Updates from Israel and the Jewish World
Compiled by Dr Ron Wiseman
Netanyahu, Gantz make last pitches in tight Israeli election
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief challenger Benny Gantz made their final appeals to voters Monday on the eve of parliamentary elections that will determine whether the longtime Israeli leader stays in power.
Buoyed by a tight alliance with President Donald Trump but clouded by a series of looming corruption indictments, Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office that would make him Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.
Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
He faces his stiffest challenge in a decade from Gantz, a telegenic former military chief whose Blue and White party has inched ahead of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party in the polls. Netanyahu, however, still appears to have the better chance of forming a coalition, with a smattering of small nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties vowing to back him.
In the campaign’s final days, Netanyahu has veered to the right, vowing to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if re-elected and embarking on a media blitz in which he portrays himself as the underdog and frantically warns that “the right-wing government is in danger.”
“The hour is very late. Right now, we are behind by a few seats,” he said during a surprise visit to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda outdoor market. “The only way to ensure to close the gap, to make sure the Likud will form the next government for sure, is that there will be big Likud.”
His nationalist allies, however, see the move as a repeat of his 2015 election tactic to draw away their voters as he did four years ago when on election day, he warned of Arabs turning out in “droves.” The scare tactics were seen as helping him seal a come-from-behind victory.
With Israel generally safe and thriving, the Palestinian issue largely sidelined and no major existential matters on the agenda, the focus of Tuesday’s election has shifted to Netanyahu himself.
Israel’s attorney general has recommended indicting him on bribery and breach of trust charges in three separate cases. Rivals have also begun to question a deal in which Netanyahu reportedly earned $4 million on a German submarine sale to Egypt by owning shares in one of the German manufacturer’s suppliers.
“People realize that realistically, the right wing isn’t in danger. It’s Netanyahu who is in danger,” Gantz told Israel’s Army Radio. “This isn’t a danger in the security sense, only in the legal sense, because he has to provide explanations for what he did.”
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and claims the accusations are part of a liberal media’s orchestrated witch hunt against him.
Gantz, who has been vague on key policy fronts, has presented himself as a clean, scandal-free alternative to Netanyahu. He is banking on voters tiring of Netanyahu’s long, divisive rule.
Netanyahu’s campaign has focused heavily on smearing opponents as weak “leftists” who are conspiring with the country’s Arab parties against him. Opponents accuse him of incitement and demonizing Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up roughly 20% of the population.
Polling stations open at 7 a.m. Tuesday (midnight EDT Monday), with exit polls expected to be announced at the end of voting at 10 p.m. (3 p.m. EDT). Election day in Israel is a national holiday, with turnout expected to be high in good weather.
Official results will begin streaming in early Wednesday, but it may take far longer for a final verdict to be delivered, given the fragmented state of Israeli politics.
As many as a half-dozen parties are teetering along the threshold for entering the Knesset, or parliament. A failure by any of these parties to get the required 3.25% of total votes cast could have a dramatic impact on who ultimately forms the next coalition.
The Israeli government needs a parliamentary majority to rule, and since no party has ever earned more than 61 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, a coalition is required.
Netanyahu and Gantz have ruled out sitting together in government, so the next prime minister’s identity will likely come down to how many supporters each candidate can recruit.
Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, could play an important role. Though largely a ceremonial post, the president is responsible for choosing the candidate with the best chance of building a stable coalition government as prime minister.
“I think Blue and White has a 50% chance of being the largest party. And Gantz has a less than 50% chance of becoming prime minister because the name of the game is forming a majority and Netanyahu’s bloc has the best chance of doing that,” said political analyst Reuven Hazan
Even if Netanyahu is re-elected, he could have a difficult time governing. Some of his allies have indicated they will no longer back him if formal charges are filed.
“Netanyahu’s looming indictment is the question of the election. If he forms a government, he’ll drag this out as long as possible, try to change the laws and argue it’s the people’s will that he remains in power,” Hazan said. “If he loses, the house of cards collapses.”
In a campaign that has been long on scandal and short on substance, the election has emerged as a referendum on Netanyahu and his 13 years overall in power.
The 69-year-old prime minister has been the dominant force in Israeli politics for the past two decades and its face to the world. He’s generated much of his popularity from projecting a tough image in the face of Iran’s rising power and for keeping Israel safe and prosperous in a hostile region.
