Israel and the Middle East

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10.12.11

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Egypt
  • Population:

    88,487,396

  • Government Type:

    Republic

  • Head of Government:

    Sherif Ismail

  • Chief of State:

    President Abdelfattah Said Elsisi

In February 2011, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign came to an end in the wake of widespread popular protests sparked by the Arab Spring. His fall shook many of the foundations of the Middle East and led to the rise of the once outlawed Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate Mohammad Morsi won the June 2012 presidential election. The Brotherhood, however, would quickly discover that governing a nation is far different than running a political campaign, and its president and disciples was swiftly removed from office by the Egyptian military, backed by millions of civilian demonstrators, one year after its election victory. Subsequently in May 2014, the Egyptian Minister of Defense and leader of the coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was elected president winning 96 percent of the vote.

The falls of Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood followed by the rise of Gen. el-Sisi have had a major effect on Egyptian society and the region in general. Joining the Near East Report to discuss these developments and their impact is Middle East expert Eric Trager—author of the newly published book Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days.

 

Q: Egypt has seen three governments since the fall of the Mubarak regime six years ago. What is the status of the current government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi?

A: President el-Sisi was widely viewed (and depicted in the mostly pro-government media) as a national hero when he responded to mass protests by toppling Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in July 2013. He later rode this support to an overwhelming victory in the barely contested May 2014 presidential elections, and used his mandate to enact subsidy reforms, sign major deals to upgrade Egypt’s electrical grid and undertake massive infrastructure projects.

Nearly three years into his presidency, however, el-Sisi’s support has declined due to ongoing—and worsening—economic and security challenges, while his regime’s ever-broadening repressiveness has alienated key political and societal interests that once supported him. Still, his regime appears durable for the time being for three reasons. First, the core state institutions—particularly the military and security services—strongly support him, meaning that there are no perceptible fissures within the regime for the opposition to exploit, as happened during the 2011 and 2013 uprisings. Second, given the severe crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition movements, the political opposition is too disorganized to mobilize another uprising. Third, given the political uncertainty of the previous six years as well as the broader regional instability, many Egyptians fear that another uprising would only make things worse. On the other hand, until there is economic improvement, it will be impossible to entirely discount the possibility of renewed upheaval.

 

Q: What are the major challenges facing Egypt and how is the government working to address them?

A: The core challenge is the economy. Ever since the January 2011 uprising, Egypt’s cash reserves have fallen considerably due to the decline of tourism and foreign direct investment, while Egypt’s expensive food and fuel subsidy programs also drained the reserves. As a result, successive governments struggled to defend the currency peg, and the capital controls catalyzed episodic commodity shortages. Finally, in early November, Cairo announced that it would float the pound, and the International Monetary Fund responded by announcing a $12 billion package to Egypt on Nov. 11. While this cash infusion and further economic reform should put Egypt on the right track in the long term, in the short term these moves entail considerable pain for ordinary Egyptians. Indeed, when the government announced that it was floating the pound, the currency dipped in value from roughly 9 to 15.6 to the dollar, meaning a significant rise in prices across the board. 

Egypt also faces significant security challenges, as evidenced by the recent terrorist attacks on a police checkpoint in Giza and on the Coptic cathedral in Cairo. While the government has fought jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula and Western Desert for the past three years, the persistence of these attacks suggests that there is still much work to be done.

 

Q: What kind of an organization is the Muslim Brotherhood and what role does it play in today’s Egypt?

A: The Muslim Brotherhood seeks to control Egypt, and ultimately the Muslim world, according to its narrow interpretation of sharia. To ensure that all of its members are committed to this cause, it subjects them to a five-to-eight-year indoctrination process known as tarbiyya, during which every Muslim Brother is vetted as he ascends through various ranks of membership.  At the end of this process, every member takes an oath to “listen and obey” leaders’ orders, rendering them foot soldiers for the organization. The Brotherhood then organizes these cadres into cells of roughly five to 10 members, all of which march to the orders of the central leadership, which was historically based in Cairo. These cells were responsible for building local support for the Brotherhood through preaching, recruitment and social services. And since only the Brotherhood possessed this kind of nationwide hierarchy, it was able to win every election that followed Hosni Mubarak’s February 2011 ouster. 

Since Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, however, the Egyptian government has repressed the Brotherhood severely. It decapitated the Brotherhood by arresting almost all of its top and provincial leaders, and it also killed perhaps over 1,000 Muslim Brothers who were protesting Morsi’s overthrow.  As a result, the Brotherhood’s hierarchy is in shambles. While there are still many Muslim Brothers within Egypt today, they are laying low: They no longer receive regular commands from their leaders, and they are either meeting very secretly or not at all, given that the government regards the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. And those Brotherhood leaders who fled into exile are deeply divided: They disagree on whether the organization should violently oppose el-Sisi’s government, or whether it should focus on outreach (dawa) work and defer its power ambitions for the time being. The Brotherhood could reemerge in the future, but the longer the current crackdown persists, the harder it will be for the Brotherhood to rebuild the nationwide hierarchy that was so essential to its prior political success.

 

Q: What is the state of Israel-Egypt relations under the current government?

A: Egyptian-Israel relations are excellent. The two countries share a significant interest in defeating Sinai-based jihadists, and Cairo particularly appreciates the extent to which Israel has permitted it to mobilize its military in the Sinai despite the troop restrictions that were implemented under the 1979 peace treaty. The two governments are also aligned against Hamas, which Cairo views as hostile since Hamas is the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this remains a cold peace: While intelligence sharing and top-level diplomatic contacts remain strong, there is still little in the way of cultural exchange.

 

Q: What is the state of U.S.-Egypt relations under President el-Sisi?

A: President el-Sisi is a complicated partner for Washington. On one hand, he’s a strategic partner maintaining a peace treaty with Israel and fighting terrorists in both the Sinai and the Western Desert. On the other hand, he came to power by ousting a democratically elected president, and governs quite repressively. As a result, the Obama administration has struggled to define its relationship with el-Sisi’s Egypt: It withheld portions of the military aid from October 2013 to March 2015 to protest el-Sisi’s crackdown on pro-Morsi protests, but ultimately continued the aid program in most respects and undertook a “strategic dialogue” with Cairo, all while occasionally criticizing Egypt’s human rights abuses.

This ambivalence irks Cairo. From its standpoint, it is locked in a kill-or-be-killed struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood, and it views criticisms of its domestic abuses as de facto support for those who seek to topple it. Cairo was especially unnerved by the administration’s decision to withhold military aid in October 2013, which came just as the Egyptian military was moving full force against jihadists in the Sinai. From its standpoint, it would prefer that the relationship be based strictly on shared regional and strategic interests, rather than on what it deems to be interference in its politics.

 

Q: Do you have any recommendations for the new administration on U.S. policy towards Egypt?

A: While Egyptian politics have swung from Mubarak to the military to the Muslim Brotherhood and back to the military during the past six years, American interests in Egypt have not changed. The United States still needs Egypt to cooperate in counterterrorism, maintain its peace treaty with Israel, and provide preferred Suez Canal access and overflight rights for equipping U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf for fighting ISIS and containing Iran. The next administration should focus squarely on bolstering Cairo’s commitment to these interests. It should further learn from the experience of the previous two administrations that attempts to promote or support political change in Egypt rarely produce the intended results, and ultimately alienate a partner that the United States needs if it hopes to project power in the Middle East.

 

Eric Trager is the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is an expert on Egyptian politics and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He was in Egypt during the 2011 anti-Mubarak revolts and returns frequently to conduct firsthand interviews with Egyptian public figures. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street JournalForeign Affairs, the Atlantic, and the New Republic.

