Destabilizing the Middle East: Within the Sunni world, an unlikely player pulls the strings

Is Israel seeking role as leader of the Sunni bloc?


Leaked cable shows Israel told diplomats to support Saudi Arabia’s war of words with Iran and Lebanese group Hezbollah

Israel has instructed its overseas embassies to lobby their respective host countries in support of Saudi Arabia and its apparent efforts to destabilise Lebanon, a recently leaked diplomatic cable shows.

The cable appears to be the first formal confirmation of rumours that Israel and Saudi Arabia are colluding to stoke tensions in the region.

Sent by the Israeli foreign ministry and disclosed by Israel’s Channel 10 news this week, the cable demanded that diplomats stress Iran and Hezbollah’s engagement in “regional subversion”.

That closely echoes accusations Riyadh levelled against Tehran and the Lebanese faction in recent days.

Analysts have noted that diplomatic moves by Israel to intervene directly in a seemingly internal Arab matter are “very rare”.

Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to Ehud Barak when he was Israeli prime minister, called the cable “extremely presumptuous”.

“Do the Saudis really need Israel to put in a good word for them in capitals around the world?” he told Al Jazeera.

But others believe Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who also heads the foreign ministry that issued the cable, may be looking to gain from an uptick in uncertainty in the region.

War of words

The cable comes as Saudi Arabia has dramatically escalated its rhetoric against Iran and Hezbollah.

On Thursday, the Saudi foreign ministry told its nationals to leave Lebanon immediately after it accused Hezbollah earlier in the week of “declaring war” on the kingdom.

That followed the resignation of Saad Hariri as Lebanon’s prime minister. A politician with close personal and business ties to Saudi Arabia, Hariri announced his departure while in Riyadh.

He accused Iran of building “a state within a state” in Lebanon through Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia group which is represented in the parliament and has a strong military wing.

There are widespread suspicions that Riyadh ordered Hariri to step down as a way to destablise Lebanon, whose complex and fragile political set-up has struggled to contain sharp sectarian divisions.

Saudi Arabia has also implicated Hezbollah in the launching of what it sayswas an Iranian-made rocket from Yemen that was intercepted over Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has been waging a war in Yemen against the Houthis, a Shia minority, and has accused Iran of fomenting and supporting the Houthis.

The diplomatic cable

The leaked cable instructed Israeli diplomats “to stress that the Hariri resignation shows how dangerous Iran and Hezbollah are for Lebanon’s security”.

The diplomats were told to appeal to the “highest officials” in their host countries to press for Hezbollah’s expulsion from the Lebanese government. “Hariri’s resignation proves wrong the argument that Hezbollah participation in the government stabilises Lebanon,” the cable said.

It further called on Israeli diplomats to back Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, emphasising that the missile directed at Riyadh required “more pressure on Iran and Hezbollah”.

Menachem Klein, a politics professor at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, said that it was likely Netanyahu expected and wanted the cable to go public.

“If you send a diplomatic cable and start lobbying every foreign capital, you have to expect that it won’t remain private for long,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Netanyahu’s aim was to make clear to the Saudis that he can help. The message is, ‘We have special relations with Western countries and we can help you advance your political goals against Iran and Hezbollah, which we share’.”

Risking confrontation

But some say Israel risks being jostled by Saudi Arabia into an unnecessary and dangerous confrontation with Hezbollah as the result of what Israeli commentator Amos Harel this week described as Riyadh’s “ambitious attempt to reach a new regional order”.

In a column in Israeli daily Haaretz this week, Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, argued that the Saudis were trying to move the battlefield from Syria to Lebanon after their failure to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A six-year civil war there has dragged in a range of proxies.

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have meddled in different ways in Syria during the war, with the barely concealed intention of weakening the Assad government and assisting rebel forces dominated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL) and al-Qaeda affiliates.

However with Russian help, Assad has shored up his rule across much of the country in recent months, and the last major strongholds of the rebel groups have collapsed.

Neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia can afford to get more directly involved in Syria, given Russia’s involvement.

Shapiro warned Israel to be wary of Riyadh’s efforts to push it prematurely into a confrontation with Hezbollah, which could rapidly escalate into a regional war.

