Friday, January 01, 2021

From Ian:

Seth Frantzman: 2021: What will the Middle East look like in the new year?
THE SECOND side of the triangle in the Middle East is Turkey and its allies. Ankara’s ruling party is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood. It backs Hamas in Gaza and twice hosted senior Hamas terrorists this year. Reports indicate that Hamas plans attacks from Turkey, receives passports and support and uses Turkey as a cyber base for threats to Israel. While Turkey ended 2020 claiming it wants reconciliation with Israel after years of comparing the Jewish state to Nazi Germany, Ankara has consistently supported extremists and terrorists.

Turkey has other Islamist friends it recruited in Syria and in Libya. Turkey co-opted the Syrian rebellion and channeled it into a series of extremist groups it has sought to mobilize to fight Kurds and Armenians. In 2018 Turkey ethnically cleansed Afrin, a historically Kurdish area of Syria, then attacked Kurds in Serekaniye in October 2019. US officials worked with Turkey, hoping to undermine their own Pentagon’s policies in Syria.

We know from recent interviews that US envoys admired Turkey’s thuggish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and sought to outsource US policy to him. This caused Turkey to think it had a blank check to attack everyone in the region. It threatened Greece with a “flood” of refugees in February and March. It clashed with Syria and Russia in the Syrian city of Idlib. It sent extremist militias recruited from poor Syrian refugees to attack Kurds and Christians in the northeast Syrian towns of Ain Issa and Tel Tamr near the Turkish border. It sent Syrians to fight in Libya. It also threatened Greece using the excuse that it was seeking natural gas in the Mediterranean. Turkey wanted to thwart a planned Israel-Cyprus-Greece pipeline deal. In July and then in September Turkey prodded Azerbaijan to attack Armenians in Nagorna-Karabakh.

THE THIRD side of the Middle East alliance systems is the emerging Israel-UAE-Egypt-Jordan-Bahrain-Greece-Cyprus system of friendships. Israel made peace with Bahrain and the UAE in August and September in the momentous new Abraham Accords. With Saudi Arabia’s approval, Morocco followed. Sudan also agreed to normalize ties with Israel.

In each case the US was key in supporting the new agreements: weapons deals for the UAE, an end of sanctions for Sudan, as well as recognition of Morocco’s claims in Western Sahara came from Washington. The Trump administration poured efforts in its last year in office into this brave new world in the Middle East.

The burgeoning relationships offer massive economic potential for Israel and the Gulf. Seventy-thousand Israelis went to Dubai toward the end of the year. They were able to escape the COVID restrictions briefly, although by the end of December the lockdowns were back and Israelis were back home. A few stayed on in Dubai, awaiting the New Year’s parties. They might have been able to look back to February when Turkey first found COVID among flights coming from Iran and recall just how much has changed since then.

Much has also stayed the same, in terms of Iran’s and Turkey’s policies seeking to exploit the lack of US leadership and drawdown of US forces – to fight over the scraps of what was once US hegemony in the Middle East.
The Abraham Accords domino effect will lead to more peace deals
With 2020 behind us and 2021 beginning, there is discussion of even more dominoes falling, and even more countries joining the Abraham Accords. Trump administration officials have said they’re working to even make it happen in the next three weeks, before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Mauritania, Oman and Indonesia are the names on Israeli and American officials’ tongues these days, which makes sense, because Israel has or has had some level of ties with all of them.

Mauritania declared war on Israel in 1967, but the countries established diplomatic relations in 1999, which were suspended in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in 2009.

Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, and thousands of Israeli and Indonesian tourists visit each other’s countries each year.

Netanyahu visited Oman in 2018, and Israel and Oman are part of the anti-Iran axis in the Middle East.

But the big hope is for Saudi Arabia. This is where Biden comes into play. Biden and his foreign policy advisers have spoken positively about the Abraham Accords, without commenting on the strings attached. At the same time, they have been very critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. If the Trump administration doesn’t find a way to quickly make it worth Riyadh’s while in the next few weeks, which seems unlikely, MBS and King Salman will probably wait to see what benefit they can exact from the Biden administration to go with peace with Israel. After all, the thought is, why shouldn’t they get something out of the deal, as the UAE, Sudan and Morocco did?

At the same time, a very senior official told The Jerusalem Post that Riyadh is expected to get on board in 2021. Netanyahu and MBS met in the Saudi city of Neom weeks ago. Salman is still reticent on the matter, holding on to the Arab Peace Initiative, also known as the Saudi Initiative, which requires peace with the Palestinians before normalization with the Arab League.

Looking ahead at the unfolding new year, it seems likely that the Abraham Accords domino rally will continue, and it seems almost inevitable that it will feature the biggest coup of all, Saudi-Israel peace.

But if there’s anything we learned from 2020, it is that January can be drastically different from December in ways we never expected.

