Tag Archives: Jerusalem Post

Is it still possible to distance Iraq from Iran? 

Turkish-American relations are at an all-time low.

Last year, American Enterprise Institute scholar Ken Pollack testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee, saying: “Every year since 2003, knowledgeable Americans have been warning that the current year is absolutely critical in Iraq. They have been right every time and 2018 will be no exception.”

With Turkish-American relations at an all-time low; President Erdogan in power until at least 2029; and Iranian expansionism extending into critical American areas of interest throughout the Middle East, the new reality requires an American effort to improve its problematic and fragile relationship with Iraq.

The aftermath of the Iraqi elections this spring were a punch in the face to American interests, especially after so much blood and treasure have been lost. America’s favored party, that of current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s came in third, while the anti-American Sadrist Party of Muqtada al Sadr and the Iranian supported Fatah Party gained the lion’s share of votes.

But no party in Iraq can govern without forming a coalition – and America may still have enough influence to marginalize Fatah, empower Prime Minister Abadi and even support Muqtada al Sadr, who although anti-Western is not a fan of Iranian influence. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Good news seemed to have arrived in early August when Abadi shocked both America and Iran by stating that although he thinks new US sanctions against Iran are a “strategic mistake… we [Iraq] will abide by them.” It seemed this was an opportunity not to be missed. At first there was reason for optimism as Voice of America reported that Iranian merchants claimed that Iraq was turning away Iranian goods.

On August 13, the pressure on Abadi from Iran and its minions within Iraq forced him to backtrack on his promise regarding American sanctions. The news headline from Al Jazeera read, “Iraqi PM walks back on commitment to US sanctions on Iran.”

But looking deeper, all is not lost and there remains a window of opportunity to advance American interests. What Abadi did say was that the sanctions were being “reviewed” and “we honestly have not made any decision.” He also did confirm that Iraq would abide and not use dollars to transact business with Tehran.

SO IS IT too late to help Iraq disentangle itself from growing Iranian control?

It would be naïve to believe that America could engineer a complete break in relations between the two Shi’ite nations. Not only do they share the same version of Islam, but Iran is also Iraq’s largest trading partner. Yet Iraq does not want to be dominated by Iran. This is where a new well-thought-out strategic policy could help Iraq create some distance from Iran, furthering American interests while stabilizing the region.

There may be an uphill climb convincing the Trump White House. Last year before John Bolton joined the administration, he said in The Wall Street Journal that it was against American interests to continue our military support of Iraq.

What should not be glossed over is that the Shi’ites of Iran, the majority of whom are Persian, are very different from the Shi’ites of Iraq who are Arab – no small difference. Shi’ite Iraqi Muslim leaders like the Grand Ayatollah Sistani remain religiously independent from the Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini, in contrast to Hezbollah’s Nasrallah in Lebanon, who follows Velayat-e Faqih (guardianship of the jurist), compelling all Shi’ites to unquestioningly follow the Iranian Supreme Leader. This is why Hezbollah does not have an independent foreign policy, allowing Iran to exert far too much influence in Lebanon, both militarily and politically.

To help Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi fulfill his promise to uphold sanctions, America must creatively reach out to Iraq and see how we can help mitigate whatever economic damage Iraq will sustain from abiding by the sanctions we want to place on Iran.

One of the missed opportunities of American Middle East foreign policy post 9/11 was not appreciating the region’s fault lines other than the Sunni-Shi’ite divide in formulating strategies to advance American foreign policy interests. The sectarian divide is just one way to see the region, where interests sometimes outweigh ideology. Shi’ite Persian Iranians ally with Sunni Arab Hamas in their shared ambition to destroy Israel, which they both have been taught to believe resides on Islamic land.

FOR MANY in the post-Iraq invasion era, they see two Shi’ite majority countries that were politically divided by Saddam Hussein, where a minority ruled a Shi’ite majority country. Once Saddam was sent to the dustbin of history by the United States, many thought and feared the two nations would naturally gravitate together, despite American soldiers’ lives and billions of dollars sacrificed to liberate the Iraqi Shi’ite people from their Sunni Ba’ath tyrant.

