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Update from AIJAC


8 July 2016

Update 07/16 #02

Today's Update looks at Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's historic trip to Africa, which is about to conclude. Whilst there, he visited, and met with the leaders of, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda. His first stop was Uganda, where he commemorated the famous 1976 Israeli rescue of the hostages from the country’s Entebbe airport. The operation was renamed Operation Yonatan, in honour of Mr. Netanyahu’s older brother, who led the operation and was killed there. More information is contained in Aaron Torop’s blog post here.

While in Uganda, he attended a Regional Summit on Counter-terrorism with Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and Uganda. The Joint Declaration of the Summit is here.

Remarks by Netanyahu and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at a joint press conference on July 5 are here, while a release by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs setting out Netanyahu’s trip to Ethiopia and his remarks at a press conference and to an Israel-Ethiopia business summit on July 7 are here.

Mr. Netanyahu had been widely criticised in Israel for the alleged extravagance and wastefulness of his visit. In our first feature article, Mazal Mualem of Al-Monitor’s "Israel Pulse" takes issue with this criticism. Mualem, a former senior political correspondent with Ha’aretz and Maariv, sets out a number of potential benefits of the trip, both diplomatic and economic. She points out that many African economies are now among the fastest growing in the world, and that the trip could have enormous value for this reason alone. For her take on the value of the trip,  CLICK HERE

Next up, the Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon writes on the Ethiopian part of the trip, looking through the eyes of Israel’s only Ethiopian MK Avraham Neguise, and shows how far the relationship has come in 30 years. In the mid-1980s, the Ethiopian parliament was filled “with vitriolic addresses against Israel delivered by those who wanted to find favor with Russia’s leader Leonid Brezhnev, Libya’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi, and Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro during the country’s communist era.”  Now, Netanyahu was warmly received in the same building, where he lauded the contribution to Israeli society of Ethiopian immigrants. For this touching piece, CLICK HERE

Finally, last month, Mr. Netanyahu visited Russia and met with President Vladimir Putin, his fourth meeting with Mr. Putin since last September. The main topic of conversation appears to have been Russia’s intentions in Syria and Israel’s concerns about Hezbollah and Iranian activities there and in Lebanon, including Israel’s need for freedom to act in its own defence against them. Tony Badran, writing in Tablet Magazine, gives a detailed exposition of the challenges for Israel of Russia’s role in Syria. He sets out the opportunities for Israel of the changing circumstances there, but also the threats, and concludes that the confluence between Russia’s and Iran’s interests, based around their desire for the survival of the Assad regime, spells long term trouble for Israel. For this interesting perspective, CLICK HERE

Meanwhile, Geoffrey Alderman of the Jewish Chronicle sets out the reasons Mr. Netanyahu would have for “cosying-up” to Putin, which include diplomatic motives as well as concerns about Syria.

 
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Why Netanyahu's Africa visit is worth the cost

Mazal Mualem
Al-Monitor, 5 July 2016


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opponents and rivals have not missed the chance to criticize and ridicule his extravagant and wasteful visit to Africa.
 
Netanyahu's visit started July 4 when his entourage landed in Uganda on the 40th anniversary of the hostage rescue operation that freed the passengers of an Air France flight that was hijacked and taken to the Ugandan town of Entebbe in 1976. Netanyahu's own brother Yoni, commander of the Matkal commando unit, was killed in the rescue operation. The prime minister's official visit to four African countries — Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia — is scheduled to end July 8. The visit was intended to bolster economic and diplomatic ties between Israel and Africa. Just last week, the Israeli government approved a program worth 50 million shekels ($13 million) to advance this goal.
 
Thousands of sharp words have been written over the past few days on one of the most expensive overseas visits by an Israeli prime minister. The authors detailed the steep costs of security, leased aircraft, a safari, as well as costs associated with the entourage. According to some media sources, the total price tag of the visit came to 28 million shekels ($7 million). The prime minister's office responded that the actual cost was 12.5 million shekels ($3.2 million).
 
