I’m just completing a week of off-the-record meetings in Israel with the CAMERA board . As usual, we met with various people inside and outside the government, IDF, journalists, opinion makers and think-tankers. We also caught up with our Jerusalem staff which focuses on issues here on the ground including the Hebrew-speaking media which they monitor through Presspectiva (and CAMERA is initiating a new program to monitor Arabic-language arms of Western media — such as BBC Arabic).
Here are sixteen things I learned (or in some cases re-learned) this week in no particular order, many related in one aspect or another to Iran:
1. There is a “deep state” problem in Israel just like in the United States — Israel has lifelong bureaucrats working in various ministries who in some cases have agendas at direct opposition to their bosses, who are appointed by duly-elected legislators and leaders. We saw this play out in a meeting with a government minister who was running late for their meeting with our group. One of their staff showed up early to speak with us and fill the time gap. He proceeded to directly contradict official policy (and he was combative to boot).
2. There is a silver lining in the otherwise dangerously flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action AKA JCPOA or the “Iran Deal”. This “agreement” (not treaty) — never approved or ratified by Congress — has thrown the Sunni world into a panic, forcing them into the arms of Israel for their protection. The Arab world cheered on Israel (silently of course) for their public opposition to the JCPOA and especially for Bibi’s publicly challenging it in the US Congress.
3. Israelis, left and right, are grateful for Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.
4. We visited Sderot and toured a Hamas terror tunnel with the IDF. Israel is undertaking a massive underground wall construction project in order to totally contain Gaza, and prevent future construction of terror tunnels. This will be over 14 miles long, 3 feet thick (and an undisclosed depth) and contain sophisticated sensors to alert when underground activity is detected. Re: the terror tunnels, it is Israel and western nations that have enabled Hamas to construct them since they’ve provided the cement ostensibly to reconstruct hospitals, schools etc, but Hamas has diverted this resource.
5. One of the central themes of the Iranian Revolution is the imperative to export their brand of Shia Islam worldwide. Iran’s biggest impact is in their immediate neighborhood where, through proxies, they’ve established forward bases in Gaza (Hamas), Lebanon (Hezbollah) and large areas of Syria, Iraq and Yemen. On the subject of the JCPOA, some Israelis feel the “sunset” provision (which lifts restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment in 2025), is the most troublesome since it all but guarantees Iran can then have the bomb even though they will have been in violation of the NPT (Non Proliferation Treaty) of which they are signatories.
6. President Obama’s “Don’t cross my red line or you’ll be sorry” misstep helped show many in the Arab world (where the Strong Horse rules) that the United States was a paper tiger and a fair-weather friend as well. This paved the way for a realignment of power in the region, elevating Russia’s influence.
7. Bibi is still very popular here and many — left and right — think the corruption charges being leveled against him don’t rise to the level of importance such that his removal is appropriate, given that a) Israel faces serious challenges and this would be a bad time to transition b) there is no leader out there with his credentials or experience capable of leading the nation.
8. There is an unprecedented level of cooperation today between Israel and its Arab neighbors, not only the obvious ones like Egypt and Jordan, but also through back channels with countries like Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States. Except for the long-term Iranian threat, several we spoke with commented that Israel is in excellent circumstances security-wise today, better than they’re ever seen.
9. Iran is determined to create a “land bridge” that connects them directly with the Mediterranean. Their domination of Syria is a key element in that strategy. The United States, which maintains forces in Northern Syria/Kurdistan, is frustrating this effort.
10. We toured the Negev which is ripe for development and JNF is very involved. Negev comprises 60% of Israel’s land but only contains 8% of its population. The vast majority of Israelis live in the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv-Haifa triangle.
11. Israel’s Jewish fertility rate (3.16 births per woman) exceeds Israel’s Arab rate of fertility (3.11). Secular Jews are reproducing at a very high rate for a western nation.
12. After Iran invaded Israel airspace with a UAV, Israel shot it down, then retaliated by striking at least 12 Syrian installations (Israel lost an F16 in the process, the two pilots ejecting over Israel). Most see this event as public humiliation for Russia/Syria/Iran.
13. Most on the left and right feel the time is not yet right for a Palestinian deal. On related topic, Saudis need a Palestinian deal as a “fig leaf” so they can go public with their Israel relationship. Once Saudi Arabia comes out, this will enable other neighboring countries to step forward.
14. IDF is telling the country to be prepared, something is coming. Defense Minister Lieberman has told country that in next round of war, Israel won’t let Iran bleed it through its proxies.
15. Israel’s economy (and Shekel) are very strong. Unemployment, when corrected for transition, is essentially 0%. We heard concerns that “the party” will have to end sometime but nobody could pinpoint when or why this will happen, more a feeling.
16. Persians and Jews have been friends for thousands of years. Israel and Iran were allies (including militarily) up until the 1979 Revolution. Some think this will happen again someday.