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Amid Military Buildup in Hormuz, Iran Pushes for Saudi Isolation in the Gulf

By DEBKAfile

Two landmark events in the Persian Gulf this week attested to Tehran's confidence that it has escaped the threat of a military clash with the US and Israel over its nuclear program – certainly in the Persian Gulf. By the same token, Iran is no longer threatening to block the Straits of Hormuz to Gulf oil exports in reprisal for this attack.

One of those events, noted by DEBKAfile's military and Gulf sources, is the rapid détente between Tehran and the United Arab Emirates. On Tuesday, unidentified Gulf officials announced that Iran and the UAE were close to an agreement for the return to the Emirates of three Iranian-occupied islands in the Arabian Gulf.

The other event was the conspicuous absence of Oman's Sultan Qaboos from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit taking place in Kuwait this week. The Sultan has been a live wire in the back-channel dialogue between President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani, which led up to the Geneva interim accord on Iran's nuclear program last month. His absence told GCC members that Oman had chosen to stand aside from Saudi dictates to the regional bloc to approve anti-Iranian resolutions that would derail the deals struck between the US and Iranian presidents.

Muscat and Washington were undoubtedly in accord on this step. In sum, two of the most influential GCC members, the UAE and Oman, have set out on an independent path toward Tehran without regard to Saudi wishes or interests. They were talked round into isolating Saudi Arabia by Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in his two-day tour of the Gulf emirates last week.

The three islands at issue, Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, located in the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz were seized by Iran in 1971, during the reign of the Shah. The UAE has consistently claimed they are sovereign territory and demanded their return.

DEBKAfile's military sources report that, the Islamic Republic of Iran never heeded that demand and instead, its Revolutionary Guards established on Abu Mussa large naval, air force and missile bases. Located there are 500 mostly short-range shore-to-sea missiles capable of blocking Hormuz to shipping, including oil tankers.

According to our sources, Tehran is willing to discuss sharing the disputed islands' future with the UAE, but not to dismantle is military bases on Abu Mussa or evacuate military personnel. To make this point clear, over this weekend, Iran shipped 10 SU-25 Frogfoot assault planes capable of ground and sea attack to the island air base. These warplanes are the backbone of the Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Force.

A US military spokesman, this past Sunday, confirmed their arrival on Abu Musa, but declined to answer questions about a possible American response to the new Iranian military movements in the most sensitive part of the Persian Gulf. The UAE also refrained form protest, and carried on its negotiations with Tehran on the future of the islands. The Emirates are obviously determined to reach an understanding with Iran – not just on the three islands but also over the vast gas reserves under shared waters.

Israel, Russia to Launch Talks on Free Trade Zone

By The Times of Israel

Israel and Russia have agreed to launch formal talks aimed at establishing a free trade zone between the two countries. The decision was made at a meeting between Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and Russia's Minister for Economic Development Alexey Ulyukaev on the sidelines of the World Trade Organization gathering in Bali, Indonesia.

Economy Ministry officials believe Israel's current level of trade with Russia, estimated at some $2 billion annually, nearly half of it in the diamond trade, leaves "huge untapped potential" for expansion.

The agreement is also viewed as a means for strengthening Israeli-Russian political ties, and is intended, in the words of a government official who spoke to The Times of Israel on Tuesday, as part of "the continued diversification of Israel's economic ties around the world. If there's something we learned from the experience surrounding Horizon 2020," the official said, "it's that you can't put all your eggs in one basket."

Horizon 2020, the EU's seven-year, $107 billion scientific research fund, was the subject of tense negotiations between the EU and Israel in recent months after new European guidelines forbade investment in institutions with operations or assets across the Green Line. The crisis has fueled a sense among some Israeli leaders, especially on the right, that Israel must invest in expanding its network of economic and political ties eastward.


