Flashing Yellow Lights: Rafah and Teheran
By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | January 9-16, 2019
Two isolated developments – the removal of Palestinian Authority officials from the Egypt-Gaza crossing and the rumors that Iran is planning to withdraw from the JCPOA – appear to be not so dramatic. However, these developments are actually potential early-warning indicators for what might challenge Israel in the near future.
Is the Palestinian Authority Disengaging from Gaza?
As tensions between Fatah and Hamas escalate, officials of the Palestinian Authority (PA) abandoned the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border. The PA officials returned to man the crossing in November 2017 following one of countless Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreements under the auspices of Egypt. Having the PA manage the Palestinian side of the crossing permitted Egypt to open the crossing more frequently, alleviating pressures inside Gaza.
Under Egyptian duress, Mahmud Abbas agreed to restore the PA officials to the crossing, but they have yet to show up. Moreover, senior Fatah and PA leaders have renewed their threats – if Hamas does not acquiesce to a comprehensive reconciliation agreement, affectively yielding its grip on Gaza, the PA will reinstate sanctions on the Hamas rule. These measures could include a withholding of payments for public utilities and services (water, electricity, education, etc.) and removing PA officials even from the Gaza crossings with Israel.
With the PA responsible for the lion-share of funding services in Gaza (USD 96M per-month), reinstating sanctions will wipe-out the positive effect of the Qatari funding of civil servants (USD 15M per-month) and undermine the fragile security equilibrium in Gaza, threatened once again by events in recent days.
The departure of PA officials from the Rafah crossing posed an immediate conundrum for Egypt: Should Egypt re-open the crossing and coordinate its operation with Hamas, circumventing President Abbas and the PA? This question however, is part of a broader and strategic dilemma extending beyond the operation of the Rafah crossing, and which faces Israel as well.
The power struggle between the Fatah-led PA and Hamas places Israel between a rock and a hard place. Israel has an urgent interest in preventing the deterioration of humanitarian conditions in Gaza, but PA sanctions on Gaza create the opposite effect. While Israel has a vested interest in cooperation with the PA on Gaza for several compelling reasons, including avoiding recognition of the Hamas rule and maintaining the joint supervision of the crossings, PA sanctions pose an immediate threat to Israel's security.
Furthermore, dealing with Hamas, particularly as it wields terror and violence, could reinforce its grip on Gaza and the perception that violence is effective in gaining concessions from Israel. As challenges facing the PA mount in the West Bank, and in the absence of a political horizon of negotiations with Israel, President Abbas will probably not yield to Israeli or Egyptian pressure regarding Gaza. Israel's tense elections campaign could limit its maneuverability if a new round of violence breaks out. It will be up to Egypt to contain the explosive situation, but it is unclear whether it will be able to prevail.
Teheran – Contemplating on Withdrawing from the JCPOA?
Iran's Supreme National Council denied rumors that Iran intends to withdraw from the JCPOA. One of the possible sources for those rumors, which spread last week, was the statement of the Council's Secretary, Ali Shamkhani that Europe's window of opportunity to realize Iran's financial benefits of the deal has closed. Shamkhani was alluding to the European mechanism to bypass American sanctions. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's nuclear program, also fueled the rumors when he announced that plans were underway to develop 20 percent uranium-enriched fuel for the research nuclear reactor in Tehran.
Iran's growing public signs of impatience and dissatisfaction with Europe are increasing, probably reflecting internal thinking and debate regarding continued adherence to the JCPOA. What will lead Iran to withdraw from the deal? Alternatively, and more plausibly, what would it take for Iran to carry out limited and gradual violations of the deal? A possible trigger for such course of action is another strike at Iran's oil exports if the U.S. does not extend the waivers that are due to expire in May. Current oil exports have already halved since the new American sanctions (from around 2.5 million bpd to 1.25 million bpd).
Iranian violations will unleash an international diplomatic furor. Europe will have to determine whether it joins the American sanctions. European foot-dragging could limit U.S. options other than the threat to use force. Rhetoric aside, the Trump administration's aversion to commit resources to international military operations might prevail once again.
Iranian nuclear violations may redirect international focus on the nuclear file at the expense of international scrutiny of Iran's other malignant activities, particularly in the Syria and Lebanese arenas. Israel will have to direct special intelligence attention to Iran's actions on the nuclear project, and plan policy responses for addressing potentially complex developments.
Meanwhile, Israel's unusual official and public acknowledgement of attacks in Syria sends a clear message of Israeli determination to foil Iran's schemes. However, Israel's statements place an onus on Russia, Syria and Iran to respond and might result in limiting Israel's maneuverability. As recalled, in September, Russia exploited the downing of its intelligence aircraft to curb Israeli operations in Syria shortly after Israel revealed that it had led more than 200 airstrikes in Syria.
Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental
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