- Palestinian factions celebrate reports of kidnapped Israeli teenagers, risking diplomatic deterioration
Analysts and journalists reacting to the lightening advance of fighters loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - the Al Qaeda offshoot that has been steadily consolidating territory across northern Iraq this week - focused Thursday and Friday on years of systematic efforts by the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to politicize Iraqi institutions along sectarian lines, alienating the country's minority Sunni population in unprecedented ways. Writing for CNN, Derek Harvey and Michael Pregent - respectively a former senior intelligence official who worked on Iraq from 2003-2009 and a former senior intelligence analyst who worked on Iraq from 2003-2011 - emphasized that "the speed and scope of this week's assaults on every major city [by ISIS]... has been the predictable culmination of a long deterioration, brought on by the government's politicization of its security forces." The process had long ago been dubbed one of "Shiafication." More broadly, the Iran-backed Maliki is now being widely criticized for having prioritized Shiite expansionism over building pluralistic institutions that would have incorporated minority Sunnis. Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, did not pull punches in calling for the U.S. to push Maliki out of power, linking him to every major crisis throughout the region: "he has made the Iraqi security force his political tool... [h]is ruthless repression of legitimate Sunni opposition and pressure on the Kurds – and lies and broken promises to Sunni tribal leaders – have lost him the support of Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds and empowered ISIS... his ties to Iran have helped it ship arms and volunteers to Syria, Hezbollah – which now presents a massive rocket and missile threat to Israel – and helped create the same rising threat in Gaza." The sectarian divisions, which Maliki's policies are said to have hardened, now seem set to escalate into a proxy war between the region's Sunni and Shiite powers. Simon Henderson, the Washington Institute's Baker Fellow and the director of its Gulf and Energy Policy Program, assessed in Foreign Policy on Thursday that "the ISIS invasion of Iraq is really a war between Shiites and Sunnis for control of the Middle East."
The Obama administration's approach toward nuclear talks with Iran is generating unease among Washington's traditional Arab and Israeli allies - and will at a minimum need to be counterbalanced by robust pushback against other elements of Iran's foreign policy - according to [PDF] testimony submitted on Thursday to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations by veteran American diplomacy Ambassador Dennis Ross. Responding to a request by lawmakers to evaluate the regional implications of any comprehensive deal, Ross first emphasized that "America's readiness to negotiate a deal with the Islamic Republic on its nuclear program is a source of deep concern among our traditional friends in the Middle East," distinguishing between the Israeli fear that Washington will accept a bad deal from the more general Arab concern that "that the deal with come at their expense, with the United States increasingly seeing Iran as a partner." Ross also assessed that any credible deal with Iran would require convincing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that a collapse in talks "will mean enduring, severe economic pain for Iran as well as the high probability that force will be used to destroy the huge investment the Islamic Republic has made in its nuclear facilities" - a stance that he noted "would also be useful for assuaging the deep concerns our regional friends have about any possible P5+1 nuclear accord with the Iranians." Ross also called on the Obama administration to address Arab concerns over Iran's ongoing efforts to destabilize Gulf states - which those states have been criticizing for years in increasingly explicit terms - by moving against Tehran's proxies such as the Bashar al-Assad regime and blocking Iranian efforts to ship destabilizing arms across the Middle East. Meanwhile lawmakers in the House of Representatives also on Thursday authored a letter to emphasize to the President that their concerns over Iran extend beyond the country's atomic program. The Jerusalem Post reported that Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) - respectively the top figures on the House Foreign Affairs Committee - had dispatched a letter to the White House indicating that a nuclear deal with Iran may not be sufficient for Congress to remove sanctions against the Islamic regime. The letter among other things noted that "almost all sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program are also related to Tehran’s advancing ballistic missile program, intensifying support for international terrorism, and other unconventional weapons programs."
Israeli security forces on Friday launched a large-scale operation across the West Bank in search of three Israeli teenagers - one of whom is reportedly an American-Israeli dual citizen - whom authorities fear were abducted overnight by Palestinians seeking to trade them for terrorists held by Jerusalem. Palestinian prisoners celebrated at the news that the three students were missing and thought kidnapped, a month after some of those prisoners had been exposed as plotting to coordinate similar kidnappings. Late May had also seen the capture of a Palestinian infiltrator who aimed at kidnapping Israelis, and a little later news emerged that 11 full-blown kidnapping attempts had been thwarted by Israeli intelligence services this year (the Israeli Prime Minister's Arab media spokesperson clarified amid the search efforts that the number had subsequently risen to 14). The Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group reacted to Friday's developments by urging Palestinians to kidnap Israeli civilians. For its part, Hamas called for a broader violent uprising after news of the suspected kidnapping broke. The celebrations and exhortations from various Palestinian factions - up to and especially from Hamas, which recently partnered with its traditional Fatah rival to form a unity cabinet - will have diplomatic consequences, regardless of whether and how the students are found. The Palestinians have argued that last month's unity pact was a vital prerequisite to creating a government entity willing and capable of making peace with Jerusalem. The stance was echoed by international backers of the move, including the United States. The last few days have seen rocket fire from the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip and celebrations of an apparent kidnapping in Fatah-controlled areas of the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told Secretary of State John Kerry that "the situation on the ground has been destructive" since a new consensus cabinet was formed, and that Israel holds the Palestinian government responsible for crisis.
English- and Arabic-language outlets throughout the week reported on trends suggesting that radical Islamist groups are gaining a foothold in the Gaza Strip, developments that appear to have been taking place alongside growing efforts by Hamas to rebuild its infrastructure in the West Bank. Reports have been emerging since the announcement of a Palestinian unity pact - under which the Western-backed Fatah faction struck a deal with the terror group on the formation of a new cabinet - that Hamas had successfully brushed off a year of international isolation and was establishing influence in the West Bank. This week Palestinian journalist Rasha Abou Jalal, reporting out of the Gaza Strip, revealed that a former Palestinian Islamic Jihad figure had launched a new terror group in the territory. The group, named Al-Sabirin [The Patient] for the Victory of Palestine," had generated particular interest and unease because of apparent Shiite influences. Meanwhile Arabic-language Palestinian outlets reported Friday that Hamas security officers had dispersed a Gaza rally celebrating military victories achieved by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in which demonstrators celebrated the gains made by the Sunni Al Qaeda offshoot by chanting slogans promising to eradicate Jews. Evidence that relatively extremist groups are getting traction in either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip is bound to be read against the backdrop of controversies over the recent unity government. Israeli predictions that the new political arrangement would boost terrorism had been brushed off by huge swaths of the international community.
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