“Never in the state of Israel has it been as good as during the time of Bibi. Never, never, never. The economy is excellent, people live in abundance,” said Jerusalem resident Amiga Shaike, 68.
But in Gantz he has encountered the rare opponent who can match his security credentials. Along with two other former military chiefs on his ticket, Gantz has attacked Netanyahu for failing to halt rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and allowed centrist Israelis to seriously imagine a post-Netanyahu reality.
“We’re voting for him because we need a change, we need to get Bibi out of the government. We need a new brain, a fresher brain in charge,” said Tel Aviv resident Daniela Greenwood. “We need to make two states, we need to make peace, we need to move forward with the situation (Ynet News) Associated Press
Top negotiator: No true rehabilitation for Gaza until missing Israelis returned
Israel’s chief negotiator for the release of Israelis held by Hamas said Friday the Gaza Strip would not see true rehabilitation until the missing men are returned.
Israel has long demanded that Hamas release the remains of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were killed during a 50-day conflict with Hamas in 2014.
The terror group is also believed to be holding three Israeli citizens — Avraham Abera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima — who are all said to have entered the Gaza Strip of their own accord.
Hamas “must understand that there will not be comprehensive rebuilding efforts for Gaza without the release of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, and [the missing] civilians,” Yaron Blum told the Walla news site.
Blum said “the families in Israel should be encouraged. We are leaving no stone unturned and sparing no efforts to locate [them] and set processes in motion. These are supreme efforts. All of Israel’s security bodies are devoted to the cause.”
Egypt, the United Nations and Qatar have recently worked to broker ceasefire understandings between Israel and Hamas, which, if finalized, would likely see an end to violence emanating from the Strip in exchange for the Jewish state easing some of its restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the coastal enclave.
Blum was also closely involved in the operation to bring back for burial this week Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel, 37 years after he was apparently killed in the First Lebanon War’s battle of Sultan Yacoub in 1982.
Baumel was buried in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery on Thursday evening after a complex IDF intelligence operation with Russian assistance.
Blum, a Shin Bet veteran, was appointed Israel’s chief negotiator for prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action in 2017, replacing Lior Lotan.
Blum was instrumental in negotiating the release of IDF solider Gilad Shalit, who was held in Gaza for five years before being released in 2011, as part of a controversial deal with Hamas in which Israel freed over 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners. (The Times of Israel) Staff
South Africa downgrades embassy in Israel to liaison office
South Africa has downgraded its ties with Israel, the country’s Foreign Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said this week.
“We are in the process of following the downgrade resolution of the ruling party and stage one has been completed,” Sisulu said on Wednesday at a speech she delivered to the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Last year, South Africa recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv to protest Israel’s response to the Palestinian protesters along the Gaza border who were participating in the Hamas-led Great March of Return.
Sisulu later said that the ambassador would not be returning to Israel. But on Wednesday she clarified that the ambassador would not be replaced and that the status of the embassy had been changed.
“Our ambassador is back in South Africa, and we will not be replacing him. Our liaison office in Tel Aviv will have no political mandate, no trade mandate and no development cooperation mandate. It will not be responsible for trade and commercial activities.
“The focus of the Liaison Office would be on consular and the facilitation of people-to-people relations,” Sisulu said.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on her statement.
The South African government is strongly pro-Palestinian and has been a harsh critic of Israel, particularly with regard to its treatment of the Palestinians. It is also angry over Israel’s refusal to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines.
South Africa is one of 10 non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and has pushed for action against Israel at the 15-member body which sits in New York.
“The situation between Israel and Palestine is one of the oldest issues on the Security Council’s agenda. It is one of the only issues that the Council has been meeting monthly on for several years,” Sisulu said.
She accused the United States of stymieing any UNSC action against Israel. The US is one of five permanent council members, all of whom have veto power.
“Little or no action is taken by the Council primarily because of the US veto. The Council has over the years adopted several landmark resolutions on the matter including, under the ‘land for peace’ formulation, Resolutions 338 and 242 (upon which the moribund peace process is based),” she said.
