Friday, October 09, 2015

Arab incitement and murders

From AIJAC, 9 Oct 2015, by Sharyn Mittelman:

Israelis are being killed and injured in a wave of Palestinian terror attacks
In the past week, Palestinians have attacked Israelis with guns, knives, firebombs and stones in what some are calling the beginnings of a "third intifada". At least 20 Israelis have been injured and 4 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian terror attacks across Israel. (For a timeline of the violence over the past month - see here).

Israelis killed in recent attacks include:
  • On October 1, Eitam Henkin and his wife Naama were murdered by Palestinian gunmen while in their car. Their four young sons, aged 9, 7, 4 and four-months, were in the backseat of the car during the shooting and were unharmed. Israeli authorities tracked down the terrorists who confessed to the crime and to being members of Hamas.
  • On October 3, two Israeli men, Rabbi Nehemia Lavi, 41, and Aharon Banita, 22, were killed in a terror attack in Jerusalem's Old City. The two died of their wounds shortly after being stabbed by a Palestinian terrorist. Banita's wife was also injured and was in serious condition and their two-year-old baby was lightly wounded. The terrorist was identified as Muhannad Shafeq Halabi, 19 and Palestinian Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, while Hamas issued a statement praising the "heroic operation."
Meanwhile, Palestinian attacks on Israelis have increased in the past two days including the following:
  • October 7 - Four separate attacks took place against Israelis. A soldier was stabbed in the southern city of Kiryat Gat, a man was stabbed in the Old City of Jerusalem, a woman was attacked with stones as she drove to the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, and a man was stabbed in Petah Tikva.
  • October 8 - Four more stabbing attacks took place. A man was stabbed in Jerusalem, another was stabbed in Kiryat Arba, five people were wounded in a stabbing attack in Tel Aviv, and a solider was stabbed in the northern Israeli city of Afula.
Israel has no intention of changing the "status quo" on the Temple Mount
The violence has primarily been incited by the false claim that Israel intends to change the status quo on the Temple Mount to take part or all of it over for Jewish use. This claim is completely untrue. Under the terms of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, the Temple Mount remains under Jordanian custodianship through the Waqf authorities, who maintain administrative charge of the holy site.

Palestinians riots in Israel and the West Bank have led to clashes with Israeli security forces.

Palestinians have stored weapons on the Temple Mount including explosive devices, turning the holy site into a battlefield with Israeli authorities. On Thursday, a demonstration of 200 Palestinians in Nazareth turned violent as Israeli Police attempted to disperse the rioters. Clashes between the IDF and Palestinians have led to Palestinian fatalities including during or after the commission of Palestinian terror attacks.
The aim of the Palestinian riots and attacks is to prevent visits by non-Muslims on the Temple Mount. This year around 4,000,000 Muslims have entered the site, 200,000 Christians, and only 12,000 Jews, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest place in Islam, but under the "status quo", Jews may visit the site at certain restricted times but are not allowed to pray there.

There have been calls by some groups in Israel to allow for Jewish prayer at the site.  However, the government has said that it has no intention of changing the "status quo", and has even banned Israeli Government Ministers from visiting the site to cool tensions. In principle, all people should be able to visit and pray at the holy site, but such religious freedom is unfortunately and in reality "too provocative".

Incitement by the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas and other extremist groups must be condemned
The false claim that Israelis are seeking to alter the status quo on the Temple Mount has been widely circulated by Hamas, other extremists groups and even in comments by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has further escalated the situation.

In September, ...Mahmoud Abbas said in referring to the riots taking place at Al-Aqsa
"Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God."  Abbas added: "The Al-Aqsa Mosque is ours. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is ours as well. They have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet, we won't allow them to do that."

On October 8, Abbas expressed support for Palestinians "who are defending the Aksa Mosque and are suffering a lot for the sake of defending it." Addressing the Israeli government, Abbas said: "Stay away from our Islamic and Christian holy sites." Abbas also said that the Palestinian flag would be raised over the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when a Palestinian state is established.

During Abbas' UN General Assembly speech on September 30 he also stated:
"I call on the Israeli government, before it is too late, to cease its use of brutal force to impose its plans to undermine the Islamic and Christian sanctuaries in Jerusalem, particularly its actions at Al-Aqsa Mosque, for such actions will convert the conflict from a political to religious one, creating an explosive in Jerusalem and in the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory."
Despite PA incitement, Abbas claims that he is not interested in another uprising and has ordered PA security forces to take steps to calm the situation, and Israeli-PA security coordination has continued. The PA's two-sided approach to the violence shows that Abbas has the power to both inflame or de-escalate the situation. 

