Rocks Replaced Iran on Netanyahu's Agenda – for Now

The debate on how to counter rock-throwing will be reopened, of course, after the change in rules leads to some Palestinian youths and innocent bystanders being killed; meanwhile, Israel is increasingly worried about growing Iranian-Russian cooperation, and not just in Syria.

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Palestinian protester sits on the road during clashes with Israeli police in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Issawiya, September 13, 2015.
Palestinian protester sits on the road during clashes with Israeli police in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Issawiya, September 13, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The death of Jerusalem resident Alexander Levlovich, as a result of a rock being thrown at his car near the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, set the security agenda for the holiday-shortened week.

For over a year, the undermining of personal security among Jewish residents of East Jerusalem and the seamline neighborhoods has barely made any waves in the media. Incidents of rock throwing and firebombs and the shooting of fireworks (in addition to the deteriorating living conditions in Palestinian neighborhoods on both sides of the separation barrier) rarely make it onto the radar of the major newspapers and television channels. Only when an attack ends in death, or if security cameras happen to catch footage of an incident as it is unfolding, is any media interest stirred.

Not surprisingly, the same goes for the response from politicians. Last fall, after a wave of lethal attacks that culminated in November with two ax-wielding Palestinian terrorists massacring five Israelis during prayers at a Har Nof synagogue, a number of emergency sessions were held in political and security forums. Jerusalem was flooded with extra police, and efforts were made to cool tensions with Jordan and the Arab world, with President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging an end to Temple Mount visits by right-wing ministers and MKs.

In the past two weeks, after the latest series of attacks, highlighted by the one in which Levlovich was killed, Netanyahu has held two emergency meetings. Another is expected on Monday. The security threats the prime minister is normally busy dealing with, like Iran’s nuclear program and the threat of ISIS along Israel’s borders, will have to wait a bit. Right now, Netanyahu has to be strong vis-a-vis the stone throwers.

Once again, the Temple Mount is playing a key role in the escalation. Several measures that Israel felt bound to take – outlawing the Muslim guard corps on the mount, and raiding Al-Aqsa on the eve of Rosh Hashanah to thwart Palestinians who were organizing there to attack Jewish worshipers – were perceived by the Palestinian public as part of a new Israeli plot to deliberately shatter the religious status quo on the Temple Mount. The recent resumption of visits there by some Israeli politicians didn’t help matters either, of course. This week, after a brief period of abstention, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel went there. (Security officials say this was coordinated as a “private” visit, with Ariel committing not to be accompanied by any media crews.)

As reported in Haaretz, Netanyahu asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to allow an easing of the police guidelines for opening fire to make them equivalent to those employed by the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank: to permit the police to deploy snipers and use small-caliber, 0.22-inch Ruger rifles fitted with a sniper scope against people throwing rocks and firebombs if commanders believe they pose a mortal danger. Weinstein is expected to present his opinion on the matter by Monday. Netanyahu, along with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, believes that a combination of measures – flooding the eastern part of the city with police reinforcements, harsher penalties against rock throwers and easing the rules of engagement – will be sufficient to quell the latest wave of attacks.

Participants at the emergency meeting this week noted that the Palestinian youths who hurled the rock that caused Levlovich’s death had been standing on a traffic island, undisturbed, and had previously pelted three other Israeli cars. The argument is that if the Jerusalem police had more means at their disposal, deterrence against such perpetrators would be increased.

Two days ago, following the meeting, the prime minister also went on a special security tour of Jerusalem and its environs. One stop was on Highway 443, where he received a briefing from IDF officers. The pictures from that visit show Netanyahu listening very attentively to a senior officer. That officer was Col. Yisrael Shomer, commander of the Binyamin district (Ramallah) brigade. In early July, Shomer shot to death a Palestinian who had just thrown a large rock that smashed the front windshield of the jeep he was riding in, near the A-Ram junction.

The IDF’s internal investigation of that attack is still ongoing, but some army officials, including Central Command head Roni Numa, hastened to issue statements of support for Shomer. The picture with Netanyahu – along with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s warning that anyone who commits a rock-throwing attack has “blood on his hands” – are the last word on the matter for now. This is now Israel’s declared policy – and it could soon be backed up by Weinstein’s seal of approval for the new guidelines. The debate will be reopened, of course, after the change in rules leads to some Palestinian youths and innocent bystanders being killed. But, hey, why get ahead of ourselves?

Russia in Syria

Since the magnitude of Russia’s new military involvement in Syria has become apparent, thanks to a series of leaks from the United States and Israel, intelligence officials, academic experts and journalists have all been pondering the same question: Could Russia’s entry into the fray on such a level turn out to be a game changer? Could it turn the tide in the four-and-a-half-year Syrian civil war in President Bashar Assad’s favor?

The reports have been accumulating over the last couple of weeks. Analysis of aerial photos published in the American magazine Foreign Policy indicates that Russia has significantly expanded its airbase in the Latakia area, on the Alawite coastal strip in the country’s northwest. Brisk activity by Russian cargo planes has been recorded. The New York Times reported that Russia is using Iranian and Iraqi airspace to fly its planes from southern Russia to Syrian territory. The paper says that about 200 Russian marines and six Russian artillery batteries are already guarding the expanded base. It quotes U.S. intelligence officials who say that advanced Russian MiG-21 and Sukhoi-25 fighter jets will soon be deployed there.