“These Resolutions require that Israel should withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967 in exchange for comprehensive peace and recognition from its Arab neighbors. Our position on the matter of Israel has been very clearly expressed by the ruling party,” Sisulu said. (Jerusalem Post) Tovah Lazaroff
Israel Pleased as US Designates Iranian Military Faction a Terror Group
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded on Monday to the announcement that the U.S. had designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “foreign terrorist organization,” tweeting in Hebrew that President Donald Trump had “answer[ed] another of my important requests.”
Netanyahu added that the designation “serves the interests of [Israel and the U.S.] and of countries in the region.”
The move represents the first time that the U.S. has used the designation for an entire foreign government entity.
Trump explained that the move “recognizes the reality” that Iran is a state-sponsored supporter of terrorism and that the Guard is an active participant.
Administration officials have said the step will further isolate Iran and make clear that the U.S. won’t tolerate Iran’s continued support for terror groups and others that destabilize the Middle East. The designation comes with sanctions, including freezes on some assets and a ban on Americans doing business with the group.
The Islamic Republic of Iran remains Israel’s greatest foe, which can be seen in Iranian leaders’ regular threats, Iran’s nuclear program, its development of long-range missiles and the massive amount of funds Iran devotes to supporting anti-Israeli terror groups such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council says it has designated the United States Central Command, also known as CENTCOM, and all its forces as terrorist and labeled the U.S. as a “supporter of terrorism.”
The semi-official Fars news agency reported the statement by Iran’s National Security Council on Monday. It followed the U.S. announcement that it has designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a foreign terrorist organization.
The statement from the council came after Iran’s foreign minister said he wants to include the Middle East-based U.S. military forces on his country’s “terrorist groups” list. (United with Israel)
All the tough guys want to be like Netanyahu
by Roger Boyes The Times of London reprinted in the Australian
Roaring, cynical populists Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu have succeeded in defining much of today’s noisy debate about how the world should be governed.
Their boast is that by converting marginalised protest voters into solid constituencies they have stayed in the saddle for decades. Pay attention to our triumphalist rants, they tell us. We have found the formula for branding nationalist policies as a rational response to the problems of our times. If you can’t deal with our towering vanity, move out of our way.
Populist regimes admire the staying power of “Bibi” Netanyahu, who faces perhaps the most crucial election of his career today, for his fifth term in office. The Russian President envies the Israeli army’s ability to operate under the radar. The Turkish leader is a fan of Israel’s start-up economy, its military-technology complex. The Hungarian Prime Minister stands in awe of the way a small country can leverage its influence with the US.
He answers the populist dilemma: how should leaders project the power of a nation-state and bend in their favour the supposed rules of the global order?
But while the rest of the Hellfire Club may see Netanyahu as the godfather of ethno-nationalism, he is no tinpot autocrat. Israel faces an existential, not an imaginary, threat. Putin plays into some kind of retrofitted imperialist instinct by marching into Ukraine but Netanyahu has real enemies. Iran is turning Hezbollah into a proxy army at astonishing speed. It gets $US700 million ($984m) a year from Tehran, boasts an arsenal of 150,000 rockets and missiles, and has set up an elaborate web of middlemen to supply weaponry. This could soon be the spearhead of the next war against Israel.
And despite Netanyahu’s demagogy, he is constrained by a democratic framework far older than those that flowered (and are now partly wilted) in the post-communist, post-junta Europe of the 1990s. It is difficult to imagine a public prosecutor opening a fraud and bribery case against the Russian or Turkish presidents, as the Israeli authorities have done against Netanyahu.
Israel has already jailed one former prime minister for corruption and a president on rape charges; the courts are serious and independent, the press gleefully disruptive. The country’s well-tested democratic institutions are a standout not just in the Middle East but in the whole proud-to-be-illiberal netherworld.
There is thus nothing straightforward about the latest electoral challenge to Netanyahu by former Israeli army commander Benny Gantz. Bibi is tired and unpopular but has boosted by US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Trump also backed moving his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. And he quit the international deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program.
Critics say handing the Golan to Israel will tempt Netanyahu to outflank his rival by moving in on other occupied territory. Will the axis between Trump and Bibi provide a licence to make war for domestic political gain?
That misreads Netanyahu. Tensions around a Hamas-orchestrated clash on the Gaza wall were quickly calmed with the help of Egyptian mediation. Netanyahu may bluster but he is a cautious war leader. He lends the lie to the thesis that populists are crazy risk-takers who drag nations into needless confrontation.
