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Analysis

BICOM Webinar | A Discussion with Ehud Yaari

On March 10, BICOM hosted veteran Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari for a webinar on a wide range of topics. Ehud is the leading Middle East commentator for Israel’s Channel 12 News. He has appeared on Israeli TV since 1975, and is a multi award winning expert analyst on regional affairs.

Below is a transcript of his remarks on a select number of topics. You can listen to the full discussion here.

Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to play between Russia and the US. Turkey is a member of US-led NATO and has the second biggest army in the organisation. However, the country also buys S-400 anti-aircraft missile batteries from Russia and works with Russian President Vladimir Putin in many other areas.

President Erdoğan, including his main rivals in the opposition who up until a few years ago were some of his closest allies, understand that they need to move closer to the American and European position.

It is true that the shift in Turkey’s policy started long before 24 February when Russia invaded Ukraine. But the shift is now accelerating. Turkey is seeking rapprochement with United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. The visit of President Isaac Herzog to Ankara earlier this month, who is the most responsible player in Israel’s political system at the moment, was quite successful. I think we are about to see a rapid improvement in relations between Israel and Turkey, probably at a faster pace than most would expect. This is linked to the re-established relations between the Gulf states, Egypt and Turkey. In the background of this has been the growing rivalry and friction between Turkey and Iran – the two non-Arab superpowers in the region, both ex-empires and with large appetites. Realising that Russia stands closer to Iran than Turkey has been helpful in mending fences between the Arab states and Turkey.

 

The Palestinian Authority and Russia

Public opinion among the Palestinians is anti-US and anti-West for a variety of reasons. They feel neglected and ignored by the Biden administration, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas feels that he shouldn’t go beyond what other Arab countries are doing and saying about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Abbas speaks Russian, still wears Russian woollen hats in the awful winter of Israel, which rarely sees freezing temperatures, and his PhD was from a Russian university. For years he was personally and emotionally involved with the Soviet Union, and in many ways, it is part of who he is. But I am not seeing others arguing with him and trying to persuade him to supports the Western position.

 

The Arabs and Russia

They feel not just that the US is scaling down (or trying to scale down) its presence and profile in the region. Everyone in the Arab world is taking measures to find a new balance of relationships with outside powers. In Saudi Arabia for example, they have been boycotted by the Biden administrations. Whether or not this is correct is a different matter, but this is how they feel. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and his father King Salman cannot have a telephone conversation with President Joe Biden. MBS is not allowed to visit Washington, DC. They are offended and angry.

 

Israel and Russia’s Deconfliction Mechanism in Syria

I doubt that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and what Israel is doing in Syria will have an impact on the deconfliction mechanism. Putin and generals see the fighting between Israel and Iran in Syria as none of their business. The Russians also said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has a right to fight and liberate the Golan Heights, but they will not do it for him. I think in many ways the Russians are quite satisfied that Israel is preventing Iran from taking over Syria. The Iranians provided Russia with the cannon fodder with all the militias that they mobilised and enlisted in Syria, but they no longer need Iran because there is no more major fighting in Syria. Therefore, they don’t mind that the Iranians will suffer a beating by the Israeli Air Force. Russia is certainly not opposed to Israel’s policy to prevent Iran from constructing an elaborate war machine on Syrian territory. I don’t think that the Russians would like to see dog fights between their planes in their base outside Latakia and the Israeli Air Force.

 

The Arabs and the JCPOA Nuclear Deal

Quite importantly, the Arabs feel neglected by the complete dedication of the Biden administration’s desire to revive the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal. The Arabs are dead set against it. This is because they understand that there is no going back to 2015 and the circumstances under which the deal was signed. The reality in Iran and its nuclear programme has changed. The Arabs know that the Iranians ability to obtain enough enriched material for a first bomb is only two to three weeks away. Where is the one-year limit that President Barack Obama had promised? If Iran is at a minimal one year away from acquiring the fissile material needed for one nuclear bomb, you can employ your intelligence, you can exercise diplomacy, you can try sanctions, you have time to work on the issue. When you are faced with a timeline of two to three weeks, the challenge becomes much more difficult. I don’t think the Iranians are rushing to acquire a weapon at this point.

