Israeli strikes on Syria intensify, raise tensions with Iran
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“Netanyahu was elected to a sixth premiership this November, but this time with the most extreme, nationalistic, and exclusionary government in Israeli history.
From the get-go, the Israeli government has sought to make significant changes to the high court that would hollow out its independence and its power to serve as a check on the Israeli parliament, or the Knesset. The several bills put forward would restrict the court’s ability to overturn laws it sees as unconstitutional and allow a simple majority in the Knesset to reject its decisions. It would also give government lawmakers and appointees effective power over the committee of nine individuals that appoints judges, and rescind key authorities from the attorney general. These and other changes would weaken the independent judiciary’s power in a parliamentary system that otherwise lacks checks.
This is all complicated by the fact that Israel doesn’t have a constitution, but a set of regulations passed as the basic law. The proposal’s backers, like a group of Israeli academics who recently published an open letter in support, say the court has grown too powerful. But, according to a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, “66 percent of Israelis think the Supreme Court should have the power to strike down a law if it is incompatible with the Basic Laws.”
The result of the judicial overhaul would be a form of majoritarian rule, where minority groups — especially Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are about 20 percent of the country’s population — would face serious threats. “Minority rights will be protected by the majority’s benevolence. That contradicts a core element of democracy, of course,” writes Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution.”
“It should be noted that Netanyahu is on trial for alleged corruption — charges that he’s denied but that have plagued his political life in recent years. There’s been speculation that those allegations are why he’s been pursuing a major overhaul to the Israeli judiciary, with the effect of weakening its independence.
But that’s only part of the story.
There are three pillars of his governing coalition — Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, ultranationalist settlers, and the ultra-Orthodox — and they each have something to gain from this massive judicial overhaul. “For the first time, they have a complete alignment of interests with no daylight in between, to destroy the judiciary and institutions, for different reasons,” Shaul told me. “And that’s what makes this moment so dangerous.””
“For the ultranationalist settlers led by Ben Gvir and Smotrich, such judicial changes would open up the opportunity of annexation of the occupied West Bank and other policies that would benefit settlers. And for the ultra-Orthodox supporters, it would — perhaps through changing the makeup of key judiciary appointments — lessen the Supreme Court’s likelihood of ruling that exemptions to the military draft are unconstitutional, among other issues of church and state important to this constituency.
In short, the judicial reforms might be the most incendiary and attention-grabbing of the coalition’s proposals at this moment, but they’re in keeping with its broader goals.”
“Netanyahu’s government is also proposing radical changes to the way the occupation of the West Bank is administered and other legal shifts inside Israel that will severely affect Palestinians.”
“The US policy does not take into account how entrenched the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem has become. Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank has made a viable Palestinian state all but impossible. The US-led talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization have been on hiatus since President Barack Obama’s second term, and even at the time, there was little hope that they would amount to much. And Arab states like Morocco, UAE, and Bahrain have abandoned Palestinians, as they normalize relations with the State of Israel and eliminate any incentives for negotiations toward a Palestinian state.
Even establishment voices like former Ambassador Martin Indyk, who served as Obama’s Middle East envoy and is now a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledge that a one-state reality has set in.
To be fair, figuring out a new policy toward Israel and Palestine is no easy task. The US has come to be so dependent on Israel as a close security partner in the Middle East that it seemingly has overlooked its transgressions. Moreover, US politicians are reluctant to overhaul its approach and rankle influential domestic constituencies in the process.
But no good policy can rest on an outdated understanding of the facts on the ground. Clinging to a two-state solution that many leading Middle East experts do not view as workable is counterproductive and cedes US leadership. A commitment to a Palestinian state in name only cheapens and undermines its very possibility and boxes out the development of more practical policies that meet the moment. It leaves the US with few options in taking a leadership role in a place that’s central to US national interests and security.”
“Europe — the staging ground for most Iranian operations in recent years — has been afraid to make Tehran pay. Since 2015, Iran has carried out about a dozen operations in Europe, killing at least three people and abducting several others, security officials say.”
““If the Islamic Republic doesn’t receive any punishment, is there any reason for them to stop taking hostages or kidnapping or killing?” she said, and then answered: “No.””
“Over the course of a few months last year, Iran undertook a flurry of attacks from Latin America to Africa. In Colombia, police arrested two men in Bogotá on suspicion they were plotting to assassinate a group of Americans and a former Israeli intelligence officer for $100,000; a similar scene played out in Africa, as authorities in Tanzania, Ghana and Senegal arrested five men on suspicion they were planning attacks on Israeli targets, including tourists on safari; in February of this year, Turkish police disrupted an intricate Iranian plot to kill a 75-year-old Turkish-Israeli who owns a local aerospace company; and in November, authorities in Georgia said they foiled a plan hatched by Iran’s Quds Force to murder a 62-year-old Israeli-Georgian businessman in Tbilisi.