How South Africa's Apartheid Regime Saved Israel's Defense Industry

By Ha'aretz

South Africa under apartheid was the Israeli defense industry's biggest customer and funded its most ambitious projects. The South Africans were in effect a "captive customer": The South African army had huge funds at its disposal, but due to the sanctions regime, the West refused to supply it with advanced military systems. Israel, which was cash-starved and suffered international isolation of its own, had no such limitations.

The cooperation reached its peak in the 1980s, which turned out to be apartheid's dying days. Israel shared with South Africa its technologically advanced systems. Senior officials in the Defense Ministry and Israel Defense Forces had excellent ties with their South African counterparts, led by Defense Minister Magnus Malan, military chief of staff Constand Viljoen and heads of the South African state defense industry.

The largest deal was reportedly signed in the summer of 1988. Israel sold South Africa 60 Kfir combat planes that were no longer in use by the Israel Air Force. These were substantially upgraded and put to use by South Africa's air force and renamed the Atlas Cheetah. The deal was worth $1.7 billion, an unprecedented sum.

The Atlas Cheetah was portrayed as a project of South Africa's air force, which was presented as the chief contractor. Israel's involvement was played down, even though some details were published here and there. In reality, much of the work was carried out in the Lod plant of Israel Aircraft Industries, now known as Israel Aerospace Industries. Work was also done by Israeli firms that supplied subsystems and components.

The deal helped IAI overcome a crisis following the aborted Lavi jet project in the summer of 1987. An IAI facility was converted from a plant that built new aircraft to a plant that upgraded outdated aircraft.

Israeli defense suppliers had already developed a line of products for the Lavi, like radar and electronics systems. After the IDF canceled its orders, these companies hoped to export their products. Two customers were quick to place orders. China bought Israeli technology for its J-10, which was nicknamed the Chinese Lavi. South Africa's air force opted to purchase the old Kfir combat planes and upgrade them with Lavi systems.

The Kfir was an Israeli version of the French Mirage with a U.S.-made engine. The U.S. administration had the right to veto exports of Kfirs, since selling the engines to a third party required the Americans' consent. Some 200 Kfir fighters were produced, but they were outdated soon enough, and the IAF wanted to offload them. The South Africans, who feared Soviet and Cuban intervention in the civil war in neighboring Angola, seized the chance to strengthen their air force.

According to foreign sources, the deal with South Africa posed a problem: The United States joined the sanctions regime on apartheid, so there was no chance it would approve the sale of Kfirs with the original engine. IAI and the South Africans found a solution by purchasing French engines that were fitted to the South African version of the Kfir. This completed the circle. The Mirage, which was designed in France and copied by Israel, regained its original engine.

Israel joined the international sanctions in 1987 but announced that it would honor existing arms deals. The Kfir deal was therefore presented as an existing deal. It seems the French, who supplied the engines, used the same excuse.

The most plausible scenario is that the deal was promoted on the Israeli side by then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Defense Ministry director general David Ivry, IAI director Moshe Keret, the deputy director of the ministry's foreign department, Haim Carmon, and the head of the military delegation to Pretoria, Brig. Gen. Hagai Regev.

It's unclear whether Rabin was present at the signing of the deal in South Africa, or if all meetings were held by lower-level officials. The Defense Ministry celebrated the signing of the agreement but concealed its details, fearing that U.S. pressure would get the deal canceled.

Several weeks after the Kfir deal was signed, IAI boasted another achievement with the launching of the first Ofek reconnaissance satellite. South African participation in this project was crucial; without funding from the apartheid regime, the project, which was almost shelved for financial reasons, would never have happened.

But these huge projects didn't save the apartheid regime. In 1991, U.S. pressure forced Israel to halt deals with South Africa, and Yitzhak Shamir's government was forced to sign a commitment not to export short and midrange missiles. Still, the United States didn't interfere with the Kfir-Cheetah deal and the jets were made operative by South Africa's air force until they were replaced several years later.

Ecuador's air force, which bought some of Israel's Kfirs, later purchased 10 Cheetahs after South Africa's air force stopped using them. This was the last roll of the dice in this huge arms deal.


