Monday, August 06, 2007

Russia on the Border

Russia has signed a deal to reopen the Tartus and Latakia naval bases in Syrian ports along the Mediterranean. This will be the first time since the Iron Curtain fell that Russia will have a naval presence in the Middle East. The deal comes as a way for Syria to absolve herself of an $11 billion debt to Russia. According to the Yideot Achranot Newspaper, Russia will write-off 70%t of the Syrian debt. “The remaining debt will be returned by Syria partly in cash and partly through permanent port services to the Russian Navy ships in Latkia and Tartus.”
Another part of the arms deal includes advanced land-to-sea missile systems for protecting the coasts and the refurbished ports. The Russians claim that the move comes as a result of the U.S. insistence on establishing a defensive missile system in Europe, which Russia thinks is a direct threat.
The Arab Al-Jazeera TV News service quoted a senior Russian Defense Ministry official over the weekend as saying that Russia must be permanently present in the Mediterranean again.

Some observers see this as just another move by Russian President Putin to exert Russian influence in the region, and to announce that any conflict or move must now consider Russian reactions.

Israeli analysts think that the Israeli navy will be affected, and would have a problem striking at Syrian land-based facilities during wartime. The bases would also be a port for Russian spy ships in the Mediterranean, closely observing not only U.S. warships, but also studying Israeli air and sea weapons, and monitoring civilian and military communications activity. Israeli analysts also believe Russia would take sides in any future conflict in the region.
But the pundits point out that Russia may actually be able to restrain the outbreak of hostilities. So far Russia has reportedly not agreed to sell Syria the latest generation of Scud missiles, or a Russian anti-missile system. Nor will Russia sell the Syrians the latest MIG aircraft, but will upgrade the older MIG 29s.
Some experts point out that Russia could also help prevent a wave of fundamentalist Islam sweeping the region. Russian companies are currently constructing a $1 billion nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran, which is slow to reach completion. Some see this as a way for Russia to exercise control on the Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions.
In view of the Russian moves, some observers believe Israelis may sleep better knowing that the Minister of Defense is Ehud Barak and not Amir Peretz. Barak, testifying at the Winograd Commission investigating the War in Lebanon II, thought Israel should have “struck hard and said that unless these two boys are returned within six weeks, Israel will act at its own discretion.”
Barak said that the object of war is to win. Barak also defended the decision he made while Prime Minister to pull out of Lebanon in 2000.
"The situation in Lebanon was leading nowhere. In the year before my premiership there must have been more than 100 Israelis killed, and that includes the accident in which more than 70 boys were killed (the 1997 helicopter disaster)," said Barak in his testimony, which was released to the public on Monday.
"To me, the internal contradiction of the security zone was that its purpose was to provide defense for the residents of the north – but by prolonging our stay there, it became the problem rather than the solution," he said.
He said that the kidnapping of Goldwasser and Regev was “a shameful operational failure on our part. It wasn't something that had to happen, certainly not with the alerts we had and the level of preparedness that should have been realized, all the way to the ground troops.”
Barak said he would have first struck Hezbollah hard and then demanded that the two soldiers were returned within six weeks. "Unless these two boys are returned within six weeks,” Barak said in his testimony, of how he would have acted, “Israel will act at its own discretion. And now you take those six weeks and you use them to prepare the orchestra to play the piece you want it to perform with… that's something you need to prepare for."

Given the new circumstances with a Russian presence in Syria, perhaps Barak will get a chance to put his strategies into practice.

Sunday saw traffic snarled in Jerusalem as a result of a protest by the handicapped, who blocked roads in and out of Jerusalem, as well as within the city proper. The protest was for better facilities and more funds. But while that protest brought traffic in Jerusalem to a halt on Sunday, it was the protest Sunday afternoon by a few thousand people in support of increasing grants to Holocaust Survivors which grabbed the headlines.
The Holocaust Survivor’s march was attended by the children and grandchildren of the survivors, who consider the state’s behavior towards the survivors an insult, and elderly survivors, some of whom wore prison garb resembling that from the concentration camps. The protest was closely watched and widely covered by the world’s press, who reportedly thought that Holocaust Survivors living in Israel protesting for welfare benefits deserved broad coverage.

250,000 Israelis are currently defined as Holocaust survivors: including 150,000 Jews who escaped the Nazis to the former Soviet Union. Currently 50,000 Israelis are officially designated Holocaust survivors. They receive a total of one billion, seven hundred million shekels, (about $40 Million) or about 3,400 shekels (@$800) per person per year or about $67 a month.

But some critics think that tagging the Holocaust Survivor issue onto the plight of the elderly is cynical. An article which appeared last Friday in Yediot Achronot thought elderly citizens in Israel should be treated according to their social condition, not according to the hardships endured 60 years ago. “This is the obligation of the State; it’s the State's responsibility. All the rest is a cynical attempt to turn the most sensitive grief into cash.”

Political observers thought that many politicians were jumping on the popular Holocaust Survivor bandwagon, even if previously they’d worked against the very grants now under discussion. Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, called on the government to comply with the demands made by Holocaust survivors. Previously Netanyahu had supported sweeping cuts in the social welfare budgets, including those to the survivors. Israel’s current President Shimon Peres was Prime Minister in the 1980s. Critics point out that when he was Prime Minister he considered his greatest achievement large-scale cuts in the social welfare budgets.

Cynics point out that lawyers and public relations companies were behind the Holocaust Survivors march and stand to reap significant rewards in fees should new legislation be passed to give the survivors more money. An inter-ministerial committee has been set up to reexamine the stipends. One reporter, commenting on how the professionals ‘revved up’ the survivors, described the event as turning the Holocaust into pornography. Some Russian politicians are on the bandwagon trying to get votes. The TV, says one critic, is in it for ratings: numbers tattooed on an arm is good television, he wrote.

Another analyst said that 80,000 of the war refugees who came from the USSR are defined as needy. And they need to receive care, not because of what happened sixty-years ago, but because of their dire conditions today.

Meanwhile, the Likud party is in the throes of its own mini-revolution. Firebrand Moshe Feiglan is running for Likud Party leadership, and some say he may get as much as 30 percent of the vote in the Likud primaries. Feiglan was the founder of the right-wing Zu Artzenu party, which used demonstrations like that of the handicapped, but didn’t limit them to Jerusalem. Zu Artzenu closed down roads across the country. Feiglan also believes Israel should be ruled under a Torah law, not a secular law. Likud party member Limor Livnat said on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet that Feiglan does not represent the Likud and is trying to co-opt the party to enforce his own agenda.

Some analysts believe Feiglan may be a spoiler in the next primary, and wind up with a promise of a cabinet position if he supports Netanyahu rather than run against him.
Others see Feiglan as a dangerous fanatic out to take down democracy and the rule of law.

One thing is certain, in Israel, between the Russians, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, and Israeli politics, no one can say it’s a boring place to live.