August 7, 2018

In-Depth Issues:

Was Israel Responsible for Death of Top Syrian Rocket Scientist? - David M. Halbfinger and Ronen Bergman (New York Times)
    Aziz Asbar was one of Syria's most important rocket scientists, bent on amassing an arsenal of precision-guided missiles that could be launched with pinpoint accuracy against Israeli cities.
    On Saturday, he was killed by a car bomb. A senior official from a Middle Eastern intelligence agency said Monday that Israel was responsible.
    According to the official, Asbar had been collaborating with Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, and other Iranians to begin production of precision-guided missiles in Syria.
    See also Neutralized at the Last Minute - Yoav Limor (Israel Hayom)
    Despite the claim by Syrian rebels of responsibility for the killing of Syrian scientist Aziz Asbar, it is unlikely they were behind it.
    Asbar was not an attractive target to them and was not worth the effort, certainly not as they are battling with their last breath.
    He was a senior missile engineer, No. 3 in the Syrian weapons industry, and the point where Iranian-Syrian-Hizbullah weapons interests converged.
    Asbar oversaw missile production in Syria, and according to foreign reports was recently involved in laying the groundwork for missile production in Lebanon as well.
    The manufacture of missiles in Lebanon would eliminate the need for weapons convoys and would allow Hizbullah to build its capabilities without concern.
    Taking Asbar out of the game will definitely complicate things for Iran and Hizbullah. It will take time to find a replacement.

Poll: Most Palestinians Oppose Continued Military Operations Against Israel (JMCC-PA)
    58% of Palestinians in Gaza and 51% in the West Bank oppose the continuation of military operations against Israeli targets, while 34% in Gaza and 32% in the West Bank support them, according to a poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center between June 26 and July 7 and released on Tuesday.
    71% said they would not mind working in Israel or in an Israeli settlement.
    When asked which political faction they trust the most, 25% said Fatah, 13% said Hamas, and 49% said they didn't trust anyone.

S&P Raises Israel's Credit Rating (Globes)
    International credit rating agency S&P announced on Friday that it was upgrading its rating for Israel to AA-, the highest rating Israel has ever received.

Israeli Experts to Help Boost Cyber Security in Thailand - Taam Yingcharoen (Bangkok Post-Thailand)
    Israeli cyber security experts have come to Thailand to help protect the nation from cyber attacks.
    The Embassy of Israel hosted the "Israel Cyber Security Roadshow 2018," in which 12 Israeli cyber security companies showcased their products and services to Thai companies.