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Gaza Strip
  • Population:

    1,869,055

  • Government Type:

    Governed by Hamas since a 2007 military coup

  • Head of Government:

    Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah

  • Chief of State:

    Khaled Mashaal

On Jan. 8, Fadi al-Qunbar, a 28-year-old Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, plowed a large truck into a group of Israeli soldiers visiting a tourist site—killing four and injuring at least 17. This brutal attack is the latest incident in a wave of Palestinian terrorism that began in October 2015. Since then, Palestinian attacks on Israelis have resulted in 46 deaths, including seven U.S. citizens, and more than 600 injuries.

Nation-wide, Israel’s improved counterterrorism efforts have reduced the number of monthly terrorist attacks from a zenith of 55 down to a handful in December 2016. Israeli security forces are focused on remaining one step ahead of this complex threat by vigilantly identifying and disrupting terrorist rings, shuttering weapons production centers in the West Bank, thwarting smuggling attempts into Gaza, and arresting Palestinians trying to join the Islamic State.

Disrupting Terrorist Cells

Israel strives to disrupt Palestinian terrorist cells before their members are able to carry out attacks. For example, in December 2016, Israeli security officials announced on Dec. 8 the dismantling of a seven-man terrorist cell in Tzurif and Hebron, both in the West Bank, which was planning shootings and kidnappings. On Dec. 11, Israeli security forces arrested 15 Palestinians in the West Bank who were suspected of involvement in terrorism and violent demonstrations against Israelis. Just two days earlier, the Shin Bet announced that it had arrested the members of an eight-person terrorist cell planning to carry out a shooting attack against an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) base in Jerusalem. And the Shin Bet disclosed on Dec. 22 that it had busted a 20-member Hamas cell that was planning suicide bombings and shooting attacks against Israeli civilians in Jerusalem, Haifa and other major Israeli cities.

Shuttering Weapons Production

Israel began targeting Palestinian weapons-production facilities after the wave of terrorism—which had initially consisted of stabbing attacks—shifted to include an increased number of shootings. Israel’s success in shutting down weapons production centers and confiscating arms and munitions has diminished Palestinian terrorists’ ability to carry out firearms attacks against Israelis.

Since October 2015, Israel has arrested more than 140 arms manufacturers and weapons dealers, shut down approximately 50 weapons production machines and 30 factories, and confiscated more than 420 weapons. On Aug. 22, Israeli security forces shut down six illegal weapons manufacturing facilities in Bethlehem and Hebron, seizing 54 weapons and gun parts. Most recently, on Dec. 19, IDF forces confiscated 15 lathes (machines that shape metal), dozens of rifles, gun parts and large quantities of ammunition from a workshop in a residential building in Hebron. 

Thwarting Smuggling Attempts

Israel has prevented scores of potential attacks by thwarting smuggling attempts into the Gaza Strip. Since the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorists have carried out an unrelenting campaign of smuggling weapons, dual-use, and other illicit materials into the coastal enclave, to include pipes, rocket fuel, and fiberglass for creating rockets; explosive material; concrete and other materials necessary for constructing terror tunnels; and diving equipment for Hamas’ naval operations. For instance, on Nov. 6, a 22-year-old Gaza fisherman was indicted for smuggling diving equipment and binoculars on behalf of Hamas.

During the summer of 2016, Israel arrested two Palestinians who defrauded international charities to smuggle vast quantities of items and large sums of money for Hamas. Mohammed el-Halabi, the former director of the Gaza branch of the international Christian charity World Vision, was arrested for diverting up to $7.2 million per year to Hamas—approximately 60 percent of the charity’s budget. The Shin Bet said that el-Halabi used the money to fund Hamas’s military operations, including the digging of “terror tunnels.” And on Jan. 4, 2017, Wahid Abdallah al-Bursh, a former employee of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), was sentenced to seven months in jail after admitting to embezzling UNDP resources to fund Hamas’ naval operations.

Israel’s determination to thwart these smuggling attempts into Gaza has helped shield Israeli civilians who live nearby from Gaza-based attacks. Furthermore, heightened tensions along the Gaza-Israel border frequently serve to ignite violence in the West Bank. By mitigating threats from Gaza, Israel has prevented—to some degree—a spiral of hostilities that can lead to lone-wolf and other emotionally inspired Palestinian attacks elsewhere.

Arresting Islamic State Aspirants

Finally, Israel has improved its security by investigating and arresting Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who seek to join the Islamic State (ISIS). The danger that such individuals may become further radicalized and use ISIS training to attack Israelis poses a significant threat to the Jewish state. On Sept. 22, the Shin Bet arrested an Israeli-Arab couple accused of having joined ISIS in Iraq.  Most recently, on Nov. 30, the Shin Bet revealed that it had arrested an Israeli Arab from Jaljulia, in central Israel, suspected of planning to join the Islamic State.

Disrupting terrorist cells, shuttering weapons production facilities, thwarting smuggling attempts into Gaza and preventing Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs from joining ISIS have enabled Israeli security to contain, but not stop, the wave of Palestinian terrorism. The recent fatal truck ramming in Jerusalem, reportedly carried out by a lone ISIS sympathizer, serves as a stark reminder that Israeli security forces must remain vigilant to stay ahead of this threat. 

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Iran
  • Population:

    81,824,270

  • Government Type:

    Theocratic Republic

  • Head of Government:

    President Hasan Fereidun Ruhani

  • Chief of State:

    Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini-Khamenei

On Feb. 2, 22 senators—led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD)—sent a bipartisan letter to the president in response to Iran’s Jan. 29 medium-range ballistic missile test-launch.

The letter states that, “If it is confirmed that Iran tested a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, Iran will have violated both the letter and spirit of its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 2231…”

In response to this Iranian provocation, the senators note that “[f]ull enforcement of existing sanctions and the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program are necessary” to ensure that “Iranian leaders…feel sufficient pressure to cease deeply destabilizing activities, from sponsoring terrorist groups to continued testing of ballistic missiles.”

“We look forward to supporting your Administration’s efforts to hold Iran accountable,” they continued, “and note the positive step taken by the United States calling for an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council. It is imperative that the United States lead the international community in enforcing UN Security Council Resolution 2231.”

 

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Iraq
  • Population:

    37,056,169

  • Government Type:

    Parliamentary Democracy

  • Head of Government:

    Hayder al-Abadi

  • Chief of State:

    President Fuad Masum

The Islamic State (ISIS) is on a path to becoming stateless. At its height in mid-2015, ISIS stretched from Syria’s Palmyra to Iraq’s Ramadi, a land mass the size of Indiana with roughly five to six million people. In addition, ISIS boasted of thriving “provinces” in the Sinai Peninsula and Libya, attracting thousands of foreign volunteers eager to fight infidels. 

Over the past six months, however, ISIS has hemorrhaged: it has lost control over half of its territory and population, including major cities in Iraq, and of the Syria-Turkey border through which its foreign fighters had flowed. The U.S.-led coalition of over 60 countries has conducted aerial bombings which have crippled ISIS’s oil supply and isolated the increasingly impoverished organization from the outside world.

Now, ISIS’s once-burgeoning outposts in Libya and the Sinai are under pressure and, most dramatically, the ongoing offensive to eject ISIS from its Iraqi stronghold in Mosul threatens to deal it a lethal blow. The battle for Mosul may take additional weeks or months, but there is little doubt that ISIS faces the prospect of a withering defeat—all the more likely if Sunni Arab forces in Syria, aided by Turkey and the United States, simultaneously move against ISIS’s “capital” of Raqqa.