More often than not they listen carefully to the doubts of the domestic audience. In a country full of trained soldiers, short wars trump long wars. Raids on Hezbollah arms factories in Syria trump even short wars. And a Netanyahu who talks up war and then talks it down again wins points for statesmanship, at least in the White House.
This is not a page from the populist playbook but from Netanyahu’s biography. He and his elder brother Yoni were in the Matkal special forces. Both saw action. Bibi helped to free a hijacked Sabena airlines plane at Tel Aviv airport in 1972 and was wounded in the arm. Four years later Yoni was killed while freeing airline hostages in Entebbe. That has probably conditioned Netanyahu’s approach to war: demanding that generals spell out the risk to Israeli troops before authorising military action.
Those who despise populist movements are counting on Bibi losing. They underestimate him. There’s the backing from Trump, the quiet support of many Gulf states as they bond in shared distrust of a resurgent Iran. Plenty of populists assure him that he encapsulates the zeitgeist. And there’s his own skill at moulding coalitions with the ultra Right.
He should not squander his political capital by running away with ethno-nationalist blather. Israel’s strength remains that of its democratic institutions and its open, civilised discourse. Compromise that and Bibi will end up flat on his face.
Netanyahu’s promise to annex the West Bank settlements, explained
by Ben Sales JTA
Just days before Israel was to hold national elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to annex parts of the West Bank as Israeli territory.
“I’m going to extend sovereignty,” he said in an interview with Israeli Channel 12 on Saturday night, adding that “I don’t differentiate between the settlement blocs and isolated settlements.”
The campaign promise is a last-minute bid to draw right-wing votes in a tight election race. But what does annexing West Bank settlements mean? How would it affect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and the general geography of the Jewish state? Will it actually happen?
Here’s what you need to know.
What is the West Bank?
The West Bank is a territory sandwiched between Israel and Jordan named for its location: the western bank of the Jordan River. About 2.5 million Palestinians and 400,000 Jewish Israelis live there.
Jordan conquered the West Bank after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Then Israel captured the territory from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, but never fully annexed it into the country. So for more than 50 years, the West Bank has been controlled by Israel, but its status has been under debate.
The debate is over who should control the area in the future. Palestinians, most of the international community and the Israeli left see it now as occupied Palestinian territory. They say Israel’s control is illegal and want the West Bank (or nearly all of it) to be the site of a Palestinian state. But Israel’s government says it rightfully controls the West Bank.
So is the West Bank part of Israel?
Not officially, no. The State of Israel has controlled the area, sometimes known in Israel by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria, for half a century without annexing it. That is what could change if Netanyahu wins and makes good on his promise.
Many Israelis believe it’s already part of the country. The Israeli right, and some Israel supporters abroad, see the West Bank as disputed territory that doesn’t belong to Palestinians. They say Israel controls it legally because it was won in a defensive war — the third in the country’s first 20 years of existence.
And religious Zionist Israelis (who are mostly on the right) often talk about the West Bank as the heartland of the biblical Land of Israel. Historically, and by Jewish tradition, this is where the Jewish patriarchs lived and where many of the events of the Bible took place.
Hold on. So it isn’t technically part of Israel, but Israelis live there?
Yes: Welcome to the settlements. After Israel conquered the West Bank, groups of Jews from left to right established villages there. Some of the settlements deep in the West Bank are fiercely ideological and religious communities. Many others are middle-class suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, distinguishable from pre-1967 Israel only by their location and some added security measures.
Most of the big settlements (and most of the settlers) are close to the Green Line — the name for the internationally agreed-upon border between the West Bank and Israel. The total population of the settlements has grown to more than 400,000 today.
Most of the international community sees the settlements as illegal. Palestinians see the settlements as colonies that prevent them from achieving statehood, and blame the residents there for inflicting violence on them. The settlers and their defenders see the settlements as a security bulwark against Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank and Israel.
And Israel’s government sees the settlements as legitimate. Religious Israelis say that the settlements are a manifestation of Jews returning to the land God gave them.
Where does that leave the Palestinians?
Here’s where it gets even more complicated. Palestinians do not have citizenship in Israel, the right to vote and freedom of movement. They are under varying degrees of Israeli control.
