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Florida Legislature Unanimously Passes Resolution for Israel

Florida State Representative Mike Hill, Pensacola Stand for Israel Rally. Source: John Blackie, PNJ

The Pensacola Rally for Israel witnessed an outpouring of support in the Northwest Florida community for the Jewish nation exceeding organizers’ expectations. The rally, sponsored by the Pensacola Jewish Federation, was underwritten by anonymous donors from the Jewish community.

The Pensacola Police security detail estimated the crowd in excess of 500 attendees. The large polite crowd was composed of Jews from several denominations, Baptists, Pentecostals and other Christian groups. Mike Bates of Northwest Florida’s AM 1330 WEBY and this writer served as co-hosts for the rally.
A climactic event was the appearance of Florida House Representative Mike Hill. A Pensacola News Journal article on the rally, “Hundreds gather to support Israel,” reported: “He brought the crowd to their feet when he announced a Stand with Israel resolution to be voted on in a special session this week in Tallahassee.”

Hill said:

What is being done to Israel is evil. Israelis are our allies, and they need our support. Let’s show the nation that Florida is leading the way in support for Israel.

Rep. Hill texted both Bates and the author on the afternoon of August 11th that the House unanimously passed a resolution supporting Israel in Operation Protective Edge and condemning Hamas. Hill commented in a text message: “proud of the body, today.” Sen. Alan Hays texted a companion unanimous vote  in the Florida State Senate.

Mike Bates of 1330AM radio WEBY, Pensacola Stand for Israel host at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, March 2014.

Mike Bates set the agenda for the rally program saying:

We’re here to stand up for the good guys. To stand with the truth, to stand with what is right, to stand with justice. We are here today to stand with Israel.

There were several emotional moments during the rally. Mike Bates periodically would advise the crowd of the minutes since the last rocket was fired from Gaza headed towards Israel. He followed this with a request for a moment of silence to pray for Israelis threatened by terror from the skies. There were also moments of silence praying for the protection of Christians and other religious minorities confronting the barbarism of the Islamic State, formerly ISIS.

ates drew attention to the irony that in the midst of this conflict, Israel continued to supply food, gas, water and electricity to Gazans living under the tyranny of Islamist extremist Hamas. He remarked to the audience he couldn’t conceive of the US doing that during WWII. Several speakers drew attention to Hamas’ launch of rockets near or from UNWRA schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, or residences using civilians as human shields.

This author was also interviewed by the PNJ following opening remarks. As cited in their report, I said:

Americans incorrectly perceive Israel to be the villains in the current fighting because the media doesn’t report the historic context of the conflict. While I hoped a resolution to the fighting could be found, certain conditions would have to be met. The only breakthrough would come if they negotiated a deal to demilitarize Gaza. However I said that the chances of that are really low, unfortunately. One never knows what may happen, but certainly there is a lot of regional sentiment for that.

The genesis for the rally had been sparked in early July with onset of Hamas’ rocket and terror tunnel war against Israel and Israel’s response in Operation Protective Edge. That led to a series of weekly one hour updates and discussions on WEBY‘s talk radio program, “Your Turn,” hosted by Bates. Public service announcements (PSA) followed in earnest after a city public park site was secured by the local Jewish Federation for a Stand for Israel rally. This was preceded by a series of pro-Gaza rallies by Palestinian activists in downtown Pensacola. The radio discussions and PSA’s at WEBY were materially assisted by distribution of flyers, announcements from synagogue, temple and church pulpits. Event and news releases were sent to media outlets in the combined Northwest Florida and adjacent Eastern Alabama.

The rally occurred on a hot and sultry day with a heat index in the high 90’s and a 70 percent chance of thunderstorms forecast. Ha Shem must have looked with favor on the event as thunderstorms held off. A minor miracle, not quite those cited by several speakers at the rally who drew attention to several that spared both Tel Aviv and IDF forces in combat from death and destruction. There was a Hamas rocket that failed to be intercepted by three Iron Dome missiles headed for Tel Aviv. Suddenly, a wind arose from the east blowing it to fall harmlessly into the Mediterranean. There was a contingent of IDF soldiers about to go on a daytime mission into Gaza that was cloaked in a fog. They successfully completed their mission without a casualty. There was a bird that alighted on a trip wire in a Hamas terror tunnel during a clearance operation by IDF troops, triggering an explosion of booby traps, sparing Israeli casualties.

Rabbi Joel Fleekop Temple Beth El Penscola, FL. Source: John Blackie, PNJ.