A severely wounded ISIS, bereft of territory, will still threaten Western interests. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS will likely wage an insurgency similar to the one it fought before declaring its Caliphate in 2014, taking advantage of weak regimes in Damascus and Baghdad and the virulent sectarian and ethnic tensions that roil the entire region. Its online presence will remain strong, and the breadth and durability of the group’s appeal assures that the danger of terrorism in Europe will persist—and to a lesser degree in the United States—from ISIS cells and “lone wolf” attackers inspired by its message. 

An Ascendant, Anti-American Iran

The residual threat from ISIS, however, should not blind us to the much greater challenge that Iran represents to U.S. and European interests. Tehran’s desire for Middle East hegemony is stronger than ever; a senior intelligence advisor to the “moderate” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently expounded the goal of a “greater Iran” stretching from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. Since agreeing to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Tehran has increased the pace and intensity of its regional subversion, abetted by the widespread misconception that the JCPOA heralded the advent of a kinder, gentler Iran, and by the West’s single-minded concentration on driving the final stakes into ISIS’s coffin.

Post-JCPOA developments have strengthened Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s and the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) control of Iranian decision-making. The February 2016 elections to parliament and the Council of Experts (a group of clerics that selects the Supreme Leader) did not significantly change the factional balance in either body, where the Supreme Leader continues to pull the strings from behind the scenes. As a result, President Rouhani has failed in the one area where his goals differ somewhat from Khamenei’s: strengthening Iran’s economy by promoting economic ties with the West.

The Supreme Leader has roundly repudiated this objective, stating that Iran must strengthen its “resistance economy” by limiting foreign investment and trade. Khamenei has made clear that the political counterpart to Iran’s “resistance economy” is unremitting anti-Americanism: Washington remains Iran’s "enemy par excellence," and is trying to use the JCPOA to push rapprochement with Iran, which the Supreme Leader dismisses as a covert attempt to force Iran to abandon government Islamic law, end export of the Islamic revolution, and kowtow to the imperialists’ designs.

The best proof that Tehran aspires to Middle East hegemony at Washington’s expense is Iran’s aggressive military, political and diplomatic actions throughout the region. While the Islamic State’s fortunes have dwindled over the past year, Iran’s malign behavior has become more brazen and successful; Tehran and its allies now pose a greater threat to Israel and to U.S./Western interests in the region than at any time in the 37 year history of the Islamic Republic. Much of this activity is directly aimed at the U.S. presence in the Middle East and beyond:

  • Renewed missile testing: Tehran has thumbed its nose at the international community by testing and/or researching nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, including intercontinental versions that can reach the United States, thereby flouting UNSCR 2231, which prohibits such activities by Iran for the next eight years.   
  • Harassing U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf: The IRGC navy briefly seized two U.S. patrol boats that inadvertently ventured into Iranian waters in January, and subsequently publicly humiliated their crews. In July and September, the U.S. Navy accused Iranian vessels of making unsafe approaches to American ships and ignoring radio communications and other warnings.
  • Facilitating attacks on U.S. ships off Yemen: In October, a U.S. destroyer in international waters evaded cruise missiles fired by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen; earlier that month a similar missile hit a U.S.-flagged, United Arab Emirates-operated ship. Such attacks on the open sea can be considered acts of war. Although the extent of Iran’s complicity is unclear, the missiles were identical to those Iran provides Hezbollah; IRGC troops are present in Yemen; and the commander of American military forces in the Middle East believes that Tehran had a role in the attacks.  
  • Naval expansion outside the Middle East: In February 2013, Iran’s navy made its first foray to the Pacific Ocean since the eighth century C.E.  More recently, it visited Sri Lanka and the eastern Mediterranean Sea near Syria, where, along with the newly deployed Russian fleet, Iran’s navy has emerged as an unwelcome competitor to the U.S. Sixth Fleet. Iran next plans to send flotillas to Tanzania, South Africa and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Iran’s Growing Regional Influence

Even more disturbing than these anti-U.S. naval and aerial machinations is Iran’s relentless tightening of its stranglehold over nominally independent Arab states and attempts to subvert those it does not yet control. At least five Arab countries are in Tehran’s crosshairs:

  • Iranian sway is strongest in Syria, where dictator Bashar al-Assad is subordinate to Tehran, and it determines military strategy and coordinates thousands of Shia fighters from Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as IRGC and Iranian army regulars. Aided by Russian airpower, intelligence and planning, the Assad regime is now poised to conquer eastern Aleppo—the largest rebel stronghold—thereby cementing control over most of western Syria and 80 percent of the country’s population.
  • Tehran’s most recent political victory has been in Lebanon, where a close advisor to the Supreme Leader hailed the presidential election of Hezbollah-ally Michel Aoun as a “triumph for the Resistance Axis” i.e., Iran and its proxies. Hezbollah —with roughly 150,000 missiles aimed at Israel and ongoing efforts to recruit Palestinians and Arab Israelis for cross-border attacks—now has carte blanche to focus on its professed goal of destroying the Jewish state.
  • In Iraq, the participation of Iranian-backed Shia militias in the battle for Mosul will increase Iran’s already substantial clout in Baghdad. The militias—which rival the Iraqi army in size and firepower—are capturing the city’s western approaches to cut off potential ISIS escape routes to Syria. This could give Tehran a direct land route via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, enabling it to intensify the scale and speed of arms deliveries to its forces and allies throughout the Levant. 
  • IRGC troops are present in the Houthi-controlled eastern third of Yemen, and the recent attacks on American ships nearly suggest that Tehran’s influence there may be growing. Iran is also stepping up support for Shia opposition groups in Bahrain. The U.S. State Department’s 2015 report on international terrorism cites reports that Tehran is providing “weapons, funding and training” to Shia militants on the island nation. 

Only an unlikely collapse of Western and Arab military and political resolve will prevent ISIS from eventually returning to obscurity. That same resolve must now be directed at stopping Iran’s galloping expansionism. Failure to do so could permit the creation of a Tehran-dominated arc stretching from Afghanistan through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. Such an entity would have a population of nearly 200 million, enjoy immense oil and natural gas resources, and possess sophisticated nuclear and ballistic missile technologies, port access (to the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean) and the regional clout to intimidate Sunni Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Most importantly, a strengthened Iran would remain dedicated to expunging U.S. influence from the Middle East and confronting Israel. It is time to face this challenge, just as we are successfully dealing with the threat from ISIS.

 

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Israel
  • Population:

    8,049,314

  • Government Type:

    Parliamentary Democracy

  • Head of Government:

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

  • Chief of State:

    President Reuven Rivlin

On Jan. 25, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and Israel’s Missile Defense Organization successfully conducted a fifth series of tests—including live interceptions of multiple targets—of the David’s Sling Weapon System in Israel.

The successful trials represent an “important milestone for the operational abilities of the State of Israel to protect itself against the expected threats in the region,” said the Israeli Defense Ministry.

Jointly developed by the U.S. defense company Raytheon and Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., David’s Sling can intercept short-range to medium-range rockets and ballistic missiles, including guided projectiles, cruise missiles, aircraft, and drones.

The system is a central element of Israel’s multi-tiered, layered missile defense architecture. According to MDA Director Vice Adm. James Syring, the test is a “critical step in ensuring Israel has the capability to defend itself from a very real and growing threat.” In 2016, the United States and Israel began delivering major components of David’s Sling to the Israeli Air Force.

Congress’ support for the David’s Sling program has been critical to the system’s success.