Among the many critics of this visit was Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the opposition party Zionist Camp, who released a particularly scathing reaction: "It seems that Netanyahu went to give up in Africa and leave the whole country without a solution to the wave of terrorism, without a solution to the crisis of the settlers, without a solution to the cries of pain from the families of the missing [Israelis held in Gaza]. Netanyahu isn't going. He is fleeing from a military solution and fleeing from a diplomatic solution. He is fleeing from [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett and [Defense Minister Avigdor] Liberman, and he is fleeing from European pressure."
 
Meretz Chair Zehava Gal-On claimed that the trip "broke records for its absurdity." She called it "an extravagant festival that has nothing to do with developing relations with Africa. While Netanyahu likes bombastic ceremonies, which legitimize his leadership, he would do well to reduce the cost of this visit to something more reasonable and invest the remainder in strengthening economic ties and cooperation with the African continent."
 
The Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel joined the critics' celebration, demanding that the prime minister's office release a detailed timetable with costs for the visit.
 
All this criticism of the visit's cost misses the trip's historical significance for Israel's foreign relations, economy and even its national ethos. The ceremony in Entebbe, for one, brought its audience back to one of the most powerful and important moments in the country's history.
 
It is difficult to ignore the fact that the prime minister's family ties to the operation caused Netanyahu's regular critics to react cynically to the ceremony and attack Netanyahu again, almost automatically.
 
At the end of the ceremony, which was in no way extravagant or overstated, Netanyahu met with seven African leaders from Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia. By signing a joint regional declaration on the war against terrorism, they bestowed an important diplomatic dimension to this visit, especially now, when Israel is hardly the most popular country in the international community.
 
Furthermore, Netanyahu was accompanied by a delegation of several dozen businesspeople, selected by the Israel Export Institute. This could be the opening salvo in the upgrading of economic relations between Israel and Africa, given the enormous potential of such ties. In fact, by the second day of the visit, it was reported that Israel and Kenya would be signing a new trade and investment agreement. The office of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta reported that during the visit, Kenyatta and Netanyahu will either sign or reauthorize agreements signifying that the relationship between the two countries has entered a new stage of close cooperation.
 
The last prime minister to visit the African continent was Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s. It has been more than 20 years since then, over which time relations between Israel and Africa were neglected due to a lack of interest, even though African markets could have offered Israel great commercial opportunities.
 
On Monday evening, Netanyahu updated his Facebook followers about his experiences on the visit so far and about his meeting with the African leaders. He said, "We spoke about strengthening the relationship between us and about regional and international cooperation in all areas, including cyber security, data collection, advancing new technologies and development. This summit meeting will be a milestone as we continue to strengthen relations with these and many other countries in Africa. We will develop our countries together and lead them to the future. Israel is returning to Africa, and Africa is returning to Israel!"
 
While Netanyahu has a tendency to exaggerate and lionize his actions, and while he doesn't always stand behind his statements, in this particular case, even the statements, intentions and mood resulting from this visit have enormous value.
 
According to figures from the Israel-Africa Chamber of Commerce, Israel's annual exports to Africa stood at $1 billion in 2015. Economic growth in Africa stood at 5.7% that year, much higher than the global growth rate, which stood at 3.8%. Israel's exports centered on medicine, agriculture and communications. According to the chairman of the Africa-Israel Chamber of Commerce, Nisu Betzalel, who assumed the position in June 2016, "The potential exists to double this economic activity."
 
Ayo Salami, a world authority on the African economy who visited Israel as a host of the Israel-Africa Chamber of Commerce last February in an effort to promote cooperation, gave a comprehensive summary of Africa's untapped economic potential. He said that the changes underway in Africa over the past two decades are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Whereas revolutions were behind extensive changes in other regions of the world, including economic changes, regimes that experienced crises and periods of economic stagnation in Africa were the same regimes that eventually led their countries out of these situations.
 
