March 2012 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
SUMMIT IN WASHINGTON
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met US President Barrack Obama at the White House the first week of March, with an apparent focus on the possibility of an Israeli military attack upon Iran's rogue nuclear program. The American leader assured his Israeli counterpart that "The United States will always have Israel's back" in any potential conflict. Despite this, press reports in Israel and abroad indicated that the two leaders did not exactly see eye to eye on the issue of how to handle Iran's ongoing nuclear program, which both countries have declared to be dangerous and unacceptable.
Discussions between American and Israeli officials about how to handle the growing nuclear threat posed by Iran continued after the Washington summit. Top military commanders from both countries met to discuss Iran, and also to review the deteriorating situation in Syria, where large numbers of people continued to be slaughtered in what is now being universally termed as a full blown civil war. This came as senior officials at the Pentagon confirmed media reports that the US has developed contingency plans to strike at both the Iranian and Syrian regimes if an order to do so is issued by the White House.
Hundreds of Palestinian rockets rained down once again upon many portions of southern Israel during the first half of March, fired from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The new Iron Dome anti-rocket system successfully intercepted and destroyed some of the rockets. Despite this, several Israelis were seriously wounded in the latest barrage. Later in the month, four Jews were gunned down at a Jewish school in southern France, reminding everyone that the threats against Jews are evident wherever they are physically located on earth. A young Muslim man was later fingered for the terrorist assault that left three children dead. French officials said the suspected shooter had received Al Qaida terrorist training in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The French Foreign Minister was quickly dispatched to Israel to express solidarity with the victim's families and with the entire Jewish people.
In Israel, a Messianic family that suffered a major terrorist assault four years ago on the annual Jewish festival of Purim was in the headlines once again during March after a suspicious package was left on their doorstep by a man who quickly fled the scene. A large security detail was rushed to the home in the city of Ariel, north of Jerusalem, after the family phoned the local police to report the jarring incident. Fortunately this time around, no explosive device was hidden inside the package, unlike the Purim attack in 2008 that nearly killed a male teenage family member.
As much of the United States experienced one of the warmest winters on record, Israel continued to receive showers of blessings in the form of heavy late winter precipitation during March. The rain and snow added badly needed water to the previously depleted Sea of Galilee, raising it to its highest level in several years.
WE'VE GOT YOUR BACK
President Obama hosted the Israeli Prime Minister at the White House on March 5th. Analysts said it was a far more cordial summit meeting than the tense one held last year, which mainly focused on Obama's push to get peace talks resumed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In the run up to the most recent parlay, the American leader delivered a strong pro-Israel speech at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference, pledging that "The United States will always have Israel's back." He later repeated this pledge two more times. However, he also indirectly chided Netanyahu's government for what he termed "loose talk of war" and "bluster" against Iran, which is believed to be close to producing nuclear weapons. The President again insisted that economic and political sanctions slapped on Iran are working and therefore a military showdown may not become necessary. Earlier he told the Atlantic Monthly magazine that Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons and therefore a military strike upon the country would be "premature."
At the AIPAC meeting, Obama heartened his mostly Jewish audience when he stated that Israeli leaders "have a right to decide" what is best to insure the security and existence of their small, constantly threatened country. PM Netanyahu picked up on the "right to decide" theme in his public remarks after the two leaders met both privately and with their respective aids, thanking the President for making that statement. He also acknowledged that the various international sanctions imposed on the Shiite Muslim Iranian regime are having some effect. Still, the conservative Israeli leader again expressed skepticism that sanctions alone will succeed in altering the regime's apparent rush to produce nuclear warheads.
Several political analysts in Israel said it seemed clear during the summit that President Obama has concluded that a military assault upon Iran's nuclear production facilities has now become almost inevitable. The main question remaining is whether the United States itself-with the largest military capacity on earth-will do the job, or will Washington merely support Israel as it takes on the difficult task. Several noted that it is an election year in America, and the Jewish vote is substantial in a number of key swing states, especially in Florida but also in Pennsylvania and other northeastern states. Although not all Jewish voters list Israel as an important electoral issue to them, enough do to make a substantial difference in the President's chances to triumph in the national vote scheduled for early next November. Therefore, the pundits said that Obama has little option but to publicly back Israel if the Netanyahu government decides it has no realistic way to halt Iran's devious nuclear program other than to launch a military operation. They added that this is the case even if an IDF attack on Iranian nuclear targets has the strong potential of directly involving the United States in the ensuing conflict.
