There are a number of what could be termed notable issues affecting the Middle East. They fall into three major categories, not necessarily in order of importance: Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action [Iran Deal] related issues, Syria related issues, and Israeli-Palestinian related issues, including today’s US Embassy opening and events in Gaza.
First, the JCPOA Related issues:
The Trump Administration has declared that the United States is withdrawing from the JCPOA and immediately enacting the toughest of sanctions against Iran. It was likely that the US would have taken this step regardless, but the publicly released contents of the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program Cache by the Israelis may have tipped the scale toward doing so sooner rather than later.
Some have said that nothing new was revealed, but this is simply not true. There were certainly suppositions that the Iranian program was more advanced, but they had not been confirmed. The JCPOA was negotiated based on “POSSIBLE Military Dimensions” of the Iranian program, not on an active and well advanced military weapons program in the context of which the advanced development of further ballistic missile capability or enrichment capability represent a greater threat than otherwise, indicating a runway to the production of nuclear weapons that is significantly shorter than was previously understood. These revelations would have and now certainly do necessitate more stringent controls and inspections than were contained in the JCPOA.
Some have argued that there is/was a willingness among the European powers to seek those additional stringencies, but without US withdrawal and significant sanctions in place now, what is to guarantee that Iran would accept them? The pathway to that appropriate agreement is clearly through increased pressure on Iran.
Some have argued that US withdrawal from the JCPOA will negatively impact Korean Nuclear Disarmament, that abandoning, violating, withdrawing from the JCPOA will negatively affect America’s credibility going forward. This requires an understanding that Korean Disarmament will result in an agreement and not a treaty and that there is a lack of understanding on the part of North Korea that an “agreement” that is NOT a treaty cannot be altered or abandoned by a succeeding administration. It is instead reasonable to assume that North Korea will seek a treaty rather than an agreement.
Further, one could argue that the weakness demonstrated by the United States in countering Iranian aggression in the region along with Iran’s clearly having negotiated the JCPOA in bad faith would have embolden North Korea to take similar action. One might argue that the case for pushing for a stronger deal with North Korea has been made by abandoning a weaker deal with Iran, else North Korea would have sought a similar agreement.
Meanwhile, the US imposition of sanctions now puts France, Britain, Germany, and Iran in an awkward place. There are many business agreements in place with Iran that now jeopardize those companies’ ability to do business in the United States. This will force them to bring pressure on their own governments and on Iran as well to comply with the United States’ wishes. Thus, it is entirely possible that the US’s sudden withdrawal from the JCPOA could in fact result in exactly the new agreement sought.
Additionally, there are those advocates for the JCPOA who are arguing that the US has abandoned “all its allies” in withdrawing from the JCPOA. This brings up real concern about how they view Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other nations who have enthusiastically supported the decision. Is Israel not to be considered an ally?
Syria Related Issues
It’s hard to believe that these are suddenly secondary in the news, less than a week after Iran fired rockets at Israel out of Syria and Israel responded with devastating strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, but they are very much not in relation to what is going on in the region. The reality is that events in relation to Syria are profoundly impacting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in such a way that they should not be ignored by those who care about Israel or Palestinians.
First, today’s Middle East is one in which the Sunni Arab powers, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, see Iran, not Israel, as their major opponent and, not only that, but they see Israel as a major strategic ally. Because of this, they are no longer inclined to act as Israel’s enemy so as to aid the Palestinians. Yes, they will vote that way in the UN, but they will not put pressure on Israel in any way that could harm its ability to act against Iran in Syria and around the world.
The conflicts in Syria and Yemen are much more important to Arab leaders than are events in Gaza. This was made quite clear when amid ongoing protests in Gaza in which a number of people had been killed prior to May 14’s more significant death total, Arab leaders were voicing their approval of Israel’s ability to defend itself against Iran.
Additionally, it is quite likely that Russia and perhaps even the Assad regime itself have been concerned about growing Iranian power and influence in Syria. Some have speculated that there may even have been cheering by leaders of the Assad regime to the recent Israeli strikes, which weakened Iran’s standing in Syria and may have increased Assad’s control over the relevant areas and facilities.
Several notable things must be said about Russia here. The day before the Israeli strikes against Iranian assets in Syria, reports are that they were against fifty or more targets across the country, Prime Minister Netanyahu was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special guest at a military parade in Moscow. You did not read that wrong. And during the Israeli strikes, no Russian assets were engaged and only Syrian systems that targeted Israeli planes were among the Syrian assets struck.