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Jordan
  • Population:

    8,117,564

  • Government Type:

    Constitutional Monarchy

  • Head of Government:

    Prime Minister Abdullah Nsour

  • Chief of State:

    King Abdullah II

Jordan’s Sept. 20 parliamentary elections confirmed its status as one of the few non-oil producing Arab states to have escaped the chaos associated with the “Arab Spring.” An international observer delegation declared that “the elections took place in a largely peaceful atmosphere…most voters were able to cast votes without any significant impediment.” Despite the successful elections and widespread legitimacy of the ruling monarchy, Jordan continues to face daunting economic and security challenges stemming from regional instability.  

Effects of Jordan’s New Voting Law

The elections for Jordan’s lower House of Representatives were held under a new electoral law designed to invigorate parliament by forcing candidates to run on lists rather than as independents. The election is a positive step, but only time will tell whether the reform will encourage more coherent parties based on political platforms rather than loyalty to family, clan or tribe. The monarchy remains the center of political authority in Jordan and recent constitutional changes have increased the king’s powers—he can unilaterally appoint the crown prince, the Constitutional Court, the speaker and all members of the Senate, as well as all top military and intelligence commanders.  

The election has strengthened the most important of King Abdullah’s recent political accomplishments: taming the Islamists without using the repression that accompanied the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) from power in Egypt in 2013. Instead, the king lured Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood back into electoral politics (it boycotted the voting in 2010 and 2013) as a moderate Islamist party. Citing various fiscal irregularities, the government earlier this year outlawed the “old” MB organization—dominated by so-called “hawks” focused on anti-Israel activity—and transferred its assets to a more moderate group of MB “doves.” Concurrently, the government allowed the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF)—including both “hawks” and “doves”—to run for parliament. The IAF has learned from its Egyptian counterpart’s disastrous year in power; it ran as part of a broad-based civic grouping that replaced the traditional MB slogan of “Islam is the Solution!” with the more inclusive “Reform!” This coalition banished talk of Sharia (Islamic law) from its campaign rhetoric and added Christians, women and a sprinkling of secular candidates to its electoral slates.

Despite its nod to moderation, the IAF coalition won only 15 seats out of 130—far less than its 1989 high water mark of 22 seats out of 80. Tamer, a pro-government Islamist group, also garnered a few seats. Reserved spots on party lists for women, Christians and other minorities produced a greater number of legislators among these groups than in any previous Jordanian parliament. Most of the representatives, however, are from the pro-Monarchy political elite that has dominated all of Jordan’s parliaments. King Abdullah has already asked Interim Prime Minister Hani Mulki to form a new government; he will easily put together a compliant voting bloc.       

A Pillar of Stability

Free parliamentary elections are not the key to Jordan’s success as a stable polity in a region wracked with violence, civil war and state disintegration, but are rather a positive outgrowth of the widespread legitimacy the monarchy enjoys among the population. Most Jordanians have scant regard for parliament: 87 percent of respondents told a pollster that the outgoing legislature had not accomplished “anything worthwhile” and turnout for this year’s election was only 37 percent. Rather, the Kingdom’s good fortune ultimately derives from the political capital the Hashemite dynasty has accumulated by governing Jordan effectively for nearly a century and more recently guiding Jordan through the turbulent Arab Spring. 

  • A country that works.  Unlike some of its neighbors, Jordan is not a failed state. The Hashemites have faced immense pressures: loss of the West Bank to Israel in 1967; war with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1970; and millions of refugees fleeing the Gulf War (1991), the Iraq War (2003) and the Syrian civil war ( since 2011) into Jordan. They have nevertheless built a state that supplies law and order and basic economic services, as well as educational and healthcare services, to most citizens, all without the oil wealth of the Gulf monarchies. 
  • The Arab Spring’s bad example.  The value of these achievements has skyrocketed as a result of the "Arab Spring". Jordanians, witnessing the chaos throughout the Arab world, appreciate more than ever the Kingdom’s relative order and tranquility. Jordan’s early "Arab Spring" protests quickly petered out as the country was inundated with Syrian refugees and challenged from without by ISIS. For most Jordanians, just treading water under these perilous conditions has been a positive accomplishment.

Jordan’s Security and Economic Challenges

Despite Jordan’s ability to provide basic economic and social services to its population and conduct free elections, it still faces significant security and economic challenges. Thanks largely to its effective security forces, Jordan has experienced less terrorism than its neighbors despite continued targeting by ISIS.  In June 2016, ISIS detonated a car bomb near the Syrian border that killed seven Jordanian soldiers—the bloodiest terrorist incident in Jordan in over a decade. Amman is also keeping a tight lid on domestic extremism. The security forces regularly infiltrate extremist circles and, judging from the relative paucity of domestic jihadist attacks, appear so far to have foiled most plots. In addition, Jordan is replacing extremist imams with government-sanctioned preachers, although so far this has only occurred in a handful of mosques.

Jordan’s most daunting challenge is economic: it is reeling from the impact of caring for nearly one and a half million Syrian refugees, who now compose between 10 and 15 percent of the country’s population. In September, Jordan introduced primary and secondary education for all refugee children. Amman is embarking on this expensive initiative in the face of bleak economic realities: growth this year will likely be a modest 2.4 percent and Jordan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is over 90 percent—one of the highest in the world. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank consider that Amman has done a credible job of dealing with the crisis; Amman has just signed an IMF stand-by agreement for $700 million, which will pave the way for more assistance and help keep the Kingdom solvent for the next few years. The average citizen, however, is pessimistic: half of Jordanians describe the economic situation as bad and cite unemployment, poverty, and rising prices as the country’s major problems.

The United States and Israel play crucial roles

The United States and Israel are helping Jordan confront its economic and security challenges. The U.S.-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act expedites the transfer to Jordan of a wide array of defense equipment, a privilege granted only to NATO and America’s other closest allies. Washington has agreed to supply Jordan with a minimum of $1 billion in assistance yearly from 2015-2017. Congress has also appropriated over $1.6 billion in aid to Jordan this year, including $600 million from the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund—a clear signal of Jordan’s centrality in the battle against ISIS and other terrorist groups.

With Israel, King Abdullah is pushing ahead with several important joint infrastructure and economic initiatives. A $15 billion deal is in the works for Israel to supply Jordan with 45 billion cubic meters of natural gas over fifteen years; a secure source of natural gas will help the energy-strapped Kingdom, where the influx of Syrian refugees is boosting demand for energy by 7 percent per year. In addition, work will begin in 2018 on a 200-kilometer underground pipeline between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, which will feed the world’s largest desalination plant (crucial for water-starved Jordan), replenish the Dead Sea, and run a massive hydroelectric power plant. Finally, Israel and Jordan have revived a 1994 proposal for a joint Israeli-Jordanian industrial zone—Israel will build a new bridge over the Jordan River to support the zone, which will have factories on the Jordanian side and a logistics and transport center on the Israeli side.  

 

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Lebanon
  • Population:

    6,184,701

  • Government Type:

    Republic

  • Head of Government:

    Prime Minister Tamam Salam

  • Chief of State:

    President (Vacant)

Hezbollah has always relied on multiple streams of income to fund its operations. In addition to taxes, fees, and extortion levied against the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Shia who live under its jurisdiction, Hezbollah counts on a huge hand-out from Iran—now totaling $1 billion annually. And for decades, the terrorist group has also developed and profited from a sophisticated network of criminal activities abroad, which now forms a financial network that operates worldwide. While an ongoing international effort is underway to halt this flow of illicit money to Hezbollah, America must redouble its involvement and prioritize this effort to better protect its strategic interests.