US, Israel Vote Against 2021 United Nations Budget, Citing ‘Hate, Antisemitism, and Anti-Israel Bias’
Israel on Thursday joined the government of the United States in voting against the approval of the UN’s budget for 2021, with both countries citing the global organization’s institutionalized bias against the Jewish state as a key factor.

Only the US and Israel opposed the $3.2 billion budget, which normally passes by consensus, with 168 member states voting in favor.

In her statement to the General Assembly, US Ambassador Kelly Craft argued that for the sake of “accommodation of all viewpoints,” the UN stood “poised to adopt a budget that reflects such an accommodation that extends a shameful legacy of hate, antisemitism, and anti-Israel bias.”

“The United States rejects this effort and called for this vote to make clear that we stand by our principles, stand up for what is right, and never accept consensus for consensus’ sake,” Craft declared.

Craft pointed to a budget item for 2021 to fund a special event on the 20th anniversary of the UN’s anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, from which the US and Israel withdrew over objections of anti-Zionism.

“Twenty years on, there remains nothing about the Durban Declaration to celebrate or to endorse,” Craft stated. “It is poisoned by antisemitism and anti-Israel bias. It encourages restrictions on the freedom of expression. It exists to divide and discriminate and runs contrary to the laudable goal of combating racism and racial discrimination.”

Craft concluded by stressing that the US vote against the UN budget was a “constructive protest against inequities in the budget is a necessary part of the journey, a part of a journey that builds a better world and to strive for a United Nations that lifts humanity in the 21st Century.”

In a separate statement, Israel’s envoy to the UN, Gilad Erdan, similarly highlighted the Durban event.

Germany's "Shameful" Two Years on the UN Security Council
A closer examination of Germany's voting patterns at the UN over the past several years, however, reveals a troubling double standard on a range of issues, especially on human rights, which the German government claims to be "a cornerstone" of its foreign policy.

The record shows that during its stint on the UN Security Council, Germany voted for dozens of resolutions — many of which smack of anti-Semitism — that singled out Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.

Moreover, Germany turned a blind eye as multiple serial human rights abusers, including China, Libya, Mauritania, Sudan and Venezuela, among others, were elected to the UN Human Rights Council, the UN's highest human rights body.

In 2020, Germany voted 13 times to condemn Israel, but failed to introduce a single resolution on the human rights situation in Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, Venezuela — or on 175 other countries, according to UN Watch, a Geneva-based, independent non-governmental watchdog group.

"While nearly all EU countries backed 13 out of 17 UNGA resolutions singling out Israel this year, they failed to introduce even one resolution for women's right [sic] activists jailed and tortured in Saudi Arabia, dissident artists arrested in Cuba, journalists thrown behind bars in Turkey, religious minorities attacked in Pakistan, and opposition members persecuted in Venezuela, where more than five million people have fled government repression, hunger and economic collapse." — UN Watch, December 16, 2020.

Germany pursued a similar policy of approving anti-Israel resolutions at the UN in 2018, 2017, and 2016, when Germany voted for an especially disgraceful UN resolution, co-sponsored by the Arab group of states and the Palestinian delegation, that singled out Israel as the world's only violator of "mental, physical and environmental health."

Friedman aide Lightstone named envoy for economic ties in Middle East
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Aryeh Lightstone Special Envoy for Economic Normalization in the Middle East on Friday. Lightstone, who is also senior adviser to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, has been instrumental in negotiating economic normalization deals between Abraham Accords countries since the first flight from Israel to Abu Dhabi in late August.

"It's been a unique honor to work for this administration and working with all our partners in the Abraham Accords countries,” Lightstone said. “It has been an exciting challenge and puzzle and we've got a lot more work in front of us. I’m looking forward to doing it.”

Friedman said that “since the initial breakthroughs that spawned the Abraham Accords, Aryeh has been instrumental in advancing the normalization process among Israel and its new peace partners. He is the right choice to continue those efforts as our special envoy.” Earlier this year, Lightstone was named head of the Abraham Fund, a development fund meant to advance peace between Israel and Arab states, but the appointment was not made official. He has been on six first direct flights between Israel and Arab countries, led business delegations to Bahrain and from Bahrain to Israel, and has worked on 100 Abraham Accords deals.

The title of special envoy does not entail new responsibilities; rather, it is Pompeo’s way of recognizing Lightstone’s efforts in fostering economic normalization in recent months. It will expire in three weeks when US President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated.

Pompeo said that designating Lightstone as special envoy “will contribute to the speed and the efficiency of the normalization process and create momentum for the Abraham Accords.
In new playground Dubai, Israelis find parties, Jewish rites
It was a scene that just a few months ago would have been unthinkable. As Emiratis in flowing white robes and headdresses looked on, the Israeli bride and groom were hoisted on the shoulders of skullcap-wearing groomsmen and carried toward the dance floor, where dozens joined the throng swaying and singing in Hebrew.

