Archive for February 2, 2018

Trump administration, pushing back on Iran’s influence, slaps fresh sanctions on Hezbollah

February 2, 2018

By Adam Shaw | Fox News February 2, 2018

Source: Trump administration, pushing back on Iran’s influence, slaps fresh sanctions on Hezbollah

{Iran will make up the difference and further deprive it’s already suffering people from economic recovery. – LS}

The Trump administration announced Friday that it was slapping fresh sanctions on Hezbollah-linked individuals and businesses in Africa and the Middle East — a move to limit not only the operations of the terrorist group, but also Iran’s influence in the region.

The Treasury announced that it is targeting a network of companies and individuals in Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia and other countries linked to Hezbollah financier Adham Tabaja.

The sanctions freeze assets in the U.S. and prevent Americans from doing business with any of the six individuals and seven companies. The U.S. has designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization that also plays a major political role in Lebanon.

Senior officials told the Associated Press that it is the “first wave” of a campaign to put pressure on the Iranian-linked organization. In a statement, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin described the group as “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans.”

“It is also Iran’s primary proxy used to undermine legitimate Arab governments across the Middle East,” he said. “The Administration is determined to expose and disrupt Hezballah’s networks, including those across the Middle East and West Africa, used to fund their illicit operations.”

Experts say that there is a sense that the administration is attempting to re-invigorate global efforts to push back against Hezbollah, while walking a fine line so it does not destabilize Lebanon.

“There is a position by the administration that they want to do it so as not to destabilize Lebanon’s economy and banking sector and do it in a way that targets global aspect of Hezbollah and in a way that minimizes Lebanon’s exposure,” Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of “The Third Lebanon War” told Fox News.

The U.S. estimates Iran sends Hezbollah about $700 million a year and officials say that Hezbollah has become Iran’s main proxy in the Arabic-speaking world. The U.S. is particularly concerned about Hezbollah’s presence in Syria and Yemen. Badran warned against making an “artificial” distinction between Hezbollah and Iran, arguing that it is largely an extension of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Most of the individuals targeted had not been publicly known to be financiers of Hezbollah, nor are they prominent names in Lebanon.

Don’t Ignore Kushner’s Quiet Mideast Gains

February 2, 2018

Ahmed Charai January 29, 2018 The National Interest

Source: Don’t Ignore Kushner’s Quiet Mideast Gains

{Giving credit where credit is due. – LS}

He may be the most effective presidential Middle East envoy in decades, but he doesn’t get much respect from the press.

It is hardly an understatement to say that Jared Kushner, a baby-faced real-estate magnate and presidential son-in-law, didn’t send expectations soaring when he was named to supervise Israel-Palestine peace efforts.

Lacking years of diplomatic experience and advanced degrees in Near Eastern politics, his appointment seemed more like favoritism than a confirmation of expertise, more a presidential gift to his daughter than a strategic decision.

What little coverage Kushner has received has varied from skeptical to scornful. And, tellingly, he hasn’t tried to dispel the pundits’ prejudices. He doesn’t travel with reporters or invite press attention. His few appearances are fleeting and uneventful.

Still, his frequent visits and stray public remarks reveal a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of the region. Behind the scenes, he is making surprising progress.

First, he recognizes that Iran now matters more to the Arabs than Palestine. With Iran and Islamic militants threatening the survival of major Arab states, many Arab leaders have quietly decided to align with Israel—dialing down their interest in the Palestinian drama. Consider that President Trump’s plan to move the United States’ embassy in Israel to Jerusalem did not touch off huge protests in Arab capitals or angry editorials in the Arab press. Kushner was one of the strongest voices inside the White House in favor of the long-promised move. Any other mediator would fret that the move would needlessly complicate his job. Kushner knows that Iran has replaced Palestine as the center of Arab interest, and he spotted an opportunity that few in Washington saw.