While there is a tendency to think that the Far East is the fastest-growing economic region in the world today, Salami said the fact is that seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa. According to Salami, Botswana is the fastest-growing economy in the world now, but the media prefers to cover the more sensational economic stories. Likewise, whereas less than one-quarter of Africa's population was classified as middle class in 2000 in terms of income, this group is expected to grow to 57% of the population by 2020.
 
That is why Netanyahu's rivals should put their criticism about the cost of this trip aside. They should focus on the enormous value of this visit to Africa, regardless of whether it costs 12.5 million shekels or 28 million. If important deals start to take shape there, then the cost of the trip is insignificant.

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MK Neguise moved to tears in Ethiopian parliament
 

Herb Keinon
Jerusalem Post, 8 July 2016
 
ADDIS ABABA – Likud MK Avraham Neguise spoke with tears welling up in his eyes on Thursday about what it meant for him to watch Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address the Ethiopian parliament.
 
“It was very moving that the prime minister of Israel stood in the parliament of Ethiopia and spoke from the heart about the contributions of Ethiopians in Israel,” said Neguise, currently the country’s only Ethiopian-born MK.
 
Neguise, who emigrated from Ethiopia in 1985, remembers well when the parliament was not filled with speeches of praise to the Israeli-Ethiopian relationship, as was the case on Thursday, but rather with vitriolic addresses against Israel delivered by those who wanted to find favor with Russia’s leader Leonid Brezhnev, Libya’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi, and Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro during the country’s communist era.
 
But on Thursday, Netanyahu, who was greeted by rhythmic applause in the red-carpeted parliament, told both houses of that body that the relationship is only growing.
 
“Ethiopia is on the rise, Africa is on the rise, and the relationship between us is soaring to new heights,” Netanyahu said.

Neguise was moved because he remembers how Zionism was regularly attacked along with capitalism and imperialism in Ethiopia. “And now the relationship has come to this point,” he said.
 
Neguise, who was at odds with Netanyahu last year over the government’s failure to implement a promise to bring the 9,000 Jews left in Ethiopia to the country, arrived in Addis on Wednesday, at Netanyahu’s invitation.
 
The Likud MK, sitting in his signature white cap in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Addis where the Netanyahu’s entourage is staying, said he also teared up when he landed in the capital on Wednesday, and on the way to the hotel saw Ethiopian and Israeli flags flying side by side, as well as billboards of Netanyahu and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
 
The prime minister mentioned his name in his speech to the parliament, holding him up – as well as former Yesh Atid MK Penina Tamanu-Shata, and the current ambassador to the country, Belaynesh Zevadia – as examples of the impact Ethiopian-Israelis are having on society.
 
Asked how he felt the members of the parliament looked upon him, Neguise said that he sat with spokesman of the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry who said, “We are proud of you, that you reached this level – you are a bridge between Ethiopia and Israel, and this is important.”
 
No one, Neguise said, views the Jews who left the country to move to Israel as people who abandoned the homeland.
 
Neguise said he would have liked to see Netanyahu have meet with representatives of the two communities waiting to immigrate to Israel, 3,000 in Addis and 6,000 in Gondar, just as he often meets with the heads of other Jewish communities when he travels abroad.
 
The government has committed itself to bring 1,300 to Israel. Neguise said 85 percent of the 9,000 waiting have first degree relatives in Israel.

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Why Bibi’s Visits to Moscow Mean Bad News for Israel
 

By Tony Badran
Tablet Magazine, July 5 2016

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Russia for yet another meeting with president Vladimir Putin—his third such trip (and fourth meeting) since Russia began its bombing campaign in Syria last September. While Israel is clearly concerned about the possibility of entertaining Iranian proxies, advisers, and weapons in the Golan Heights, in addition to the existing concentrations of Hezbollah troops and rockets in Southern Lebanon, Russia’s leanings are presented as something of a mystery. Is Russia using Syria as a forward base to fight Chechen jihadists? Are there important gaps between the Russian and Iranian positions? Have Israel and Russia reached important operational understandings that define who can act where inside Syria?
 
