One of the many alarming aspects of Syria in recent days – amid reports of ethno-sectarian cleansing and chemical weapons use – has been the brazen behaviour of two of the proxy warriors in the conflict: Hizbollah and Israel.
The Shia Islamist movement’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, almost boasted in a speech broadcast last week that his forces were helping to prop up Bashar al-Assad. Then, over the weekend, Israel’s air force blasted targets in Damascus that anonymous US and Israeli officials suggested were Iranian rockets destined for Hizbollah.
This accelerating spiral of proxy warfare – and these are but two of the actors driving it – is becoming a menace not just to a fast disintegrating Syria but to the region.
Photo by Getty
An energy and diplomacy deal that would reshape the map of the eastern Mediterranean might be proceeding faster than many people think.
It is just a few weeks since, in a bid to revive frozen diplomatic ties, Israel apologised to Turkey for a deadly raid that left nine Turkish citizens dead. The process was still sufficiently shaky for US Secretary of State John Kerry to come to Istanbul last weekend to chivvy both sides to go all the way and exchange ambassadors.
There are plenty of potential slips on the way ahead: compensation has to be agreed; the fate of Turkish court cases against retired Israeli commanders has to be decided (at present, they are going ahead); and Ankara still has to pronounce itself satisfied with the lifting of restrictions on civilian goods to Gaza (relevant, because the flotilla stormed by Israeli Defence Forces in 2010 was seeking to break the Gaza blockade).
Reaching out? The Bibi and Barack show, complete with gags about each other's pulchritude (Getty)
As they were trying out their new bromance on Wednesday, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu opened a press conference with some blokey teasing about their families. Mr Obama joked that Mr Netanyahu’s two sons “clearly got their good looks from their mother”. Mr Netanyahu shot back: “Well, I could say the same of your daughters.”
Speaking in Ramallah on Thursday, Mr Obama made a reference to his daughters that probably did not bring quite the same smile to Mr Netanyahu’s face. Discussing the struggles to get ahead that young Palestinians face, the US president drew a parallel with the civil rights movement in America and its impact on his family.
“Those of us in the United States understand that change takes time, but change is possible,” he said in Ramallah, three weeks after he unveiled a new statue in Washington to civil rights hero Rosa Parkes. “There was a time when my daughters did not have the same opportunities as somebody else’s daughters.”
For many Israelis, there is no analogy more insulting than having the country compared to the Jim Crow American South or, worse still, to apartheid South Africa – as it sometimes is by human rights groups.
Barack Obama is only the fifth serving US president to visit Israel since the state was founded in 1948. As Marvin Kalb notes: “A presidential visit to Israel is not routine. Quite the contrary.” So who are the other four?
President Nixon speaking during the official banquet at the Knesset. Photo: GPO
1) Richard Nixon made history as the first US president to visit Israel while in office. He and the first lady, Pat Nixon, touched down in Israel for 24 hours in June 1974 as part of a trip that included Austria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan. According to Aaron David Miller, “Nixon’s trip was a largely a farewell tour, a last hurrah following his administration’s deep involvement in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the diplomacy that followed.”
The itinerary Nixon’s daily diary records that after giving a speech at Ben Gurian airport, the President “motored” to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (where the president and his wife were staying in suite 429) accompanied by Ephraim Katzir, Israeli president, and Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister. Later, he went to “the residence of Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel”, along with Henry Kissinger and Rabin. The following day, Nixon and the first lady went to the Yad Vashem memorial, where they took part in a ceremony for Jews killed during the Second World War. Nixon then went to the Knesset and met the Israeli cabinet.
Gifts from Israel to Nixon: A papyrus scroll, a menorah and a book entitled “Justice in Jerusalem”
Hotel: King David Hotel
As Barack Obama visits Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, he will doubtless find that one issue tops all others for the Israeli government: the need to persuade him to make a firm commitment to take military action over Iran’s nuclear programme if negotiations to scale back Iranian ambitions eventually break down.
President Obama said recently that he does not think Iran will be in position to get a nuclear weapon for at least another year. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, is still looking for a firmer commitment from the White House that if the Iranians take their nuclear capability beyond a certain point, the US will take military action.
Whether differences between the US and Israel will be closed on this trip – or at some other point – is far from clear. Although it says Iran must not get a nuclear weapon, the US administration certainly views the timeframe for the Iranian programme in a more relaxed way than the Israelis do.
Employees in the town of Kfar Saba sew flags in preparation for the upcoming visit of Barack Obama (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama will visit Israel on Wednesday 20 March. It will be the first foreign visit of his second term. The trip will be dominated by three foreign policy issues – Iran’s nuclear programme, the Syrian civil war and the Middle East peace process.
Those issues will do much to define how his presidency is eventually judged. This will not be an easy visit for Obama; his relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, are notoriously frosty. “Obama has done a lot for Israel but many Israelis are still uncertain to what extent he is a true friend of their country,” says one veteran foreign diplomat. “If he wants to persuade Israelis to move on issues like the peace process he needs to convince them he is genuinely on their side.”
But this visit has to be more than just a charm offensive. Three questions will determine whether it is a success.
Israeli soldiers stand guard at an army post in the annexed Golan Heights on January 31 (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Reports that Wednesday’s Israeli air strike somewhere near Syria’s border with Lebanon was on an arms convoy destined for Hizbollah have been denied – sort of – by the Syrian regime and its paramilitary Lebanese ally.
Throughout Wednesday, Hizbollah, normally prodigious in its denunciations of any and all Israeli aggression on its al-Manar television station, maintained the stoniest of silences. Today, al-Manar moved swiftly to endorse the account given by Syria’s state news agency: that Israeli warplanes had hit a military research facility in Jamraya, near Damascus.
There is no cast-iron corroboration of anything at this stage. Israel is saying nothing. But beyond fuelling fears that Syria’s civil war will spread, Israel’s actions have led to some interesting statements.
The former Republican senator can expect a bumpy ride as he answers questions on how he would play the role of President Obama’s new defence secretary. Hagel needs to persuade at least five of his former colleagues to support him to avoid a filibuster that would torpedo his appointment.
Ben Fenton, from the FT’s Live News Desk, and Johanna Kassel follow the hearing.
Israeli politician Yair Lapid (Getty)
The cruellest but most revealing tweet about the Israeli election exit polls came from the American writer Jeffrey Goldberg: “I wonder if someone in the White House is right now researching the question, ‘who is Yair Lapid, and what exactly does he think?’”
Exit polls need to be treated with caution and Israel’s political system is particularly complex, but the early indications are that Lapid, a former television personality and leader of the self-described “centre-centre” Yesh Atid, has been the big winner of the elections.
The Obama administration had expected to be dealing with a Benjamin Netanyahu emboldened by a commanding electoral win and leading a coalition that was even more right-wing in its distaste for doing a deal with the Palestinians. According to the script, Nafatli Bennett of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, and not Lapid, was supposed to be the new star. Instead, the most likely outcome seems to be a more chastened Netanyahu looking to Lapid and the centre to help him form a new government.