Israel is seeking to restore calm and has called for peace negotiations with the Palestinians
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a press conference on October 8:
"We are in the midst of a wave of terrorism with knives, firebombs, rocks and even live fire. While these acts are mostly unorganized, they are all the result of wild and mendacious incitement by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, several countries in the region and - no less and frequently much more - the Islamic Movement in Israel, which is igniting the ground with lies regarding our policy on the Temple Mount and the purported changes that we want to make to the status quo," adding, "This is an absolute lie. We are also taking action against the inciters and the attackers."
Netanyahu also indicated that he would like the centre-left Zionist Union opposition party to join the Coalition and form a unity government. However, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog has rejected the invitation.

Meanwhile, despite PA incitement, Israel remains committed to dialogue with the PA and would like to see the renewal of direct peace talks as soon as possible. As Netanyahu said in his UN General Assembly speech on September 30:
"I am prepared to immediately, immediately, resume direct peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without any preconditions whatsoever. Unfortunately, President Abbas said yesterday that he is not prepared to do this. Well, I hope he changes his mind. Because I remain committed to a vision of two states for two peoples, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the Jewish state."

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

This week Vladimir Putin comprehensively humiliated Barack Obama at the UN


U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin before a bilate
Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin before a bilateral meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York this week. Source: AP
The contrast could not be starker. The US President spoke overtime, for more than 45 minutes, but did nothing. The Russian President spoke for 20 minutes and transformed the strategic environment in the Middle East.

Obama lectured Putin in public and in private, telling him not to intervene militarily in Syria.
Putin listened politely enough, then speedily launched bombing raids in Syria.

Putin said any Russian intervention in Syria would be directed against Islamic State forces. In fact, although Australian intelligence does not yet have this fully confirmed, it seems the strikes were mostly in locations where Islamic State is not a significant presence. They allegedly hit some rebel forces trained and approved by the Americans. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said the Russian move was “throwing gasoline on the fire” in Syria.
The Russian moves transform strategic calculations in Syria and have left Washington completely flat-footed and almost irrelevant. The Russians now control the Syrian narrative.

Nikolas Gvosdev in The National Interest draws an even more alarming contrast between the strategic credibility of Russia and the US in Syria:
“While Russia is prepared to use deadly force to defend its interests and its clients, those who have accepted Western patronage will not enjoy such support”.

Obama has become that most grotesque of strategic players — an impotent enemy and a dangerous friend.

All this week at the UN, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has argued it is essential to seek a political solution in Syria, that no option should be ruled out — meaning that Assad be allowed to stay in power — and that negotiating any solution must involve dialogue with Russia and, more important, with Iran.

For this she has been criticised by some US and Australian commentators, who believe she may be too accommodating to Iran or that Assad’s bloody record in the Syrian civil war means he must be deposed. In fact, Bishop has been absolutely right. She has been ahead of the curve and has helped create some extra diplomatic space for the Americans to go where they now need to go.

There is every chance the Russian intervention will prod Obama into some belated action, in a way that the slaughter of 250,000 innocent Syrian civilians and the exodus of millions of people from Syria, many of them now streaming into Europe, did not.

Australian diplomatic engagement has been led by Bishop, who has performed very well. It is not something affected by the change from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull. Rather, Canberra policy has had continuity and evolution, with Bishop providing important nuance and diplomatic energy.
Her long-held position that political talks must involve Iran was cleared with Abbott, as her more recent comments this week on both Iran and Russia were canvassed in conversations with Turnbull and with new Defence Minister Marise Payne.

Abbott had been arguing for months that Obama needed to convene a much more high-powered international political group to find a way forward in Syria. The problem is that most of the Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, as well as Sunni Turkey, several European nations and the US itself, had insisted that Assad leave office as a precondition for such talks.

Morally, this is justified. When the Arab Spring spread to Syria in 2011, it was initially through peaceful protests. Assad reacted with brutality. Unlike his father, he had not been an especially brutal dictator by Arab standards, certainly nothing to compare with Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
However, as the Arab Spring developed into civil war, Assad’s response became savage. There was a critical sectarian dimension. Assad is an Alawite, which is related to Shia Islam. Only a little more than 10 per cent of Syrians are Alawite. A similar number are Christians and they also tended to support Assad, who ran a secular regime.

About 70 per cent of the population is Sunni Arab and there is a Kurdish minority, Sunni but not Arab and with no general political affiliation with Sunni Arabs. The surrounding Arab states, except Iraq, are majority Sunni. This has reinforced the hostility of the Gulf Arab states to Assad.
However, Assad now has the strong backing of the Shia Hezbollah militia based in Lebanon, of Iran and now of Russia. If his regime collapsed there could easily be a genocidal slaughter of Alawites and Christians.

Given the degree of international support for Assad, his regime is no longer likely to collapse. Therefore Bishop’s position is the height of realism at its most noble — the West must negotiate with the forces on the ground.

When confronted by interlocutors demanding that Assad must go, Bishop has a series of questions she runs through: Who is going to remove him? How is this going to be achieved? Who is going to replace him? And what happens the day after he’s gone?

