Sunday, February 26, 2012

Israel Update


The NY Times is not always very accurate about Israel, and at times even seems biased against Israel's interests, but this assessment of current issues from the Times is basically accurate and gives a broad outline of some of the concerns that are ongoing or recent and I thought it might be of interest to our readers,
and help those who would like to know more get up to speed.

In the fall of 2011, with its Cairo embassy ransacked, its ambassador to Turkey expelled and the Palestinians seeking statehood recognition at the United Nations, Israel found itself increasingly isolated and grappling with a radically transformed Middle East where it believes its options are limited and poor.
Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador in early September over Israel’s refusal to apologize for a deadly raid in 2010 on a Turkish ship bound for Gaza in which nine Turks were killed. Turkey once ranked as Israel’s closest strategic ally in the Muslim world, but ties began to fray with an Israeli military operation in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.
And there is always Iran and its nuclear program, which Iran has defended as peaceful even as it has defiantly pursued uranium enrichment through years of international pressure and sanctions. Israel’s increasingly urgent warnings on the need to halt Iran’s nuclear progress, before it gets much closer to being able to build a bomb, have prompted concerns that Israel might unilaterally mount a military strike — and have added to the implacable enmity between the two.
In January 2012, seeking to lower the tone of nervous discourse as the United States and European Union imposed sanctions on Iran, Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, said that any decision to attack Iran because of its nuclear program was “very far off.”
But in mid-February, tensions between Israel and Iran heightened further, when Israeli officials blamed Iran in two separate attacks. On Feb. 13, Israeli Embassy personnel were targeted by bombers in the capitals of Georgia and India, injuring the wife of an Israeli diplomat and a driver. The embassy blasts used methods that were similar to attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years, for which Iran has blamed Israel. The next day, a series of explosions rocked a residential neighborhood in Bangkok, wounding several people. Thai authorities found a cache of bombs in a rented house and captured two men who carried Iranian passports.
Speculation and Rising Concern About an Attack
Should Israel decide to launch a strike on Iran, its pilots would have to fly more than 1,000 miles across unfriendly airspace, refuel in the air en route, fight off Iran’s air defenses, attack multiple underground sites simultaneously — and use at least 100 planes.
That was the assessment of American defense officials and military analysts close to the Pentagon, who said that an Israeli attack meant to set back Iran’s nuclear programwould be a huge and highly complex operation. They described it as far different from Israel’s “surgical” strikes on a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 and Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981.
In a sign of rising American concern, Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in Jerusalem on Feb. 19, and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey warned on CNN that an Israeli strike on Iran right now would be “destabilizing.” Similarly, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, told the BBC that attacking Iran would not be “the wise thing” for Israel to do “at this moment.”
Keeping a Wary Eye on Syria
As Israelis watch the bloody confrontation between the Syrian people and the government of President Bashar al-Assad, they are torn by two sentiments: The downfall of Mr. Assad would deal a major blow to Iran and so would be welcome. But without a central authority, Syria could descend into being a land of chaos and terrorist bases on Israel’s northeast border.
Nearly a year into the Syrian uprising, the predominant view in Israel today is the former, that Mr. Assad must go, not only because he has killed thousands of civilians, but because he is a linchpin in the anti-Israel Iranian power network that includes Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Israeli government and intelligence analysts say they believe the most likely outcome of the current struggle in Syria is chaos. They base that on observing four parameters: the loyalty of Mr. Assad’s security forces, the economic situation, the participation in protests in the main cities of Damascus and Aleppo; and the possibility of international intervention.
Their conclusions are that a vast majority of the Syrian security forces remain loyal to Mr. Assad, and that will not change soon; that Iranian economic aid to Syria is generous and vital and keeps the system going; that the participation within Damascus and Aleppo in antigovernment activity remains low; and that the chance of American or European military intervention in Syria is near zero.
Israeli officials and intelligence analysts say they also worry about an increased presence by Al Qaeda in Syria and the possibility that Syria’s large storehouse of arms could end up in the hands of Hezbollah and other anti-Israel groups.
Relations With the Palestinians
Relations with the Palestinians seemed to be stalled. Israel vehemently opposed the effort begun in September by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, for full recognition by the United Nations Security Council. Shortly afterward, Mr. Netanyahu’s government formally accepted an international proposal to return to peace negotiations, but the Israelis and Palestinians differed sharply over the letter and spirit of the proposal.
In November, to protest the Palestinians’ membership efforts at the United Nations and pursuit of power-sharing with Hamas, Israel carried out a threat to suspend the transfer of about $100 million in tax payments to the Palestinian Authority. On Nov. 30, under strong American and international pressure, Israel agreed to transfer the money.
In early January 2012, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met for the first time in more than a year in Jordan, in an effort to revive moribund peace talks, although none of the sides involved suggested any reason to view the meeting as a sign of significant progress. Palestinian officials reported little or no progress in the meetings and, on Jan. 25, Mr. Abbas said that discussions had ended.
Release of Gilad Shalit
Israel and Hamas reached an agreement in October 2011 to exchange more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza for five years, Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, in a deal brokered by Egypt. Sergeant Shalit was released on Oct. 18, at the same time that several hundred Palestinian prisoners were freed in the first phase of the agreement.
It was unclear what drove the two to accept a deal that had been on the table for years. But both stood to benefit politically and had reasons to distract attention from the globe-trotting efforts of Mr. Abbas in his U.N. bid.
Sergeant Shalit — he had recently been promoted from staff sergeant to sergeant first class — was the first captured Israeli soldier to be returned home alive in 26 years.
In Israel, there were elaborate preparations for his return, a calibrated mix of relieved celebration and acknowledgment — both of the pain and death that the released Palestinians caused many families and of the risk that their release may pose.
Housing Protests
Israel has also been rocked by a social movement that began in mid-July 2011 when a group of young Israelis pitched tents in the center of Tel Aviv to protest inflated housing prices.
In October, the Israeli cabinet endorsed the findings of a special government committee that recommended building almost 200,000 apartments over the next five years, making more apartments available as rentals and increasing housing subsidies for the needy.
The panel also recommended raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, building more day care centers and providing free pre-kindergarten for children 3 to 5 years old.
Settler Violence
In December 2011, after two days of settler violence against the Israeli army and police, Mr. Netanyahu announced that some radical Israelis would be treated the same way as suspected Palestinian militants — detained for long periods without charge and tried in military courts.
Mr. Netanyahu declined to go so far as to formally label violent settlers “terrorists.” Doing so would have allowed security forces to use targeted sanctions and courts to impose harsher punishments. And he made sure to underscore that he does not believe settlements are the problem, just the violent outliers.

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