The lavish speculation on these and other such points is compounded by the demands of information warfare campaigns being run by all sides, which often seek to convince particular audiences of things that are wildly untrue. This form of gamesmanship reached a fevered pitch following the mysterious killing in Damascus of Hezbollah’s top military commander, Mustafa Badreddine, in May. At the farthest end of the spectrum is the rather elaborate suggestion that it was the Russians who may have dispatched Badreddine—a move that should supposedly be read against the backdrop of Russia’s competition with Iran for primacy in Syria. If this sounds far-fetched, then another reading, only one step removed from the suggestion of direct Russian involvement, has found some mainstream appeal. Briefly put, this reading maintains that since Russia dominates Syrian airspace and has stationed the anti-access/area denial S-400 missile system in Latakia, then any Israeli operation in Syria must have had at least an implicit Russian green light. Some will go even further and contend that such strikes are indeed coordinated with Russia as part of an alleged “coordination mechanism” that the Israeli government has been busy negotiating with the Kremlin.
 
In truth, while there’s much talk about the Israeli-Russian “coordination” mechanism, there’s no real information about the details of any such arrangement, which appears to live in a conceptual realm that is at least somewhat removed from physical reality. How Russia views this quasi-theoretical “coordination” that has been defined largely by public statements from Israeli officials is completely unknown.
 
What is clear is that the Russian intervention has only added to the new opportunities and new threats arising from Syria’s implosion. The strategic benefits of the conflict for Israel are quite real: Hezbollah is embroiled in a costly and consuming war of attrition with the Sunni rebels, who have killed well over 1,000 of its fighters, including many veteran field commanders. The war in Syria has also undercut the group’s strategic depth. Prior to 2011, Israel had mostly avoided striking arms convoys to Hezbollah on the Syrian side of the border, resorting instead to sabotage operations in Lebanon. Since the outbreak of the war, the IAF has been targeting Hezbollah assets and commanders in Syria at will.
 
On the other hand, despite Israeli efforts, Hezbollah had managed to increase its arsenal and had acquired some advanced weapons systems. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly last October, Netanyahu specified that Hezbollah had smuggled a Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship cruise missile system (in early 2014, it was said that Hezbollah had acquired components of it), and SA-22 anti-air missiles into Lebanon. It’s not known for sure if it has also managed to smuggle the SA-17 system, which it had tried to in the past and failed, thanks to IAF strikes. Iran has also upgraded the group’s Fateh 110 missiles, which are capable of hitting deep in Israel with added precision. As a result, IDF officers now regularly acknowledge that a future conflict will see hundreds of missiles raining down on Israeli cities every day. Still, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon recently downplayed these threats: “If there is something that I lose sleep at night about, it’s not the truckloads of weapons in Syria and Lebanon or Iran’s attempts to wage terror—Israel has the capabilities to deal with these forcefully and with sophistication.”
 
Left out of Ya’alon’s assessment of the dangers posed by various new weapons systems, however, is the fact that Washington has been lending cover to Iran’s ambition to make its presence in Syria a permanent one. As Ya’alon said in a different context, “Iran determines the future of Syria, and if it leads to perpetuation, Iranian hegemony in Syria will be huge a challenge for Israel.” The Syrian crisis has crystallized the fact that Israel and the United States are on opposing sides when it comes to the Iranian role in the region, including directly on Israel’s borders. President Barack Obama has recognized Syria and Lebanon as Iranian zones of influence and Tehran as a legitimate “stakeholder” in Syria.
 
The strategic significance for Israel of Iran’s new status as an American-backed regional power isn’t hard to fathom. It’s also why Netanyahu began traveling to Moscow. Since Russia was partnered in Syria with Iran and Hezbollah and the other Shiite militias operating under the command of the IRGC, there was no telling how the Russians would behave and what restrictions would be imposed on Israel’s freedom to operate in Syria.
 
