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PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Lieberman (CC GPO)

The state's two top leaders have returned from similar missions - Prime Minister Netanyahu went to Moscow and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to Washington to determine how Israel can better 'coordinate' strategic policies with Russia and the U.S. There are several urgent reasons for doing so as a new strategic landscape is fast emerging in the region in the wake of the Iranian nuclear deal and the winding down of the Syrian Civil War; and in fact, there is a link between the two.

After coming to the rescue of President Bashar Assad, Russia has become the main power broker in Syria, which borders on northern Israel. Israeli intelligence has detected that Iran, after sending its Revolutionary Guards and other 'volunteers' to defend the Assad regime, is planning on expanding its military presence in the wake of the civil war. This reportedly includes the building on an Iranian seaport on the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean.

'One of our defense officials estimates that more than 80% of our security problems emanate from Iran'.

In Israeli eyes this would be an unacceptable escalation. Tehran would then maintain a naval presence next door to Israel's strategic off-shore gas rigs. Such a seaport could also serve as a conduit for supplying weapons to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Bibi recently said, 'One of our defense officials estimates that more than 80% of our security problems emanate from Iran'. He was speaking at a memorial service for the bomb blast that blew the Jewish Center to smithereens murdering people and wounding scores of others. Hezbollah is known to have carried out the atrocity at the bidding of Iran.

Bibi requested an urgent meeting with Putin in Moscow, and got it. It resembled a similar, urgent session that the Bibi and Putin had two years ago to successfully coordinate the aerial operations of Israel and Russia over Syria in order to obviate any miscalculations. At their latest Kremlin meeting, the two leaders again displayed beaming smiles - they apparently hit it off and know how 'to do business' with each other. The question is, did Bibi inform Vladimir politely that Israel would view an Iranian attempt to build a seaport in Syria, or a thrust by Iranian-backed forces on to the Golan Heights, as a casus belli? The chances are that he did, otherwise why fly off so fast to Moscow?

Now reaping an economic bonanza from the nuclear deal with former US President Barack Obama, Tehran has embarked on solidifying its version of a new Shiite 'Fertile Crescent' in the northern tier of the Middle East. It would stretch from Iraq and include Syria and Lebanon, where Hezbollah now rules the roost. For the first time, Lebanon's Christian President Michel Aoun has openly referred to Hezbollah as a legitimate part of the Lebanese Army. In so doing, the Lebanese leader has taken responsibility for Hezbollah's military actions against Israel, with all that implies for Lebanon! (In the past, the IDF has restricted its response to Hezbollah aggression by retaliating solely against Hezbollah targets).

So far nothing substantial has leaked from the latest Putin-Netanyahu meeting. One Israeli source did say the PM succeeded in making his case. This would seem to make sense because what possible interest would Vladimir have in a greater Iranian presence in Syria?

Meanwhile, Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was on another key mission to Washington and consultations with his American counter-part James Mattis. Again, Iran was at the top of the agenda. At present, the IAEA reports that Iran is complying with the nuclear accord that is designed to bar it from building A-bombs for the next ten years. However, the Iranians are still testing ballistic missiles sometimes with 'Annihilate Israel' painted on them.

Lieberman and Netanyahu agree Israel must not rock the boat with the new President.

Although President Obama did not think these missiles, which are designed to deliver nuclear warheads, were important enough to include in the nuclear accord, the tests are banned by a Security Council resolution. And although both Trump and Bibi agreed the nuclear agreement was a sellout to Tehran, the new administration will probably not try to abrogate it, seeing as how other world powers are signatories. But it stands to reason that Jerusalem will want to be on the same page with Washington if Iran starts violating the agreement or Tehran further escalates its subversion in Syria, possibly through its proxy Hezbollah. On this score, Lieberman also had the auspicious role of speaking not only for the Jewish state but also for Israel's new 'shadow' allies, who also fear Iranian subversion - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States.

In this case, the Iranian issue also rubs up against the Palestinian problem. It is crucial that the Israeli government prevent any misunderstandings or miscalculations with Trump in the Palestinian arena in general and most certainly on West Bank settlements. Even before taking off for Washington, Lieberman backed Bibi concerning Trump's opposition to new settlement activity certainly outside the 'current borders of existing settlements'. Lieberman and Netanyahu agree Israel must not rock the boat with the new President. Moreover, Lieberman aroused the hackles of the settlement supporters by adding that this includes no annexation of Ma'ale Adumim, the Israeli town near Jerusalem but just across the old 1967 lines.

