It’s been an interesting week, with tank and troop movements to the north, as well as F-16s flying overhead and northward. We are also thankful for the positioning of an Iron Dome anti-missile system in the north, as well as one much closer to home, in Haifa.
The major emphasis these past days was on weapons of mass destruction in Syria, which could fall into the “wrong hands”. The region is becoming more and more unstable, but concerned neighboring countries like Jordan and Turkey are not taking any action. Instead, they allow Israel to take the lead and then condemn her for it. So, what’s new?
“Bad, bad and worse”
The week started with P.M. Netanyahu meeting with a delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives, with whom he discussed his growing concern over developments in Syria. As he put it, the various options and consequences facing Israel were “bad, bad and worse”. Israel continued its diplomatic efforts to inform governments around the world of what could happen if Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal fell into the hands of the rebels fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or even worse, into the hands of the Hizb’allah. If media reports emanating from Lebanon are to be believed, then some of these chemical weapons, including long-range missiles have already reached this terrorist organization, causing Israel’s Defense Department to work overtime. In addition to cooperation with the U.S. regarding this matter, discussions were held with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Moscow, over the seriousness of the situation.
The same essential message was conveyed by Netanyahu to Middle East Quartet special envoy, Tony Blair, last Sunday, when the latter was told: “[The] Middle East doesn’t stop for elections; everything continues. We need to work on peace and security and there’s no better person to work with than you.”
There were conflicting media reports regarding the take-over and control of the al-Safira compound south of Aleppo, Syria, where chemical weapons are both produced and stored. Some claimed that the compound fell into the hands of the Sunni (Moslem) rebel forces, while other reported that government forces, helped by Hizb’allah fighters, have regained control over army bases throughout the country, as well as the area around the al-Safira compound. One jihadist rebel group claimed: “Assad ordered the military to increase its bombing campaign in al-Safira, because he is in cahoots with the Zionists, who are helping his regime survive.” One can only wonder from what source they obtained such information.
The real “help”, from an encouragement point of view, comes from the deployment of a sizable Russian naval force off the Syrian coast, purportedly for exercises being conducted under the personal supervision of Russia’s military chief. The immediate goal of Russia’s naval presence is not certain. It could be that the intention is to “encourage” the U.S. to come to some kind of an agreement regarding Syria. Alternatively, Russia’s presence in the area could be part of a preliminary move to provide practical assistance to Assad that old enable him to maintain control at least over Alawite (minority Shiite Moslem faction) areas, by securing control over the coastal area of Syria. If the latter is correct, it could indicate that the Russians genuinely believe that the present Syrian regime is about to become history, as indicated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s explicit statement that “Assad’s days in power are numbered.” That assessment is not new, but it gains validity coming from this source. This could result in a situation where the government is overthrown and where Syria could, possibly, be divided into different areas that are separately governed. However we might look at it, there is a continuing concern over the growing instability inside of Syria.
Crossing the “Red Line”
Israel had previously warned Assad not to try to imitate Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator who never managed to make good on his intentions to pummel Israel with weapons of mass destruction. Transferring WMD to Hizb’allah would be crossing Israel’s “red line“. It’s hard to believe that Assad didn’t understand the warning. The greater likelihood is that given the present turmoil in Syria and the risks inherent in pursuing military action in Syria at this point, he probably gambled that Israel would not do anything and so, he simply chose to ignore the warning.
The Syrian military has in its possession an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons material, as well as thousands of advanced missiles and rockets, and assorted anti-aircraft and anti-naval missiles. Its cache of chemical weapons, including sarin and VX nerve agents and mustard gas, is the largest in the world, and its existence is a cause of many sleepless nights to Israeli officials and civilians alike. So, it is fully understandable that the transfer of WMD to terrorists is a “red line” that cannot be crossed, as the same would provide for almost limitless opportunities to attack Israel with such weaponry and result in literally hundreds of thousands of casualties here, with little opportunity for retaliation. This is especially true of the Syrian and Iranian supported Shiite Hizb’allah.
Israel has been a bystander in the Arab Spring. Still, even though it was not an active participant, government and opposition forces in at least three countries (Libya, Bahrain and, of course, Egypt) have accused the other side of collaborating with the Zionists. Egyptians President Morsi used the conflict of last November to catapult himself as a person who needs to be reckoned with, not only in Egypt, but in the Middle East in general.