When Netanyahu paid his first call on Putin in Moscow, he publicly laid out Israel’s position and red lines. “Iran and Syria have been arming … Hezbollah with advanced weapons, which are aimed at us,” Netanyahu said. He added, “Iran, as the benefactor of the Syrian army, is trying to build a second terror front against us from the Golan. Our policy is to thwart the flow of these weapons and to prevent the establishment of a new terror front and attacks against us from the Golan.” The mechanism that was discussed with the Russians, Netanyahu disclosed, was simply “to prevent misunderstandings between IDF forces and Russian forces.”
 
Israel quickly made good on its word and struck again inside Syria in October. Reported strikes continued apace throughout November as well. It was important for Israel to establish its determination to continue operations and not allow the perception that Russia’s entry had afforded Hezbollah and Iran a protective umbrella—which is how initially Hezbollah propaganda portrayed the new reality following the Russian intervention. Israeli official statements about finding Russian “understanding” for Israel’s position or comments playing up the “coordination mechanism” were intended to put a damper on such propaganda. Continued Israel operations gave such Israeli public statements credibility, even as the Russians remained silent.
 
The Russian intervention did introduce some important restrictions on Israeli activity. For instance, whereas Israel struck a shipment of Yakhont missiles in the port of Latakia in 2013, all reported Israeli strikes since September 2015 have been south of the city of Homs, near Lebanon’s eastern border, and in and around Damascus. Unlike in 2013, Latakia now houses Russia’s military base and its formidable S-400 anti-air missile system. So, as things stand, there is an effective delineation of territory where Israel still executes missions against Iranian weapons shipments and Hezbollah and Assad regime targets. This area covers the length of Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. The adjacent areas on the Syrian side, south of Homs and in the Qalamoun region, as well as on the road to Damascus, now mostly under Hezbollah control, house weapons storage depots for the group, as does the Damascus Airport. The Golan area, which Israel regards as a red line, is part of this area of continued Israeli operations.
 
Israeli operations went beyond intercepting weapons shipment to assassinations of Hezbollah cadres. In December 2015, Israel reportedly took out Samir Kuntar, the Lebanese Druze terrorist, in a strike in a Damascus neighborhood. Kuntar was said to have been working on behalf of Hezbollah with the Druze of southern Syria, recruiting them for Hezbollah’s Syrian franchise. Golan Druze were used to plant IED’s for Hezbollah, as well as for other missions. Iran’s drive to establish an operational infrastructure on the Golan is repeatedly cited by Netanyahu as a red line. A few weeks before the Kuntar assassination, Netanyahu went so far as to acknowledge Israeli action to prevent it: “We are working against the opening of an additional terror front that Iran is trying to open on the Golan, and in order to mitigate the transfer of deadly weapons from Syria to Lebanon. This is something which we will continue to do.”
 
Interestingly, the pro-Hezbollah TV station al-Mayadeen claimed at the time that the Kuntar strike was actually executed from within Israeli air space. It is possible that the Badreddine strike followed the same modus operandi. Indeed, one Arabic language report, quoting Syrian military sources, claimed that Badreddine was killed with a precision-guided SPICE glide bomb and that the method was identical to the Kuntar operation. If true, this adds another Israeli adjustment to the Russian presence in Syria. Hardly implying the kind of deep understanding and coordination between Moscow and Jerusalem, it rather suggests that Israel has proceeded with caution, if also with resolve, firing from outside Russian-protected Syrian airspace. It’s not likely that Russia would target Israeli jets flying inside Israel’s own airspace, or even over the Mediterranean.
 