Threat to nuclear accord

A diplomatic source with long experience in the Middle East said the cable might ultimately prove to be just such a misstep.

“The Israelis will certainly be listened to because they have the best military intelligence in the region,” said the source, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

“Europe, in particular, is very concerned about the growing numbers of refugees coming their way from the region, many of them through Lebanon. Any information Israel provides about changes to the delicate balance of power in Lebanon, or the likelihood of a war, will ring alarm bells.”

The source said Israel would be hoping to capitalise on these concerns by persuading European countries to toughen their stance towards Iran, especially in relation to the Iranian nuclear accord.

Signed between Iran and the P5 1 countries, the deal led to the loosening of Western diplomatic sanctions on the Iranian regime two years ago.

“Both Israel and the Saudis want to see the nuclear deal collapse, but Israel is better placed than Riyadh to demonise Iran,” said the source.

Lebanon vulnerable?

Analysts have suggested that renewed sectarian conflict in Lebanon – a possible outcome of Hariri’s resignation – could also leave it more vulnerable to Israeli aggression.

In September, in a sign that Israel may be preparing for a confrontation on its northern border, the Israeli army held its biggest military drill in 20 years, simulating an invasion of Lebanon.

Hezbollah, however, is widely assumed to be armed with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles. So far, that has acted as a deterrent to a repeat of Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

Still, Israel and Saudi Arabia appear interested in cementing their alliance and shifting attention towards Lebanon – and away from Syria.

Israel has launched more than 100 air strikes on Syrian government and military targets in recent years, according to Reuters news agency estimates, largely on the grounds that it was preventing the transfer of weapons technology from Iran to Hezbollah.

A field hospital established by the Israeli army in the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights has treated wounded Islamist fighters and returned them to Syria, the UN has documented.

The UN has also observed the Israeli army passing “boxes” to Islamist fighters that were widely assumed to contain weapons.

Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli journalist, noted that Israel has become increasingly open about its attacks in Syria, taking responsibility for them to a degree not seen before.

“The risk of escalation lies in the fact that everyone wants someone else to fight Iran for them. Israel wants the US to do it, while the Saudis want Israel to attack Iran or proxies like Hezbollah,” he said.


Sheizaf told Al Jazeera the cable appears to be “part of Israeli efforts at coalition-building with Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf states”.

He said: “Israel understands that the Saudis lost to Iran in Syria and Yemen, and now they need an ally with the military and diplomatic power that Israel can provide.”

Netanyahu indicated as much in recent comments when he said Israel was working “very hard” to establish an alliance with “modern Sunni states” to counter Iran.

Jeff Halper, an Israeli analyst, suggested that Israel had even grander ambitions.

“As strange this sounds, the cable shows how Israel is becoming the unlikely leader of the Sunni world,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Saudi Arabia has found it can’t even defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen. It needs the things Israel can offer – Israel’s military might, its legitimacy in Europe and the US, its influence in the US Congress. Israel has the kind of clout internationally the Saudis want but simply don’t have.”  [END]


Related, by Jonathan Cook:

“Israel maintains robust arms trade with rogue regimes”

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UPDATED | This Always Makes America’s Political Leadership Lose Their Senses | VIDEO

Debt Supercommittee What NextI know — LOTS of things do! Like the accrual of power and influence, the smell of money — big money, and of course the fear of not being re-elected. But this thing is unimaginably powerful. It’s strong enough to cause scores of U.S. senators and representatives — probably one or more of yours — to propose legislation that is clearly unconstitutional, seeking to impose severe criminal penalties for the free exercise of commerce and, by implication, for exercising the First Amendment right of free speech. What is this thing that makes our leaders go crazy?

Continue reading

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UPDATED | What’s an Arts and Crafts Retail Chain Doing Dabbling in Antiquities???


Hobby Lobby To Forfeit Smuggled Iraqi Antiquities

by RICHARD GONZALES, NPR / July 5, 2017

Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma-based chain of arts and crafts retail stores, has agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit thousands of ancient clay tablets and clay bullae that were smuggled into the United States with improper labels.

The announcement by the Justice Department says Hobby Lobby bought over 5,500 artifacts, such as clay tablets and blocks with cuneiform writing, and cylinder seals for $1.6 million. The artifacts were shipped to the company from Iraq through the United Arab Emirates and Israel with labels that described them as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).”