 

Criminal Activity in Latin America

Some of Hezbollah’s most lucrative illicit activities are based in Latin America, where the group earns $60 to $100 million annually. Hezbollah maintains close business relations with South American drug cartels such as the Columbia-based “La Oficina de Envigado”—formerly the violent enforcement arm of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel that has since become an independent organization—which smuggles large quantities of cocaine to the United States and Europe. 

In February, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) uncovered a complex drug and money laundering scheme, known as the Black Market Peso Exchange, in which Hezbollah’s External Security Organization Business Affairs Component (BAC) was found to be working with various Latin American partners—including “La Oficina.” DEA Acting Deputy Administrator Jack Riley has described the BAC as a drug trafficking and laundering operational unit tasked with “provid[ing] a revenue and weapons stream for an international terrorist organization responsible for devastating terror attacks around the world.”

One of Hezbollah’s oldest and strongest redoubts in Latin America is the loosely regulated tri-border area (TBA), where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge. The U.S. intelligence community regards the area a “free zone for criminal activity,” from which $10 million annually is sent back to Lebanon. In 2004, the United States sanctioned Assad Ahmad Barakat, a key terrorist financier in South America. "From counterfeiting to extortion, this Hizballah sympathizer committed financial crimes and utilized front companies to underwrite terror," said Juan Zarate, then a senior U.S. Treasury Department official. 

Since then, the United States has been targeting Barakat’s network, even as it tries to evade U.S. sanctions. In 2006, the Treasury Department sanctioned additional members of Barakat’s network, calling it “a major financial artery to Hizballah in Lebanon.” In 2010, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement targeted three Miami-based businessmen accused of exporting PlayStation video games and other electronics to the U.S.-sanctioned Galleria Page, a shopping center in Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este described by the Treasury Department as “the central headquarters for Hezbollah members in the TBA.” Hezbollah members operate a variety of retail businesses that directly support the Shiite militia out of this location. 

Furthermore, Hezbollah’s extensive organized crime and terrorist activities in Latin America pose a direct threat to U.S. homeland security, as the same operatives and organizations that move money for drug cartels also move money for terrorists. For instance, in October 2016, a DEA sting operation uncovered three Hezbollah-linked men suspected of laundering $500,000 of cocaine money for a Columbian cartel through banks in Miami.

It will be recalled that in 1992, Hezbollah terrorists bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and injuring 242, while in 1994, Hezbollah attacked the Jewish community center in the Argentinian capital with even more devastating results: 85 people were killed and more than 300 injured.  

 

Criminal Activity in Europe and Africa

Hezbollah also engages in criminal activities in Africa and Europe. In 2011, Lebanese financial institutions, including the Lebanese Canadian Bank SAL (LCB), ran a successful money laundering operation through the U.S. financial system for Hezbollah. The Beirut-based bank wired funds to the United States for the purchase and shipment of used cars to West Africa. The profits—along with proceeds from narcotics trafficking—were then funneled through Lebanese exchange houses by Hezbollah-controlled money couriers, who diverted substantial portions of the cash to Hezbollah. The scheme was ultimately exposed by interagency counterterrorism efforts, resulting in the Treasury Department’s designation of LCB as a “financial institution of primary money laundering concern.” Other criminal activities in Africa include tapping into Lebanese expatriate communities to finance cover companies, blood diamond transactions, tax fraud and arms smuggling.

In Europe, the DEA and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) work closely with international law enforcement agencies to combat Hezbollah’s nefarious activities, such as when the two agencies collaborated with their Belgian, Italian, French and German counterparts in “Operation Cassandra,” culminating in a February 2016 announcement regarding the arrests top leaders of a European BAC cell.  

 

Ways the United States Can Combat this Threat

One of the most effective U.S. government weapons against Hezbollah is designation by the Treasury Department of specific Hezbollah-affiliated individuals and businesses as terrorists or terrorist entities, which subjects them to sanctions. In October 2016, the Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on four individuals and one organization, all for their connection to the Iranian proxy group. Yosef Ayad, Muhammad al-Mukhtar Kallas, Hasan Jamal al-Din, Muhammad Ghaleb Hamdar and Global Cleaners S.A.R.L. were all designated for their links to ties to Hezbollah External Security Organization (ESO) member Adham Tabaja. The ESO is responsible for planning and executing Hezbollah terrorist attacks around the globe. 

In a similar case, the Treasury Department—building on a DEA investigation—designated in January 2016 an individual named Mohamad Noureddine as a “specially designated global terrorist” for transferring funds directly to Hezbollah. It also designated Noureddine’s Lebanese-based company, Trade Point Intl S.A.R.L. And two months earlier, the Treasury Department blacklisted China-based Adel Mohamad Cherri and his company, Le-Hua Electronic Field Co., for facilitating Hezbollah efforts to acquire dual-use technologies and electronics from China for transfer to the pro-Iran Houthi Shia rebels in Yemen.

Furthermore, Congress has led efforts to combat Hezbollah’s international criminal activities through the Hezbollah International Financial Protection Act (HIFPA) of 2015. The law—spearheaded by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), along with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY)—requires the president to report regularly on the group’s “significant transnational criminal activities” and to brief Congress on a planned procedure to designate Hezbollah as a “significant transnational criminal organization” pursuant to Executive Order 13581. Moreover, the legislation requires all Lebanese and international banks to freeze or suspend any account held by individuals listed by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as affiliated with Hezbollah. Upon passage, Rep. Royce said that “years ago Hezbollah was a limited, regional threat. Today, it is a global threat conducting terrorist and criminal activities all over the world…To cut Hezbollah’s international reach, and deny it the funds needed for its terrorist activities, we must effectively target its financial networks.”

And already, the law is having an effect: It has significantly impacted Hezbollah's finances, contributing to the closure of at least 100 bank accounts connected to the terrorist organization.

 

The Work Continues.

Despite the aggressive efforts of the United States and its allies, Hezbollah’s criminal financial network remains strong. Hezbollah’s complexity—the group has many of the resources of a sovereign state—and secrecy make it challenging to uncover, track and disrupt its multiple criminal activities. Former DEA Operations Chief Michael Braun told the House Financial Services Committee on June 8 that Hezbollah “has metastasized into a hydra with international connections that the likes of the Islamic State and groups like al Qaeda could only hope to have.” The organization continues to use these international criminal connections to secure funds to support its war in Syria, plan terrorist attacks and prepare for another war with Israel. Accordingly, the current and incoming administrations, Congress and the intelligence community must continue to ensure that countering Hezbollah—on all fronts—remains a top priority.

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Saudi Arabia
  • Population:

    27,752,316

  • Government Type:

    Monarchy

  • Head of Government:

    King and Prime Minister Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud

  • Chief of State:

    King and Prime Minister Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud

On Oct. 20, the U.S. State Department designated one individual as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and the Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on four individuals and one organization, all for their connection to the Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah.

As a result of these designations, all U.S. property and interests subject to these individuals are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.

The U.S. Treasury Department—pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224—and Saudi Authorities jointly designated Yosef Ayad, Muhammad al-Mukhtar Kallas, Hasan Jamal al-Din, Muhammad Ghaleb Hamdar and Global Cleaners S.A.R.L.

Ayad, Kallas, and al-Din all played key roles in providing financial services to Hezbollah and had ties to Hezbollah External Security Organization (ESO) member Adham Tabaja, whom American and Saudi authorities already sanctioned for his activities in support of Hezbollah. The ESO is responsible for planning and executing Hezbollah terrorist attacks around the globe.

Global Cleaners S.A.R.L. was designated for being managed by Tabaja. The company holds several contracts to provide sanitation services in Baghdad, Iraq.