Although Spring usually follows Winter, the upsets in the Arab world have turned things around, so that Winter follows Spring and, along with it, new players are introduced who have few, if any, central leadership, although most have a common allegiance to a new Islamic order.
With that background, we return to the situation involving the transfer of WMD from Syria to the Hizb’allah. Such a situation would be a benefit to Assad from a number of perspectives. First, it needs to be understood that Syria is not in a position to conduct a normal war with Israel, which leaves it with very few real options, paramount of which is its WMD. It has already come under international condemnation for alleged use of chemical weapons against the rebels. If it makes major use of such weapons, it would crossNATO’s “red line”. The clear understanding is that if it does not use those WMD, it will probably end up losing them. So, transferring such weapons to the Hizb’allah would remove the possibility of such weapons falling into the hands of the Sunni (Moslem) Syrian rebels, Second, it would provide Assad with an opportunity to indirectly threaten Israel, through its ally, the Hizb’allah. Third, use of the same by the Hizb’allah would probably not incur the wrath of NATO, as long as the European Union continues to refuse to recognize the Hizb’allah as a terrorist organization. This would elevate Assad to the status of someone who could either create, or prevent, an all-out regional conflagration.
Although Israel had and has no desire to become embroiled in the Syrian Civil War and even though Israel has been “encouraged” not to respond (as it was similarly “encouraged” during the first Gulf War when missiles rained down upon Tel Aviv and Haifa), still, it will not allow itself to be used as a pawn, with no say about what is going on, when remaining silent could affect the lives if hundreds of thousands of its citizens.
So, when it became obvious that the international community was not going to act, Israeli jets “allegedly” struck a convoy heading from Syria to Lebanon, which convoy reportedly contained Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, as well as some chemical weapons from Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (the “SSRC”), which runs Syria’s program for WMD. These anti-aircraft missiles are portable, easy to operate and are capable of catching planes by surprise, including fighter jets and low-flying aircraft. They could significantly impair Israel’s freedom of movement beyond the border. With a combination of mobility, speed, and long range capabilities, the SA-17 surface-to-air system is a veritable threat to the Israel Air Force, especially if the missile system were to fall into the hands of a terrorist group like the Hizb’allah in Lebanon. Air force officers are calling it the “game changer” because, unlike the Hizb’allah’s arsenal of surface-to-air weapons, the SA-17 battery is capable of going mobile in as little as five minutes. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Syrian military also has the Pantsir-S1 system, which is more advanced than the SA-17, is more precise and is one of the most modern air defense system of its kind. If the Hizb’allah were to get hold of this rocket system, the activity of the Israeli Air Force would be severely jeopardized.
Although Israel was widely condemned by the Islamic world for its air strike against the convoy, particularly by Syria, Iran and the Hizb’allah, there is still a possibility that none of these three countries will rush in with a military retaliation, despite threats to do so, but will seriously weigh potential Israeli responses to their respective regimes and how the same could affect their long-term goals. Still, knowing who our neighbors are, Israel is taking precautions to strengthen our northern border and we should not rule out the possibility that the Hizb’allah, more than Syria, will attempt to flex its muscles and fire missiles into the north of Israel in the very near future. Such an act by the Hizb’allah will also serve to test our readiness to retaliate against another missile barrage, as occurred during the Second Lebanese War.
A closing note on this situation: Israel’s “alleged” attack on the convoy demonstrated that, as the only free and democratic country in the region, it will not tolerate a real and immediate threat to its citizenry. It also sounded a clear warning to the entire international community, the U.S. included, that when its safety is in jeopardy, it will not sit around twiddling its thumbs, waiting for its “friends” to act. Finally, while Iran’s nuclear program still is Israel’s number one concern, our “alleged” attack against the transfer of WMD shows that Israel continues to keep its military option on the table and that it will act, unexpectedly, with devastating results.
Back to Politics
With the events relating to Syria, the Hizb’allah and Iran this past week, coalition politics has been pushed off the headlines, but continued to receive honorable mention in secondary columns of the newspapers. At this point, it is reported that 82 Members of Knesset have recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu form the next government. He has been called upon to do so by President Shimon Peres, the third time in his career. With such widespread backing, the negotiations for forming a coalition would seem to be over almost before they began. But, such is not the case.