In a statement, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said the company “was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes.”

“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” he said.

But the Justice Department prosecutors say the company should have realized that its acquisition of the artifacts “was Continue reading

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Through the American Colony Lens: A JERUSALEM FOURTH

AC 4th of July ca 1910_00062v

Fourth of July pageant at the American Colony, ca. 1908. (John D. Whiting Collection, US Library of Congress.)

People or communities who intentionally transplant themselves on foreign soil for any length of time usually experience a certain tension: the need to maintain links to “home” and their native culture versus immersing themselves unreservedly in their new surroundings. In this regard, the American Colony, it’s fair to say, usually managed to strike a balance, one that well served both their own members and the diverse peoples of Jerusalem. Within this mix, however, the Colony leadership for many years clung tenaciously to one particular tradition — the mounting of colorful, spirited displays of American patriotism on the 4th of July!  

The first two images (above and below) seem to date from the first decade of the 20th century, and probably depict the same occasion, a Fourth of July pageant held on the grounds of the American Colony’s “Big House” north of the Old City. These particular photos Continue reading

Posted in American Colony, Fourth of July, Jerusalem People, Modern History, Photography, PHOTOS | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Lies Behind (and Beneath) Israel’s JNF Forests? Nine minutes with Jonathan Cook | VIDEO

JNF “blue box”. In the 1920s and ’30s perhaps one million of them could be found in Jewish homes and institutions worldwide.

JNF, the Jewish National Fund, an international Zionist charity that today holds semi-governmental authority in Israel. Among the very earliest of Zionist entities, it was founded in 1901 for the purpose of buying and developing land for Jewish settlement in Ottoman-Turkish (later British Mandate) Palestine. For many decades the JNF collected donations, especially from European and North American Jews, in its small, iconic Blue Boxes, telling donors their money would help to “make the desert bloom”.

It is well known that the founders of the young State of Israel were heavily invested, through archaeology, in uncovering the traces of the country’s ancient civilizations. What is not so well known is that, at the same time, they were also busy covering up the remnants of its recent history. In short, the 1950s and ’60s saw wide swaths of the country planted in JNF pine forests, partly in an attempt to enforce and conceal war crimes carried out in the founding of the state.

Many people would be surprised to know that one of Israel’s major national parks, Sepphoris/Tzippori — along with the adjacent Israeli moshav of the same name and the surrounding forested tracts — represents just such a place: Until 1948 it was the thriving Arab-Palestinian town of Saffuriya, (and here), home to some 5,000 souls.

Saffouriya _1930

Saffouriya (Tzippori/Sepphoris) ca. 1931

In the featured VIDEO, our host is Jonathan Cook, the UK-born, Nazareth-based independent journalist, author and guide. Cook stands just outside the national park’s fenced boundary and describes to a group what once existed here, and in hundreds of places just like it, and how seemingly innocent afforestation projects both cover the traces of people’s former life here and help insure they can never reclaim what was lost.

Be advised: Cook unapologetically uses the term “war crime” for the intentional expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arab-Palestinians in the course of the 1948 War, for Israel’s refusal to repatriate the refugees after the hostilities had ceased, the systematic destruction of 500-plus of their former towns and villages, and the state-sponsored theft of the resultant “absentee” lands. Really, in the light of international humanitarian law– the Geneva Conventions, there is simply nothing else to call such things. Watch and learn…  


Explore further —  Related posts by Jonathan Cook:


Erik Ader

Photo: Copyright Jonathan Cook

DISCOVER WHY a former Dutch diplomat feels the Israelis, and particularly the JNF, cynically exploited his family’s name and reputation. At issue is their planting of a forest back in the 1960s in honor of his father, one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” who died at the hands of the Nazis in 1944 after helping many Dutch Jews escape the Holocaust. In a story that spans more than 70 years, Erik Ader began to discover nearly a decade ago the truth about the now-forested tract. His shock has led both to expressions of outrage and, now, to Ader’s symbolic acts of apology and solidarity. These include include the planting of an equal number of trees — olives, not pines — in a small Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank, one that has been the target of repeated attacks from present-day Israeli settlers. Go HERE