“Today’s joint action with Saudi Arabia underscores the strength of U.S. and Saudi cooperation in disrupting Hezbollah’s worldwide commercial and financial infrastructure,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin. “Hezbollah continues to plan, coordinate and execute terrorist attacks around the world, and Treasury will continue to aggressively target Hezbollah and those supporting its terrorist activities.”

Hamdar, a member of Hezbollah’s ESO, was also designated by the Treasury Department for terrorist activities. He was arrested in Lima, Peru in October 2014 on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks on popular Peruvian tourist spots. 

In a coordinating effort, the U.S. State Department designated Haytham ‘Ali Tabataba’i as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under E.O. 13224. According to the State Department, Tabataba’i has commanded Hezbollah special forces in Syria and reportedly in Yemen.

“The imposition of sanctions by the United States against terrorists is a powerful tool,” said the State Department in a press release. “Today’s actions by the U.S. government notifies the U.S. public and the international community that Haytham ‘Ali Tabataba’i and the individuals and entities designated by Treasury are actively engaged in terrorism.”

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Syria
  • Population:

    17,064,854

  • Government Type:

    Republic Under an Authoritarian Regime

  • Head of Government:

    Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi

  • Chief of State:

    President Bashar al-Assad

Iran has dramatically escalated its support for the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria over the past year, enabling it to decisively gain the upper hand in a conflict that has claimed over 400,000 lives to date. During the final months of 2016, the West looked on in horror as a coalition of mercenary fighters spearheaded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and backed by Russian air power laid waste to the city of Aleppo, wresting it from Sunni rebel control. Iran’s takeover of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its industrial center, constitutes a huge boon to Tehran’s pursuit of regional dominance and threatens Israel’s security.

 

The Role of Syria in Iran’s Quest for Regional Primacy

 

Since the 1979 founding of the Islamic Republic, Iran has sought to “export” its revolutionary ethos throughout the Middle East in a bid to supplant American and Western influence. In its quest for primacy, Iran has frequently employed terrorism and subversion as tools of statecraft. Iran and its loyal terrorist proxies have destabilized much of the Middle East, inflaming sectarian tensions, tearing at the fabric of fragile nation states, and triggering wars that have killed hundreds of thousands. The devastation wrought by Iran’s reckless foreign policy has created fertile ground for ISIS and other Sunni jihadist groups to thrive as ideological counterweights to the Iranian Shiite menace.

 

Syria is now the lynchpin of Iran’s regional bid for influence. The country has been engulfed in civil war since 2011, when the Assad regime responded with heavy-handed repression to the peaceful “Arab Spring” protests, which were then spreading throughout the Middle East. Iran sprang to Syria’s defense; without its backing, the Assad regime would almost certainly have collapsed.

 

Iran and Syria have been each other’s principal and most loyal regional partner since the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iraq war, in which Syria backed Iran to weaken its main Arab rival, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Shared hatred of Israel deepened this Tehran-Damascus axis. Also, Syria’s role as Iran’s main partner (along with Hezbollah and Hamas) in the so-called “resistance axis” against Israel gave it regional influence disproportionate to its actual size and resources.

 

Under Iranian tutelage and assistance, Syria became a constant thorn in Israel’s side by hosting Hamas’ leadership and facilitating arms transfers to Hezbollah (from Tehran to Damascus by air, and on to Lebanon by land). Until 2005, Syrian troops in Lebanon actively aided Hezbollah, and after 2003 Syria allowed thousands of radical Sunni foreign fighters to flow through its territory into Iraq to destabilize the U.S.-supported regime in Baghdad. The Assad regime also subverted Lebanese democracy through a string of high-profile assassinations of anti-Syrian Lebanese political leaders, including the 2005 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, accomplished in conjunction with Hezbollah. 

 

Iran’s and Syria’s interests have grown closer over the years. Tehran now regards its continued control over Syria as one of its main foreign policy objectives: It relies primarily on the country to project Iranian power throughout the Levant, since—together with Shia-controlled Iraq—it provides a critical land bridge to its terrorist proxy Hezbollah and access to Mediterranean ports. Iran recognizes Assad’s Alawite religious sect as Shia, and views the political dominance of the Alawite minority in Syria as a bulwark against Sunni power there and throughout the region. Iran and Syria lump together all of Assad’s opponents as apostates and terrorists.

 

Effects of Syria’s Civil War


Up until the Syrian civil war, Iran and Syria were fairly equal partners in crime: Assad had a large army, considerable missile and chemical/biological weapon capabilities, and full control over Syria’s territory, while the direct Iranian military and political presence in Syria was modest. Five years of civil war, however, have hollowed out both the Syrian army’s fighting capabilities and Assad’s political authority, severely weakening the Syrian state and allowing the Iranian regime to in effect establish a new dynamic: Assad remains ensconced in the presidential palace in Damascus, but Iran plans, leads and fights the civil war. Iranian officials have gone so far as to refer to Syria as “Iran’s 35th province.” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated this month that, “If the ill-wishers and seditionists—who are the puppets of America and the Zionists—had not been stopped in Syria, we would be fighting them in Tehran, Fars, Khorasan and Esfahan.”

 

Finally, Iran has extended the Assad regime a huge line of credit, and has introduced up to 50,000 Shia proxies and mercenaries from throughout the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan which now, along with the IRGC and the Iranian-controlled Lebanese Shia terrorist group Hezbollah, form the core of the pro-Assad fighting forces. IRGC commanders serve as battlefield advisors and Iran has even deployed elements of its conventional military, which typically remains in Iran to secure the homeland, to join the fight in Syria as IRGC casualties have mounted.

 

With Bashar al-Assad's decline and a resurgent Iran, the morale of Syrian forces is poor. They are daily becoming more reliant on Iranian and foreign Shia fighters to defend and seize territory. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force—the foreign expeditionary arm of the IRGC that is tasked with exporting the Islamic Revolution—has emerged as the real leader of the Syrian war effort. Indeed, Soleimani toured Aleppo in person after its re-conquest last month (and in violation of a United Nations travel ban); no major leaders from Damascus accompanied him, a vivid indicator of Iran’s dramatic influence. 

 

Tehran’s Endgame


Although Assad may still dream of one day reuniting all of pre-war Syria under his control, Iran’s objectives there differ. Tehran seeks to ensure that a pro-Iranian government in Damascus (probably led by Assad, but conceivably with a different Alawite figurehead) establishes firm control over the Western quarter of Syria—home to 80 percent of the population and what little industry remains—to preserve Iran’s access to the Mediterranean and keep open the supply routes to its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. The re-conquest of Aleppo has gone a long way to accomplishing this goal: With the exception of ISIS and Kurdish-held territory in northeast Syria and pockets of resistance in Idlib province in the north and on the Syrian Golan Heights in the south, Iran now controls almost all the territory to the west of the strategic Damascus-Homs-Hama-Aleppo corridor.

Control of Syria's territory

Emerging Threats to Israel’s Security

Israel is alarmed about the implications of Aleppo’s fall to Iranian-led forces, and wary of Iran gaining access to Mediterranean ports and concerned that Tehran will now step up the flow of arms and supplies to Hezbollah. In addition, Israel worries that Hezbollah—buoyed by its military success in Syria—may be emboldened to launch new attacks against Israel. Hezbollah has invested many resources and taken many casualties in Syria, but has also gained invaluable battlefield experience that will make it a much more formidable foe in the future. It has more than 100,000 missiles and rockets aimed at Israel. Finally, Israel fears that Tehran, determined to keep up its aggression and flush with cash following the 2015 nuclear deal, will eventually try to infiltrate its forces into the Syrian Golan and challenge Israel. Iranian recklessness could provoke an Israeli response— unwillingly drawing Israel into the Syrian maelstrom.  