At the height of Islamic State’s power in 2014, Iran saw an opportunity to exert control over Iraq. A weakened Iraq under the siege of ISIS accepted Iranian Popular Mobilization Units (PMU’s) controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Iran then used the vanguard of these PMU’s to complete its land corridor to the Mediterranean, undermining American interests and allies, especially the Kurds in the North.

America needs a more pro-Western Iraq, especially with long-term ally Turkey crossing over to the dark side, and Iran and America on a collision course in the post-JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) era.

The US is considering creating an Arab/Sunni alliance – something like NATO – against Iran. Although the Iraqis are Arabs they are not Sunnis and would have zero interest in being involved with such an alliance. However, the more realistic goal to advance American interests is an Iraq that remains more neutral and less under Iranian influence.

Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi has offered America a fleeting opportunity; it is up to us not to waste it.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel 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.

What to do about EU’s Pathological Relationship with Hezbollah

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Europeans have criticized US President Donald Trump for distancing America from her traditional allies in NATO, while favoring his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After relying on America for protection for over 70 years since the end of World War II, Europe is “now more worried about an America withdrawing from the transatlantic relationship than an overbearing superpower”, according to Richard Wike writing in the Atlantic.

Yet when European financial interests were threatened last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized bipartisan congressional legislation that proposed increasing sanctions against Russia because it targeted the European- Russia Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in which German companies are invested.

The legislation toughened sanctions on Russia over its Ukrainian invasion. Mrs. Merkel’s doesn’t seem to realize that she lives in a glass house.

American critics of Europe have focused on European underfunding of their NATO obligation, spending under 2% of their GDP, below their promised commitment.
However equally as troubling to both Congress and the administration is Europe’s associations and protection of the American-designated terrorist organization Hezbollah that operates freely in Europe, raising funds while threatening American and allied interests. The Europeans stick their collective heads in the sand as multiple Hezbollah planned attacks on European soil have been foiled within the last few years.

European appeasement of Hezbollah begins and ends with their failure to designate its political wing as a terrorist organization, despite Hezbollah itself having no distinction between its terrorist and political entities.

For the past four decades Europe has had an unspoken arrangement with Arab terrorist organizations, that they won’t commit terror on their soil if they are allowed to raise funds and operate freely there.

Germany’s history of capitulating to terror is long and unflattering. Just one month after the Palestinian Black September massacre at the Munich Olympics, they released the remaining perpetrators of the attacks.

A Der Spiegel investigation of German government documents released forty years after the attacks said, “Despite the still-vivid images of masked terrorists on the balconies of the Olympic Village…there was already active but secret diplomatic communication between…
German representatives…talking to men like Abu Youssef, Ali Salameh and Amin al-Hindi, all of them masterminds of the Munich murders.”

In fact, Germany chose never to prosecute or even pursue the terrorists who murdered the unarmed Olympic athletes.

Today’s Hezbollah is yesterday’s Black September, except they are exponentially more powerful, literally control a country Lebanon, and are themselves directed controlled by the Iranian “supreme leader” and his Revolutionary Guards. According to the State Department, Iran is still designated as the number-one state sponsor of terrorism.

After the EU listed Hezbollah’s military but not its political wing as a terrorist entity in 2012, after they attacked a tourist bus in Bulgaria targeting Israeli civilians, the French foreign minister pledged, “there’s no question of accepting terrorist organizations in Europe.”

According to Mathew Levitt, a Washington Institute Counterterrorism and Intelligence expert, just three years after the attack “there is abundant evidence that Hezbollah is…engaging in terrorist activities in Europe.” Yet the EU continues to do business as usual with Hezbollah’s Iranian sponsors.

Far too many in Europe, especially Germany, fail to live up to their western values, favoring Iran over American interests, refusing to designate Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization.

Just a few weeks ago, an Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi was charged by German police with giving a high explosive bomb to an Iranian couple to detonate at an Iranian opposition rally outside of Paris.