The primary obstacle has do with there the assignment of ministerial positions. Once this is agree upon, most of the other matters can be resolved, some sooner, some later.
From a practical point if view, it is widely presumed that progress will be made to equalize the distribution of the national service burden. The state of the economy would be scrutinized and some difficult changes will be proposed and implemented. and, in all likelihood, Netanyahu will be pressured to be more flexible regarding the “Palestinians” and the so-called “peace process”, as long as an agreement is not reached allowing for the establishment of a “Palestinian”? state. If the latter were to occur, Naftali Bennett’s party, Habayit Hayehudi (which received 12 seats in the recent elections) would leave the government.
The main concern of P.M. Netanyahu at this point is that “Yesh Atid” (headed by Yair Lapid) is not fully on board and could easily withdraw from a coalition, causing a crisis that would lead to an early election. In order to prevent this, Netanyahu is seeking to establish a large enough coalition, so that even if Lapid opts out, the government would still stand. Friendships in politics are fragile enough, but when it comes to position and power, long-term allegiances have collapsed, placing the country on a path of uncertainty regarding almost every decision.
The reality of Lapid’s surprising victory at the polls, apparently, finally got to him. He was the natural, first potential coalition partner, having garnered 19 seats in the 19th Knesset, making his party the second largest next to the Likud and making Lapid the leader of the opposition. But, something happened this past weekend. Instead of closing the gap and moving towards becoming a coalition partner, he is moving further away and becoming more arrogant in the process. Success at the polls seems to have made his head spin. He is taking almost an all or nothing approach to joining the coalition and boasting that if he doesn’t get everything that he wants, he will insure that the opposition will bring about early elections and he will replace Netanyahu as Prime Minister in another year and a half. We’ve seen this prideful attitude before and as recently as the elections of four years ago, when Haim Ramon boasted that Tsippi Livni would replace Netanyahu with a year and a half. Now, after the latest elections, she’s waiting to see whether or not she will even be invited to join the coalition in Netanyah’s new government. It would seem that Lapid’s strategy would be to make demands upon Netanyahu that, if granted, would, in effect, act as an obstacle to the religious parties joining the coalition. Then, with the religious out, he could use a coalition disagreement as a basis for causing Yesh Atid to withdraw, resulting in the coalition no longer having a majority and, thus, forcing new elections. From Netanyahu’s perspective, however, he will not very quickly turn his back on the religious parties, who have generally supported him in the past.
That brings us back to Naftali Bennett as the one who will be able to help establish a Netanyahu-led coalition, or whether the baton will pass to Lapid. It doesn’t seem realistic that Bennett and the religious parties will allow Lapid, with hardly any personal, political experience, to run the government, particularly in light of his views regarding enlistment and national service, as well as his willingness to pursue negotiations with the “Palestinians” that could lead to the establishment of a “Palestinian” state. So, we come back to the scenarios first mentioned in last week’s TWTW, namely: Likud, HaBayit HaYehudi and the religious parties, which will still give Netanyahu a 61-59 majority. Whoever else joins will simply give him a broader-based coalition.
Sounds simple, but it’s not. The Shas ultra orthodox party now says that it will not cooperate with either Lapid or Bennett. That sounds more like a negotiation threat than a promise. From a political perspective, Shas will do almost anything to get its hands on the Ministry of the Interior, the office that controls, among other things, documentation from womb to tomb, including marriages and immigration. If offered this cabinet post, it would undoubtedly make almost any compromise and “cooperate” even with ultra secularists. The only thing that would take priority over this political pursuit is the overriding desire to insure that no government decision or policy is enacted without Shas being consulted. For this reason, it is actually wooing the religious faction within Bennett’s party to make sure that Shas has a say in any legislation affecting Torah life. It is clear that the picture is heating up and is probably causing Netanyahu a double Excedrin headache.
Syria – Bashar al-Assad continues the policies of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in his attempts over the past decade to rule Syria with an iron hand. The father succeeded in convincing the general populace that what was good for the ruling minority Alawite party was also good for the nation. This manner of ruling the people was passed down to Bashar, who was not the heir that was originally intended to take over after the father ceased his authoritative rule. But, when the heir apparent died in an automobile accident, his brother, Bashar, was given the nod. Instead of practicing opthamology, he practiced what his father taught him, politics – how to get into power and stay there. He was a good student and learned well, too well. He is now investing all of his efforts at prolonging his rule, and his life, even if doing so has resulted in the deaths of more than 60,000 of his own people and causing almost three quarters of a million people to become displaced from their homes. His removal from power, one way or another, is the goal of the Syrian rebels, who are, essentially, from the Sunni Moslem majority.
