, and is forced from the alliance.

Trump has put America in a position of strength by withdrawing from the JCPOA and re-imposing sanctions. But the president must realize that the revolutionary Islamist entity of Iran will let its people starve before capitulating to the West.

Former US secretary of state John Kerry has told the Iranians that they should wait out this administration. Let’s leave aside how inappropriate this is for a former secretary of state. The Iranians do plan to wait this president out for a more compliant president, no matter how harshly present-day sanctions affect its people, and Iran will not leave Syria any time soon. That is why it is important to articulate a longterm American policy that the next administration will have a harder time distancing itself from.

America’s national interest is not isolationism. “Mission accomplished” in Syria may be generations away. America needs patience, something this president and every one before has shown little interest in. No less than American and Israeli security interests are at stake.

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of the Senate, House, and their foreign policy advisors. He is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, and The Forward.