How did the EU respond? According to Struan Stevenson writing in UPI, “ EU lawmakers on July 5 (one week later) approved plans for the European Investment Bank to do business with Iran… The EU appeasers seem to think that if you keep throwing steaks to the tiger it will become a vegetarian.”

So what needs to be done? America must fundamentally change its policy towards Lebanon and acknowledge the reality that differentiating Lebanon from Hezbollah at this point is as incoherent as differentiating the military and political wings of Hezbollah.

They are all one in the same, and America would be much more persuasive to Europe if it had a unified policy on Lebanon and Hezbollah.

Just as America viewed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega as a narco-terrorist in the 1980’s and acted decisively, Hezbollah’s leadership needs to be viewed through the same prism. Hezbollah funds their terrorism through drugs and money laundering in Europe and South America, directly fueling the cocaine trade into the United States.

That is a primary reason why America and Europe need both to call Hezbollah what it is, an enemy terrorist organization.

According to former Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor, “The moment it is classed as such, its bank accounts, businesses and finances would be treated as illegal, and heavily sanctioned. Its members would be placed on no-flight lists, and law-enforcement agencies can then use more effective tools. Hezbollah’s “free-trade zone” would officially be closed…Less money means fewer weapons.”

As Hezbollah expert Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies writes, in foreign policy, “Latin America is an indispensable theater of operations for the criminal networks that generate much of Hezbollah’s revenue. Paraguay hosts a significant and growing money laundering operation connected to Hezbollah in the Triple Frontier, where Paraguay intersects with Argentina and Brazil.”

There is bipartisan consensus in the House of Representatives with the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Ed Royce a Republican, and ranking member Elliot Engel a Democrat, co-authoring legislation sanctioning individuals and businesses that are the lifeblood supporting Hezbollah’s illicit operations.

As for Europe’s unsavory relationship with Hezbollah, just as the address to do anything in Syria is Moscow, the address to stop Hezbollah resides in Europe with Angela Merkel.

Merkel cannot plead ignorance. The German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution figured there were nearly 1000 Hezbollah operatives and 300 Hamas members actively working within Germany.

German diplomats have claimed that Germany is resisting the US demand to outlaw Hezbollah because it will hurt Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The rationale to defend Hezbollah is becoming more flimsy all the time.

To make the point absolutely clear that Europe has no interest in reigning in Hezbollah, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Frederica Mogherini, justifies engaging with a terrorist entity like Hezbollah, because it allows for constructive engagement. This is the same person who defends Iran and actively undermines American interests by promoting Iranian trade, despite the direct complicity of Iran and Hezbollah in their ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq to make way for a forced population transfer of Shi’ites controlled by Iran into Sunni areas, flying in the face of international law.

America needs to lead and demand that Europe will follow. As Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said, “This Administration will expose and disrupt Hizbollah and Iranian terror networks at every turn, including those with ties to the Central Bank of Iran.”

Your turn Chancellor Merkel.

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

Can Trump’s Peace Plan Avoid the Pitfalls of Previously Failed Negotiations? 

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Has the Kushner/Greenblatt peace initiative learned from the mistakes of previous negotiation efforts?

The long-awaited Trump peace plan to end the Israeli Palestinian conflict is finally ready for its unveiling in June, coincident with the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

American presidents for generations have been grasping for the elusive gold ring of a final solution to the conflict.

Whether out of a misguided belief that all the problems of the Middle East revolve around the conflict, or a sincere desire to solve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, American efforts more times than not have worsened the situation.

The failures have not lacked for effort, especially on the part of Bill Clinton and his inexhaustible determination at Camp David and Taba in 2000 and 2001. Unfortunately, that failure laid the groundwork for the Second Intifada – the profound unintended consequence of which was to convince many Israelis who really believed in the possibilities of peace offered by the Oslo agreement that Israel will never have a Palestinian partner it can trust.

