What follows is a summary of the three areas of friction in the Middle East this past week. The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are sluggish. US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to arrive in Israel next week to demand that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally present Israel’s positions on key issues.
In Syria, the dismantling stage of the infrastructures for the production of chemical weaponry has been completed. A “foreign element” — Israel, according to the Arab media — has carried out another strike in Latakia and in Damascus. The Syrians turn a blind eye while Israel keeps mum. The negotiations between Iran and the world powers are expected to resume shortly. Meanwhile, everyone is asking where Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has disappeared to. Many in Israel believe that if Khamenei were to phase out of the political map, a true, historic change could take place following the election of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.
In more detail, this is what took place:
This week, Oct. 30, Israel released the second batch of prisoners, all of whom were serving multiple life sentences for murder, by way of a gesture for the resumption of the negotiations with the Palestinians. That same day, the parties held another meeting, which — if my memory serves me right — is the 14th or 15th. Achievements? There are none. The atmosphere is reasonable, yet the results are poor.
In a seven- or eight-hour meeting between Netanyahu and Kerry in Rome on Oct. 23, the latter beseeched the Israeli premier to present Israel’s positions on core issues. Kerry, it should be noted, did not wield pressure on Netanyahu to either change his positions or make them more flexible. All he asked was that Netanyahu declares what his positions were. Show me a map. Propose solutions for Jerusalem. Come up with an idea on how to tackle the issue of refugees.
The Israeli side has yet to do any of that. Sources that are well-versed in the negotiations recount that the Israelis, played by attorney Yitzhak Molcho (representing Netanyahu) and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, pose questions, raise quandaries and make productive remarks. However, they avoid making statements or showing their positions. In these negotiations, Israel behaves as if it were actually the United States. A neutral, curious observer.
The problem, however, is that the United States cannot fill in for Israel. In other words, if Israel exists, let it present itself immediately. It is high time that the positions and gaps were mapped out. It is time to roll up the sleeves to arrive at the conclusion that a permanent arrangement is not within reach — and then the parties should converge into an interim arrangement or any other format.
The Palestinians are pleasantly surprised by Molcho's tone and spirit. They were used to seeing Molcho as this gloomy, pessimistic person who understands the limits of his wiggle room. Molcho 2013 shows a much more optimistic front. Does this herald a change in Netanyahu? It is too early to say.
If we were to ask Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian representative to the talks, the answer to this question would be negative. A confirmed pessimist, Erekat wants to walk out on the talks. He maintains that the negotiations are pointless, and that there is no chance for a breakthrough. Chairman of the Palestinian Authority Abu Mazen would not hear of resignation, keeping his envoy in the room by force. Incidentally, this is quite common in the relationships between the two in general, and in connection with Erekat’s presence in the various negotiation rounds in particular.
On the Syrian front, it is business as usual. The war goes on, and Hezbollah is poised to extend massive assistance in the battle over Damascus. Meanwhile, UN inspectors have announced that the stage for destroying the infrastructures for the production of chemical weapons has been completed. The agreement to dismantle these weapons is progressing according to schedule. This should elicit a round of applause — especially for Russian President Vladimir Putin — thus justifying Forbes' new ranking, placing him ahead of US President Barack Obama as the most powerful figure in the world.
Yet, there is another front. On the night of Oct. 30, a strike was carried out in Syria by some foreign and mysterious element. According to Al Arabiya, two strikes took place. The first was aimed at an SA8 anti-aircraft missile base near Latakia, whereas the second had a base in the environs of Damascus in the crosshairs. US officials confirmed to CNN on Oct. 31 that the strike in Latakia had been carried out by Israel. As usual, Israel’s security officials remained engulfed by silence.
So what can still be published? Israel’s policy is clear and has been stated repeatedly by its leaders. We do not interfere in the Syrian conflict; we do not extend assistance to either side, and we wish victory to neither. However, we do interfere whenever there is suspicion that “game-changing” weapons are being transferred from Syrian hands over to Hezbollah. In recent months, fighter bombers have carried out several such strikes. Each time, Israel was “incriminated” in foreign — mainly US — publications.
What is interesting is the game that has evolved between Jerusalem and Damascus in the wake of these strikes. Both sides keep mum. Understanding his situation, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad prefers to bite the bullet, wipe off the spit from his face and convince himself, and those around him, that this is just blissful rain. Israel prefers not to poke Assad in the eyes and provoke him too much, to enable him to take these attacks lying down and with dignity. This is reminiscent of the operation against the nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor, which foreign reports also ascribed to Israel. Since that strike, Israel has remained under a pall of silence, so as not to goad Assad into defending Syrian pride and retaliating.
As of today, the assessment in Israel is that the chances of a counterattack by Assad are slim to nonexistent. Assad is preoccupied with far more serious and existential problems than Israel’s badgering. The new balance of terror between the parties is such that Israel, according to foreign publications, carries out a strike — albeit with a low signature — without claiming responsibility for it, thus enabling Assad to elegantly turn a blind eye and not feel too humiliated.
Israel is monitoring with concern the rise in the number of radical Islamist jihadists among the Syrian insurgents. If until recently officially Israel was unified in its desire to topple Assad — and all the defense officials with whom I have spoken, too, were convinced that Assad’s fall would mark a historic and strategic achievement for Israel — these positions are now much less trenchant, having been supplanted mainly by embarrassment. Presently, Israel wishes both sides success. If it were up to Jerusalem, the civil war in Syria should last some 20 or 30 years.
As for the Iranian front, preparations are under way for the second round of talks between Tehran and the P5+1. Netanyahu keeps ratcheting his statements and cranking up pressure on the West. He talks about a historic opportunity to bring Iran down to its knees and force it to genuinely dismantle its nuclear project rather than postponing the inevitable through some cosmetic delay. This week, Kerry made an uncharacteristic move by relating indirectly to Netanyahu’s diatribes, saying that the United States would not be intimidated by those scare tactics. Although Kerry did not spell out Netanyahu’s name, everyone knows who he was alluding to.
Meanwhile, attention shifts to the disappearance of Khamenei, who has not been seen in public for over three weeks, including during the recent holiday in which he had always shown up in public.
Khamenei, 74, has been suffering from prostate cancer for several years. In 1981, he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Mujahedeen al-Khalq, which fired a shoulder missile at his convoy. His arm, wounded in the attack, remains affected until today. It is clear that his health is frail, but the question is to what extent.
Previously, Israeli defense and intelligence chiefs were engaged in heated debates about a core issue. Some thought that Israel should act with full force, using all the means at its disposal against Iran’s nuclear project that endangers the existence of Israel and threatens the Jewish people with a second holocaust. Others thought that the problem was not Iran’s nuclear project but rather the country’s radical leadership. If there were no ayatollahs and if the regime were replaced by a more moderate one, then the nuclear issue would be resolved on its own — they contended.
This debate has yet to be decided. If Khamenei does step down soon, a new, surprising and alluring window of opportunity will open. In the June elections, the Iranian people demonstrated that they were fed up with the ayatollah regime, yearning for a substantial, historic change in their way of life and their country’s policies.
Israel’s Director of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, in a recent document sent to Netanyahu, asserted that a ”deep strategic change” was taking place in Iran. All we can do now is to try to gauge how deep that change goes, and what will transpire in its wake.
Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers, and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit