10/1/15 The World Upside Down

by Marc Schulman

Today, the first day of the October, statistics were posted confirming what most Tel Avivians have felt – this has been the hottest September on record (and that does not even account for the miserable sand storm that remains yet unexplained.) The unseasonable weather is an appropriate match for the unsettled feeling harbored by many in Tel Aviv.

Is the news good or bad? How are we to evaluate the events that have taken place in the past few weeks? Sitting in Tel Aviv there is a sense the world has turned upside-down.

Tonight (Tel Aviv time) we had the uncomfortable experience of listening to what seemed at least to this writer as a visionless, almost pathetic speech. While the world is worried about massacres taking place in Syria, and a refugee situation in Europe unprecedented since World war II, Netanyahu spent the first 30 minutes of his speech attacking the P+5/ Iranian agreement and giving a laundry list of complaints against actions taken by Iran. Netanyahu’s speech seemed devoted primarily to depicting Iran as the greatest security threat Israel and the world face today and will probably be well received by his supporters otherwise will be ignored.

Apparently Netanyahu’s address was not the only speech and call to action that seemed detached from reality, or from moral underpinnings – When Palestinian Authority President Abbas can address the U.N. and allege Israel is endangering the Al Aqsa Mosque; President Putin can claim at the U.N. he is waging war on ISIS and then promptly bomb U.S. supported rebels. Meanwhile many writers, like former White House advisor Phil Gordon(Its Time to Rethink Syria), and German SWP Senoir Associate Dr Guidon Steinbergs( A German Strategy for Syria)can now call for an agreement that might keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power – representing complete change in their positions (and this despite the fact that Assad is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and is, without a doubt, a war criminal – by any standard) there clearly is something wrong.

Let’s start with Abbas’s U.N. speech in which President Abbas decried the occupation, claiming Israel was not living up to its commitment under the Oslo agreements, and warning the world that Israel was planning to do something terrible to Islam’s third holiest site. While many residents of Tel Aviv normally sympathize with Abbass’s first two points, many Israelis stopped listening at the beginning of his speech as Abbas called on Israel “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”.

Abbas lost his Israeli audience from the start by using a ‘tried and true formula for incitement’ – stirring up anti Jewish/Israeli anger and violence, going all the way back to the Arab riots and Hebron massacre of 1929. The 1929 Riots began with claims the Jews were going to take over the Al Aqsa mosque. The beginning of the Second Intifada, which truly marked the end of the Oslo Accord process was triggered by a similar allegation, after the then MK Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount.

A friend of mine turned to me after hearing about Abbas’s latest speech and asked what is going to be? How are we ever going to achieve peace? Indeed, without ignoring the failings of our own government, every time the Palestinians return to canards about the Jews wishing to destroy the Temple mount, the elusive peace that once seemed close, moves ever further away.

Events in Syria appear even more confusing. The speculations as to why Vladimir Putin has decided to intervene at this point in the Syrian Civil War are rampant. While there is much speculation, there are no good answers. Did Putin fear Assad was about to fall? Did Putin see an opportunity and just grab it? Was Putin looking to further humiliate President Obama? What impact will Russian intervention have on the Syrian war? Why would Putin be willing to make Moscow the #1 enemy of the Sunni Arab world? Is Russian involvement in Syria good or bad for Israel? Here too there are many questions and few clear answers.

Starting with the last question first – Is Moscow’s intervention in Syria good or bad for Israel? The answer is not clear. On one hand, Russian forces in Syria might inhibit an Israeli strike on Syrians trying to transfer arms to Hezbollah. Israel and Russia (then the Soviet Union) last clashed directly in 1970, at the end of the War of Attrition. The result of that encounter was the downing of seven Russian pilots, with Israel sustaining no loses. Today, however, Israel and Russia are friends with deep trade relations and Heads of State that uphold friendly relations. Therefore, aggressive types of encounter need to be avoided at all costs. Of course the very fact that Israel and Russia maintain close ties could be a positive development – after all if the Assad regime becomes more dependent on the Russians and less on the Hezbollah and Iran that could be considered a good thing. In the end, it is impossible to definitively determine what is in Israel’s best interest vis-a-vis Syria, since it has never been clear what Israel’s preferred outcome in the Syrian Civil war might be.

What impact will Russian intervention have on the Syrian Civil war? One thing is clear – if in the past few months there were signs of a collapse of the Assad regime, that outcome is much less likely at the moment. Will the Russians be able to significantly impact the war in Syria, operating just from the sky? Unlikely. However, are the Russians willing to go further?

Is Moscow’s recent action a source of humiliation for President Obama? Without a doubt, and despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s differences with the current President, anything that weakens the U.S. is not a good thing for Israel in the long run. Putin’s actions, whether ill-advised (as Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times) or not clearly show how pathetic America’s policies toward Syria have been.

This brings me to my final point – in light of Putin’s intervention in Syria there have been a spate of articles and posts with the same theme – i.e. we may have to accept the continued rule of Assad in Syria. With millions steaming toward Germany and other points in Europe that priority has now changed for many, looking to stop the bloodshed, regardless of whom is responsible. Thus, despite the fact that by almost all accounts President Assad is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians; despite Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and his indiscriminate bombing of civilians, all of his actions can be ignored since removing Assad from power seems too hard (of course nobody other than the rebels who the Russians are now bombing has really tried).

The end result seems to be that Israeli will be vilified for the accidental deaths of too many civilians, in a war it did not want and desperately wanted to end (the 2014 Gaza war), while Assad, a clear international criminal will no doubt get a free pass on all of his heinous choices. As I stated at the beginning, the world has been turned upside-down.