News Analysis: Trilateral summit held in Jerusalem amidst high tensions in Mideast

Source: Xinhua| 2019-06-25 23:38:41|Editor: ZX
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by Keren Setton

JERUSALEM, June 25 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted a trilateral meeting with U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of the Russian National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

The summit came after Netanyahu held separate meetings with each of the envoys. Regional issues were discussed, with Iranian involvement in Syria on top of the agenda.

Tensions in the region have been running high in recent weeks. U.S. President Donald Trump announced he had called off a military strike against Iran after the latter shot down an American military surveillance drone.

According to media reports in Israel, Netanyahu convened his security cabinet last week, something he has not done in months, in order to discuss the recent developments.

Israeli officials fear that any conflict between the United States and Iran may spill over into its northern borders with Lebanon and Syria. Israel is convinced Iran will use its increasing hold in Syria as a stepping stone for attacks.

"Iran has plans to use Syria to destabilize the region, to destabilize Israel and Jordan, and turn Syria into a platform for further Iranian ambitions," said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a former senior intelligence official in Israel.

In recent years, Israel has reportedly struck at Iranian targets in Syria, mostly without Israeli official confirmation. In the opening remarks of the summit, however, Netanyahu confirmed Israel has "acted hundreds of times" against Iran in the region.

"Israel will continue to prevent Iran from using neighboring territory as platforms to attack us, and Israel will respond forcefully to any such attacks," the Israeli premier added.

Iranian forces have been involved in the Syrian civil war for several years. Both Syria and Iran are rivals of Israel, with Iran repeatedly making existential threats towards the Jewish state.

Since 2015, Russia has been involved in the Syrian conflict by deploying aircraft and personnel in the country.

As the civil strife in Syria subsides, the timing seems ripe to shape new geopolitical borders and rules of the game. Israel is eager to have as much influence on this process as possible. Thus it will want to use this week's trilateral summit to send a message to Iran that it has support for its regional policies.

"This is why there is now a good basis for a discussion that begins with Syria ... and possibly expands to other common issues among the three countries and this is an extremely unusual event," Lerman told Xinhua.

But a significant distance remains between Israel's stated goal of keeping Iran completely out of Syria and its acknowledgement that this is probably unattainable.

"I don't think much is to be expected by way of realization of Israeli hopes ... that the Russians are going to get the Iranians out of Syria," said Gideon Remez, an associate fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute in Jerusalem.

The Russian involvement in Syria led to the establishment of a de-confliction mechanism between Russia and Israel aimed at averting real-time military incidents between the two above the crowded airspace.

Although there was an incident last year in which a Syrian anti-aircraft missile aimed at an Israeli aircraft accidentally shot down a Russian plane and killed 15 Russian military personnel, Israel appears to have continued to maintain relative freedom of movement above Syrian skies.

"I doubt even there is going to be any serious limitation of the Iranians in Syria as a result of this meeting although the Russians may continue to acquiesce in Israeli strikes at the Iranians so long as Russian material or especially personnel are not directly harmed by it," Remez said.

Still, Israel and the United States seek to limit Iranian influence in Syria.

"There is quite a space in which Russia can be very persuasive in telling Assad to curb, to restrain, to limit Iranian activity in Syria and prevent them from using Syria as a platform for further destabilization in the region," Lerman said.

But Israel does not put all its faith in it's staunch American ally or in Russia.

"For the time being, there has not been a direct clash. So the Russians are not seeking a confrontation with Israel; they have no reason to, but they are more committed to the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah axis than they are to Israel and if they have to make a choice, I think it will go in that direction," Remez added.

It is probably no coincidence that the Israeli military conducted a large-scale military exercise last week simulating combat in its northern border.

According to a statement released by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), it was the "most extensive drill held... since 2017," and incorporated the Israeli Air Force together with new technological abilities the army has acquired.

For Netanyahu, up for re-election in September, the meeting itself is an achievement, a sign of his elevated status as a statesman in the international arena.

For Israel, hosting two top national security advisors from countries at odds on such a core issue in international affairs is not to be downplayed.

But with the apparent inconsistency in American policy in the region and conflicting Russian interests, Israel will have to move carefully while protecting its interests.