Iranian leaders have stated many times that they will lash out at American military outposts in the turbulent region even if Israel launches a unilateral operation. Whether or not such threats actually materialize would obviously only become clear once an Israeli operation was underway, but most analysts say there is likely to be at least some blow back upon US forces stationed within range of Iranian weapons. This may be why a recent opinion survey conducted in America by the Pew Research group showed a slight majority of citizens-51 per cent-want the US to remain neutral if Israeli military forces attack Iran's nuclear production facilities. The New York Times said Pentagon officials project hundreds of American casualties if Iran lashes out in the region. Others fear Iranian-controlled clandestine Hizbullah cells would unleash terror attacks upon targets inside America and elsewhere around the globe. An American economic analysis group forecast that gas prices in the USA would double if Iran chokes off oil supplies from the Gulf.
Some Israeli political pundits say that Netanyahu's seeming propensity to launch a military strike against Iran sometime later this year might be precisely because of the pending presidential election in America. In other words, the Prime Minister realizes he is far more likely to secure active US backing from Obama while the President is soliciting Jewish voters for his reelection bid than he would from a second term Obama. The American leader fears he might lose many votes if any new Middle East war damages the slowly recovering US economy, as is likely to occur if Iran carries out its threats to block the vital Straight of Hormuz passageway to the world's oceans. The mere possibility of such action is already adding fuel to rising international petroleum prices, note financial analysts. Still, Obamas realizes that opinion surveys consistently reveal a majority of voters support the Jewish State and have little love for Iran and its rabid anti-American words and actions. The Democratic Party leader also knows that it is not Israel that is bullying Iran, but just the opposite. The Shiite regime has been actively waging war against Israel for many years now via its Hizbullah and Hamas surrogates, and is constantly vowing that Israel will soon be destroyed. So the President realizes any sane and responsible international leader could not just sit back with arms folded while an enemy country with that dastardly makeup was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
One day after the White House summit, it was announced that Iranian leaders had agreed to resume formal talks centered on its nuclear program with diplomats representing the world's main nuclear powers: the United States, China, Russia, France and the UK, and also with non-nuclear Germany. President Obama told a White House news conference the talks provided "a new window of opportunity' to see if diplomacy can avert a military showdown. While welcoming the fresh discussions, Israeli officials again expressed skepticism that the international diplomats will be able to prod Iranian leaders to reverse course, especially since both China and Russia have substantial business ties with Tehran. Meanwhile a senior figure in the German defense establishment said there is evidence to suggest Iran played an active role in the test-detonation of an experimental uranium nuclear bomb carried out in North Korea in 2010. The head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, told the American-based CNN news channel that "Iran is not telling us everything. That is my impression. We are asking Iran to engage with us proactively, and Iran has a case to answer."
QUEEN ESTHER AT THE WHITE HOUSE
As is traditionally the case, the Israeli leader brought a present with him to give to his American host. The gift this time was a copy of the biblical book of Esther, which tells the story of the edict from ancient Persia to wipe out the Jewish people scattered all over the Persian empire. It seemed evident that Netanyahu was not so subtly reminding Obama that the situation is virtually identical today. Whether or not the Creator of the Universe once again intervenes in a miraculous way to overturn the vows of annihilation being uttered by the vile leaders of modern Persia remains to be seen, but the Israeli Premier might hope his timely gift will help elicit earthly support from the Commander in Chief of the world's largest military force.
Following his meeting with President Obama, Netanyahu addressed the AIPAC meeting in Washington. He declared that, "As Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation," adding bluntly that, "We can't accept a world in which the Ayatollahs have atomic bombs." The Premier again publicly thanked Obama for his efforts to help curb the Iranian regime's nuclear program, but then warmed that Israel and the world have "waited for diplomacy to work. We've waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer. We are determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons."