Second, Kushner realizes that younger Arab generation has a fundamentally different perspective from that of its elders. More than 60 percent of Arabs are too young to remember the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, and many more regard them as ancient history. Consider an American equivalent; how many millennials are outraged at the fate of South Vietnam? As a result, younger Arabs largely accept Israel’s existence as a settled fact, and generally see trading with its prosperous economy as essential to their own economic growth. I know. I have heard them tell me these things in the privacy of their living rooms. Their septuagenarian leaders do not share their views, and punish younger leaders who try to independently engage with Israelis—which only deepens the divide.

The generation gap is based on practical economic concerns. Young Arabs want well-paying jobs that allow them to marry and start families. They want good schools for the children. Many see no issue with taking an ambulance across the border to an Israeli hospital, unlike their retirement-age relatives who say that they would rather die.

Kushner correctly captured the sentiment of the new Arab generation when he said in July 2017, “We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books. Let’s focus on, How do you come up with a conclusion to the situation?”

To be sure, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the longest and thorniest conflicts in history. It cannot be resolved quickly or easily. Kushner has publicly acknowledged this, usually adding the idea that new approaches are more likely to bear fruit than old ones.

And he is trying a new approach, completely at odds with the conventional wisdom among diplomats. Kushner, speaking at the Saban Forum in Washington, said, “The most important thing was to focus on the final status issues, not on daily distractions that come up along the way.”

This signals a sharp break with the conventional State Department view that it is better to start modestly, focus on building trust, build the capacity of the Palestinian Authority, foster economic ties between the parties and lay a foundation for still greater capacity on the Palestinian side. Only then, after years of “capacity building,” can the final-status negotiations start.

Kushner blunted turned this upside down, adding that it had been tried for decades with little success. In the absence of a political horizon to steer toward, he said, people make decisions based on who is holding guns now. And that cements the current impasse.

Finally, Kushner has three key relationships that make progress possible.

First, he enjoys the complete trust of the president and has continuous real-time access to Trump. Few U.S. negotiators, at least since Henry Kissinger, have had such a unique bond with the president.

Second, he is liked and trusted by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and its influential ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. Obama administration officials often publicly faulted Israel’s elected leaders, and the relationship was, at best, lukewarm.

Third, Kushner has befriended Saudi Arabia’s thirty-one-year-old deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Both are seen as tech-savvy, young disrupters of the status quo, and both favor practical solutions over symbolic displays. Saudi pressure on Qatar to end its funding of Hamas, the Palestinian terror group, would not have happened with earlier generations of Saudi leadership.

Other Gulf Arab leaders that I have met with tell me that they have heard positive things about Kushner, and are eager to work with him.

In short, Kushner’s correct reading of this unique moment in Arab politics as well as the strong relationships with key players that he has fostered position him, and the United States, to make historic progress in the Middle East.

Is peace between Arabs and Israelis possible? Consider the case of my homeland, Morocco. Under the leadership of King Mohamed VI, a constitutional monarchy has emerged with legal protections for Jews and other religious minorities. Here in Casablanca, Jews and Muslims attend each other’s schools, form business partnerships and leave peacefully side by side. With a dose of Kushner’s quiet diplomacy, there is no reason Arabs and Jews couldn’t live the same way in Israel and Palestine.

Scoop: Trump may present peace plan even if Palestinians won’t negotiate

February 2, 2018

Barak Ravid of Israel’s Channel 10 news February 2, 2018 Via Axios

Source: Scoop: Trump may present peace plan even if Palestinians won’t negotiate

{Finally, after all these years we now have an administration that believes in transparency. – LS}

The White House is considering presenting President Trump’s Middle East peace plan even if the crisis with the Palestinian Authority continues and Palestinian President Abbas refuses to come to the negotiating table, senior U.S. officials tell me.

The bottom line: The U.S. officials say the administration won’t impose on the Israelis or Palestinians to accept the plan, but may release it so the parties and international community can judge it at face value.

The officials said no decisions were made yet in this regard but stressed the president and his “peace team” are not ruling out this option.

One senior U.S. official told me:

“Since it’s not done, we haven’t decided yet how we are going to put it forward and what happens if one of the sides isn’t ready to come to the table. We are not there yet. But we are very optimistic that all relevant countries who want to support a peace agreement between the two sides are still waiting for our plan, want to work with us and realize we cannot be replaced. Despite all of the false reports about our plan, we are confident it will be beneficial to both sides and both peoples.”

