March 06, 2017 - Netanyahu and Russia; Trump, Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses possible agenda items for Thursday's meeting in Moscow between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Russian President Putin; the Trump angle; the Syrian civil war; whether all Israel wants from the Russians in Syria is to keep Iran far away; what Russia could want from Israel; and the possible effects of a Trump administration move to ban the Muslim Brotherhood on Muslim movements among Arab citizens of Israel.

 

Q. Prime Minister Netanyahu will visit Moscow and meet with President Putin this Thursday. What issues do you anticipate will be on the agenda of both sides?

A. Netanyahu has already met with Putin three times since Russian air force, air defense, naval and ground units were deployed to Syria in September 2015. But this will be their first meeting since US President Trump, with his conflicted and controversial approach to Russia, took office. And it will be the first Netanyahu-Putin encounter since the fall of Aleppo to pro-Assad forces spearheaded by Russia and Iran last December signaled a major turning point in the Syrian civil war in favor of the Assad government.

 

Q. That points to two possible agenda items. What would the Trump angle be?

A. I was in Moscow last week and met with a number of Russian Middle East experts. I heard rumors that Netanyahu was conceivably asked by Trump when they met last month in Washington to pass a message to Putin. This would presumably touch upon the Russian presence in Syria in the broader context of the Ukraine/Crimea crises and Russian-American relations. But I would emphasize that this was merely a rumor or an educated guess.

 

Q. And the Syrian civil war?

A. Netanyahu stated emphatically on Sunday that he intended during his meeting with Putin to “demand” that Putin take measures to remove Iranian forces from Syria within the framework of any upcoming agreement to end the Syrian civil war. In this context, Netanyahu cited the presence in Syria of Iranian ground and naval forces as well as “the gradual attempt to open a front against us on the Golan Heights”.

Given that the danger of a military clash with Iranian and Iranian-proxy forces like Hezbollah along Israel’s northern borders is ranked at the top of the IDF Intelligence threat assessment, this must be understood as Netanyahu’s primary mission in Moscow. On Monday, Netanyahu claimed publicly that Iran was responsible for 80 percent of Israel’s security problems. The official Russian position as enunciated by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov (a former ambassador to both Jerusalem and Damascus) is that once a peace agreement is reached, the elected Syrian government will deal with the fate of foreign forces on Syrian soil. But Netanyahu’s trip reflects Israel’s assessment that the Russians will have a major say from herein at the diplomatic level regarding arrangements on the ground in Syria.

Indeed, perhaps an exclusive say--insofar as the Trump administration is mired in controversy regarding its links with Russia and does not yet have any recognizable strategy for Syria. Note that at the Syria peace talks currently underway in Geneva, UN mediator Staffan de Mistura is flanked by expert advisers from the European Union and Russia but none from the US.

 

Q. Is that all Israel wants from the Russians in Syria: to keep Iran far away?

A. Israel has carefully and wisely kept out of the fray in Syria for six years now, avoiding taking sides with the Assad regime or its enemies of both the radical Islamist and comparatively moderate variety. But as the battlefield picture changes this may affect Israeli thinking. Following the Aleppo victory in Syria’s north, regime forces are moving south toward the Israeli and Jordanian borders and Russian combat aircraft are carrying out more missions in southern Syria. In parallel, Russian-sponsored Syria peace talks (see above) appear increasingly substantive.

The danger that Iranian and Hezbollah forces will also move in large numbers to southern Syria raises the question whether Israel should demand a “place at the table” where the future of Syria is being discussed. Israel also seeks assurances from Moscow that the Russian-Iranian relationship will not include supply of extremely sophisticated weapons systems to Tehran. Iran just operationally deployed its Russian S-300 surface-to-air (anti-aircraft) missiles that were supplied, after long delays, in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear JCPOA deal.

The issue seemed very relevant last week at the conference I attended in Moscow. Major General (res.) Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, former IDF chief of staff and until last May minister of defense in the Netanyahu government, was also there. Rather surprisingly, he took the opportunity to declare that Israel should be talking with both Russia and the US about the need to partition Syria into its ethno-geographic parts: “Alawistan, Kurdistan, Druzistan and one or more Sunnistans”.