Whether such operations succeed or not, the countries behind them can be sure of one thing: They won’t be made to pay for trying. Over the years, the Russian and Iranian regimes have eliminated countless dissidents, traitors and assorted other enemies (real and perceived) on the streets of Paris, Berlin and even Washington, often in broad daylight. Others have been quietly abducted and sent home, where they faced sham trials and were then hanged for treason.
While there’s no shortage of criticism in the West in the wake of these crimes, there are rarely real consequences. That’s especially true in Europe, where leaders have looked the other way in the face of a variety of abuses in the hopes of reviving a deal to rein in Tehran’s nuclear weapons program and renewing business ties.
Unlike the U.S. and Israel, which have taken a hard line on Iran ever since the mullahs came to power in 1979, Europe has been more open to the regime. Many EU officials make no secret of their ennui with America’s hard-line stance vis-à-vis Iran.
“Iran wants to wipe out Israel, nothing new about that,” the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told POLITICO in 2019 when he was still Spanish foreign minister. “You have to live with it.””
“the dictatorship’s rationale for such killings has been to protect itself.
“The highest priority of the Iranian regime is internal stability,” a Western intelligence source said. “The regime views its opponents inside and outside Iran as a significant threat to this stability.”
Much of that paranoia is rooted in the Islamic Republic’s own history. Before returning to Iran in 1979, Khomeini spent nearly 15 years in exile, including in Paris, an experience that etched the power of exile into the Islamic Republic’s mythology. In other words, if Khomeini managed to lead a revolution from abroad, the regime’s enemies could too.”
“The 2015 nuclear deal, struck during Barack Obama’s presidency, lifted an array of U.S. sanctions on Iran in exchange for major restraints on its nuclear program. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, saying it was too weak and too narrow and he reimposed the sanctions while adding new ones. After about a year, Iran began violating the terms of the deal, including by enriching uranium to high levels and shutting out inspectors.
President Joe Biden has sought to rejoin the deal — he and his aides argued that it remains the best vehicle to contain an Iranian nuclear threat. Over nearly a year and a half, a period that included some long pauses, Biden’s emissaries have engaged in indirect talks with Iranian officials about reviving the agreement.
The two sides, whose discussions have been mediated primarily by European officials, have tangled on a variety of thorny topics. Those include: whether the U.S. will rescind Trump’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; the fate of a probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency into traces of nuclear materials at various Iranian sites; and Iranian demands for certain guarantees that the lifting of sanctions will lead to economic benefits — and that the U.S. won’t pull out of the deal under a different president.
Biden has said he will not rescind the IRGC’s terrorism designation, and the IAEA has indicated it will not give up on the probe.
Iran recently responded to a European draft proposal on reviving the deal with comments mostly focused on sanctions and economic guarantees. U.S. officials have been looking at the Iranian demands and preparing their own response, which may be sent to European negotiators later this week.
The U.S. has been consulting allies, among them Israel, before sending its response, though it wasn’t immediately clear if it would wait until after Gantz’s meeting with Sullivan.
“At every step of the process, we have been in touch with our Israeli partners to update them on where we are, to compare notes on the state of Iran’s nuclear program,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday.
The Israeli officials are making their push at a sensitive time: the country, currently being overseen by a caretaker government, will soon hold its fifth election in less than four years.
The main internal debate among U.S. negotiators has been about the economic guarantees sought by Iran, said Ali Vaez, a top Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group. Those guarantees deal in part with Iran’s concerns that even if the 2015 deal is revived, foreign companies will consider it too risky to invest in the country. Even when the deal was in full force, many foreign firms were hesitant to do business in Iran.
For Israel’s political leaders, an Iran whose economy is stronger is an Iran that is a bigger threat to their country’s existence. Iran’s rulers consider Israel an illegitimate state, and some have predicted its eventual doom.
Israeli political leaders’ argument against the nuclear deal often boils down to concerns that, if the U.S. lifts sanctions on Iran, the regime will use the incoming cash to engage even more in an array of unsavory activities, including funding and arming terrorist groups that target Israel.”
“some Israelis in the security establishment — often retired officers with more freedom to speak out — have broken with their political leaders on this issue. They argue that, as imperfect as the nuclear deal may be, it’s better than having no restraints on or surveillance of Iran’s program.”
“At present, Iran’s breakout time — the amount of time needed to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon — is believed to be a few weeks. Under a restored deal, it would likely be around six months. Under the original 2015 agreement, it was estimated at around a year.”
“Severe setbacks for the two-state solution have made US policy seem far-fetched at this point.
That reality came across in Biden’s remarks. “We’ll discuss my continued support — even though I know it’s not in the near term — a two-state solution,” he said upon his arrival this week. He conceded that such an outcome was elusive, while still clinging to it.
A number of factors have contributed to the declining prospects for an independent Palestinian state. Not enough US diplomatic muscle has been put into making the deal happen. The recently disbanded Israeli government didn’t even agree to it as policy (and the previous prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t really, either). Divisions between the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza have detracted from the Palestine Liberation Organization’s authority and legitimacy as a negotiating partner. And wealthy Arab states, like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have prioritized normalizing relationships with Israel — which come with economic and tech cooperation, defense business, and weapons sales — at the expense of Palestinian rights.