Has the Kushner/Greenblatt peace initiative learned from the mistakes of previous negotiation efforts? Can they offer a different course, perhaps incorporating the fleeting window of opportunity offered by the new confluence of interests between America, Israel and the Sunni Gulf states, to move the negotiations forward? Here are some of the conventionally accepted wisdoms for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that should be avoided: 1. Believing this conflict is primarily territorial. If it were, the conflict would have been resolved as recently as 2007, when Israel offered 100% of the territory with land swaps and east Jerusalem as their capital, but was dismissed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

2. Believing the conflict is the key to unlocking the other problems of the Middle East. Even if Israel did not exist today, almost all of the Middle East’s problems from the 1400-year-old Sunni- Shi’ite divide to the quest for Iranian hegemony would still be raging.

3. Believing you can make peace without effectively addressing generations of fervent Arab incitement in their media and classrooms that says Israel has no legitimate right to exist in any territorial dimension, with no Jewish historical association to the land.

4. Believing America cannot be a fair intermediary unless it is a neutral negotiator. America can make the effort to be balanced in mediation, but the reality is that Israel is an indispensable security interest, and consistently since its inception, an ally of the United States.

5. Believing the Palestinians subscribe to the Western nation-state model, where in reality Palestinians identify themselves by clan and tribe.

6. Believing financial incentives are the primary lever to influence the Palestinians. It is certainly true in any final peace deal, billions of dollars may be paid the descendants of Palestinian refugees as compensation for not demanding a return to Israel proper, and none to the greater number of Jews who, at the same time, became refugees from Arab lands. But the ingrained Palestinian narrative to this day demands an unconditional return. Although ordinary Palestinians are one of the most subsidized people in the world, the Palestinian leadership’s primary grievance, the existence of Israel, will not be addressed simply by monetary compensation.

7. Believing this is the last opportunity to end the conflict. It is not.

President Abbas is in very poor health and anything he signs will be suspect the minute he passes on.

That is why any new peace initiative must include an “end-of-conflict agreement” as the agreed goal of all parties. Israel cannot be asked to make territorial concessions endangering its security, without knowing the result is to be such an agreement. If the Palestinians are unable give up all further claims, which is what an “end-of-conflict” agreement is, then Israel should only be asked to make modest concessions for a stable long-term ceasefire.

It is not in America’s interest to pressure Israel to give up large portions of territory, if the Palestinians are only, as in the past, looking to use this as a step to eventually conquer all of Israel.

This is something American negotiators – from Nixon/Rogers, to Bush/ Baker, to Clinton/Ross, to Bush/Rice, to Obama/Kerry – never understood and appreciated.

ANY SUCCESSFUL initiative will need to answer the following questions in order to achieve a true end-of-conflict agreement.

1. Can Israel accept a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem?

2. Can the Palestinians accept Israel’s minimal demands for a demilitarized state, no right-of-return, Israeli control of Jordan River Valley and control of airspace.

3. Does Israel have the will to remove tens of thousands of its citizens from the West Bank (Judea/Samaria) who live beyond the major settlement blocs and Jerusalem? 4. Has the peace plan been drafted to prescribe how to deal with contingencies that would set the treaty on fire? For instance, suppose there is a Hamas coup in the West Bank endangering not only Israel but also the existence of Jordan. The unspoken secret is that the Jordanian Hashemite monarchy is fearful of the creation of any Palestinian state next door that might empower its Palestinian majority population and destabilize the state, a vital American ally.

You will know that peace has taken root when the Palestinians stop preaching their current defining narrative, which is the nakba (“the catastrophe”), the negation of the Jewish people and Israeli state, and begin celebrating the anniversary of their independence, accepting living in peace next to the Jewish state.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East.

He is a contributor to ‘The Jerusalem Post,’ ‘The Hill,’ and ‘The Forward.’

Managing an Anti-American Turkey

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Now is the time for American resolve and if need be significant consequences imposed on Turkey to advance our interests.

Turkish antagonism to America, Israel, and the EU, and the Islamization of this once proudly secular nation must be seen in historical context. Relations between the US and Turkey today are, as they have been over the last 70 years, primarily based on shared national security interests, which often shift and have been unpredictable.