Israeli media reports said Netanyahu spelled out three conditions for delaying plans for an attack upon Iran's nuclear facilities. The conditions were reportedly revealed during the PM's meeting in Ottawa with his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, in Ottawa on March 2. The first reported condition is that Iran's underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordow be dismantled. Analysts said this is a key condition since the buried facility is most likely beyond the IDF's military reach, if not that of the United States. Iranian workers have been busy in recent months moving uranium enrichment centrifuges to the underground bunker. Secondly, Netanyahu is demanding that existing enriched uranium stockpiles be placed under international control. Finally, Israel insists that no more enrichment be allowed to take place beyond a five per cent grade. The Shiite Muslim regime is currently openly enriching uranium-a key component in the production of nuclear weapons-to twenty per cent. However some experts suspect they may already be enriching some uranium to a higher grade than that.
Several weeks after the Washington summit, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that the threat of military action against Iran is deterring the country's defiant fundamentalist leaders from taking the final steps toward constructing nuclear warheads. He said Tehran has spread its nuclear facilities to many different parts of the sprawling country in order to thwart a military strike. Barak added that 2012 would be "a decisive year" in confronting the Iranian nuclear threat. Israeli media reports said the Defense Minister earlier told his German counterpart that Israel views the Iranian issue "in a way unique to us," adding that, "We are attentive to all our friends, but in the end, the Israeli government will be the one that will have to take the decisions on Israel's security and future."
Israeli Middle East analysts were busy examining the results of internal Iranian elections held in March, which strengthened the hand of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over slightly less radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Over seventy per cent of the newly elected parliament members are known to be loyalists of the clerical leader. Later in the month, the head of the Iranian parliament accused Ahmadinejad of covering up the theft of oil revenue owed to the financially struggling government. A statement was issued accusing the bombastic leader of helping to covertly divert nearly four billion dollars worth of oil revenue owed to the government to private hands last year. Several members of parliament called upon Ahmadinejad to either resign or else face impeachment.
SYRIAN CRISIS AND ISRAEL
Two days after the White House summit, unnamed American military officials told journalists that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu not only discussed the critical issue of Iran's ongoing nuclear development program, but also the escalating crisis in Syria. The officials said the talks focused on the Syrian regime's substantial arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles that can be armed with chemical and biological warheads. Middle East analysts say both leaders are concerned that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad might order the use of such weapons if any foreign military action is taken against his repressive regime. The Assad government is thought by most experts to possess the largest arsenal of such deadly weapons of any one country on earth. Some terrorism experts have warned that the massive chemical and biological weapons stockpiles (whose existence has not been concealed by the regime) might be transferred to the Shiite Lebanese Hizbullah militia by Assad if and when he senses his days in office are numbered. Media reports said Obama urged Netanyahu to do everything he can to mend torn diplomatic ties with Turkey, located due north of Syria, so that the two countries can together deal together with the Syrian crisis.
The American Foreign Policy magazine reported that the Obama administration has taken initial steps towards providing direct assistance to Syrian opposition groups, mostly comprised of Sunni Muslims. This comes in the wake of stepped up efforts by officials in Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere to force Assad from power. The magazine said the planned American aid will not include weapons, at least for the time being, but will instead be comprised of humanitarian food and medical supplies and probably also some communications equipment. "These moves are going to invest the US in a much deeper sense with the opposition," one unnamed administration official was quoted as saying. "US policy is now aligned with enabling the opposition to overthrow the Assad regime. This codifies a significant change in our Syria policy. There is recognition that lethal assistance to the opposition may be necessary, but not at this time." The official also expressed concern that some opposition fighters are suspected agents of the Al Qaida terrorist group. The comments were published soon after American Marine Corps chief, General James Mattis, confirmed earlier news reports that Iranian Revolutionary Guards are actively engaged in the struggle to keep Assad's regime afloat. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington that, "Iran is making a full-throated effort to keep Assad in power and oppressing his own people. They know how to oppress their own people in Tehran. They've flown them into Damascus to help Assad do the same thing." He added that it would be the "biggest strategic setback for Iran in twenty years when Assad falls."