The current standoff

After Trump’s Jerusalem announcement on December 6th, Abbas announced he would cut ties with the U.S. over the peace process. The Palestinians also boycotted Vice President Pence’s visit in the region.

  • Abbas claimed Trump is not an honest broker and called his peace plan “the slap of the century”.
  • Meanwhile Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said he will react to the Trump plan after he sees it but stressed he is ready to renew peace talks.

The latest developments…

  • U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt held a series of meetings with Netanyahu, his advisers and several ministers over the last two weeks. Greenblatt also met with opposition leader Hertzog and briefed EU member states representatives in Tel-Aviv and East Jerusalem. He did not meet with any Palestinian officials but met with Palestinian students and private sector executives.
  • On Wednesday, Greenblatt participated in an emergency meeting of the donor countries to the Palestinian Authority. The meeting focused on the crisis in the peace process and on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah also participated in the meeting. It was the first time senior Palestinian and U.S. officials were around the same table since the Jerusalem announcement. Greenblatt and Hamdallah shook hands but didn’t hold a meeting.
  • In his speech during the plenary meeting, Greenblatt referred to Hamdallah and said he hopes that the fact he is participating shows the Palestinians are still committed to the efforts to renew the peace process. Greenblatt also said President Trump’s announcement was just a recognition of reality and the connection of Israel and the Jewish people to Jerusalem. Greenblatt also said in his speech: “Did the President’s decision prejudge any final status issues? No. We have not taken a position on borders”.
  • Greenblatt stressed that the Trump administration continues drafting its peace plan and called on the Palestinians to return to the peace talks: “Peace will not be achieved by walking away from negotiations. It is easy to walk away from the table. But that helps no one, and it reduces or perhaps eliminates the chances of achieving a comprehensive peace agreement. And that would be terrible for the Palestinian people”.

Here’s how Israel is adjusting its tune on Lebanon 

February 2, 2018

Source: Here’s how Israel is adjusting its tune on Lebanon – Middle East – Jerusalem Post

 FEBRUARY 2, 2018 08:00
High-ranking Israeli officials have sounded alarm bells about Iran’s growing presence in the north.

 Hezbollah. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Israel appears to be adjusting its tune — and strengthening its tone — when it comes to Lebanon. For years, the government’s mantra has been, “Hezbollah is Lebanon and Lebanon is Hezbollah,” a refrain that, in various iterations, similarly dominated the military establishment’s doctrine. Given the terror group is a wholly owned Iranian subsidiary, the missive, when uttered, implicitly blamed Tehran for the effective takeover by its Shiite proxy of Israel’s northern neighbor.

Of late, however, the blame is being shifted squarely onto the shoulders Hezbollah’s patron, with a series of high-ranking Israeli officials having warned this week that the Islamic Republic’s growing control over Lebanon, coupled with its attempts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, is raising the prospect of war. Jerusalem has not only conveyed this message both to Washington and Moscow, in particular, but also has transmitted the warning directly to the Lebanese opposition and thus, as a corollary, to their political representatives.

According to Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, Jerusalem’s actions are motivated by a concern over the prospect of a future war being fought on two fronts. “As far as Israel is concerned, it does not want to fight a war in Lebanon and Syria simultaneously,” he explained to The Media Line, “and at least today there is no significant Iranian presence in the Golan Heights. As such, even if a war broke out in Lebanon, the Syrian theater might stay closed. But in five years, this could be different and Israel could have to face Hezbollah and Hezbollah 2.0 along separate borders.”

Nevertheless, Eiland stressed that training has long been underway for such a scenario. “The way the Israeli armed forces is structured, the various components are [streamlined] to fight in multiple places at the same time. So this is not something new. However, since 1973 we never experienced a war on multiple fronts and this is obviously more challenging.”

The full-scale diplomatic press began Sunday when a rare article by IDF spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis was published on the Lebanese Ahewar website and then quickly went viral throughout the region. “Lebanon has become — both by its own actions and omissions and by a blind eye from many members of the international community — one large missile factory,” he wrote. “It’s no longer a transfer of arms, funds or consultation[s]. Iran has de-facto opened a new branch, the ‘Lebanon branch.’ Iran is here.”