Modern American Turkish relations began at the dawn of the Cold War with the Truman Doctrine in 1947 guaranteeing the security of Turkey and Greece. Turkey remained a linchpin of American military strategy in the Middle East through the Cold War, a bulwark against Soviet expansionism. But times have changed in the 21st century with the ascendancy of the neo-Ottoman authoritarian strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In light of the most recent Turkish election, Congress, American security experts, Turkey’s neighbors, and Israel must now ask if the newly empowered authoritarian Erdogan has irreversibly transformed Turkey into an anti-western, anti-Semitic, malevolent state that is to be no less radical than the Iranian Islamic republic, where we have learned that no amount of accommodation can temper their nationalistic expansionist Islamist vision.

Unlike Iran, where it is reputed that the Iranian population, especially it’s urban middle class, leans toward the West, and would welcome the chance to be freed of the repressive Mullahs, a recent PEW survey of Turkish citizens revealed that an astounding 79% of the populace harbor a negative view of America, no doubt fostered by years of anti-American propaganda.

Many pro-Western Turks have left or worse, have been fired from their jobs, imprisoned, or tortured in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup. Erdogan’s monopoly on power has been consolidated since that time, tightening his control over the military, judiciary, academia, business, and media. Turkey has the infamous distinction of imprisoning more journalists than any nation in the world.

America, for strategic reasons, gets into bed with many unsavory nations, but few states may threaten our safety net more than Turkey, since it is intertwined in our security through NATO. Turkey has the second largest military in NATO, houses a vital US air base in Incirlik, and is located in an absolutely critical position in the Middle East next to Syria, Iraq, Russia, and the Black Sea.

In the coming decades, is Turkey to be friend or foe? Turkey believes the US cannot live without its Incirlik airbase, and that we need Turkey as the eastern flank of NATO. So Erdogan calculates that he can take liberties against American interests in the region, while advancing his own distasteful agenda – undermining the Kurds in Iraq and Syria who have been loyal American allies, supporting Hamas, which is designated a terrorist enemy by the US State Department, and its parent the Muslim Brotherhood, and working with American nemesis Iran, which is making every effort to destabilize the region.

So, are there any red lines Turkey cannot cross for it to continue to receive American support, or has Turkey already crossed a line with Congress and this administration? Turkey, Russia and Iran are three peas in a pod. Turkey occupied and ethnically cleansed Cyprus, Russia invaded and occupied Crimea, northern Georgia and eastern Ukraine, and the Iranian controlled Popular Mobilization Units ethically cleansed Iraq and Syria of its Sunni residents. Three bad actors, and Turkey is the only one of them that is a member of NATO.

Last year, National Security advisor H.R. McMaster said that Turkey had joined Qatar as a prime source “funding groups that help create the conditions that allow terrorism to flourish.”

Analysts expect Erdogan will be unchallenged and in power for years to come, and there is no expectation of moderation based on his record over the last 14 years.

America fears that Turkey might ally with Russia, Iran or China, if America imposes any meaningful consequences for Turkish behavior. This calculation is a serious foreign policy mistake, as Turkey realizes that those alliances carry with them significant risks to Turkish security in the long term, and even Erdogan must know he will need America as an ally again.

Being held hostage and extorted by Erdogan is a sure prescription for undermining American national security interests around the world. If Erdogan cannot be quietly persuaded through diplomacy to moderate his policies, then at the very least the United States should halt arms sales beginning with suspension of deliveries of F-35 fighters, and limit security cooperation that might already have been compromised by his relationship with Russia and Iran.

Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell told the Senate recently that the “acquisition of the S-400 [Russian anti-missile system] will inevitably affect prospects for Turkish military-industrial cooperation with the US, including F-35.”

Significant American consequences for Turkey would not be unprecedented, as we have employed this strategy with Turkey way back in 1974 after their invasion and ethnic cleansing of northern Cyprus.

As for undermining our vital allies Israel and Egypt, this too goes against a core US strategic interest, and Erdogan needs to pay a price for it. Erdogan, Hamas and the MB are all ideologically Sunni Islamists, and dissuading Erdogan will require strength, admonishments with teeth, as we learned that President Obama’s 2009 accommodations and oratory met with failure.