The Syrian regime suffered a significant loss in early March when Deputy Oil Minister Abdo Hussameldin announced in a YouTube video that he was now supporting opposition forces in their struggle to topple the regime. He was the first senior Assad government official to defect to the other side. Speaking in Arabic, he proclaimed he had "joined the revolution of this dignified people. I have preferred to do what is right although I know that this regime will burn my house and persecute my family." The significant defection came just as UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos visited the besieged northern Syrian city of Homs. She later issued a statement which said Assad had "inflicted on those who you claim are your people a whole year of sorrow and sadness, denying them basic life and humanity and driving Syria to the edge of the abyss."
Russian government support for the Assad regime continues to be a point of contention in the Middle East and at the United Nations. Just before he was elected President of Russia in what many charged was a rigged vote in early March, Vladimir Putin claimed the Kremlin has "no special relationship with Syria, only interests in seeing the conflict resolved. We cannot support either side, only get them to sit down and cease fire." Still regional analysts pointed out in response that Russia continues to sell weapons to the embattled regime, and has beefed up its naval presence at two Syrian ports that serve as strategic Russian bases in the eastern Mediterranean. They said the Kremlin would probably lose those bases if Sunni Muslim fundamentalists come to power in Damascus; as many expect will take place. Russia did at least join China and Cuba in supporting a UN Human Rights Council resolution during the month calling upon Syria to immediately end the violent suppression of its civilian population and grant humanitarian organizations access to the war-torn country.
In what some saw a possible indication that foreign military intervention might be pending, regional media reports said the Chinese government began to airlift its citizens out of Syria in early March. The reports said thousands of Chinese workers, some employed in Syria's military and oil industries, were being flown out from several Syrian airports. Neither Chinese nor Syrian officials would confirm the reports. The move came just before the new UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, former UN chief Kofi Annan, pushed through a Security Council statement calling for the immediate establishment of a humanitarian relief corridor inside Syria, and for talks to begin between the regime and opposition groups. Although the statement was backed by both Russia and China, the two powers blocked a Security Council call for Assad to immediately step down.
Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip bombarded many portions of southern Israel with hundreds of rockets during the first half of March. Several of them were powerful Iranian-supplied Grad rockets capable of reaching the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv and the city of Beersheva. Two such rockets heading toward built up neighborhoods in Beersheva were successfully intercepted by Israel's new Iron Dome anti-rocket system, along with several others heading toward other locations. Schools were shut down as the rocket blitz continued even after a truce was declared following five days of sustained assaults. The truce was later violated by Palestinian Muslim militants as more rockets were fired at Israeli civilian centers.
The latest action began when IDF aircraft successfully targeted what officials said was the mastermind of last August's deadly terrorist assault upon Israelis traveling by car and bus near the southern port city of Eilat, which left eight people dead. An Israeli missile destroyed a car inside the Gaza Strip carrying Zuheir Al Qaisi, the head of the so-called "Popular Resistance Committees" affiliated with the ruling Hamas movement. Rockets were then launched into Israel by Islamic Jihad commandos closely linked to Iran. Some analysts said the intense assault was probably due to Iran's desire to test the effectiveness of the new Iron Dome system-jointly produced by Israel and the United States-with a sustained rocket blitz. Several Israeli civilians were seriously wounded in the latest round of violence.
Israelis of all stripes mourned the vicious murder of 30 year old Rabbi Yonatan Sandler, a teacher who held duo French-Israeli citizenship, and his two young sons, six year old Aryeh and three year old Gavriel. The daughter of the school principal was also brutally murdered. The victims were shot dead at a Jewish school in the southern French city of Toulouse by a Muslim terrorist on March 19th. The family was later buried in Jerusalem just before police fingered the suspect, Muhammad Merah, who later jumped to his death while French police commandos were infiltrating his apartment holdup. The other Jewish victim, eight year old Miriam Monsonego, was also laid to rest in Jerusalem. Although apparently a lone wolf agent, the Arab Muslim, whose mother came from Algeria, was said by officials to have links to Al Qaida. At the funerals, Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin said, "The entire nation of Israel mourns the murder and hatred that harmed innocent souls."
With Israelis under renewed attack at home and abroad, and with Syria crumbling and Iran vowing to annihilate the Jewish State, it behooves us to recall that the Lord Himself is the ultimate protector of His chosen people, who the Bible tells us will triumph in the end due to His divine intervention. "In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth will be the pride and the adornment of the survivors of Israel" (Isaiah 4:2).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.