For about 25 years, the West Bank has been divided into three areas. Area A is fully under Palestinian control — run by Palestinian institutions, guarded by Palestinian security forces and subject to Palestinian laws. The Israeli army does conduct operations there, but its presence is relatively minimal.
Area B is mixed: subject to Palestinian civil laws, but under the control of the Israeli army. The vast majority of Palestinians live in Areas A and B.
Area C is everything else, and it’s fully controlled by the Israeli army. This is where all of the settlers, and a small number of Palestinians, live. It takes up about 60 percent of the West Bank’s total land area.
The three areas aren’t neatly sliced. They are interspersed with each other in a maze-like tapestry.
How would annexation change things?
Annexation would make some or all of the settlements officially part of Israel. This is a huge deal.
For 50 years, Israel has been holding the West Bank in a kind of temporary capacity and repeatedly has offered to cede nearly all of it in a peace agreement. This would make the annexed settlements as much a part of Israel — under Israeli law — as Tel Aviv. In Israel’s eyes, there would be no difference between the annexed settlements and the rest of the country.
The international community would likely protest annexation, and strongly, and Palestinians almost surely would. Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of retired Israeli military officers that supports establishing a Palestinian state, predicts that annexation will lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, which governs the Palestinian areas of the West Bank. The group says annexing all of the settlements will cost Israel $2.35 billion.
On the ground, little would likely change in the Palestinians’ daily lives — at least initially.
Likewise, if Israel annexes only the settlements, and not the Palestinian areas, it would still leave the Palestinians in the same situation. They would be living in enclaves in the middle of an enlarged Israel, but without Israeli citizenship.
As for the settlers, they already live under Israeli law, and Israelis have little problem traveling to and from the settlements. If anything, it will make construction in the settlements easier to conduct.
Why is this coming up now?
Two reasons: Israeli elections and Donald Trump.
Netanyahu is in a close race for re-election and wants to shore up his base. During the last campaign, in 2015, he did that by saying he would not establish a Palestinian state. The annexation pledge takes him one step further to the right.
It’s a play to draw voters away from smaller parties that are running even further to Netanyahu’s right, like the New Right Party headed by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, two of Netanyahu’s longtime frenemies.
The annexation promise also comes a few weeks after President Trump recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, another controversial (although less so) territory that Israel captured in 1967. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, but no U.S. president officially recognized the move.
Netanyahu saw Trump’s Golan decision as a signal that annexation, in a broader sense, is kosher now.
“Everyone says you can’t hold an occupied territory, but this proves you can,” Netanyahu told reporters. “If occupied in a defensive war, then it’s ours.”
What would this mean for Israeli-Palestinian peace?
If you support a Palestinian state, this is bad news. In the past, Israel has offered to withdraw from nearly all of the West Bank in exchange for a peace agreement. But making much of the West Bank part of Israel would foreclose the possibility that it would one day become part of a state of Palestine.
Dennis Ross, a former U.S. negotiator in Israel, tweeted that after annexation, Palestinians would abandon hope of their own state and start demanding full citizenship and rights in Israel.
Some Israelis on the right have been advocating annexation for years. In 2012, Bennett proposed a full annexation of Area C. And most of the politicians in Netanyahu’s Likud party support some form of annexation.
Netanyahu’s centrist opponent in the election, Benny Gantz, has not commented on the prime minister’s statement. He’s focusing his fire instead on the corruption allegations against Netanyahu and a bunch of other issues.
But Tamar Zandberg, the chairwoman of the left-wing Meretz party, said Gantz should condemn the annexation vow.
“Annexing the settlements is dangerous for the state of Israel and an end to the vision of two states,” she tweeted Saturday, adding that she would push for “negotiations instead of annexation.”
What are Palestinians saying about it?
The Palestinian Authority hasn’t seen Netanyahu as a reliable negotiating partner for years. In 2017, after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the P.A. stopped talking with the United States because it sees eastern Jerusalem as a future Palestinian capital. And it’s threatened to stop cooperating with the Israeli army on security in the West Bank.
So the top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, called Netanyahu’s annexation promise just one more Israeli violation of international law.
“Such a statement by Netanyahu is not surprising,” he said in a statement. “Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity.”
So will annexation happen?
Who knows? If Netanyahu loses, the annexation promise will probably go with him. And even if he wins, he’ll need the support of the other parties in his government coalition to pass any laws — especially something this major. So it all depends on what happens Tuesday. Polls show the race neck and neck.
How Putin Plays Israel and Iran Against Each Other in Syria
by Yaakov Lappin BESA Center (Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies)
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Russia holds the cards in Syria. Jerusalem and Tehran must spell out their desires for the Syrian arena to Moscow, who in turn must find a way to leave each side with “half its desires.”
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been engaged in a flurry of discussions recently, at least some of which are likely tied to Iranian activities in Syria.
The meetings come in the shadow of recent reports of a major Israeli airstrike on March 28 that targeted an Iranian weapons warehouse near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The strike reportedly resulted in large blasts and casualties.
Russia leads a pro-Assad military coalition in Syria, of which Iranian forces are a central part. It also maintains a deconfliction channel with Israel to avoid unintended clashes between its air force and the Israeli Air Force, both of which are active in the Syrian arena.
Putin has also attempted to play the role of mediator between Israel and Iran, seeking to douse the shadow war raging between them on Syrian soil. Israel, for its part, is determined to disrupt Iran’s plan to turn Syria into a war front against it.
Netanyahu flew to Moscow last Thursday for a meeting with Putin, just five days before Israel’s April 9 elections. On April 1, Netanyahu and Putin held a phone conversation to talk about “military cooperation issues,” according to the Kremlin, as well as “pressing bilateral issues” and “the situation in the Middle East region.”
On February 27, the two leaders met in Moscow to discuss Syria. Netanyahu said the two sides reached an agreement on how to coordinate between their militaries. They also apparently agreed on a goal of getting “foreign troops” to leave Syria, according to Netanyahu.
While Russia will not be able to satisfy everyone, it does understand that it will need to leave each side with “half of its desires,” Professor Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said.
To achieve this, Moscow will get every actor to spell out “what is really important to it, and here, Israel has an opportunity to define the range and perimeter of Iran’s actions in Syria,” he added. “In general, this is a new situation that the region is not used to. The Russians are managing this game with many bargaining chips, and Israel will have to adapt itself to the new rules of the game.”
Doron Itzchakov, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, agreed that the current situation is good for Moscow.
“The Russian interest is to position itself as the ‘final judge’ in Syria, and this situation, in which Netanyahu runs to Putin and the Iranian side runs to him, is comfortable for them. They are comfortable with being the ones balancing the scales,” he said.
Iran, for its part, will be closely monitoring Israel’s contacts with Russia and will adapt its policies in Syria accordingly. “The Iranians will be watching out for Russia’s policy in Syria, to see how they need to change their tactics. Iran has no plan to release its grip on Syria, but it will change tactics so as not to lose momentum,” Itzchakov said.
One recent example of how Iran has adapted its takeover efforts in Syria is the way it has embedded its military personnel and weaponry in sites run by the official Syrian Arab Army. This has not stopped Israel from reportedly striking such targets when it detects them.
Itzchakov stressed that Iran’s decisions in Syria cannot be disconnected from Tehran’s wider geopolitical ambitions or from internal power struggles that are raging inside the Islamic Republic.
He cited a visit in March by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to neighboring Iraq as an example of this linkage. The goal of that visit was to develop an economic corridor to bypass American sanctions, said Itzchakov.
The visit also boosted the prestige of Rouhani, who is facing major criticism at home from the rival conservative bloc and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
“The economic corridor Iran wants in Iraq is tied to its desire for an economic corridor to Lebanon and its ties to Syria. One cannot separate these things,” said Itzchakov.
In addition, Iran has been able to build up armed forces in all of these countries — Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon — and has turned them into deeply influential political forces in Iraq and Lebanon. Iran plans to do the same in Syria.
But the element responsible for this activity is mainly the IRGC and General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the overseas Iranian Quds Force unit, who is competing with Iran’s FM, Muhammad Zarif, for control of Iran’s regional policies, said Itzchakov.
“Out of this internal rivalry emerges the story of Iranian activities in Syria,” he added. “The IRGC’s power as a decision-maker in geopolitical, economic, and diplomatic areas is rising.”
The internal power struggle is making “Iran more sensitive to Syria,” said Itzchakov. “Even when done in opposition to the popular wishes of the Iranian people, the IRGC makes its own decisions, including in Syria. The IRGC wants to set the agenda.”