Yaalon is no longer on good terms with Netanyahu, who dumped him abruptly in favor of Avigdor Lieberman; back in Israel, he is trying to set up a political party of his own. So he presumably was not speaking for Netanyahu. And obviously, speculative ideas like Yaalon’s “stans” have been bouncing around in Israel and all over the Middle East for years. Still, the Arabs and many of the Russians at the conference were shocked by Yaalon’s proposal, if only because he at one and the same time denied any and all Israeli hegemonic aspirations in the region yet proceeded to propose dividing up Syria in cahoots with Moscow and Washington.

 

Q. And what does Russia want from Israel?

A. The Russian and Israeli militaries have a close working relationship designed to avoid clashes in the air over Syria. Israel is also constantly on the lookout for Russian-origin and other sophisticated weapons being transferred by the Assad regime to Hezbollah in Lebanon. But these issues are handled on a day-to-day basis by the IDF deputy chief of staff and his Russian counterpart and presumably do not require a conversation with Netanyahu unless something is about to change militarily.

At the diplomatic-strategic level, however, Russia might wish to expand the conversation. For one, conceivably Netanyahu could carry messages from Putin to Trump rather than vice-versa. Then too, in the current absence of US and EU initiatives in the Palestinian sphere, Russia has twice invited Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to Moscow for peace talks (Netanyahu demurred). And Moscow has been mediating among a diverse variety of sometimes mutually hostile Palestinian groups in an effort to achieve greater harmony on that front.

Finally, Moscow wants Netanyahu to understand that he needs Russia more than Russia needs him. It was no coincidence that Labor party and Knesset opposition leader Isaac “Bougie” Herzog arrived in Moscow Sunday evening for high-level meetings. Naturally, Herzog too will remind the Russians of the Iranian threat they are harboring on Syrian soil. And he will exploit the visit to aggrandize his weak image in Israel in general and in Labor leadership circles particularly, where almost every day a new challenger announces his candidacy to replace Herzog. But the real message of his visit, like that of Yaalon, is for Netanyahu: Russia has multiple friends and contacts in Israel.

 

Q. Three weeks ago you discussed the negative ramifications in the Middle East of a possible Trump administration move to ban the Muslim Brotherhood. You emphasized the damage this would cause insofar as the US cooperates with several moderate Arab governments that comprise MB affiliates. What about Israel: how would such a ban affect Muslim movements among Arab citizens of Israel?

A. The government of Israel banned the so-called Northern Branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement back in November 2015, citing in particular its consistent incitement to the effect that the government was about to take complete control of the Temple Mount (known as Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary to Muslims) and destroy the two mosques there. The Northern Branch incited to this effect both at rallies in Arab towns in Israel and on the Mount itself, through its activists and subsidiary groups. There was no basis in fact to this allegation, though some fringe Jewish groups cultivated by members of the Netanyahu coalition do advocate to this effect. The ban, along with steps taken to keep Jewish extremists from inciting on the Mount, appears to have contributed to a calmer atmosphere and, accordingly, to closer coordination with Jordan, which has a treaty-bound responsibility for the Mount.

The Northern Branch was the closest organization to the Muslim Brotherhood and to its Gaza subsidiary Hamas among Israel’s Arab Muslim population, which constitutes some 16 percent of Israelis (another two or three percent are Arab Christians, Druze and Circassians) . The Southern Branch (the movement split in two some years ago) is considered more moderate and continues to operate freely. Notably, at the time the government approved the ban the head of the Shin Bet Domestic Security Service advised against the decision, noting that driving Islamist activists underground would prove counterproductive. The jury is still out on the advisability of this move, which took place against a backdrop of Israel’s repeated wars with Hamas and the ISIS threat close to Israel’s borders with Syria and Egypt.

So Israel has already in effect banned the Muslim Brotherhood. One could speculate that at their meeting last month it was PM Netanyahu who planted the idea of a MB ban in President Trump’s head. Whether or not such a conversation took place, any attempt by Trump to ban the Brotherhood in the US would take place in an entirely different context and would constitute a totally counterproductive blow to the broadly successful and tranquil inter-communal relations in the US among Muslims, Jews and Christians. Even where American Muslims are out-and-out Islamists, that does not make them terrorists.

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