But the largest by far is the rampant expansion of settlements in the West Bank that has precluded Palestinians from living there.”
“Israeli forces launched a preemptive strike against PIJ targets on August 5, Reuters reported, after one of the group’s leaders, Bassam al-Saadi, was arrested in the Occupied West Bank. Israel claims to have hit a number of PIJ targets. However, several civilians, including 17 children, were killed in the clashes, both by Israeli weapons and possibly by errant PIJ rockets intended for Israeli targets. A ceasefire brokered by Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, the US, the UN, and the Palestinian Authority between Israel and the PIJ last Sunday has thus far held; however, an attack on worshipers in Jerusalem’s Old City late on Sunday could portend more violence. At least eight people, including US citizens, were injured in the attack, which was allegedly carried out by a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, according to Israeli authorities. They have not yet released his name, and there is no indication that he is affiliated with any larger group, according to Reuters.
Despite the ceasefire, the aftermath of even short-term hostilities in Gaza goes far beyond active bombardments and shelling; the combination of years of violence, a brutal blockade, and state repression has created an enduring crisis. What’s more, there’s little chance to recover before violence breaks out again.
According to initial UN reporting, 360 Palestinians have been injured in the fighting, and Gazans experienced a tightened Israeli blockade of goods and services that led to 20-plus-hour rolling blackouts each day. There were no Israeli deaths or serious injuries, the Associated Press reported”
“The Gaza strip is home to around 2 million Palestinians and has been governed by Hamas since 2007, when the group took control from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank. The two groups have had no success in creating a unity government over the past 15 years, despite repeated attempts, weakening the Palestinian resistance and further disenfranchising ordinary Palestinians. Although Fatah and Hamas agreed to hold elections in 2021, which would be the first since 2006, those elections have been postponed indefinitely.”
“Biden, who says he went to the Middle East to address “the needs of the free world,” has explained the strengthening of relationships with Arab states and Israel as a success.
But it’s worth taking a look at what concrete victories that closeness produced.
Saudi airspace will be opened to Israeli planes — an incremental step toward normalizing relations between the two countries, yes, but more of a victory for jetliner rights than human rights. A new peacekeeping arrangement was announced for the Red Sea Islands between Egypt and Saudi Arabia; the islands have been a regional geopolitical touchpoint, but the deal is hardly a major win beyond the region. There was talk of bringing Iraq closer to its neighbors, with a new electricity initiative to connect Iraq with the Middle East. Infrastructure projects totaling about $100 million were announced for Palestinians, including 4G networks for the occupied West Bank. The latter two, while worthwhile, are minor compared to other US development and foreign aid streams of funding — and minuscule compared to annual military aid to Israel.
A moderate success was Saudi Arabia’s ongoing commitment to maintaining a ceasefire in Yemen, a worthy goal considering the destruction wrought there, in part with the support of American weaponry, though hardly an issue that demanded a presidential visit.
As for oil, we haven’t seen any grand announcements. Ahead of the trip, a US official told reporters there wouldn’t be any big energy news, and instead pointed to an announcement a month prior from OPEC that the group of oil-producing nations would increase production.
It has left observers wondering exactly why Biden made the journey.”
“A senior Biden administration official, on the last day of Biden’s Middle East trip, described human rights at the center of America’s goals — “I’d go so far, literally, to say right at the forefront of our foreign policy,” they said.
But human rights is not even at the forefront of the administration’s press releases, fact sheets, and meeting summaries.
The official touted a “Biden doctrine” for the region. In the document, values rank lowest — fifth — after bullet points about partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy, and integration. So partnerships (with unsavory leaders) and deterrence (through our security assistance) are the priorities here.”
“This Biden trip is a preview of US foreign policy in an era of great power competition with China and new fault lines of a world divided by Russian aggression. There are trade-offs. “You sanction Russian oil, and you give power to Middle Eastern autocrats,” Khalidi told me. “The only reason he’s sidling up to these human rights abusers is because of the knock-on effects of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, and the energy impact of that invasion.”
Or, as Freeman put it, “The message to the people in the region is we only care about you in the context of our great power rivalry.”
Despite the emphasis on Russia, there was little movement on solidifying a Middle East coalition in support of Ukraine. The United Arab Emirates is a major hub for Russian businesspeople and dirty money, and that seems unlikely to change. Egypt is a hot spot for Russian tourists. Saudi Arabia and Israel are still fence-sitters in the Ukraine conflict, hesitant to definitively take a side. While Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE voted to condemn Russia’s invasion in the UN resolution, none has joined the US-led sanctions against Moscow.
Yet all of these regional powers are making demands of the US to take a harder line on Iran and enable them militarily. (Wait, wouldn’t realpolitik be crafting a deal with Iran, and getting more oil production online in the process?)”