There is a debate about how much money Iran is going to acquire due to the lifting of sanctions across the board, including sanctions which have nothing to do with the nuclear deal. Estimates are $200 billion, with some people saying up to half a trillion dollars. This is a lot of money for the country, which has the same population as Turkey, but only a third of its gross national product. But Iran was beginning to recover from its own economic crisis, so the question is now what it will do with a large part of the money they would gain? Most likely it will be the same thing they are doing now: giving it to its proxies, such as the Houthis in Yemen. We’ve seen them attack ships in the Red Sea and other places in the region’s critical shipping lanes, in Abu Dhabi, Saudi civilian airports, and more. We’ve seen the Iranians ambush American convoys in Iraq. They are active against the few hundred American soldiers in Northeast Syria in the Kurdish autonomous zone. The Iranians did not change anything in their modus operandi because of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal. I think that US and the Europeans should now take a second look at the sensitivities of the Arab states, their concerns about the strengthening of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and try to seek a new understanding.

 

Is the new JCPOA a done deal?

Israeli sources indicate that the deal is ready. It’s delayed now because of the new demand by the Russians due to sanctions related to the Ukraine conflict. This has infuriated the Iranians. I believe the current Israeli government has taken a position not to clash with the Biden administration. Israel was trying quietly to make their point and offer what they think should be included in the deal. The Russian representative in the Vienna talks said the Iranians got much more than they expected.

We still have to wait to see the final text, but we know there will be a lifting of sanctions across the board. This includes sanctions on the Iranian generals who were responsible for killing 241 American marines in Beirut in 1983, the general who was responsible AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires which targeted the Jewish community the IRGC, the Supreme Leader and more.

The US and some of the Europeans seem extremely interested in getting more Iranian oil into the market, partly because of the Arab a response to this request in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Iranians can increase their output.

I think that the main issue now for Israel is to concentrate on what is important, and that is the morning after the deal is signed. This means not going back to 2015 – Iranians have different capabilities buried deeper in the ground for example. It’s very important that there will be enforcement of the inspections in all Iranian nuclear sites, unlike what happened previously. It’s very important to have understandings among Western powers and the regional players how to deal with Iranian subversion, missiles, drones etc. There is a general understanding of what is coming next. It is just a matter of time before the Houthis in Yemen send suicide drones and cruise missiles into Israel.

 

The Israeli-Palestinian Arena

Overall, Palestinians are in no mood whatsoever for a third intifada. We will see skirmishes, stabbing and other attacks. We always had a certain level of violence, which will continue, but I don’t see an eruption of violence.

The danger now is with by the hilltop youth, those living in illegal outposts in the West Bank who are a provoking Palestinians. This could lead to the Palestinians establishing defence committees in every village. The attacks we’re seeing are rarely carried out by a group, they are committed by individuals. Since we’re seeing provocations by a certain small group of young Jewish extremists in the illegal outposts, Palestinians are responding by putting more pressure on the political leadership to do something, and the outcome has been the establishment of defence committees. The Palestinian Authority earlier this month had to adopt a resolution on the matter. Still there is a lot of time between the adoption and implementation of a resolution. This means bringing back the Tanzim, the Fatah movement’s armed groups. This will lead to a shift in the dynamic and potential for violent eruption.

Israel is now trying to create economic a programme for the West Bank which would include investment, job creation, etc. Israel went to the Gulf states and asked them to help the Palestinians and got a no for an answer. The Arabs are not willing to put up any money for the Palestinian Authority, except for Qatar, who is only willing to put up some money for Hamas. Israel is now going to Western countries, along with Australia, Japan and other countries trying to get money to put together a five-year plan for the economic development and advancement of the West Bank, which is possible. Unfortunately, a political and meaningful dialogue about the resolution of the conflict does not seem possible now for many reasons. I hope Western countries will be receptive to this idea because even if the issue cannot be resolved, it can at least be improved and make life much better for the Palestinians. This may assist in getting the Palestinians to the table one day for a discussion about the resolution of the conflict.

Hamas

The last thing Hamas wants now is another round of hostilities. Following President Herzog’s visit to Turkey, they issued very strong statement against the hospitality that President Erdogan offered to President Herzog. Hamas is now really scared that is part of the price for reconciliation between Israel and Erdogan, who might say to the Hamas military headquarters in Istanbul, which consists of hundreds of people, that they must leave.

I do not see an intifada or volcanic eruption of violence at this point.


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