A day later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow, where in a meeting with President Vladimir Putin he condemned Iran’s efforts to turn Lebanon into “one big missile site,” adding that Jerusalem would not countenance the manufacturing of advanced rockets in the country. Netanyahu’s comments come amid heightened concern that the Islamic Republic is developing precision-guidance systems — possibly in subterranean facilities — to be fitted onto Hezbollah’s longer-range missiles, which could potentially allow the terror group to accurately target critical Israeli infrastructure.

On Wednesday, it was the turn of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who made clear at the INSS conference in Tel Aviv that Lebanon, in its entirety, would “pay the full price” for Iran’s entrenchment there. A future war would not be like the last one against Hezbollah in 2006, the defense chief declared, as next time around “there won’t be pictures…showing people on the beach in Beirut while Tel Aviv residents [sit] in bomb shelters. This won’t happen.”

Avi Melamed, the Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C. believes that Israel’s policy must be viewed within the context of changes in Lebanon and Syria, with Iran being the catalyst and common denominator in both domains. “It is a cohesive Israeli effort to signal very clearly to Iran and Hezbollah that there are red lines have been drawn in the sand that are different from the previous [Obama] administration.”

But as Israel attempts to blur any distinction between Iran and Hezbollah, on the one hand, and the Lebanese government and its armed forces on the other, the international community continues doing just the opposite.

In fact, just hours before Liberman made his comments, a senior US official pledged — on the exact same stage at the exact same conference — continued support for Lebanon’s military. “We will sustain our efforts to support legitimate state security institutions such as the Lebanese Armed Forces…[which] could well serve as a counter-weight to Hezbollah’s desire to expand its own influence, as well as Iran’s reach in Lebanon,” asserted David Satterfield, acting Assistant US Secretary of State.

This followed numerous public declarations of support by Washington for Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri — who sits in a government with Hezbollah — after he reversed his decision, amid western intervention, to resign late last year under suspicious circumstances. At the time, a White House statement noted “the need to work with allies to counter Hezbollah’s and Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.”

All of this comes on the backdrop of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement earlier this month of the formation of a new task force to combat Hezbollah’s vast drug trafficking and money laundering empire. That move, in turn, followed a Politico report claiming that the Obama administration interfered with a Drug Enforcement Agency initiative — code-named Project Cassandra — to thwart the Lebanese organization’s illicit activities for fear of jeopardizing the nuclear deal with Iran.

To this end, US Treasury Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing, Marshall Billingslea, was in Lebanon last week and “urged [the government] to take every possible measure to ensure [Hezbollah] is not part of the financial sector.” He briefed both Hariri and President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, on the prospective American initiative while vowing that any measures implemented would not destroy the banking system underpinning the Lebanese economy.

But the tacit acknowledgment that Lebanon’s financial sector could be crippled if the terror group’s assets are targeted evidences Hezbollah’s deep penetration of the country, and, in turn, highlights what many view as an apparent contradiction in Washington’s strategy.

In this respect, the US firmly backs the Lebanese government despite Hezbollah’s domination over Beirut. This reality was made stark when head of state Aoun raised eyebrows by praising the terror group as the primary source of “resistance” to Israel and for playing a “complimentary role to the Lebanese army,” in the process seemingly validating the Israeli contention that the two bodies coordinate together. The US also contributes more than one hundred million dollars in annual military aid even though sophisticated American weaponry provided to the Lebanese Armed Forces has found its way into Hezbollah’s hands.

As regards Europe, the situation is even more abstruse, as evidenced by Wednesday’s news that Bulgarian state prosecutors will not charge Hezbollah with involvement in the 2012 bombing of an Israeli tour bus at the Burgas airport, which killed six people. The prosecutors claimed that they had not been provided with proof of the terror group’s complicity; this, despite multiple previous pronouncements by Bulgarian officials explicitly linking Hezbollah to the attack, including one by then-foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov who, in a further bit of irony, also attended the INSS conference in Tel Aviv in his new capacity as UN Middle East peace envoy.