There is a wider context for Israel’s prudence—beyond the presence of the S-400—which suggests that it hasn’t been all smooth sailing with the Russians in Syria, despite all the talk of “coordination” and top-level visits to Moscow. In a January meeting with members of Congress, Jordan’s King Abdullah supposedly revealed how testy things had been with the Russians in southern Syria. In a leaked account of the meeting, Abdullah reportedly disclosed that at one point, Russian jets in southern Syria were met with Jordanian and Israeli F-16s. “The Russians were shocked and understood they cannot mess with us,” Abdullah allegedly said.
 
Abdullah’s comments came during an Iranian-led Hezbollah and regime offensive in the Deraa province in southern Syria, under Russian air cover. Abdullah was particularly alarmed and reportedly felt betrayed by Putin, with whom he thought he had an understanding that Russia wouldn’t operate near the Jordanian border. Just as the Israelis had sought to keep the Iranians away from the Golan, the Jordanians, too, had pushed out the IRGC and Hezbollah from near their border. The prospect of the Iranians and their Shiite militias returning under Russian cover, to say nothing of a potential massive flow of refugees, was alarming for Amman and also for Jerusalem. It made sense for both Israel and Jordan to draw a firm line.
 
This was not a singular incident. Last April, ahead of Netanyahu’s second trip to Russia, Israeli media reported that one or more Russian jets were scrambled to meet an Israeli squadron flying along the Syrian coast. The already scant details of the incident varied from one outlet to the next, which makes drawing conclusions difficult. If the Israeli jets were near the Syrian coast (and not, as one outlet reported, operating near the northern border), was this a Russian delineation of territory for Israeli operations? Or did it carry no such significance at all?
 
Although nothing serious resulted from the encounter, it nevertheless served as another reminder of the rudimentary and vague nature of the “understanding” between Israel and Russia, several months into the Russian intervention. Indeed, Netanyahu admitted that his second trip to Russia aimed to achieve more clarity between the two sides. “I set the goal of the meeting as strengthening coordination between Russia and Israel to prevent mishaps,” Netanyahu said. “I think we clarified some matters, and that is very important.” Israel, in other words, was still feeling its way around, while trying to avoid a serious incident.
 
Operational issues aside, Israel had to contend with the broader matter of Syria itself. What’s more, it had to do so on its own, as its traditional American ally was seemingly more concerned with protecting the Syrian “equities” of Israel’s foremost enemy, Iran. As Russia and the United States were discussing Syria’s fate, Israel was left out by the United States, which did not consider Israel to also be a “stakeholder” in Syria, a country with which it shares a border and has fought two large-scale wars. Therefore, Netanyahu used his second trip to Russia to raise the issue of permanent Israeli sovereignty over the Golan—a conversation that the Israeli prime minister continued with Putin during his June trip. “The countries that surround (Israel), especially Syria, some of them have fallen apart and need a new arrangement,” Netanyahu said. “I spoke about this at length with President Putin, and the important thing is that what will take their place … won’t threaten (Israel).”
 
That Netanyahu was now forced to petition Russia about the Golan highlighted that the United States under Obama was gone. America’s absence means that Israel must now find an accommodation with Russia to ensure its interests.
 
The dilemma, however, is that the Russian enterprise in Syria is a partnership with Iran; its success is also Iran’s success. While Russia has firepower, and a seat at the Security Council, the Iranians own the ground in Syria. It is their forces and their IRGC-run Shiite militias that hold regime territory, and fight to expand it. Without these fighters, Assad, who has a massive manpower problem, would not be able to survive. And without those forces on the ground, there would be no one to guard the areas around Russia’s bases, or to take advantage of Russia’s air and artillery assaults, which is why Hezbollah and Iranian officers have worked together with Russian officers in recent months planning operations.
 
There is no other possible partner for Russia in Syria besides Iran. And for all the talk about the divergence between Iranian and Russian objectives, the fact is that they agree on a fundamental point: the survival of the Assad regime. That’s the pivot around which both their strategies revolve. Put differently, the Russian endgame is geared to ensure the victory of the Assad regime. In turn, that victory ensures the preservation of Iran’s position and strategic objectives in Syria. And that spells long-term trouble for Israel.

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