News from February 15 to February 21

Israel-Syria prisoner exchange, Biden calls Netanyahu, and honorable mentions

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Israel and Syria complete prisoner exchange:

What happened? Last week, Israel traded two Syrian prisoners for an Israeli woman held in Syria in a deal brokered by Russia. Reports have also suggested that Israel transferred $1.2 million to Moscow to buy COVID vaccines for Syria to complete the trade. The episode marks a rare exchange between Syria and Israel, two nations that do not have diplomatic relations.

Walk me through what happened: Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency meeting of Israel’s cabinet ministers to discuss a humanitarian incident in Syria. The incident was so sensitive that cabinet ministers were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement to participate in the meeting. Still, reports quickly emerged that Russia was mediating discussions with Syria over the matter. 

Now that the exchange is complete, Israel has allowed many more details to be made public. The woman, who has reportedly attempted to enter Syria, Gaza, and Jordan before, crossed Israel’s border into Syria purposefully. When she entered a town on the Syrian side of the border, inhabitants alerted Syrian intelligence, who arrested her on suspicion of being an Israeli spy. When they determined she was not an intelligence officer, Syrian authorities alerted Moscow, who sought to broker a deal with Israel. Initially, the Israelis offered to trade Diab Qahmuz, who is in prison for smuggling explosives into Israel for Hezbollah, and Nihal Al-Maqt, who is in jail for incitement in exchange for the Israeli woman. However, both Qahmuz and Al-Maqt are Druze residents of Israeli-controlled towns and Qahmuz refused to be deported to Syria. Instead, Israel transferred two Syrian shepherds who entered Israeli territory in exchange for the Israeli woman, who was transferred back to Israel from Moscow last week. In addition to the prisoner exchange, Israel reportedly paid Russia over a million dollars to buy vaccines for Syria.

Anything else? You can expect to see the exchange pop up in Netanyahu’s election campaign. He is known to tout his relationships with global leaders during campaigns, and he can use this episode to promote his relationship with Vladimir Putin. Recovering citizens and soldiers held abroad is always popular.

In addition to the Russian-mediated prisoner exchange with Syria, Israel is also reportedly seeking another prisoner exchange with Hamas. According to a Saudi Arabian news report, Israel has asked Egypt to mediate negotiations. Hamas is believed to want enhanced fishing rights, the construction of a seaport, and the release of prisoners in exchange for Israeli prisoners. Hamas holds Israeli citizens Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed, as well as the remains of Israeli soldiers Hadar Golden and Shaul Aaron. 

Further reading: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/18/world/middleeast/israel-syria-prisoner-swap.html

Biden speaks to Netanyahu for the first time since the inauguration:

What happened? Last week, President Joe Biden spoke with Netanyahu for the first time since the former’s inauguration in January. As President Biden has already spoken with many world leaders since taking office, some had interpreted the relatively long delay to reflect changing priorities in the Biden administration. For comparison, President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the day after he was inaugurated, and President Trump called Netanyahu on his second day in office. However, White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki dismissed claims that the delay was particularly significant, saying, “Obviously, we have a long and important relationship with Israel, and the president has known him and has been working on a range of issues that there’s a mutual commitment to for some time. It is just a reflection of the fact that we have been here for three and a half weeks, he’s not called every single global leader yet, and he is eager to do that in the weeks ahead.” Netanyahu was the first leader Biden called in the Middle East.

Netanyahu talking on the phone with President Biden. Source: Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.

What did they talk about? According to the White House readout of the call, Biden and Netanyahu discussed the United States’ support for Israel, security cooperation, and regional developments (including Iran). Biden also expressed his support for the normalization agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors and advancing peace with the Palestinians. According to the Israeli readout of the call, President Biden also commended Netanyahu on his leadership during the Coronavirus crisis, though the White House did not mention the praise. 

Anything else? Although some have made a big deal of the delay, officials on both sides have downplayed its importance. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi has spoken with CENTCOM commander Kenneth McKenzie, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi has talked with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Gilad Erdan has been speaking regularly with American officials. 

Further reading: https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/the-nuanced-differences-in-how-biden-netanyahu-see-their-call-analysis-659427

Honorable Mentions:

9 Surprising Facts About Purim You May Not Know” by Leah Kadosh (Kveller)

Gina Carano’s ‘The Mandalorian’ Firing, Explained” by Karla Rodriguez (Complex) (Carano was fired in part due to antisemitic social media posts)

Fauci to ToI: Israeli vaccine effort ‘a model for rest of the world’” by Jacob Magid (Times of Israel)

Arab-Israelis lag behind in Israel’s vaccination success story” by Sam Sokol (Forward)

‘We saved lives’: Texas Jewish communities mobilize to get food, medicine to those in need” by Faygie Holt (JNS)

North Carolina’s lieutenant governor has Jewish community on high alert” by Matthew Kassel (Jewish Insider)

‘SNL’ under fire for ‘anti-Semitic’ joke about Israeli COVID vaccine rollout” by Jesse O’Neill (NY Post)

Josh Mandel goes all in for the Trump lane in Ohio’s Senate race” by Matthew Kassel (Jewish Insider) (Meanwhile, Alex Lasry, the Jewish co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, has entered the 2022 Wisconsin Senate race)

Gabe Plotkin, hedge funder who tried to short GameStop, tells Congress he received anti-Semitic messages” by Gabe Friedman (JTA)

Zach Banner and other Black athletes hold online panel about fighting anti-Semitism” by Gabe Friedman (JTA)

Want Israeli-Palestinian Peace? Try Confederation” by By Bernard Avishai and Sam Bahour (NYT) (This is an op-ed that has made waves over the last week)

Equatorial Guinea announces embassy move to Jerusalem” by Lazar Berman (TOI)

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