Noemie Azerad and Simon David Benhamou didn’t just throw a wedding bash in the middle of a pandemic that has shut down their country and ravaged the world. They were reveling in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which — like most of the Arab world — had been off-limits to Israeli passport holders for decades.

The pair was among tens of thousands of Israelis who flocked to the UAE in December after the two countries normalized ties in a breakthrough US-brokered deal.

Israel’s latest virus-induced lockdown, which began earlier this week, temporarily cooled the travel fever. But Israelis with dashed vacation plans, now stuck at home, hope that vaccination campaigns will help contain the outbreak and make Dubai trips possible again soon.

The lure of Dubai, the UAE’s skyscraper-studded commercial hub with sandy beaches and marbled malls, has already proven powerful. Scores of Israeli tourists, seeking revelry and relief from months of virus restrictions and undeterred by their government’s warnings about possible Iranian attacks in the region, have celebrated weddings, bar mitzvahs and the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah with large gatherings banned back home.

“I expected to feel really uncomfortable here,” said 25-year-old Azerad, the Israeli bride, from the hotel ballroom, bathed in the glow of Dubai’s glittering skyline. But all of her preferred wedding destinations announced tough restrictions on gatherings to check the spread of the virus. Dubai caps parties at 200.

The choice was obvious.
Jewish Groups Applaud Elevation of State Department Antisemitism Envoy to Ambassador Level
US Jewish groups warmly welcomed Thursday’s bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives to elevate the role of the State Department special envoy to combat antisemitism globally to ambassadorial level.

The New Year’s Eve vote followed the passage of the legislation, first introduced in the House last year, through the Senate on Dec. 17.

Explaining the need to bolster US efforts to combat antisemitism, the resolution noted that since the State Department post was created by the George W. Bush Administration in 2004, “acts of antisemitism have been frequent and wide in scope, the perpetrators and variety of threats to Jewish communities and their institutions have proliferated, and in some countries antisemitic attacks have increased in frequency, scope, violence, and deadliness.”

The resolution specified that the special envoy’s post would now carry the title of ambassador. It also stressed that anyone appointed to the post “should be a person of recognized distinction in the field of combating antisemitism.”

In a statement responding to Thursday’s vote, the Washington, DC-based Orthodox Union (OU) said it was “very grateful” for the resolution.

“Sadly, we have seen a surge of antisemitic incense around the world in recent years,” the OU commented. “With the passage of this legislation, the Senate is providing powerful new tools to the State Department to lead impactful international efforts to combat what has been aptly called ‘the world’s oldest form of hatred’ and roll back the tide of anti-Jewish hate.”

Separately, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (CoP) applauded the “additional prominence and visibility” that an ambassador’s rank gave to American efforts to counter antisemitism.
David Singer: Morocco's government casts a shadow over Trump's peace plan
Supporting Trump’s two-state-solution as espoused in Trump’s Peace Plan is not inconsistent with supporting the “Palestinian cause”.

Othmani is no supporter of the Morocco-Israel peace deal as he made clear in August:

“We refuse any normalisation with the Zionist entity because this emboldens it to go further in breaching the rights of the Palestinian people.”

Othmani was clearly overuled by the King – as the pace of peace between Israel and Morocco quickens.

A three-person delegation landed in Israel this past Sunday to handle logistics ahead of reopening the Moroccan liaison office in Tel Aviv - which it has maintained for the past 20 years since Morocco cut official ties.

Israel had also retained its closed office in Morocco.

Last week White House Special Adviser Jared Kushner led an Israeli-US delegation to Morocco when both countries committed to reopening these offices within two weeks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invited Morocco’s King Mohammed VI to visit Israel – reportedly telling him – quoting from the film Casablanca.

“This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,”

It certainly will be if the King:
- endorses Trump’s Peace Plan,
- calls on Abbas to begin negotiations with Israel on Trump’s plan and
- disassociates himself unreservedly from Othmani’s inflammatory anti-Israel views

Trump’s Peace Plan – with Morocco’s backing – as a starting point for renewed negotiations, can help end the 100 years-old unresolved Arab-Jewish conflict.
2020 sees fewest soldiers, civilians killed in war or terror in Israel’s history
The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday released a heap of statistics illustrating its activities over the past year, including the number of targets struck in Syria (about 50), fighter jet sorties flown (1,400) and calls answered by the Home Front Command’s coronavirus information call center (1.4 million).

Despite the pandemic, the West Bank remained a significant source of concern for the IDF — on par with recent years — though there were some areas of improvement and some of regression. In 2020, the number of stabbings decreased by a third, from 12 in 2019 to nine. The number of shooting attacks, however, increased significantly, from 19 in 2019 to 31, though this was similar to the number of shootings in 2018 — 33 — and in 2017 — 34.