Critics rightly claim that America is already aligned with other human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, so why punish Turkey. The difference is that those nations are not pursuing strategies that directly undermine our security interests. However, they too will have to moderate their human rights record, if our alliances have any possibility for longevity.

Turkey is vital to our interests but not indispensable. The risks have begun to outweigh the benefits of trusting Turkey to remain the eastern flank of NATO and not share our security secrets with our enemies. It is probably not possible to have a grand quid pro-quo offering Turkey conditional EU membership, American investment, and continued US military support in exchange for ending their military relationship with Russia, Iran and Hamas, but incremental steps can be accomplished as long as we are not afraid to use a diplomatic big stick with economic pain.

Turkey and Israel have had mediocre relations for years.

Most recently Erdogan intends to bring Israel to the International Criminal Court for its actions on the Gaza border during the Hamas March of Return.

According to the Times of Israel, Erdogan said “Israel is a terror state” that has committed “a genocide”, and ‘There is no difference between the atrocity faced by the Jewish people in Europe 75 years ago and the brutality that our Gaza brothers are subjected to.”

At least he acknowledges the Holocaust as a historical fact, something his Iranian friends cannot do.

Further infuriating Turkey is the new Israeli-Cyprus-Greek alignment over natural gas reserves. Dr. Spyridon Litsas of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies referred to it as a “tectonic shift” in the Eastern Mediterranean altering “the geopolitical configuration” that “holds the interest of the great powers, (the United States, Russia and China).”

Now is the time for American resolve and if need be significant consequences imposed on Turkey to advance our interests. Ignoring what Turkey has become and where it is most likely to go over the next decade is not a sound foreign policy strategy.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™.

Understanding American and Iranian Choices in the New Middle East

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the American and Israeli Challenges in the Middle East Now?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

America should be very concerned about the outcome that may emerge later this summer as a result of the recent Iraqi election.

People who think they know what will happen in the Middle East this summer are either prophetic or simply fooling themselves.

Western analysis has been inaccurate so many times that the forecasts seem more akin to throwing darts. From the unanticipated Iranian Revolution of 1979, to the unexpected Arab Spring, all analysts should be humbled by the past before speculating about the future. The situations this summer in Israel, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, etc. all could change at a moment’s notice.

When ISIS inevitably strikes in Europe or America this summer, America needs to resist being blinded by the horrific images of a terrorist attack and losing sight of the Pentagon’s new national defense strategy, which prioritizes “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism (as) the primary concern in US national security.” Iran’s rise in the Levant was a direct consequence of the previous strategy of prioritizing the defeat of ISIS over Iranian expansionism in Syria and Iraq.

America should be very concerned about the outcome that may emerge later this summer as a result of the recent Iraqi election, with the formation of a philo-Iranian parliament. The Iranian-controlled Hadi Al Amiri’s Fatah Alliance, which includes radical groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, has tentatively joined together with American nemesis Moqtad Al Sadr (Saeroon list) and his anti American platform.

Can America figure out a way this summer to encourage the Iraqi Arab Shi’ites to remain more independent from their Iranian non-Arab Persian Shi’ite co-religionists? Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the most important Iraqi Arab religious figure, has been against Iranian influence in Iraq. Can Secretary of State Mike Pompeo find any economic or other leverage to work against further Iranian encroachment? Interests create strange bedfellows in this region.

This is really an uphill task. Even the currently more pro-American Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi felt compelled to legalize incorporation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard-controlled Popular Mobilization Unit Hashd al-Shaabi militia into the Iraqi Army, in essence, a permanent Iranian military presence within Iraq.

As for Syria, America must make it clear to all parties this summer that American interests demand that its forces remain within Syria not only until ISIS is defeated, but until all Iranian, PMU and Hezbollah forces and bases have left Syria. Hopefully, Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton can convince US President Donald Trump of this necessity.