The rally organizers had lined up a broad array of local, regional, national and international speakers. Rabbi Joel Fleekop from Temple Beth El in Pensacola gave a thoughtful and spiritually uplifting invocation. Rabbi Steven Silberman, of Mobile Synagogue Ahavas Chesed, spoke of his eyewitness to Hamas’ rocket war in Israel noting it was his first exposure to the chilling red alert wailing sirens. He also had a chance meeting with two Polish Catholic women, surprised to find an American rabbi at their hotel during the conflict. Fred Zimmerman, a member of the National Jewish Federation campaign cabinet from Nashville, spoke via phone to the rally attendees about his experience in Israel during Operation Protective Edge and the Federation’s  Stop the Sirens campaign.

Jerry Barnett of Volunteers for Israel told of the group’s mission to enlist civilian volunteers to assist in the maintenance of IDF bases. He read an email requesting volunteers of all ages to sign and assist Tzahal at this time of need. Kenneth E. Lamb, a member of a local Pentecostal church spoke of the covenant relationship between Ha Shem and the Children of Abraham, the Jews and Israel. The international speaker at the rally was Dan Diker from Israel who called while on vacation with his family in northern California. Diker is a former secretary general of the World Jewish Council and a noted Middle East Affairs expert with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Diker has been on several AM 1330 WEBY International Middle East Round Table discussions. Diker spoke of Hamas and its intentions to obliterate the Jewish people and Israel and the difficulty of obtaining a truce in the face of implacable demands. He noted the dramatic turn of events of Israel receiving tacit support from Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and especially Egypt that has cooperated with Israel in closing off the Gaza frontier.

In the midst of Diker’s call there was a sudden outburst of calls of “Israel, Israel, Israel” endeavoring to call out a small contingent of pro-Gaza protesters waving a large Palestinian flag carrying placards accusing Israel of murdering civilians in Gaza.

Pro-Israel Supporters listen to Rabbi Steven Silberman of Cong. Ahavas Chesed, Mobile.

At the conclusion of the rally, Mike Bates quoted these verses from Psalm 122:

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may they prosper that love thee.
7 Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.
8 For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say: ‘Peace be within thee.’
9 For the sake of the house of the LORD our God I will seek thy good.

My final comment used  the Hebrew words Goy Tzedek or righteous Gentiles to characterize the Christians who attended the rally; followed Am Yisrael Chai, “the people Israel live.”

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on the New English Review. The featured photo is of Linda Wolfe praying for Israel at Pensacola, FL Rally. Source : John Blackie, PNJ.

The Syrian Constellation before the Geneva 2 Peace Talks

Pinhas Inbari  published this timely Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) brief on the issues and dramatis personae at the opening round of the Geneva II talks in Montreux, Switzerland that began today.

We consider insightful Inbari’s analysis of the roiling seemingly intractable, inconclusive  civil war in Syria now in its 35 month. Israel is concerned about what may arise from these fractious discussions given the presence of both Assad regime and Syrian opposition, including  potentially intrusive  Al Qaeda-affiliates operating in the demilitarized zone on the Golan plateau. Further, as Inbari points out in this brief, should , mirabile dictu, should  an agreement  be reached and a new government installed in Damascus  are the be renewal of demands for return of the Golan, annexed by Israel in December 1981.

There have also been reports of both Israeli Arab Muslim extremists and Palestinians from Gaza  joining those al Qaeda opposition militias in Syria.  The Syrian Kurds have abiding concerns regarding attainment of possible hard fought  regional autonomy that has apparently vanquished Al Qaeda militia threatening their Rojava heartland in Syria’s North East.

This post should assist you in identifying the contending parties, including the Islamic regime in Tehran and its proxy Hezbollah, whose presence at the meeting was considered unhelpful. vigorous objections raised by the Syrian opposition, the US, UK and others forced  UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon  to abruptly ‘disinvite’ the Iranian delegation from attending this session.  Nevertheless, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, who lauded the UN Secretary General’s invitation extended to Iran, may be both the assad regime;s and its  Shiite hegemon’s diplomatic proxy auditing the proceedings for the Islamic Regime.

The Syrian Constellation before the Geneva 2 Peace Talks

by
Pinhas Inbari
Vol. 14, No. 2    22 January 2014

* This report is based on telephone conversations with members of the Syrian opposition.