With so much hatred and antagonism directed towards Bashar al-Assad, one can only wonder how the Syrian people reacted when they learned that his wife, Asma al-Assad, the first lady of Syria, is pregnant. There were no shouts of joy in the street and no public announcements of a potential heir to the rule of the Assad family. The due date is said to be sometime next month. The Syrian Arab Spring will be two years old on March 15th (the Ides of March). No one is able to state whether Bashar will even be alive at the time that this child is born. But, it is reasonable to presume that this child, if a son, will not succeed his father as President of Syria.
Unlike Syria, the situation in Egypt is about to burst and the population is seeking to remove the president for the second time in 2 years. Only this time it is Mohammed Morsi, who entered office as President of Egypt around half a year ago. As was mentioned in TWTW last week, the immediate incident that sparked the present uprisings was the imposition of the death sentence on 21 soccer fans who were held responsible for the deaths of fans and players alike at a match held inPort Said a year ago. But, realistically, the public outrage stems from widespread disappointment among the Egyptian populace, particularly those in the lower socio-economic status, of the “achievements”, if they can be referred to as such, of the revolution, which deposed Hosni Mubarak. The people are starting to wake up to the reality that it was foolhardy and very unrealistic to presume that the problems that faced Egyptian society would be resolved overnight, or by replacing one tyrannical regime with another, untested one that was aligned with the Moslem Brotherhood, or that poverty would be done away with, that new jobs would spring up without the proper infrastructure to create them or that Egypt would once again suddenly become a “must place to visit” for tourists. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Prov, 13:12) and, along with heartfelt disappointment comes anger, focused at this point at Morsi, just as it was focused towards Mubarak.
This is the same Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi, who only 3 years ago blatantly described “Zionists” as “bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.” And, on another occasion in 2010 said: “We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews.” This is the leader that the people of Egypt now seek to depose.
Add to the anger and disappointment a form of frustration by the Egyptian liberals, who were widely credited with being responsible for the overthrow of Mubarak’s dictatorship, and who now feel that the revolution was, in a sense, stolen from them by the Moslem Brotherhood and their man of the hour, Morsi. The frustration lies in the fear of the toppled dictatorship being replaced by an Islamic theocracy. But, what has happened in recent days is that the widespread protests have added further instability to an already tense situation, threatening the sense of security that is necessary to create and rely upon effective, central leadership.
It should be noted that the events in Egypt came on the heels of the elections in Israel. If the average Egyptian would be asked, the likelihood is that whatever he/she might think of Israel’s government, it would have to be acknowledged that here, the citizens determine their political future in a free, democratic exercise of their rights and not by bloody revolutions that use terms of enlightenment like “Arab Spring”. As things appear now, it would seem that for most Egyptians, it is more like the winter of their discontent.
One day after being asked by President Shimon Peres to firm a coalition government, P.M. Netanyahu stated that stopping Iran’s “nuclearization” is Israel’s most urgent task. He added: “Yesterday I called on all the parties in the Knesset to join me and form a national unity government that is as broad as possible, and which unites the public in such a crucial moment in our history . . . Our over-arching goal is to stop the nuclearization of Iran. This mission is becoming more complex because Iran is obtaining more advanced centrifuges that shorten the enrichment time. We must not accept this with resignation.” Too much has been said about this and very little has been done. Maybe, Israel is hoping that there would be more underground explosions in Iranian nuclear facilities, which would save us the job of having to fly in and level the Iranian infrastructure, while most of the world sits by and observes how it should be done.
On a bit of an amusing note, Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said that he wants to be an astronaut, the first person to be sent out as part of the Iranian space program. He should be encouraged to do so, considering that he already is a space cadet.
There really were a lot of other things that happened in, around and concerning Israel during the past week, but the major emphasis was on the movement of WMD and coalition politics. Next time, we’ll discuss some of them.
For now, THAT was the week that was.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what The LORD requires of you: to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
“When a man’s ways are pleasing to The LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” (Prov. 16:7)
Have a truly blessed week!