ANOTHER POST tells the story of Canada Park, a JNF-forested area built illegally by the State of Israel on land occupied by them in 1967– and on the ruins of three Palestinian villages which were forcibly depopulated and then destroyed in the immediate wake of that war. Vindictive and thoroughly reprehensible, this episode stands as a reminder, if one were needed, that the Nakba, the Palestinian “catastrophe”, did not end in 1948. I feel some small connection to Canada Park, and to its dark secrets, since it’s a place I myself have hiked and explored. Today, few people travelling between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on busy Road 1 would realize — and even fewer would care, I suppose — that the area around Latrun Junction which they pass through is in fact Occupied Territory from 1967, and that a shameful chapter of Israeli history was played out very nearby.

Latrun Salient

The “Latrun Salient” (left) containing the now-destroyed villages of ‘Imwas, Yalu and Bayt Nuba. Detail of 1944 British Survey of Palestine map, marked with proposed 1948-49 armistice lines.

Posted in Galilee, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Modern History, Palestinians, VIDEOS | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Following the Road to Emmaus (before it’s too late)

It was the first Easter, two thousand years ago. Two confused, disheartened disciples are on their way out of Jerusalem, encounter a stranger on the road, and quickly find themselves as students in the infant Church’s first Sunday School class! — taught by the risen, but as-yet unrecognized, Jesus no less! That never-to-be-forgotten encounter — as “he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” — captivates us, as it has believers down through the ages, with both its mystery and immediacy, in a way that we easily imagine ourselves there!

But where is — or was — the Emmaus of Luke 24? From the recorded beginnings of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land at least 1700 years ago, it has remained one of the classic conundrums of sacred geography, with at least four sites being identified over the centuries. With a little effort, we can discern how the vexing confusion arose.  For various reasons — because certain places can flourish and then disappear over the span of a few centuries, because the names of places change over time, and common place-names (like “The Springs”) are sometimes affixed to different locales — the church fathers as early as the 4th Century may have gotten it wrong. One of them apparently even altered the gospel text slightly to comport with what they thought they knew!

And what about the Roman road itself, the other focus of this post? Well, the remains are still there, descending from the western outskirts of Jerusalem — if one knows where to look. (In all my years in Jerusalem I never had a good fix on the location, thus never ventured out in search of them.) What’s interesting, too, is that this stretch of ancient roadway “works” as the road to Emmaus for most of the various places identified over time as the site of the NT village.

Emmaus Road remains

Western outskirts of Jerusalem, near Road 1. The pink shading indicates where traces of the Roman road can still (with difficulty) be found. (Map: Jerusalem Perspective)

My real purpose here is to point you to a fine new article published on-line by David Bivin and the folks at Jerusalem Perspective. (Most JP content is by subscription — well worth digging into — but this piece has been made available to all, free.) Bivin Continue reading

Posted in Antiquities, Easter, Jerusalem Antiquities, Josephus, New Testament, Roman Period, VIDEOS | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Netanyahu’s Laugh

Did you see it, and hear it? I did, and thought I could forget it, but I can’t. So here I am.

The scene is the joint press conference held by President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister in the East Room of the White House on February 15th, 2017. In response to a question, Trump is blathering on about one state/two state, formulating U.S. foreign policy on-the-fly as if such things hold no more importance than what he might order for lunch: a turkey sandwich or, no, maybe the corned beef, or whatever…  God help us.

PRESIDENT TRUMP:  So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.  (Laughter.)  I’m very happy with the one that both parties like.  I can live with either one.

I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two.  But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians — if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.

And “Bibi” is laughing. Benjamin Netanyahu, in his public persona, is not known particularly for displays of jocularity, so when he lets loose an unscripted laugh during our president’s frighteningly inane comments on Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects — a realm fraught with issues of justice, human rights and international law — perhaps we should pay attention. It was unnerving, and chilling, for what it portends.

Here’s what it looked and sounded like [click on image below for a 19-second out-take— but promise to come right back]:

press conf Trump + Netanyahu


If you want to view the entire 26-minute press conference, or just want more context, go HERE (the key segment starts at 10:45)– but come right back!

So, my first thought was Continue reading

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