The Warsaw Summit and the Palestinians/ Lebanon’s new government

Participants pose for a photo at the Middle East conference at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, February 13, 2019. (Credit: Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Update from AIJAC

Update 02/19 #03

This Update is focussed on the Warsaw Conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East that took place yesterday with the participation of more than 60 countries –  which is widely seen as part of a US-led effort to create a new alliance against Iran’s destabilising behaviour. While much of the media coverage of the Summit has centred on remarks by US Vice-President Mike Pence in which he chided the Europeans for undermining US sanctions on Iran and called on them to end their support for the JCPOA nuclear deal, this Update focusses on other aspects of the Summit – namely, more evidence of a growing Israeli alliance with Arab states and the vehement Palestinian protests over the summit for this reason.

This Update also features an analysis of the new Hezbollah-dominated Lebanese government and its implications for Israel.

First up is an analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian implications of the summit from Herb Keinon, political correspondent with the Jerusalem Post. He says while there will be much discussion of who Netanyahu met at the summit, the very presence of numerous Arab ministers at the summit is significant because the Palestinians strongly campaigned for them not to come. He says the 10 Arab states that attended are demonstrating that they are unwilling to let the Palestinians hold their interest hostage, even if Israeli ties with the Arab world cannot be fully formalised without progress on the Palestinian peace front. For his complete discussion,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is veteran Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh exploring why Palestinian objections to the Summit were so vociferous. Writing before the actual conference took place, he says it is not clear why, but the Palestinian leadership appears to have convinced themselves that the main purpose of the summit was to bring Arab countries together with Israel. He notes that is particularly strange because the Palestinian Authority actually has complained about Iranian meddling repeatedly in recent years, so should be broadly in favour of a new coalition against Iran – yet nonetheless seem overwhelmingly concerned with any Arab “normalisation” with Israel instead. For all the details of Abu Toameh’s well-informed analysis,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, we bring you an analysis of the new Hezbollah-dominated Lebanese government, and its implications for Israel, penned by Israeli security reporter Yaakov Lappin. Lappin canvasses the views of a variety of Israeli experts, including several former senior IDF officers, and academics, who note that the new government basically fulfils all of Hezbollah’s demands and provides the terror group with access to Lebanese state funds in numerous ways.  They also largely emphasise that the new government represents a new milestone in the creeping Iranian annexation of the country, which creates major challenges for Israeli strategic planners.  For the piece in full, CLICK HERE. A more detailed article on the implications of the new Lebanese government for Israel comes from academic and former senior officer Orna Mizrachi –  one of the experts quoted by Lappin in the piece.

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Arab message from Warsaw: No PA veto power over Israel contacts – Analysis

By HERB KEINON
Jerusalem Post, 13/02/2019

 

What makes the very presence of Arab ministers in Warsaw significant, even if they do not shake hands with Netanyahu in front of whirling cameras, is that the Palestinians asked them not to come.

Whenever an Israeli prime minister attends a large international gathering where Arab representatives also participate, speculation swirls about whose hand he will shake, and whether there will be meetings – discreet or public – on the sidelines.

This was as true when then-prime minister Ehud Olmert went to Paris in 2008 for what French president Nicolas Sarkozy hoped would be the launch of a new Mediterranean forum, as it was in 2015 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the same city for a climate change conference, and again last November in Paris to take part in ceremonies commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

The same, too, is true today, with Netanyahu in Warsaw to take part in the US-Polish sponsored meeting on Mideast peace and security.

Representatives of some 60 states are on hand for the meeting, which was originally touted as a conference to try and thwart Iranian designs in the Mideast, but which – to make it more palatable to some Europeans – morphed over the last few days into a summit to deal with a whole basket of Mideast problems, from Syria, to Yemen, to Israel and the Palestinians. Among those Arab representatives on hand include the foreign ministers of Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE, Oman Kuwait and Morocco.

Iranian communities in Europe hold a rally to protest against Iranian government’s human rights violations during a global summit focused on the Middle East and Iran in Warsaw, Poland February 13, 2019. (photo credit: AGENJCA GAZETA/ REUTERS)

No sooner had Netanyahu landed than reports began to emerge that he would be meeting the foreign ministers of Morocco and Bahrain. And although those meetings have not yet occurred, Netanyahu did meet publicly with Oman Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah.

Last October Oman was the first country to come out publicly with its ties with Israel, when Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said made public a visit by Netanyahu.

While public meetings with any Arab foreign minister is a coup for Netanyahu, especially just two months before elections, there is significance merely in the fact that so many Arab states have decided to attend the conference, the first Mideast conference attended by Israel and some Arab countries since Annapolis in 2008.

What makes the very presence of Arab ministers in Warsaw significant, even if they do not shake hands with Netanyahu in front of whirling cameras, is that the Palestinians asked them not to come.

PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat: Conference is an attempt  at “destroying the Palestinian national project.”

PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat said last week that the Warsaw conference “is an attempt at bypassing the Arab Peace Initiative [from 2002] and destroying the Palestinian national project.”

Fatah spokesman Osama Qawasmeh went even farther and said that any Arab leader who meets with Netanyahu at the Warsaw conference would be “stabbing Jerusalem and our Palestinian people.” The Palestinians, he said, are opposed to any form of normalization “with the Israeli occupation entity because that would be a free gift to Tel Aviv.”

And, of course, some Arab states did not attend. Lebanon is not there, nor – of course – are Syria or Iraq.

But, despite the Palestinian protestations, many Arab countries did show up, and some – like Oman – were willing to go public with the meetings with Netanyahu. And what this shows is that much of the Arab world is no longer comfortable in handing veto power to the Palestinians over their ties with Israel, which they feel could be very beneficial both in terms of security and economics. 

The Arabs states who went to Warsaw did so to talk about Iran’s aggression in the region. They went because stopping Iran is in their interests, because they feel Israel can help them do it, and because they want to remain on US President Donald Trump’s good side, despite the Palestinian boycott of the American administration.

Netanyahu, who has been involved in quiet contacts with various Arab states for years, has stressed that under the radar cooperation with the Arab countries is happening in a way no one thought it would – without any diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

The long-held assumption that the Arab world would not deal with Israel until the Palestinian issue is solved has proven empty. In order to deal with the common enemy of Iran and radical Islamic terror, these countries have shown an interest in dealing with Israel even though there is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians to speak of.

That many Arab countries went to Warsaw – even if it does not result in a group photo of Netanyahu shaking hands with all the Arab representatives – shows that these countries are unwilling to let the Palestinians hold their own interests hostage.

Diplomacy is not an all or nothing proposition. 

Ties with the Arab world will not be – as Jerusalem would like – public and even semi-normal until there is at the very least a modicum of a diplomatic process with the Palestinians. But neither will any and all ties between the Arab world and Israel be conditioned on the establishment of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital, as the Palestinians would like.

There is a middle ground, and the participation of more than 10 Arab states at the Warsaw conference – despite Palestinian objections – is a good indication of what that middle ground looks like.

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Why Palestinians Oppose an Anti-Iran Coalition

by Khaled Abu Toameh

Gatestone Institute, February 9, 2019 at 5:00 am

  • It seems the Palestinian leadership would rather see Iran continue to pose a threat to Arab countries than see peace between those countries and Israel.
  • Several Arab countries appear completely fed up with the Palestinians, particularly the continued bickering between Fatah and Hamas. Egyptian intelligence officials have devoted years trying to convince Hamas and Fatah to work together for the benefit of the Palestinians.
  • Instead of doing so, however, Palestinian leaders are preoccupied with blocking Arab participation in a conference that could see the creation of a coalition against Iran — the same country Abbas and his loyalists hold responsible for the ongoing divisions among the Palestinians. Might it be possible that the Arab countries are finally rousing themselves from their long slumber and beginning to seek better lives for themselves and their neighbors?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, during Netanyahu’s official visit to Oman, October 26, 2018. (Image source: Israel PM’s Office)

The Palestinians have good reason to believe that some influential Arab countries have given up on both them and the Palestinian cause. They fear that several Arab countries might even be headed toward normalizing their relations with Israel.

For several weeks now, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been waging a campaign against a US-Polish conference that is scheduled to take place in Warsaw later this month. US and Polish officials said that the conference will include sessions on the situation in Syria, Yemen, missile development, terrorism and illicit finance and cybersecurity. A US official said that the conference will also discuss “Iran’s destructive policies in the region.”

Why are the Palestinians so worried about the upcoming conference? Because they care about Iran or Yemen or Syria or missile development? No, the Palestinians are concerned because they have somehow convinced themselves that the main purpose of the conference is to bring the Arab countries closer to Israel. It is not clear on what the Palestinian claim is based, especially as neither the US nor Poland has mentioned the issue of normalization between Israel and the Arab countries as being on the agenda of the conference.

“The PLO considers the conference a form of direct and public normalization [between the Arabs and Israel],” said PLO Executive Committee member Ahmed Majdalani. “This is an attempt to change the priorities in the Middle East so that confronting Iran would become the main issue instead of ending the [Israeli] occupation.” The PLO official called on the Arab countries to boycott the conference.

PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat also expressed concern over the planned conference in Warsaw; he said it was a “serious attempt to overturn the Arab Peace Initiative” that was endorsed by the Arab League in 2002. This 10-sentence initiative calls for normalizing relations between the Arab countries and Israel in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines (including east Jerusalem) and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee issue based on UN resolution 194. The resolution states that refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date.”