 

In securing a corridor of nearly unbroken Shia influence and control stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, Iran is scoring an unprecedented victory in its effort to grow Iranian influence while diminishing America’s role in the Middle East. Iran’s activities guarantee more instability for the Middle East in the coming year.

 

In the meantime, Israel has warned Tehran that it may be playing with fire. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a clear message for Iran last month: “Don’t threaten us. We are not a rabbit, we are a tiger.”  

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Turkey
  • Population:

    79,414,269

  • Government Type:

    Republican Parliamentary Democracy

  • Head of Government:

    Prime Minister Ahmet Davotuglu

  • Chief of State:

    President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

On June 27, 2016, after a six year rupture, a reconciliation agreement was announced to restore full diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel. Less than a month later, on July 15, elements of the Turkish military failed in an attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. Joining Near East Report to discuss these developments and their intersection is regional expert and Senior Fellow at the Center for America Progress Alan Makovsky.

Q: Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relations were normalized in June 2016 with the signing of a reconciliation deal. What were the driving forces behind this thaw, and what does the deal entail?

A: It boils down to two primary factors: Turkey wanted to break out of its diplomatic isolation—it began a process of rapprochement with Russia just a few days before reaching agreement with Israel—and Israel wants to lay the groundwork for selling some of its offshore gas to Turkey or, through Turkey, to Europe. Netanyahu said the deal would bring “immense positive” economic benefits for Israel.

Israel had more leverage, as Turkey’s need for easing its diplomatic isolation was more urgent than Israel’s need to sell its gas. Israel’s large Leviathan gas field will not be operational before 2019, and an undersea pipeline from Israel to Turkey faces a major geopolitical obstacle: It must traverse the so-called Exclusive Economic Zone of the Greek-Cypriot-dominated Republic of Cyprus, which will likely deny it permission unless the decades-old Cyprus problem is resolved first. Of course, Turkey, now dependent on Russia for over half its natural gas and desperate to diversify its sources, is as eager to receive the gas as Israel is to sell it. That incentive may push Turkey, through its Turkish Cypriot clients, to be more flexible regarding a Cyprus settlement. Still, there will be no pipeline and no gas flowing from Israel to Turkey for several more years, at best.

Nearly from the outset of the 2010 Mavi Marmara crisis, President Erdogan and the Turks have made three demands of Israel: a formal apology, compensation for the wounded and families of the dead, and an “end to the blockade” of Gaza. Here’s the bottom-line scorecard: Erdogan got the apology during President Obama’s March 2013 visit to Israel, and Israel has now agreed to pay a total of $20 million as compensation. However, Turkey has had to drop its unrealistic demand about ending the blockade, instead acceding to Israel’s insistence that all Turkish humanitarian aid and other materials be shipped through the Israeli port of Ashdod. There are indications, however, that Turkey will likely be given the lead in several major construction projects in Gaza, including a hospital, a power plant and a desalination plant. One centrist Israeli MK (Member of Knesset) told me he supported the agreement primarily so a reliable partner could be found to solve Gaza’s water problem, before poisoned aquifers affect Israel’s water supply.       

There were two other key elements to the deal, which reflect Israeli demands. Turkey agreed to drop a Mavi Marmara-related court case targeting four former senior IDF (Israel Defense Forces) generals and to pass legislation ensuring that no further legal action will be brought regarding this matter. Turkey likewise agreed to prevent Hamas from planning anti-Israel operations from its office in Turkey, causing Israel to drop its demand that Turkey close the office altogether.

There are a couple of interesting wrinkles here. It appears that Israel will not actually pay the compensation until the Turkish parliament passes the agreement, including the provision preventing further legal action against IDF officers. It is likely also the case that ambassadors will not be exchanged until both those actions—Turkish parliamentary approval and Israeli payment of compensation—take place.

We should keep in mind that the text of the agreement has not been made public, so there could still be surprises or new wrinkles. However, what we’ve learned from statements by Israeli and Turkish officials, plus backgrounders provided to the press, seems to give a complete picture.

Q: Will this deal truly lead to deeper cooperation between Israel and Turkey? What would that look like? And how do the strategic interests of the two countries overlap and diverge?

A: If the model is the 1990s—huge Israeli arms sales to Turkey, joint air force exercises several times a year, frequent ministerial visits—I see no prospect of a return to that type of relationship. The deal does, however, create an opening of goodwill that Israelis and Turks may be able to widen.

There will be more diplomatic contact, more people-to-people contact, probably more commercial contact (even though what exists is already considerable). Across the board, as contact with Israel ceases to be taboo, there will be more Turkish-Israeli interaction. Perhaps there will be enhanced security contact as well, even if not approaching that of the 1990s. One of Erdogan’s advisers has said that he anticipates intelligence-sharing regarding ISIS. Whatever Erdogan’s ideological orientation, Turkey is a member of NATO, so its military is basically Western-oriented, meaning it has certain common interests and compatibilities with Israel’s military. I wouldn’t make too much of that for now, but it does mean that there is a basis for enhanced cooperation should the political decision be made to pursue that course.

Of course, the Turkish military is now in transition, with much of its leadership removed and Erdogan having promised to bring in “fresh blood,” including new types of personnel (read: pro-Erdogan), and strengthen his personal grip, so it will be awhile before the Turkish military’s new culture and personality become clear. Even if the military remains essentially Western-oriented, it will take considerable time to build meaningful military-to-military relations. If the military truly moves in a more Islamist direction, obviously cooperation will be impossible.

As for strategic interests, there is some basis for cooperation but less than meets the eye, in my view. Both Israel and Turkey are concerned about ISIS and ISIS-type radicalism and about Iranian aggression in the region, and neither Israel nor Turkey cares much for Bashar al-Assad. However, they prioritize and approach these problems considerably differently. Perhaps there will be episodic tactical cooperation, as well as information exchange, but more than that is unlikely.

In general terms, both share strategic interests with the so-called “moderate Sunni Arab bloc” that includes Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, with the general exception of Qatar (with which Turkey has developed close ties, including having established its first-ever overseas military base there). Unlike the bloc, however, Erdogan’s Turkey has a foot in the radical camp, having cultivated relations with the likes of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a panoply of jihadists fighting in Syria, as well as the traditionally pro-Brotherhood Qatar. Also unlike the bloc, Turkey is non-confrontational toward Iran and rarely gives public voice to its misgivings about Iran’s regional policies. In that regard, Israel is more like the moderate Arab Sunni bloc than is Sunni Turkey.

Q: How does the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey—and its aftermath—affect this reconciliation deal and more broadly Israeli-Turkish relations?

A: It complicates it.  The Erdogan government has communicated to Israel and the world that the deal will go forward. I’m told by a knowledgeable source in Erdogan’s party that the relevant legislation will be passed this month—we’ll see.  Let’s be realistic: there is so much chaos and uncertainty in Turkey since the coup attempt that we shouldn’t be shocked if the agreement is delayed, even considerably so, but for now Turkey is saying that it will go forward—and soon. As for post-agreement ties, commercial relations have flourished remarkably throughout the post-Mavi Marmara period and should continue to do so. Security relations are another matter. Even before the coup attempt, it would have been difficult to develop strong security ties. Now it will be even more difficult, given the leadership vacuum in the security services following the purge and arrests. In the post-coup period, Turkey likely will take on a new coloration, a new personality, more openly religious than previously. In short, Turkey’s approach will be normalization, yes; close relations, no.  And, given Erdogan’s Islamist reflexes, Israel will always have to remain wary of his next anti-Israel outburst.