Guide Dogs will be Allowed at the Western Wall

By The Times of Israel

Blind and visually impaired Jews who use guide dogs to get around can now rejoice at a new ruling that paves the way for them to visit the Western Wall with their canine companions in tow.

For years, the status quo at Judaism's holiest site has been that all animals are forbidden from entering the Western Wall plaza. But when Rabbi Benjamin Lau of the Israel Democracy Institute heard of a tour of 60 blind Jews who traveled to the Western Wall and were turned away because of a ruling from Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, who claimed that Jewish law forbade the presence of their guide dogs, he looked into the issue.

In October, Lau wrote an article in The Jewish Week, assailing Rabinovitch's decision and imploring him to alter the ruling. "Religious leaders the world over allow guide dogs to enter churches. Judaism, like all religions, must adapt to evolving social norms while adhering to tradition," he wrote, adding, "It is sad that in the State of Israel, at the site most sacred to the Jewish people, religious arguments are used to exclude believers from participating in public prayer because of their physical disability."

Lau and Rabinovitch then met and together examined the Jewish laws surrounding the issue. Rabinovitch was eventually persuaded to amend his ruling. A new decision has now been issued, and visually-impaired worshippers are free to walk right up to the wall and touch the holy stones with their dogs alongside them.


PLO Asks NBC to Call Off Production of New TV Show

By The Times of Israel

A leading Palestinian official has asked US broadcaster NBC to halt all production on a major new US drama series set to be filmed next year in East Jerusalem.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, called on NBC to scrap all plans for filming "DIG," an archaeological thriller from "Homeland" writer Gideon Raff, in the City of David National Park near the walls of the Old City. Much of the action of the show, which follows a US FBI agent who stumbles upon a massive conspiracy while struggling to solve a murder, is slated to be filmed within the walls and tunnels of the park.

The program, from the Israeli media giant Keshet, has garnered broad support from the Jerusalem mayor, who has pledged to grant production teams unfettered access to the city's historical sites. "With the support of Israeli authorities and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, the first season will brand Jerusalem's history and heritage as a Jewish city and the capital of Israel," the PLO said Tuesday in a press release, citing the show's potential influence over "hundreds of millions" of global viewers.

"Such a production will legitimize the annexation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the authenticity and character of the occupied city. Any business or organization that deals with Israel in Occupied Palestine is in flagrant breach of international law, conventions, and consensus, respectively," Ashrawi said.

"It is evident that these efforts coincide with Israel's intensive and accelerated efforts to annex and ethnically cleanse Jerusalem. The choice to film the series in Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem is designed to endorse the occupation and the bitter reality experienced by Palestinian Jerusalemites."

"DIG" has been signed for six-episode deal with USA Network, a subsidiary of NBC Universal. It is the first-ever Israeli series to be bought for a season without first producing a pilot. Raff will serve as co-creator along with "Heroes" creator Tim Kring, and Keshet's CEO Avi Nir will serve as a co-producer, much as he did with "Homeland."


Murdoch is Evil: Message Hidden in a Children's Puzzle in One of His Newspapers

By The Guardian (UK)

Harry the Dog's weekly kids' word search appears in Sydney's Sunday Telegraph tabloid. It is Australia's largest-selling newspaper, which brashly called on the public to "kick out" the last government and whose support, in the true image of a Murdoch tabloid, can win you an election.

But last week's Sunday Telegraph carried a line that is sure to draw the ire of its proprietor. On page 79 in Harry the Dog's weekly kids' word search (this Sunday the theme was the "amazing animals" of Indonesia, from Sumatran tigers to Komodo dragons) the puzzlemaster was clearly having a laugh at the paymaster's expense. Third line down, first on the left reads: "LIVESIHCODRUM," or, in reverse, "MURDOCHISEVIL."

It took reporters in Australia two days to spot the apparent swipe, which sparked joy among many observers on Twitter. The Sunday Telegraph refused to comment. It remains unclear if Rupert Murdoch completed the quiz himself.

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