Israel's Defense Minister is one of the most intriguing players on Israel's political stage. When not serving in government, Lieberman plays the role of chief rabble-rouser by demanding new settlements, destroying Hamas in Gaza, or even suggesting the Israeli Air force inundate Egypt by bombing the Aswan Dam if Cairo again tried to annihilate Israel. But once in office, Lieberman undergoes a chameleon-type transformation by suddenly emerging as a reasonable and responsible public official. But the settlement camp, with cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked leading the charge, is pressuring Bibi into building some new settlement or annexing something on the West Bank. It's hard to believe they really mean it in light of Israel's delicate international status these days. But such irresponsible rhetoric may gain popularity for their Jewish Home party with the Far Right. But Bibi and Lieberman are bent on staying on the good side of Trump.

There is also another key consideration - the silent alliance with the Sunni Muslim countries alluded to previously. While the leaderships of these countries are far more worried about falling prey to Iranian subversion than they are about the Jewish state (that poses no threat whatever and never has), they worry about upsetting the Arab Street that supports the Palestinians.

Such a peace agreement must be negotiated directly between the two parties. Nor could the US impose a solution on the Israelis or Palestinians.

In an overnight development, Trump has telephoned Palestinian-West Bank President Mahmoud Abbas inviting him to the White House to discuss a renewal of the peace process. A White House statement added that Trump believes peace was possible and 'the time has come to make a deal'. Such a peace agreement must be negotiated directly between the two parties. Nor could the US impose a solution on the Israelis or Palestinians. By the same token, one side could not impose an agreement on the other.

Obviously this will put paid to any new Israeli settlement plans for the near future. On the other hand, Trump has also signaled Abbas to drop his policy of urging the UN to impose a settlement on Israel in favor of the Palestinians. If Trump previously told Israel to lay-off on settlements, he has now urged the Palestinians to come back to the table and to bring some ideas. Not a bad starting point.

Israeli pollsters smell early election?

At noon on Friday, March 10th, a public opinion poll conducted for Voice of Israel Radio sized up the parties' popularity, with Netanyahu coming out on top, despite being involved in three police investigations:

  • Likud (Bibi) - 26
  • Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid) - 22
  • Jewish Home (Naftali Bennett) - 13
  • Arab List - 13
  • Labor / Zionist Camp - 12
  • Kulanu (Moshe Kahlon) - 7
  • Lieberman - 7

The pundits then proceeded to explain how Bibi was back in the driver's seat and could easily form a new coalition government if an early election were suddenly called. Eight hours later, Channel 2 also peered into its crystal ball and came up with a totally different prediction: Yair Lapid had overtaken Bibi (all within eight hours!) and had emerged as frontrunner if an election were held today. Its figures were reversed:

  • Lapid - 26
  • Bibi - 22
  • Arab List - 13
  • Labor - 11
  • Bennett – 11

Channel 2's analyst then proceeded to predict that neither Bibi nor Lapid would be able to form a workable coalition and so they would have to join forces with the premiership rotating between the two party leaders. There is a precedent for this between Labor's Shimon Peres and the Likud's Yitzhak Shamir.

There is also another wild card that has not been taken into account. Labor's lack-luster leader Yitzhak 'Bougie' Herzog is unlikely to be re-elected as party leader. Bougie is a respected and likeable guy, but he is simply not cut out to be PM in a country like Israel that is always in a semi-state of war. As a politician he could do well in a nice quiet country like Canada or Finland. Is this a little unkind? Not really when one considers how Bibi turned Bougie into a laughing stock in their secret contacts on Arab peace talks. Ipso facto - a successful politician must be capable of thinking nastily at times. In Labor, a bevy of fresh candidates have announced they will run for party leadership this summer. Could one of them emerge as a new star in Labor's firmament? So far no, but that remains to be seen. Look at the US, where everyone is still trying to figure out how someone such as Donald Trump, an inexperienced and ridiculed political nobody, won the whole shebang.

Women in the IDF (CC GPO, photo credit Haim Zach)

And finally to that odious orthodox Rabbi, Yigal Levinstein, who had the chutzpa to insult Israeli young women who serve in the IDF. Among other things:

    'Those nice, warm religious Jewish girls who go into the army will come out altogether different - they will no longer be Jewish! What upstanding Jewish man would want to marry her'!

This rabbi is actually a public servant drawing his salary from the taxpayers, and he is the head of a religious seminary for young men who do IDF service. Of course, there was a public uproar with calls for him to resign, to be fired, to apologize, etc. The public storm has yet to subside, and everyone is waiting to see what Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will do about it upon his return home. Most likely Lieberman will demand a full and public apology from the rabbi who will plead he was misunderstood, although he was recorded. This sorry chapter illustrates there is no limit to the depth that fanatical religious leaders will stoop to once they seriously put their minds to it. In light of the rabbi's disgusting diatribe, I am debating whether to write another harsh comment; well here goes: is it kosher to call Rabbi Yigal Levinstein a male chauvinist pig?



David Essing

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