Developments in Bulgaria fit into Europe’s broader approach to Hezbollah, which might be described as a separation of terror and state. While the Lebanese group’s “military wing” was blacklisted by most of the European Union in 2013—a decision that, equally ironic, was prompted by the Burgas bombing that EU member state Bulgaria now says had nothing to do with Hezbollah—the terror group’s so-called “political arm” freely operates throughout the continent, raising funds and recruiting members at will.

In Eiland’s estimation, this complexity — and perplexity — stems from a misunderstanding of the Lebanese arena, which is perceived very differently by western nations than it is by Israel. The former, he explained to The Media Line, “differentiates between a camp of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ So the theory is to support the good guys, which is obviously simplistic and naive. But despite the supposed distinction, there is an agreement between both sides in which the good guys act in a way that ensures the continued support of the West while the bad guys provide security.”

In fact, the bifurcation of Hezbollah’s terrorist elements by Europe parallels the US’ bifurcation of the same terror elements from Lebanon’s political, military and economic spheres. This is in sharp contrast to the position of Israel, which therefore cannot expect to garner much support even from its closest allies for its stated policy that, in a future war with Hezbollah, all of Lebanon will be “fair game.”

Dr. Avi Davidi, formerly the Iran Director at the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and currently a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, insists there is an increasing sense of urgency on Jerusalem’s part. “The issue is becoming very serious because we are approaching the end of the war in Syria, at which point the extent of Iran’s future presence will be determined. So Israel wants to make sure that everyone knows its position that Tehran not be allowed to replicate in Syria its activities in Lebanon.

“Israel knows what it is facing with Hezbollah in Lebanon,” he elaborated, “but Syria is a different story. What does it mean, for example, to attack Syria? Plus, the Russians are the major power there. So it is easier for Israel to make its point by saying it will attack Lebanon. This also acts as an indirect threat to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin who does not want any added instability.”

Nevertheless, it could be that “game-changing” developments are, in fact, occurring in Lebanon. It is possible that Moscow will not abide by a major Iranian military presence in Syria and, in response, Tehran is trying to enhance its capabilities next door. What is crystal clear is that Israel will not sit idly by and watch the Islamic Republic make further inroads in its backyard.

Despite the Israeli full-press, Melamed contended to The Media Line that it is currently not in the interest of Iran and its proxy to engage the Jewish state militarily. “From their perspective, they will try to avoid a direct confrontation because the Trump administration has [upped pressure] on Hezbollah and they are aware of the steps that could come. Furthermore, a conflict could result in an outcome that would be devastating for both parties.

“There is also a big awareness in the Arab world,” he continued, “that there may be a big plan being cooked up in the US, Israel, and Saudi kitchen to greatly diminish Hezbollah and Iran’s influence. They are cognizant of this and must take it into consideration.”

As such, analysts point to three major objectives of Jerusalem’s present diplomatic offensive. First, to try to prevent a conflict by reminding all parties of the utter destruction wreaked upon Lebanon by the IDF in 2006, while putting the world on notice that the Israeli military will do whatever is necessary if Iran is allowed to pursue its agenda uninhibited. This, in turn, could induce countries with leverage to apply pressure on Tehran to curb its militarization of Lebanon, while simultaneously making the Islamic Republic think twice about threatening Israel through its forces in Syria.

Second, the campaign is meant to prepare the Israeli public for a potential “war of choice,” one that would be initiated by Israel — irrespective of the predictable international outcry — before the risks posed by its enemies in the north cross the threshold of defensibility.

And lastly, to foster dissent among the Lebanese opposition, a tactic not dissimilar to the Israeli government’s support for Iranians during their recent nationwide protests.

Two age-old adages come to mind that seemingly encapsulate Israel’s policy, the first being ancient military strategist Sun Tzu’s assertion that, “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” While this aptly describes the attempt to deter Iran and Hezbollah via a diplomatic offensive, no amount of rhetoric can substitute for active preparation.

And as Israel readies militarily for what many deem inevitable, there is still hope in George Washington’s affirmation that, “to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.”