Although Israel has expressed tentative support for the initiative, it also made clear that it cannot accept the relocation of millions of Palestinians into Israel. Such a move would mean the creation of two Palestinians states: one in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, and another in Israel, where Jews would become a minority in their country.

Erekat and other Palestinian officials seem worried that the Arabs planning to participate in the conference will abandon the Arab Peace Initiative, including the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel. They are also apparently concerned that their Arab brothers will abandon the Palestinian issue in favor of an anti-Iran coalition. Several Arab countries now consider the Iranian “threat” their main priority and believe that it should take precedence over the Palestinian dispute.

“The Palestinian cause is an Arab and Islamic issue par excellence,” Erekat said, echoing Palestinian fears of Arab indifference toward the Palestinians. “We have not authorized anyone to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians. The US is planning, through the Warsaw conference, to first achieve normalization between the Arabs and Israel before peace [between Israel and the Palestinians].”

Even if the planned conference is aimed at creating a coalition against Iran, one would expect the Palestinian Authority to be the first to join it. In the past few years, the Palestinian leadership has repeatedly charged Iran with meddling in the internal affairs of the Palestinians, especially by supporting Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. It seems the Palestinian leadership would rather see Iran continue to pose a threat to Arab countries than see peace between those countries and Israel.

Recently, a senior Palestinian official accused Iran of being behind the weekly demonstrations that began in March 2018. “Iran is financing these marches,” the official said, referring to the demonstrations being held in the context of the Hamas-sponsored March of Return.

The “March of Return” is the name chosen by Hamas and other Palestinian groups to describe the weekly protests along the Gaza-Israel border. The groups say that their main goal is to force Israel to lift the Gaza Strip blockade, but by calling the demonstrations a “March of Return,” Hamas and its supporters are also saying that they want Palestinian refugees and their descendants to move into Israel as part of what they consider a “right of return.”

Osama Qawassmeh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction, also lashed out at Iran:

“Iran has not provided anything for the Palestinian people. It is shameful that some think that the economic crisis in Iran is because of its support for the Palestinians. We never heard that Iran helped build a school or hospital or university or any other developmental project.”

Iran’s support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he explained, does not mean that it supports the Palestinian people. “This is a huge misconception and mistake,” he said.

In addition, Abbas loyalists have accused Iran of supporting Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. One official claimed that the Hamas terrorists who staged a coup against the Palestinian Authority back then had received military training in Iran and “some Arab countries.”

Another sign that the Arab countries have turned their backs on the Palestinians was provided by the recent convening of Arab foreign ministers in Jordan to build a consensus among Arab states on regional security issues. The Palestinians were not invited.

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank city of Ramallah should ask itself why is everyone disparaging the Palestinian cause,” said Palestinian political analyst Fayez Abu Shamaleh. “Why is the Palestinian cause no longer at the center of the attention of Arabs and Jews? Even the candidates running in the Israeli election have ignored the Palestinian issue.”

Netanyahu sits beside Yemen foreign minister at Warsaw summit in historic moment for both countries, February 14, 2019 (GPO)

The Palestinian fears do not seem unjustified. Several Arab countries appear completely fed up with the Palestinians, particularly the continued bickering between Fatah and Hamas. Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries have tried in the past decade to help the two rival parties resolve their differences, to no avail. Egyptian intelligence officials have devoted years trying to convince Hamas and Fatah to work together for the benefit of the Palestinians.

Instead of doing so, however, Palestinian leaders are preoccupied with blocking Arab participation in a conference that could see the creation of a coalition against Iran — the same country that Abbas and his loyalists hold responsible for the ongoing divisions among the Palestinians. Might it be possible that the Arab countries are finally rousing themselves from their long slumber and beginning to seek better lives for themselves and their neighbors?

Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.

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In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s political power rises along with its military might

BY YAAKOV LAPPIN

JNS.org, February 14, 2019

The newly formed Lebanese government has seen 30 Lebanese ministers sworn in: 18 of them are from Hezbollah’s March 8 Alliance, while 12 are from the rival March 14 alliance, headed by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Israeli troops search for attack tunnels dug into Israel from southern Lebanon that the Israel Defense Forces believes Hezbollah planned to use in future wars, January 2019. Credit: Israel Defense Forces.

Inside Lebanon, Hezbollah wields unrivalled military power, but it is also engaged in increasing its political power. It achieved this goal through the newly formed Lebanese government, which has seen the Iranian-backed terrorist organization expand its control.