IF THERE is war this summer in Israel’s North, calling it the “Third Lebanon War” would be a misnomer. It will be a regional war involving Syria, Lebanon, Iran and possibly Turkey, Iraq, Russia and Jordan. Israel needs to continue its preparation for the new challenges it faces since the last Lebanon war of 2006, with the possibility of massive tunnels, advanced GPS-guided long-range missiles, and Hezbollah chemical weapons inherited from Syria.

One of the most crucial questions for the summer, as it affects every player in the region, is who will succeed ailing Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomenai? Will it be Ebrahim Raisi, another hardliner who this year stood on the Israeli-Lebanese border and said, “Soon we will witness the liberation of Jerusalem”?

American interests in the Mediterranean are complicated by the combination of Israel’s new relationship with Cyprus and Greece at the expense of NATO ally Turkey over access to Israel’s Mediterranean gas fields. Add the newly upgraded Russian naval base in Syria and Hezbollah threats against Israeli gas fields, and the next war could begin at sea. This summer, proactive diplomacy should be explored to lessen the possibility of this being the catalyst for the next war.

Will there be war this summer in Israel? It may not take much to set off the Northern front with Lebanon and Syria, with Hezbollah and Popular Mobilization Unit soldiers reportedly putting on Syrian regime uniforms and moving to within a few kilometers from the Israeli Golan border. Israel and America seek to avoid hostilities for as long as possible, but Iran is continually testing Israeli red lines in deconfliction zones, so miscalculations could spiral out of control.

Whether we like it or not, Russia has been made a player, with its American-sanctioned deescalation zones in Syria. Russia’s interest is stability in Syria to solidify its gains, especially its warm-weather port in Latakia. It is said that Russia is not a natural ally of Iran. Is there a way for America and Israel to leverage that natural division?

IN THE South, it may seem counterintuitive, but a perceived failure of the “Mass March of Return” could increase the chances of war if Hamas believes that their support among Gazans is decreasing and needs violence as a unifying factor.

There will be no reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah this summer or any time soon. The more important question to ask is who will follow the ailing Abbas if he succumbs to his infirmities this summer. When Abbas dies, a civil war could follow in the West Bank, with Hamas making a play to take over the Palestinian Authority. America should be reaching out to Palestinian Intelligence Chief Majid Faraj to prepare for the day after Abbas and prevent a Hamas takeover.

American sanctions this summer will be ramped up on Iran to further economically weaken the Iranian regime forcing it to either re-enter new nuclear negotiations that deal with all of its malevolent behavior, or risk the wrath of its people and the viability of its regime because of economic deprivation.

Don’t take your eye off of Jordan this summer. It is close to a failing state and a northern war on its border with a new flood of refugees could push it over the edge. Jordan could become an Islamist stronghold with the fall of the Hashemite dynasty. In addition, America should help Israel’s other cold ally, Egypt, before their next economic crisis, which could give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance for resurrection. Developing an economic plan to strengthen the Egyptian regime with reciprocal concessions on human rights is the way forward.

This summer America should begin to repair the damage caused by abandoning the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. The abandonment of the Kurds in Iraq and in northwest Syria was perceived by American allies in the region as America being an unreliable partner for the long run.

It is also the time to reengage with Qatar and see if there is some way Pompeo can dissuade it from its support of fundamentalist groups that undermine American allies in the Gulf. America needs to find a way for both the Saudis and Qataris to save face, with the goal being a Qatar closer to its natural allies in the Sunni Gulf, and the beginning of some “daylight” between Qatar and Iran, although it will be impossible for that distance to get too wide, with their shared interest in the world’s largest gas field. American leverage is the Al Udeid air base, which Qatar takes for granted as an insurance policy against Iranian aspirations.

What will happen this summer in the Middle East? Nobody knows, but an America that supports its allies and takes an active role in affairs, has a fighting chance to advance its interests in a complex region.

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

The Importance of Secondary Sanctions to Rein in Iran

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here is your binary choice.

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

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


Could a Mass March on Jerusalem Ignite the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will There be War in Israel this Summer?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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