News Resources - North America, Europe, and Asia:
  • Some U.S. Economic Sanctions Against Iran Back in Effect - Susannah George and Zeke Miller
    The first set of U.S. sanctions against Iran went back into effect Tuesday under an executive order signed by President Trump, targeting financial transactions that involve U.S. dollars, Iran's automotive sector, the purchase of commercial planes, and metals including gold. U.S sanctions targeting Iran's oil sector and central bank are to be reimposed in November.
        Trump said in a statement Monday, "We urge all nations to take such steps to make clear that the Iranian regime faces a choice: either change its threatening, destabilizing behavior and reintegrate with the global economy, or continue down a path of economic isolation." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday, "They've got to behave like a normal country. That's the ask. It's pretty simple."
        In response, Iranian President Rouhani said that Iran still can rely on China and Russia to keep its oil and banking sectors afloat, and demanded compensation for decades of American "intervention" in the Islamic Republic. (AP-Washington Post)
  • Protests Pop Up across Iran, Fueled by Daily Dissatisfaction - Thomas Erdbrink
    Protesters have taken to the streets with increasing intensity in Iran in recent months. Some demonstrations - about the weak economy, strict Islamic rules, water shortages, religious disputes, local grievances - have turned deadly. The events are broadly shared on social media and on the dozens of Persian-language satellite channels beaming into the Islamic republic.
        On Thursday, protests were held in the cities of Arak, Isfahan, Karaj and Shiraz. In Eshtehard, protesters attacked a religious school on Thursday, forcing 500 clerics in training to flee. Truck drivers restarted their strike last week, affecting fuel deliveries to gas stations. Iran's rial has lost nearly 80% of its value compared to a year ago.
        The protests over the past six months have been relatively isolated, sporadic, scattered and much smaller than the antigovernment demonstrations in 2009. But they reflect a common theme of rising dissatisfaction, many say. Yet "there is no vision, no leadership, and the protests will not lead to any chain reaction across the country, at this point," said Bahman Amoei, a well-known political activist who has spent several stints in jail. (New York Times)
        See also Iranians Protest Economic Woes, Blame Iranian Leaders, Not U.S. - Asa Fitch and Aresu Eqbali (Wall Street Journal)
News Resources - Israel and the Mideast:
  • Israel Lauds U.S. Reimposition of Sanctions on Iran
    Prime Minister Netanyahu said Monday: "I congratulate President Trump and the U.S. administration for making the important decision to impose sanctions on Iran....It represents the determination to curb Iran's aggression in the region and its ongoing intention to arm itself with nuclear weapons. I call upon the countries of Europe, which talk about stopping Iran, to join this measure. The time has come to stop talking and to take action, and that is exactly what the U.S. has done and what Europe should do."  (Prime Minister's Office)
  • Israel Kills Two Hamas Fighters in Response to Fire at IDF Troops
    "In response to terrorists shooting at IDF forces in the northern Gaza Strip, an IDF tank attacked the position belonging to the Hamas terror group where the attack originated," the army said Tuesday. Hamas said two Palestinians killed in the strike were members of its Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Another six were injured in the Israeli strike. The IDF released footage showing the Hamas men firing on the soldiers and the shell hitting the post. (Times of Israel)
  • Israel Sees Low Chance for Long-Term Agreement with Hamas - Itamar Eichner
    Israel's Security Cabinet held a 5-hour discussion on Sunday on a ceasefire plan with Gaza mediated by UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov and Egyptian intelligence. But ministers saw the chances of reaching a broad, long-term agreement with Hamas as being very low. Hamas demands the release of high-value Palestinian prisoners in return for advancing negotiations for the release of two Israeli civilians and the return of two IDF soldiers' remains. (Ynet News)
Global Commentary and Think-Tank Analysis:
  • The Impending Syrian Regime Offensive in Idlib, the Last Rebel Province - Charles Lister
    Idlib province is the last remaining bastion of opposition control in Syria. Some 2.5 to 3.3 million people - at least 1.2 million of whom are internally displaced - are currently crammed into this region. Before 2011 there were 750,000. The province became a dumping ground for defeated opposition fighters and their families from elsewhere in the country.
        At least 70,000 armed men are currently in Idlib and its surrounding areas, according to one estimate, a sizable minority of whom are linked to al-Qaeda. Having already taken in more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011, Turkey has firmly shut its border with Idlib and its military has established control over a 150-km-wide band of territory in inside Syria, in addition to setting up 12 "observation posts" ringing opposition territory. Ankara opposes an Assad offensive and has insisted Idlib is a red line, but exactly how red remains to be seen. The writer is a senior fellow and Director of Countering Terrorism and Extremism at the Middle East Institute. (War on the Rocks)
  • Diplomacy Backed by Military Force - Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman
    The measured and effective use of military force does not run counter to diplomacy; on the contrary, it facilitates diplomacy. Recent events in Syria and the confrontation with Hamas in Gaza have involved three-cornered diplomacy, in which the use of a small fraction of Israel's military power is what enabled the mediators - Russia and Egypt - to "explain" what is at stake to their interlocutors.
        In these cases, powerful external players are made to understand that if they do not act to achieve moderation, their essential interests are liable to be affected and will certainly suffer if Israel decides to use all the force at its disposal. For this message to be convincing, it must be demonstrated, even if at first Israel prefers to act with limited force. The writer, vice president of JISS, held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for over 20 years. (Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies)

  • Max Fisher of the New York Times has taken to Twitter to defend his claim that David Ben-Gurion "emerged from retirement in July 1967 to warn Israelis they had sown the seeds of self-destruction" if Israel did not give up the territories it had conquered in the Six-Day War.
  • Fisher sourced this story to a recollection by the late Arthur Hertzberg, writing in the New York Review of Books in 1987, who claimed to have heard the grim prophecy during an encounter between Ben-Gurion and American Conservative rabbis at Beit Berl in July 1967.
  • I'd grown suspicious of this story, so I tracked down the transcript of Ben-Gurion's remarks in his archives. I found no evidence of his having said anything of the sort. I published my findings back in April 2018, so imagine my surprise when Fisher repeated the fable on the front page of the Times on July 23.
  • I've uploaded the transcript of Ben-Gurion's meeting here, dated July 12, 1967. The transcript doesn't include even a hint that Ben-Gurion made the dramatic renunciation of territorial acquisition. Moreover, in Ben-Gurion's diary of July 12, his own summary of his remarks includes nothing whatsoever on territorial concessions. I've uploaded it here.
  • Nor is there any corroboration in the Mapai party newspaper Davar of July 14. It summarized Ben-Gurion's remarks and made no attribution to Ben-Gurion of any territorial position, except this quote about Jerusalem: "We will not return Jerusalem - and no force in the world can take it from us."
  • In fact, Ben-Gurion issued a press release immediately after the war that appeared in almost all the Hebrew newspapers on June 19, in which he said: "We will propose to the inhabitants of the West Bank to choose representatives with whom we will conduct negotiations on a West Bank autonomy (excluding Jerusalem and its environs), which will be tied to Israel in an economic alliance....A Jewish army will be stationed on the western bank of the Jordan river to protect the independence of the autonomous West Bank."

    The writer teaches Middle Eastern history at Shalem College in Jerusalem.