Q: So far, post-coup anti-Israel rhetoric has been minimal—the Turkish government has instead leveled most of its accusations about the coup’s origins against domestic opposition and the West. Nonetheless, should we expect a resurgence of anti-Israel rhetoric from President Erdogan and his government?

A: Fourteen years of history—the Erdogan era effectively began with his party’s victory in November  2002—suggest that the next anti-Israel diatribe is never very far in the future. Still, I agree with you that it’s significant that Erdogan, his circle and his party’s media organs have not been implicating Israel or “Mossad” in the coup attempt even while taking constant shots at the U.S. and “the West.” That is significant, as well as unexpected, and it seems to affirm Erdogan’s desire to go forward with normalization with Israel for now.

Q: Israel has recently sought to expand and deepen its relations with a number of countries, including Cyprus and Greece. Today, from a strategic point of view, how important to Israel is a strong relationship with Turkey?

A: A strong relationship with Turkey, like that of the 1990s, would be invaluable. As a Muslim-majority country with vast airspace that it was willing openly to share with the IDF, Israel could hardly have found a better partner than Turkey. There is no prospect that the prior relationship can be revived, however. In that respect, close relations with Greece and Cyprus are an important diplomatic achievement and of strategic value. Israel has developed important political and security ties with both.  And Cyprus and Greece offer something that Turkey does not: as EU members, they can be helpful to Israel in EU councils—and reportedly already have been. For many years, both Greece and Cyprus viewed Israel coolly, and there is little doubt that mutual suspicion of Turkey has helped to cement Israeli ties with each. It will be a challenge for the Netanyahu government to keep those relationships on track, even while normalizing and seeking to build ties with Turkey.

Q: How does the reconciliation deal affect Turkey’s relationship with the Palestinians? For years, President Erdogan has been openly sympathetic and accommodating to Hamas. Can we expect more Turkish sensitivity to the security issues of Israel and a more constructive role vis-à-vis the conflict?

A: That’s unlikely, aside from Turkey’s concession to prevent Hamas from planning anti-Israel operations from Turkish territory in the reconciliation deal. And even in that case, it’s unclear how Israel will verify that Turkey is living up to its pledge—although one assumes there are means. Let’s also remember that Hamas’ Istanbul office was reportedly used in 2014 to plan a coup attempt against PA President Abbas—unsuccessful, as it turned out, thanks to Shin Bet intervention. Are those kinds of operations—operations not directly aimed at Israel but having a potentially powerful impact on Israeli interests—also banned by the agreement? It’s not clear. 

Erdogan will remain close to Hamas, given their mutual Muslim Brotherhood links. When Israel and Turkey were on the verge of concluding their deal, Erdogan hosted Hamas Leader Khaled Meshal in Ankara to explain the agreement to him. I doubt that PA President Abbas is happy to see the Turks as prospective major players in Gaza. Erdogan pays lip-service to supporting Abbas and the West Bank Palestinians—he says he loves “all our Palestinian brothers and sisters equally”—but his heart is with Hamas and Gaza. To be fair to Erdogan, though, he has never openly endorsed the Hamas platform that Israel should disappear. He has condemned Zionism on occasion, and nobody would count him among the chovevei Tsiyon (“lovers of Zion”), but he has consistently advocated a two-state, not a one-state, solution to the Palestinian problem.

Alan Makovsky is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. His decades of experience on Turkish and Middle Eastern issues include serving in senior roles on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (2001-2013), at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1994-2001), and at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (1983-1994). 

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West Bank
  • Population:

    2,785,366

  • Government Type:

    Governed by the Palestinian Authority under the 1993 Oslo Agreement

  • Head of Government:

    Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah

  • Chief of State:

    President Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement on June 21 that municipal elections will be held in the West Bank and Gaza on Oct. 8, and Hamas’s July 15 decision to participate, caused a stir among Palestinians.

Since Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, presidential elections have been held only once—in 2005. Similarly, parliamentary elections have been held only once—in 2006. Accordingly, President Abbas is now serving the twelfth year of a four-year term, while the parliament is in its eleventh year. (In reality, the parliament has been defunct since shortly after the elections, largely due to disputes between Fatah and Hamas). As background, no new presidential or parliamentary elections are on the horizon, and while municipal elections were held in 2004-2005, they were incomplete, whereas 2012 municipal elections took place only in the West Bank due to Hamas’s boycott.

Given this meager record, it is hardly surprising that the prospect of municipal elections to be held in more than 400 municipal and local councils across the West Bank and Gaza was anticipated with excitement. While national decisions are made by the PA president and, theoretically, by parliament, the daily lives of Palestinians are affected to a considerable extent by their municipal and other local officials.

After the initial excitement subsided, several questions arose: Why did President Abbas announce the elections; why did Hamas agree; and, finally, will the elections actually be held?

As far as is known, no serious pressure was exerted on President Abbas to announce the elections; it seems that he truly made the decision on his own. In fact, Fatah officials subsequently pressured him to cancel the vote, which he refused to do. Unlike the 2006 parliamentary elections into which President Abbas was pressured by America, this time the international community stayed out. Furthermore, as President Abbas knows, since the United States, the EU and Egypt have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization, they would stop funding any municipality that includes Hamas representatives.

President Abbas’s decision to hold the elections was particularly baffling because his Fatah-run PA is firmly in control of the Palestinian population in the West Bank. Given the projections of Hamas victories in several important municipalities in the area, the municipal elections could give Hamas—Fatah’s deadly foe—a significant foothold in the West Bank thereby weakening PA control. So why did he do it? Many opinions have been expressed, but no one has come up with a compelling answer.

Similarly, Hamas is in firm control of Gaza. So why risk the penetration of Fatah officials into municipal councils in Gaza through the elections, particularly due to projections of local Fatah victories? Again, no obvious answer.

Given the fraught relations between Fatah and Hamas, many Palestinians doubted that the two feuding parties would be willing and able to work together to bring about municipal elections in the territories. Such doubts deepened when the PA harassed Hamas activists in the West Bank and Hamas did the same to Fatah officials in Gaza. But, regardless of calls from both parties to cancel the elections, preparations for the vote proceeded.

According to press reports, Israeli officials were deeply concerned that the elections could result in a Hamas victory as did the 2006 parliamentary elections, and with it increased legitimacy for Hamas in the West Bank. Despite Israeli displeasure with the PA’s incitement and efforts to generate international pressure on Israel, the Israelis are benefiting from the PA security forces’ coordination with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the fight against terrorism and do not want the PA to be further weakened by Hamas gains in the West Bank. 

The drama took an unexpected turn on Sept. 8, when the PA’s High Court of Justice canceled the Oct. 8 elections. It ruled that due to the absence from the ballots of East Jerusalem—which the PA officially regards as one of its electoral districts—and due to Hamas disqualification of several Fatah lists in Gaza, municipal elections could not be held at the scheduled time. The ruling was only temporary; the court announced it would review its decision on Sept. 21, and municipal elections might still be held in the future but not before Dec. 21. It is unclear, however, how the court can reverse its decision. Many observers believe the PA court will decide to postpone the municipal elections indefinitely.

Fatah and Hamas immediately blamed each other for the postponement. Hamas claimed the court’s ruling had originated with President Abbas and called it “political” and “illegal,” saying Fatah had sabotaged the elections because it was afraid it would lose; Fatah said Hamas had undermined the elections because of its projected loss. The suspension of elections has thus further deepened divisions between Fatah and Hamas. 

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