In total, the IDF said the West Bank saw 60 terror attacks in 2020, up from 51 in 2019, but down from 76 in 2018 and 75 in 2017.

In response to these attacks and as part of ongoing efforts against terror groups in the West Bank, the military conducted 2,277 arrests over the past year, a slight decrease from the previous years: 2,328 in 2019; 3,173 in 2018; and 3,627 in 2017.

Though not included in the statistics released by the military Thursday, the year 2020 also saw the lowest number of soldiers and civilians killed in war and terror attacks in the country’s history. As of Thursday, three people — two civilians and one soldier — were killed in security-related attacks, including Esther Horgen, who was killed earlier this month in a brutal assault outside the northern West Bank settlement where she lived, Tal Menashe.
Top US Jewish Group Demands PA End ‘Pay-to-Slay’ Terror Support Scheme
A top American Jewish umbrella group urged on Thursday the Palestinian Authority (PA) to end its financial support of terrorists and their families.

The statement by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations followed a Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) report that the PA planned to pay terrorists three months’ salary in advance to circumvent a new Israeli law that was to come into effect on Thursday.

“Once again, we demand that the Palestinian Authority stop encouraging and incentivizing terror through its reprehensible pay-to-slay policies rewarding acts of terror against Israelis by financially compensating perpetrators and their families with so-called martyr payments,” the statement said. “Palestinian leadership is going to extraordinary lengths to continue these payments, insisting on paying convicted terrorists a three month, lump sum ‘salary’ before the end of the year.”

“The pay-to-slay scheme is an unconscionable insult to the memory of the many innocent victims of Palestinian terrorism from Israel, America, and around the world,” it added. “The international community must recognize this as a barbaric and unacceptable practice that incentivizes terror and bloodshed. More countries are cutting aid to the PA to protest this abhorrent practice. The Palestinian Authority must discontinue these immoral payments immediately by abolishing its ‘Martyrs Fund.'”

“Global attention must be drawn to the fact that this policy exists and persists, and we urge all who respect the dignity of human life to condemn it unequivocally,” the Conference of Presidents implored.
Palestinian in critical state after being shot at close range in spat with IDF
A Palestinian man was in critical condition Friday after being shot at close range by Israeli forces during an operation to confiscate illegal Palestinian construction equipment in the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills.

On Friday evening, the Israeli Defense Forces confirmed Palestinian reports that 24-year-old Haroun Abu Aram, a resident of the unrecognized village of al-Rakeez, had been hit by live fire.

In a video from the scene, Palestinians can be seen scuffling with Israeli soldiers in an attempt to take back a generator apparently confiscated by the troops. After the brawl escalates, a gunshot rings out off-camera. When the camera turns back towards the scene, Abu Aram is lying on the ground, apparently having been shot. It was not immediately clear what led to the shooting.

A spokesperson for the Israeli army described the scuffle as “a violent incident in which violence was directed at Israeli forces by a number of Palestinians.”

“The Israel Defense Forces acknowledges that a Palestinian was shot with live fire during the incident. The incident is being looked into,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson further asserted that the shooting was preceded by “massive stone-throwing” by a crowd of over 150 Palestinians against Israeli troops. While far from uncommon at West Bank Palestinian demonstrations, no stone-throwing could be seen in the video.
Online Petition Calling for PA to Release Detained Palestinian DJ Surpasses 80,000 Signatures
An online petition calling for the Palestinian Authority to release detained Palestinian disc jockey and “queen of techno music” Samaa Abdulhadi has garnered more than 80,000 signatures since its launch on Wednesday.

PA police arrested Abdulhadi, 30, for organizing and playing music at a party on Saturday that took place at the Muslim holy shrine of Nabi Musa in the West Bank, where the Prophet Moses is believed to be buried. Alcohol was served at the gathering, which also featured the mingling of men and women, both of which are forbidden by Islamic religious guidelines.

Abdulhadi was charged with violating article 275 of the Palestinian penal code — which criminalizes the “desecration” of holy sites or symbols done with the intent of insulting a religion or particular group — and with violating COVID-19 restrictions, her lawyer told CNN.

The Palestinian techno DJ, who is an internationally well-known, said she received the necessary permits from the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to film a recording at the site that included scenes of a techno party.

The online petition for the DJ’s release states that “Abdulhadi and the organizers of the concert may not have realized that this type of music was unsuitable for the site and its historical, religious and cultural associations, yet it remains that the Ministry of Tourism bears full responsibility for taking the decision to allow the concert to take place.”

“Sama Abdulhadi is being made a scapegoat and held accountable for a crime that did not happen and one that she certainly did not commit,” it continued. “We call for her immediate release and respect for cultural and artistic freedom and rights by the Palestinian Authority.”

The hashtag #FreeSama has gone viral on social media.

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