  • The Geneva 2 peace conference was convened after an agreement between the United States and Russia that the main danger posed by the situation in Syria is that of al-Qaeda, and that the course of events should be steered in order to obviate this danger.
  • The Syrian opposition sees a danger that the two powers will prefer to leave Assad in place since, if the choice is between him and al-Qaeda, then Assad is the better option.
  • The powers’ need to convene the Geneva 2 conference stemmed primarily from the failure of the Free Syrian Army under General Idris to defeat Assad’s army and bring about regime change.
  • Ironically, the success of the al-Qaeda groups against the Syrian army and the Free Syrian Army helped Russia convince the United States that, at least for the time being, Assad should be left standing. The result is that Assad’s loyalists will be in attendance at the conference.
  • If the Syrian opposition has trouble accepting the presence of Assad loyalists at the peace conference, it cannot accept an Iranian presence at all. They say their real opponent on the Syrian battlefield is the Iranian army, and they view Iran as an invading country that is also deploying Hizbullah against them.
  • Israel must pay attention to two possible outcomes: A Middle Eastern inter-bloc agreement may at some stage include the Palestinian issue. Another possible scenario may involve renewed pressure on Israel to give up the Golan Heights in order to “strengthen” the new Syrian government.

A U.S.-Russian Agreement

Geneva 2, the international peace conference on the future of Syria, began on January 22, 2014, in Montreux, Switzerland. Sources in the Syrian opposition say the conference has come about because of agreement between the United States and Russia that the main danger posed by the situation in Syria is that of al-Qaeda, and that the course of events should be steered in order to obviate this danger.

This inter-bloc agreement has put most of the Syrian opposition under great pressure. They see a danger that the two powers will meanwhile prefer to leave Assad in place since, if the choice is between him and al-Qaeda, then Assad is the better option.

The problem is that the opposition is very fragmented and the two powers can force it to accept their dictates. On the issue of Geneva 2, there indeed is such a dictate. Whereas, at first, the Syrian opposition refused to participate in the conference with Assad loyalists, after heavy pressure that included American threats to cease assistance to them, much of the Syrian opposition acceded to the two powers’ demand that they attend.

Who’s Who in the Syrian Opposition

What elements make up the Syrian opposition, what do they seek, and who stands behind them?

First, the Geneva conference will not represent the fighters on the battlefield; neither the different al-Qaeda groups nor the Free Syrian Army will be in attendance. Al-Qaeda will not be there because the talks are aimed at counteracting it, and in any case al-Qaeda does not ordinarily take part in gatherings of this kind. As for the Free Syrian Army and its commander Salim Idris, they still are not prepared to sit in the same room with Assad’s loyalists, though there are reports of enormous pressure on Idris to attend.

Basically, however, the talks will be attended by parties that are not active on the Syrian battlefield. Who are they?

One large body, known as the National Coalition of Syrian and Regional Forces (also called the Syrian National Coalition), will be representing the opposition that is based outside of Syria. It is headed by Ahmed al-Jarba, a scion of the leading families of the large Shammar Bedouin tribe, which migrates among Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and is considered pro-Saudi. Saudi Arabia indeed supports this organization.

Another group within the “coalition” is the representative body of the Syrian opposition before the “coalition” was formed. Called the Syrian National Council (SNC), it includes the Muslim Brotherhood and pan-Arab nationalists and is supported by Turkey and Qatar. Although it is formally within the “coalition” framework, the competition between Qatar and Saudi Arabia influences its relations with the coalition. All this was evident when decisions had to be made on whether to attend Geneva 2. After al-Jarba announced that he would go, his rivals in the SNC declared that they would not. The reasons for al-Jarba’s decision are not clear. Whereas one would have expected that, given the Saudis’ anger at Washington, the pro-Saudi faction would try to impede the conference, the opposite is what happened. Sources in the Syrian opposition said the Saudis did not want to bring tensions with the United States out in the open, and perhaps also did not want to be associated with al-Qaeda; instead the talks could always be undermined from within.

Russia, too, has its favored groups, and there is no surprise in the fact that they agreed to attend. These groups are old leftist factions that were part of the Syrian Ba’ath party. Syrian opposition sources point to the “Internal Opposition Group” headed by Kadri Jamil and Ali Haidar, two veteran Ba’athists who abandoned Assad. Alongside them is another group of veteran Arab nationalists headed by Haitham Mana’a and Hassan Abd al-Azim, called the “Coordinated Administration,” an array of coordinating committees for the rebels in the field. This group maintains its independence and does not receive aid from any party; it opposes Assad and will not attend Geneva 2.