The praise for Bishop by Iran’s Foreign Minister in The Australian today may raise some eyebrows, but she has given away nothing in her dealings with the Iranians. Canberra still applies autonomous sanctions. There is no Iranian-ustralian intelligence-sharing agreement. Whenever Iranian leaders attack Israel, Bishop condemns them. But she recognises that you can’t just wish the Iranians away, and that no progress can come to Syria without some degree of Iranian involvement.

The strategic argument for removing Assad is that the brutal actions of his government act as a recruitment driver for Islamic State. But it is much more realistic to try to persuade Assad to confine his regime’s efforts to defending its core territory, the coastal area around Latakia and the strip of cities running down through Homs to Damascus, than it is to replace him with a new leader who has the military grunt to hang on but who is committed to moderation. There is no such leader.
Russia has no intention of trying to help Assad retake the territory he has conclusively lost. The Australian Defence Department prepared an analysis of Putin’s motives in his latest deployments. They involved three key purposes and overlapping scenarios.

One, Putin wants to maintain the rotation of his forces at Russia’s Tartus naval base.
Two, most critically, Putin wants to shore up Assad’s regime. This is much more important to Putin than combating Islamic State.

Three, Putin wants to maintain a Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. This complicates life for NATO, especially now that Putin has moved in highly sophisticated air defence capabilities, even though none of Syria’s rebel forces has an air force.

Putin has not moved a very big force into Syria but it is capable, and focused on air assets. Whereas the Western air campaign against Islamic State has been understandably so concerned to avoid civilian casualties that it has had limited military effectiveness, Putin can run devastating tactical air campaigns. They will be vastly more capable of providing close combat support to Assad’s troops in battle than Syria’s ageing and declining air force was.

Putin will be happy to attack Islamic State formations on behalf of Assad. But it is not that group which is most lethally attacking Assad’s core positions in western Syria and near the coast. He is being attacked there by other rebel groups. The fact that some of these forces received some help from the Americans adds to the confusion and danger. But here again is the catastrophic failure of Obama to have any effect at all in Syria.

It is difficult to work out who the US-trained forces are. As soon as they cross the border into Syria they seem either to disappear, get captured or defect to al-Qa’ida or one of the other militant groups. The original Obama idea of training rebel forces who would simultaneously fight both Assad and Islamic State turns out to have been strategic fantasy.

When the Americans engage in strategic fantasy they typically get people killed.
The Russian play does not materially affect Australia’s operations in either Syria or Iraq. This is partly a result of prudent Australian planning.

Although Obama went out of his way to cause Abbott political harm with his climate change hot gospelling in Brisbane in connection with the G20 summit, he nonetheless had Abbott on his speed dial whenever he needed a favour in an international crisis.

Obama rang Abbott to ask that Australia undertake airstrikes in Syria. Abbott was positive without formally agreeing. He spoke to then defence minister Kevin Andrews about it. Andrews instructed Defence to make sure the formal request would be one that Australia could meet within its interpretation of the legality of the mission, and which would involve Australia working only in eastern Syria, near the Iraq border, certainly venturing no further west than Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital. With Russian planes now in western Syria, that turns out to have been smart planning.

In late August, US Defence Secretary Carter wrote to Andrews saying: “I thank you for ­Australia’s continued vital contribution towards aiding the government of Iraq in countering ISIL (Islamic State). Your participation in planning efforts, airlifts, combat support to airstrikes, advise and assist and building partner capacity, have been a key element of the coalition’s efforts to date.

“As you know, operations in Syria are equally critical to the fight against ISIL. Coalition strikes have enabled our partners to retake significant territory in north-eastern Syria. We continue to work to build additional partners on the ground including through the (US) Department of Defence’s train and equip program which has already begun training new Syrian forces.

“I ask that your government join this effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria. There are several areas where Australian capability could bring more pressure to bear on ISIL in Syria including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and support to manned strikes such as combat aircraft and aerial refuelling. I ask you to consider making these capabilities available and to remain engaged with US Central Command to identify other Australian capabilities that might play a role in Syria.”
If the Russian intervention does galvanise the Americans into trying to put together a new conference on Syria, perhaps under UN Security Council auspices, Australia might well be a direct participant. Washington and others would have to drop their demand for Assad’s immediate removal and have virtually already done this by talking of transition arrangements under which Assad could stay for a time (the time being infinitely negotiable).

Bishop has played a constructive role in this diplomacy. But only the powers with big capabilities on the ground can make a deal. The obvious political outcome is as much ceasefire as possible, with some sort of loose federal structure for Syria, with a separate Assad controlled area predominantly Alawite, de facto autonomy for the Kurds and a series of Sunni areas, perhaps under different leaderships with, hopefully, a broad anti-Islamic State alliance..

It’s a long shot, but it’s better than nothing. And for the last few years nothing has been all that Obama has offered.