Despite the increased Russian military presence, which President Vladimir Putin is no longer making any real effort to deny, at this stage the airlift from Russia appears to be geared more to reinforcing a defensive line rather than to creating an offensive turning point. For several years now, the Assad regime has been steadily losing ground. The Syrian tyrant has gradually lost any effective hold over much of the country, and his regime now controls only about a quarter of its territory – from Damascus along a corridor to the large cities to the north of it, and as far as the Alawite region on the coast. In recent months, rebel groups have scored victories in the Idlib area in the north, while the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, conquered the city of Palmyra in the east. Moreover, the Syrian Army withdrew its forces from Mount Druze in the south and has almost fully retreated from the border area with Israel in the Golan Heights.

Lately, Assad has also been facing growing rebel resistance in the Damascus area too. Opposition forces, including ISIS fighters, have been seizing positions in the eastern districts of the Syrian capital, and using them as a base for shelling the presidential palace and government offices. This is not a situation that can be easily reversed, especially given the major deterioration in the Syrian military’s capabilities and motivation.

Nonetheless, the shipment of forces and weapons from Russia, the scope of which has yet to be clarified, appears to be the most important development in the war since August of last year, when the West shifted its priorities to fighting ISIS rather than urging the departure of the Assad regime. The Russian show of power, which seems to be coordinated with Iran, is meant to halt the series of setbacks suffered by Assad and to try to stabilize the situation of his forces in the areas still under the regime’s control.

Since the rebel groups are divided and fighting one another on multiple fronts (in places where they have cooperated, such as Idlib, they have made greater military gains), the opposition is also struggling to deal Assad a crushing blow. Now that will be even harder. If the Russian military move succeeds, we can expect another diplomatic attempt to reach an accord on a division of power – which would be tantamount to granting recognition of Assad’s continued hold on the areas still in his hands, what Israeli military intelligence circles have come to refer to as “Little Syria.”

A number of explanations have been offered for Russia’s overt, and now stepped-up, support for Assad. At base is Moscow’s opposition to American influence in the international arena, from Syria to Ukraine, in particular, in Poland and the Baltic states. Russia also seeks to maintain its military and naval presence in the northern Mediterranean basin, with the expansion of the military base at Latakia complementing the large naval port maintained by Russia at Tartus.

There’s also the nuclear deal signed in July in Vienna between Iran and the six major powers. What’s being presented as a solution to the Iranian nuclear threat is serving to legitimize Moscow’s relations with Tehran, enabling the two to openly coordinate their moves in Syria, in light of the lack of action on the part of the American administration. Meanwhile, this week, General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Republican Guards, reportedly made a second visit to Moscow. Israeli officials believe the bulk of Soleimani’s discussions with his hosts was devoted to the moves being made in Syria.

While U.S. President Barack Obama is still debating whether to directly take up the issue of the new developments in Syria with President Putin, Prime Minister Netanyahu evidently has no such qualms. On Wednesday, Netanyahu’s office announced that he would fly to Moscow next week to meet with Putin, to “show him the threats to Israel that will result from an increased flow of advanced weapons into the Syrian arena and from lethal weapons trickling to Hezbollah and other terror organizations.” Interestingly, the statement does not contain any direct criticism of Russia’s backing of Assad. Instead, it focuses on the dangers this entails for Israel, due to Syria’s alliance with Hezbollah and the possibility that the Lebanese organization could get hold of some of the arms being sent from Russia to Damascus.

On the tactical level, as previously reported here, Israel is concerned about the Russian military buildup because of the implications it could have for the air force’s freedom of activity in Lebanese skies. However, there is another aspect that it finds just as worrisome – the way that Iran is already effectively acquiring legitimacy, as a regional power, for its various operations in the Middle East, before the nuclear accord has even begun to be implemented. The unconcealed confluence of Russian and Iranian interests in Syria is being seen in Israel as an early harbinger of this, while the West only shows growing weakness. It’s not just the United States that can’t decide what policy to take in Syria, and has shifted from demanding Assad’s ouster to passively accepting his continued rule: It’s also Europe, which is being overwhelmed by the huge tide of refugees and has clearly lost any desire to initiate any moves in Syria.

In itself, this isn’t necessarily bad news for Israel, which doesn’t see any possible advantage in the victory of any of the parties to the civil war, and thus prefers for the existing situation to continue. The increased Russian and Iranian aid to Assad is not seen as heralding a change in direction, but mainly as a development that could extend the bloodbath in Syria for many more months. And yet, Iranian success in Syria and Tehran’s open coordination with Moscow are not viewed by Jerusalem as good news either.

If there’s anything positive to be found on the horizon, it’s that Netanyahu’s predictable defeat last week in Washington has now paved the way for a renewal of serious talks between Israel and the United States on the nature of a compensation package of defense aid that Israel will receive in wake of the nuclear deal. Unofficial initial discussions in this regard took place back in May and June, but were halted at the order of the prime minister, who didn’t want to be seen as prematurely coming to terms with the evil decree emerging from Vienna.

Next month, Ya’alon will travel to Washington for talks, and a few weeks later Netanyahu will head there too, for his first meeting with Obama since the deal was signed. There they will finally start to discuss the aid package meant to preserve Israel’s qualitative military advantage vis-a-vis the friendlier states in the region, like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates. The IDF leadership is dismayed that this discussion is getting off to such a late start, but glad that it is finally being resumed.

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