Perhaps more significant still, following the Israeli strikes, Russia issued a statement declaring that it would not send its advanced S-300 antiaircraft system for use in Syria. In other words, Russia has essentially unofficially declared neutrality in the conflict between Israel and Iran and given Israel permission to strike Iranian targets in Syria with impunity.
Russia’s standing in the region has taken several significant hits over the past year culminating in the humiliating and overwhelming defeat of an Assad backed Russian mercenary force in Syria, forces led by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner organization, by US backed forces, described as an utter massacre by survivors.
With Russia unwilling to commit significant ground military forces to Syria, with Russian mercenaries having failed, and with Syrian forces having proven ineffective, Russia was left with two options, back Iranian forces in Syria or seek a cessation of significant hostilities on the ground. It appears that the first choice was Iran, but that choice both brought the Israeli military to bear against the Assad regime’s side and threatened Assad’s control by bringing increased Iranian influence and control. So it now appears that Russia, perhaps with Assad’s blessing, has now chosen to allow Israel to remove or at least limit the Iranian presence in Syria, something that may well bring long term calm.
This is also happening amid a blossoming broader Russo-Israeli relationship in which the Russian leader sees Israel as part of the “Russian Cultural World” because of its large Russian speaking and Russian origin population and in which cultural, social, and economic interaction is extensive. Israel has over 1.5 million citizens from the former Soviet Union and numerous leaders whose primary language is Russian. The relationship between the countries is as good or better as Russia has with any other country. While the two nations do not necessarily see eye to eye on many policies, they are far from hostile.
What this also means is that Russia can be added to the former allies of the Palestinians in the conflict against Israel. This brings us to our third major topic and the one at the top of the news today.
Israeli-Palestinian Related Issues
First off, let’s talk embassy. I wrote an article back in December 2017 on this topic right after Pres. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as part of Israel.
As I said then:
To argue that Jerusalem should not be considered Israel’s capital is to deny reality. To demand that nations buy in to a delusion or face threat is completely unreasonable, yet that has been the world’s reality for decades. It is far past time that it came to an end and shameful that it has taken this long.
The argument that US Jerusalem Embassy Opening in Jerusalem is the cause of the protests in Gaza is a narrative that makes no rational sense.
Rabbi Mickey Boyden noted in an article for the Times of Israel that David Ben Gurion declared Jerusalem to be the “Eternal Capital” in 1949, the Israeli Knesset has been meeting in Jerusalem since 1950, at its new site since 1966, and Jerusalem is where Israel’s Prime Minister resides. Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. It is an utter absurdity to dispute that.
Meanwhile, while the “March of Return” is billed as non-violent by those advocating for the Palestinian cause, just looking at the pictures of events in Gaza makes such a suggestion laughable. This isn’t called “Protest for a Two State Solution,” nor is it called, “Protest for Better Living Conditions,” it is called the “March of Return” because the intention is to invade Israel from Gaza and turn the Jewish state into a Palestinian one. Numerous armed attempts to breach the border fence in multiple different locations are by definition military incursions and they are being done with multitudes of human shields, including many little children.
Furthermore, Hamas’ intent is to force Israel to shoot numerous people as they attempt to breach the border or to see that border breached and Israelis attacked in their homes. Death totals bring attention to Hamas’ cause. Achieving them is their primary intent. Israel has no choice but to treat everyone approaching the fence as if he or she was a suicide bomber or otherwise armed terrorist seeking to destroy the border and allow many others to enter Israel. Hamas knows this yet is encouraging people to do it anyway. There can be no question of their intent in doing so.
This is not a protest event. It is a military operation covered by civilian protesters. Meanwhile the saddest thing of all is that a few dozen killed isn’t a large enough number to make a difference in international opinion. See the situation as described in the paragraphs above.
What is the impact then of dozens of deaths in Gaza? There will be a well-deserved perception of utter failure by the Palestinian population with a resultant condemnation of their own leadership. Palestinian divisions will increase, especially in light of weak to non-existent protests in the West Bank. And at a time when there are already significant concerns about the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, the impact of this will be compounded.
The overt hatred and delusional attitude put forth by the Palestinians in relation to the March of Return and to the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem weakens the arguments put forth by the pro-two state resolution parties in Israel. Coupled with the revelation of the Iranian Nuclear Program cache which did damage to those who argued in defense of the JCPOA in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition and standing have both been strengthened substantially. Recent polls in Israel show the Likud with a significant increase in support relative to everyone else.
All of these things show an Israel and Netanyahu led coalition on a dramatic ascent with Iran, the Palestinians, and the Israeli political left in a profound decline.