The powers’ need to convene the Geneva 2 conference stemmed primarily from the failure of the Free Syrian Army under General Idris to defeat Assad’s army and bring about regime change. Instead, the different al-Qaeda organizations have now prevailed in the local arena, and not long ago they handed Idris a defeat near Aleppo, taking over his main arms depot. The Free Syrian Army is also supported by Turkey and Qatar.

Al-Qaeda Forces in Syria

Who are the al-Qaeda forces operating in Syria? There are about forty groups with numerous names, but two are playing the main role on the ground. One is the Al-Nusra group led by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani; the other is “Daash” – the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham (the Levant), also called ISIS. Al-Nusra is made up of Syrian and Jordanian mujahideen, while the Syria and Iraq group has an Iraqi leadership.

Ironically, the success of the Salafi groups has worked in Assad’s favor. He claimed from the start that he was not dealing with a rebellion but with “terror,” and the al-Qaeda groups’ successes against the Syrian army and the Free Syrian Army helped Russia convince the United States that, at least for the time being, Assad should be left standing. The result is that Assad’s loyalists will be in attendance at the conference.

The opposition groups claim, however, that at least the ISIS organization is actually in league with Assad. They say the al-Qaeda fighters in this group were originally Syrian intelligence agents who were infiltrated into Iraq to operate against U.S. forces there, and after the revolt in Syria erupted, Assad’s intelligence service implanted them among the rebels as a way of proving that the revolt is nothing more than terror. These al-Qaeda groups have also acted against the Free Syrian Army and diverted it from the anti-Assad struggle.

The Kurds of Syria

The Kurds of Syria are a special case. They, too, are fragmented into many groups; among the leading ones is the Democratic Union Party (PYD). A radical-left organization that is a twin sister of the Turkish PKK, it is close to Assad’s Ba’ath regime and loyal to it. The Syrian army was able to withdraw from Kurdish areas and concentrate its forces against the rebels because the PYD managed Kurdish affairs on Syria’s behalf. There are now reports that under the PYD’s “administrative autonomy,” pictures of Assad have again appeared in the streets.

The PYD is opposed by the Yakiti party, which is close to Kurdnas – a large coalition of Kurdish parties that triggered the Kurdish revolt against Assad in the previous century. In contrast to the PYD’s radical leftism, Yakiti and Kurdnas are pro-Western parties that advocate a federal regime in Syria. The space between the PYD, at one end, and Yakiti and Kurdnas, at the other, is filled by numerous other parties. These, however, were concocted by Syrian intelligence as a means of fragmenting the Kurds. One “real” group that is not an invention of Syrian intelligence is the Azadi party.

All the Kurdish parties are demanding autonomy within the framework of the Syrian state. The difference between them and the Sunni parties (the Muslim Brotherhood, former Ba’athists, Arab nationalists) is that, whereas the Kurdish groups call for a decentralized regime of autonomous districts for the ethnic communities and minorities, most of the Sunnis favor retaining the centralized regime in Damascus.

Whereas the Kurds demanded to come to Geneva 2 as a separate delegation, the United States insisted that they attend as part of the “coalition.” The Kurds refused and will not be at Geneva. They see the U.S. refusal to recognize their separate delegation as stemming from its support for a centralized Syrian regime even after Assad’s departure.

If the Syrian opposition has trouble accepting the presence of Assad loyalists at the peace conference, it cannot accept an Iranian presence at all. They say their real opponent on the Syrian battlefield is the Iranian army, and they view Iran as an invading country that is also deploying Hizbullah against them. Saudi Arabia, too, can barely tolerate the Assad loyalists and rejects any Iranian role at the conference altogether.

The Question of Assad’s Future

Regarding Assad’s future, while the first Geneva peace conference in June 2012 came up with a plan for a temporary government and elections for a new president, Assad insisted on his right to run in these elections. Geneva 2, as well, will likely propose a temporary government and elections while offering Assad an honorable departure from political life in return for his physical survival. Whether such elections can be held, however, is in doubt since forces on the ground will reject any such plan.

Meanwhile, there are initial signs of a deal taking shape outside the framework of the conference, in which Iran, Russia, and the United States would agree on a new president while forcing Assad to acquiesce. But such an initiative – if it takes shape at all – will have to wait until Assad hands over all his chemical weapons.

Israel must pay attention to two matters. First, a Middle Eastern inter-bloc agreement may at some stage include the Palestinian issue; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will fly to Moscow to clarify this option with the Russians. Israel must prepare for a scenario where a new central government is established in Damascus and the powers begin to pressure Israel to give up the Golan Heights in order to “strengthen” the new Syrian government.

About Pinhas Inbari

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.