In recent days, 30 Lebanese ministers have been sworn in, following exhaustive negotiations. Eighteen of them are from Hezbollah’s March 8 Alliance, while 12 are from the rival March 14 alliance, headed by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Lt. Col. (res.) Orna Mizrahi, a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, who served for 12 years in Israel’s National Security Council, noted in a recent paper that Hariri “was forced to agree to almost all of Hezbollah’s demands, chief among them control over portfolios that would grant the organization access to state budgets.”

These include the budget-rich Health Ministry, which will allow Hezbollah to strengthen its standing among its base, the Shi’ite population of southern Lebanon. This ministry will also enable Hezbollah to treat its wounded Syria war veterans.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Credit: Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons.

Speaking to JNS, Mizrahi, a former Deputy National Security Adviser for Foreign Policy and a former intelligence analyst for the Israel Defense Forces, said that from Israel’s perspective, Hezbollah’s continued takeover of the Lebanese political system is bad news.

At the same time, she noted, the development also deepens Hezbollah’s responsibility to the Lebanese state, and offers proof for Israel’s claim regarding Lebanon’s responsibility for the actions of the terror organization, as well as Iran’s growing influence.

“This is first of all negative,” said Mizrahi, “since this is a terrorist organization that forms a threat to Israel and that is gradually taking over Lebanese government assets for its benefits.”

Asked if Hezbollah’s growing stake in Lebanese politics could also act as a restraining factor—forcing it to take civilian interests into account before initiating any new aggression against Israel—Mizrahi said the potential for increased restraint existed.

Still, she cautioned, Hezbollah’s military rise and its growing integration into politics combine to position it as a “central element of power” in Lebanon.

By extension, this has seen the dangerous influence of Iran grow in Lebanon.

‘Hezbollah consolidates its influence’

On Feb. 10, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif touched down at Beirut, where he offered support for the new Lebanese government. The visit is an indication of Iran’s growing dominance of the country, despite the fact that sections of the Lebanese population, particularly among Sunnis, vehemently oppose the Iranian-Shi’ite ascension unfolding before their eyes.

The IDF’s website has described the current president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, as a known ally of Hezbollah, who often defends the organization’s activities and its armament program.

“In order to evade monitoring of money transfers, Hezbollah consistently works to weaken the Lebanese banking system by means of deterrence and influence over top bankers, usually of Shi’ite origins,” the IDF stated.

“In order to evade monitoring of arms transfers, Hezbollah maintains a network of influence over various border crossings, including Hariri Airport, Beirut Seaport and the customs authority,” it said. “Through Hezbollah-affiliated mayors and mukhtars [heads of villages], Hezbollah consolidates its influence over public services, civilian infrastructure and its own public outreach.”

Meanwhile, Hezbollah has turned Lebanon into a large rocket and missile base, aiming an estimated 130,000 projectiles at Israeli cities, military facilities and strategically sensitive locations.

‘US continues to assist the Lebanese military’

“The new government is part of the Iranian takeover of Lebanon,” said Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. “Not only a takeover of southern Lebanon, but of the entire country.”

Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Karmon said any restraint forced on Hezbollah from its expanded political role would only hold up as long as this benefits the organization and its Iranian sponsor.

“What Hezbollah does depends on the Iranian leadership and on what [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei orders. If the Iranians decide on certain operations, that would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Hezbollah would act on orders that it receives from Iran,” assessed Karmon.

He pointed to the 2006 cross-border kidnap attack by Hezbollah on Israeli soldiers as an example of an incident that Iran instigated, and which the Iranians and Hezbollah failed to understand would lead to a war.

“They did not understand [former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert or [former Israeli Defense Minister Amir] Peretz. The Iranians were facing G-8 sanctions and initiated this attack in response,” Karmon said, referring to the incident that led to the Second Lebanon War.

Meanwhile, Qatar has also begun to influence Lebanon, seeking to replace the Saudi role of bankrolling the state. While the Saudis were involved to push back against the Shi’ite axis of Iran and Hezbollah, Qatar’s attitude towards Iran “is ambivalent,” said Karmon. “I don’t think that, when the moment of truth comes, Iran would take the strategic interests of Lebanon or of Hezbollah into account.”

“The U.S. continues to assist the Lebanese military,” Karmon said, referring to some $1.6 billion in military aid since 2006, and the transfer of light attack aircraft, armored personnel carriers and drones. Israel has warned in the past about Hezbollah’s growing cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Brig. Gen (Res.) Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau at the Prime Minister’s Office, told JNS that there was no doubt that the increase of Iranian control over Lebanon is bad for Israel. At the same, he argued, Hezbollah’s involvement “inside the Lebanese government places more restraint on them and more constraints in activating their power from inside Lebanon against Israel. It allows us to view the Lebanese state as bearing responsibility for all that happens.”

The big challenge going forward, emphasized Nuriel, is the extent to which Hezbollah blends with—or takes control of—the Lebanese military.